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With a broad range of unique vocabulary and differing standards, school entrance exams can be confusing to the newcomer. Here, Mike Davies explains some of the major terminology in plain English, providing a few hints and tips along the way.


I was asked the above by a nine year old student early in my tutoring career, and struggled to provide him with a good answer! Why is it called an 11 or 13+ when children sitting it are often 10 or 12? And why do so many parents feel the need to place their child with a tutor a couple of years in advance?

Let’s deal with the naming question first, as it goes a long way to answering the second as well. School entrance tests are used by independent schools to select pupils. They happen at a variety of ages, ranging from 3 or 4 to 16, and are referred to by the age at which pupils start attending the school. If your daughter is sitting a school exam that would mean her starting at a school in year 7 (at the age of 11), then this is an 11+ exam. Similarly, a 13 plus exam would be sat by a student hoping to start school in September in the year they are 13. These exams are usually sat in either the spring or summer term before entry to the school, so they will possibly be a year younger when they sit it. This convention runs through, going from seven plus to Prep school, to 16 plus for Sixth-form admission.

Now, why would a nine year old be tutored for an 11+ exam? Well, they will be sitting this exam when they are in Year 6, i.e. when they are 10 or 11 years old. If they are young for their year then this will take up to a year off their preparation time. Some exam systems do adjust for this discrepancy, notably the Wandsworth Test (used to select children for school entrance at 11 across Wandsworth), but most don’t. Far more importantly, however, the required standard can be very high.

The aforementioned Wandsworth Test often has a pass mark of over 95% across its verbal- and non-verbal reasoning papers, whilst Dulwich College recently had over 200 students sit 13+ exams for 30 places. Papers for leading public schools typically have content that would probably equate to a grade C or B at GCSE level. Extension/scholarship papers like the Westminster Challenge or Eton’s King’s scholarship would baffle the majority of adults! Regardless of how bright your child is, tutoring can be a great way of maximising their potential.

It is obviously up to you, as a parent, to determine the nature of this extra help. There are many excellent books and other resources aimed at providing it yourself, and if you feel able to do this, then this is definitely the best way to go. If you do feel that you need extra help, there are many solutions. Some parents choose to use a private tutor, and this can help them achieve excellent results. At Owl Tutors, all of our tutors are qualified teachers, with classroom experience in teaching the subjects they are tutoring. They know both their subjects and qualifications inside-out.

In addition, many parents decide that the most competitive schools are simply not right for their child. This is also a completely valid and fair decision. Ultimately you have to decide what is right for your child, and what school will be best for them. There is absolutely no point in pushing your child towards an ultra-competitive school if they won’t be happy there.


Extra layers of confusion are added when a child is sitting for “Common Entrance”. This generally refers to 13+ exams, but sometimes 11+ as well. Papers are set by the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB). Students sit the exam at their own Preparatory school, or approved assessment centre if transferring from the state sector, with the papers being sent on to the preferred senior school to be marked. Schools will ask for a specific score on these papers, normally somewhere in the 50-70% range, combined with other possible entrance procedures such as “pre-testing” and interviews. If a prospective student’s exam papers don’t meet their school’s standards, the papers are then transferred to the child’s designated second choice school, and so on.

Despite the name, Common Entrance exams aren’t really that common at all, for the following reasons. Let me explain.

Firstly, although the papers are standardised (as in the same papers are sat for different schools), the interpretation of them by schools is not. This means that schools are free to interpret marks and scores in their own way, and as such there is no standardisation of ISEB papers between different schools. In other words, a paper may be awarded 55% at one school and 65% at another, and in terms of school entrance this gap is massive.

To make things more confusing, not all schools use the ISEB papers, instead choosing to set their own entrance exams. This decision can stem from a desire to set a higher bar for entry than the ISEB papers provide, or (increasingly) from a desire to step away from the perceived “coachability” of the standardised exams. As a visit to any children’s bookshop will tell you, an entire industry of books and revision guides has arisen around Common Entrance exams. Several Head teachers have spoken out against the perception that these have become more a test of preparation than ability. There is in theory no common syllabus between schools choosing to set their own exams, although in practice they have to test on broadly the same content, and there is a lot of variation between schools. This continues into differences between the papers instead using their own syllabus and standards, none of which they are under any obligation to share or make transparent. As they are only recruiting a small group of spaces, they can (and do) cream off the top 30 scores available.

Note that a school’s choosing to use their own exam isn’t necessarily a mark of difficulty. Harrow uses the ISEB system (along with a process of interviews and pre-testing), whereas several “easier” schools use their own exams.

In either system, the exam itself is unlikely to be the only hurdle to overcome. Parents are required to register interest in a school early, often several years in advance. This will often lead to some kind of pre-testing. Here students are usually given some kind of diagnostic exam, often along the lines of verbal and non-verbal reasoning, to measure ability and likelihood of success in the actual entrance exam. There is usually an interview stage, normally after successful performance in an entrance exam. Note that this sometimes extends to the parents as well as the student. I was amused recently by a twelve-year old student whose biggest concern was his parent’s interview.


Another potential source of confusion is around scholarships. Despite what the name might imply, in the majority of cases this amounts to no more than a bursary, with parents required to make up the shortfall. Scholarships are available for a variety of reasons, most often academic, sporting or musical. Academic scholarships are usually determined by performance in exam, either through a separate paper or set of questions towards the end of the main paper. Pass marks for these are high, as you might expect, and are fiercely competitive. Musical and sporting scholarships are awarded by differing arrangements by school.


Given my day job, it isn’t surprising that I’m going to recommend the use of a tutor in preparing a child for school entrance. Despite this, there is an awful lot that parents can be doing to help their children without using a tutor at all. Most schools use some kind of “reasoning” exam as part of their entrance procedure. These questions may look baffling at first, but they all essentially come down to a combination of logic skills, a good vocabulary and familiarity with the exam style. In my view, the best possible preparation here is a little more than a blend of regular reading and logic puzzles like su doku and kakuro, along with a small amount of exam practice nearer the time to make sure students understand the test format.

Lastly, and most importantly, give your child time to enjoy their childhood. If your child’s school is doing their job properly, and the school choice is appropriate, your child should be ready for these exams anyway.

At Owl Tutors, all of our Maths, English and Science tutors are qualified teachers, with years of classroom experience in the subjects they tutor. The majority have experience of preparing students for entrance exams in the London area, and know the schools well. In addition, we have an extensive library of exam papers which our tutors can access, and a regular mock exam service to check that your child is up to speed.

Whether your child requires a few sessions to brush up on knowledge, or needs a bespoke course to help build from a lower level, Owl Tutors can help them prepare for that all-important exam. Please feel free to browse some of our London Tutors or contact us today to find out more.

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