You are a guest user.



Helping your child prepare for school pre-tests

Pre-tests were originally introduced to asses pupils in year six prior to pupils sitting the 13+ ISEB common...

3 years ago

Pre-tests were originally introduced to asses pupils in year six prior to pupils sitting the 13+ ISEB common entrance exam in year eight. A student’s place was often determined by their success in the 13+ exam however now it is common for pupils to be offered a place by performing well in the pre-test. 

This article will outline the varying types of pre-test, what they consist of, how to prepare and what to expect. We have also put together a list of tried and tested resources for students to use ‘little and often’ in preparation. 

Types of test

There are three main brands of pre-test: CEM, ISEB and UKiset. These tests all have the following in common: time pressure, computerised medium, adaptive questions (questions get harder as students answer correctly), a closed answer system (you are only permitted to see a question once) and cognitive ability testing (logic). 

Although schools often suggest that these tests cannot be tutored, content is largely obtained from the national KS2 curriculum. The test is divided into Maths, English, Non-Verbal and Verbal Reasoning sections. This allows schools to identify skills such as accuracy, processing speed, working memory and spatial awareness. These can be improved through regular practice. This does not necessarily need to be done using academic resources. Board games are an excellent way to develop these skills and motivate students. 

The ISEB Pre-Test is the most commonly used. However, schools that receive a high number of applicants use this as the initial pre-testing method before introducing the CEM test. E.g. Eton and Harrow. Students only sit the ISEB Pre-Test once per academic year as the system is centralised and only needs to be sat once. However, some schools set the test in Year 6 and others in Year 7, e.g. Marlborough. The results are subsequently sent to the relevant schools. It is important to note that the ISEB pre-test always offers a choice of five questions. Students have approximately 30 seconds per question to answer the reasoning sections and a minute per question for English and Maths. English sub-sections use comprehension, sentence completion, spelling and punctuation to assess their ability. 

The CEM test is developed individually by each school so less is known about it than the ISEB Pre-Test. Specific examples of this are Eton and Harrow. Eton’s pre-test has been formatted so that questions disappear from the screen the longer you take to provide an answer. Harrow ask 40 questions in five minutes. 

UKiset is frequently used by schools to determine a students level of English and more commonly used for international students. UKiset can be used for children between the ages of 9-16. 


It is important to note that many schools will not provide specific preparation for these pre-tests. As a result it is important that you introduce non-verbal and verbal reasoning in advance to help practice. It is best to introduce gentle practice over the course of a year and repeat this little and often. Both online and offline resources are incredibly useful to introduce concepts and formats to your children. 

It is also important to remember that the fundamental skills need to be consolidated before introducing these practice papers. As the pre-test relies heavily on a timed element, it is important to introduce time trials once the fundamentals are in place. It is advised to wait until the month before to introduce these time trials. This can be taught at home either by you or by tutors. If you do use a tutor, ensure you ask them what they are doing to prepare and trust their judgement. Small changes such as the introduction of board games after supper and reading time before bed will help with the skills required to perform well on the pre-test. 

The pre-test process is also inclusive of references and interviews. Please take these seriously as they could inform a decision between two students.  A common misconception is that schools look back to the initial test scores. If a student has successfully passed the first stage of pre-testing then the results will not be revisited. Please listen to the feedback offered by schools when involved in this process, it will help to inform preparation. 

Recommended reading 

Schools which use the ISEB pre-test

Online test preparation resources 

Offline test preparation resources 

Helpful board games 

  • Boggle
  • Scrabble
  • Rummikub
  • Trivial Pursuit
  • Scattergories
  • SET
  • Monopoly
  • Charades
  • Perudo
  • Mastermind
  • Bananagrams
  • Dobble
  • Pictionary
  • Word Association games (Articulate)
  • Consequences

About the author: Harry Cobb is a director of Bonas MacFarlane Education. He was previously a residential tutor.


Read more

Discover the dynamic world of apprenticeships – a gateway to diverse career avenues, showcased by



Scholato comes from the team behind Bonas MacFarlane and the Independent Schools Show.

Victoria House, 1a Gertrude Street, London, SW10 0JN