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A guide to the different entrance exams used by UK private schools

Updated: Aug 7, 2019


Part 1


Pre-testing for entry to independent schools

Pre-Tests were introduced in response to growing competition for 13+ entry to the major UK public schools. The objective of the pre-test assessments is to give senior independent schools insight into a pupil’s ability and potential before they go on to sit Common Entrance in Year 8. If they are successful at the pre-test stage, they will most likely be given a conditional offer to their senior school of choice, dependent on them passing 13+ Common Entrance Exams. On the other hand, children who do not do well enough to be invited to take Common Entrance still have time to look for another school.


The Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB) has created a ‘Common Pre-Test’ which some schools use. However, others prefer to commission their own pre-test papers from companies such as GL or CEM. Winchester College is an example of an independent school that has its own papers made. The style of Verbal Reasoning (VR) and Non Verbal Reasoning (NVR) papers that are specially tailored to a school’s demands will differ – deliberately - from the style of papers available to buy on the high street. Moreover, the majority of pre-test papers that are readily available stop short of covering all the necessary topics, leaving a great deal to chance.

A number of schools will provide specimen pre-test papers on their websites but others prefer a less transparent approach. City of London School for Boys gives no information about their VR / NVR assessments. Furthermore, Eton College has a very different style of testing from the norm.


Through experience, our specialist pre-test tutors are able to equip their pupils with the skills to deal with different types of VR, NVR, numerical reasoning and forces problems, teaching them to expect the unexpected and to tackle a surprise question head on. Ask about a block of tutorials in preparation for pre-testing and check out the lovely pre-test tutors!


When do children take pre-tests?

Pre-test assessments are normally taken in Year 6 or Year 7, when children are between 10 and 12 years old. Some schools, like Eton College, have assessment rounds as early as Year 5 (age 9-10) so it is worth checking with the specific school.

What is in a pre-test? In a pre-test, expect to find papers on Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning, English and Mathematics. The format can be online, adaptive and multiple-choice, for example. Do note that before, during and after the pre-test, children are being observed by staff and head teachers to see how they respond to a group dynamic and whether or not they are likely to fit in well socially. The academic side is paramount but the social aspect is a strong consideration as well.

How long are pre-tests?


The four tests can be taken on the same day and last around 2 ½ hours in total. They can be taken all together or separately.


Where are pre-tests taken?

They can be taken in the pupil’s own school or at the senior school.

Are there allowances for students abroad?


The huge number of students abroad wanting to come to the top UK independent schools is increasing competition and raising standards. As a rule, there are no known allowances made.


However, to minimize disappointment, children abroad are starting to sit the UKiset Gabbitas exam to assess their standard before making the trip to the UK. Eton moves to this in September 2015. This means the children sit an exam in their own country around 3 months before they are due to come for a pre-test. They need to score well to be allowed to sit the exam in the UK.


What’s the difference between GL assessment and CEM assessment? Both GL and CEM are different styles of assessing Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning. The Common Pre-tests use the GL form of assessment but CEM is becoming more popular. It’s important to check which form of assessment is being used for this section of the pre-tests so that your child can practice relevant papers and not be confused on assessment day.

How does pre-test registration work?


Candidates register for a pre-test exam with the school(or schools) that they are applying to.


How are results released for pre-tests?

Results are available directly from the senior school.


If taking the Common Pre-test set by the ISEB, won’t it be the same across the schools?

If taking the Common Pre-test, your child will only need to take the exams once. The papers and results will be available to all of the senior schools where the child is registered for entry.

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