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Private school entrance exams explained

You’ve managed to make a shortlist of schools, attended all the open days, submitted the registration forms before...

3 years ago

You’ve managed to make a shortlist of schools, attended all the open days, submitted the registration forms before the deadlines and now it’s time for the exams. There are several entrance exams that independent schools use for the various entry points and here we will give you an overview of each. To help make sense of the assessments we will also group these into the years of entry for which they are taken.  

For the majority of these entry points, schools will also have an interview stage. Interviews can be alongside the exams or a school may only select candidates for interview that have performed well enough in the exams stage. Schools will also make offers after reviewing school reports, references etc. You can find more about the admissions process as a whole here for prep schools, here for senior and here for sixth form

Which exams for which year of entry: 

Here are the various exams grouped into the entry years that they are most often used for. 

  • 7+/8+: School specific examinations
  • 11+: London Consortium, School specific examinations
  • 13+: ISEB Common Pre-Test, School specific examinations, Common Entrance 
  • 16+: School specific examinations
  • Various stages: UKiset, CAT 4

School specific examinations

For the majority of schools, they will create their own papers in English, Maths and Verbal Reasoning. At certain entry stages they may also include non-verbal reasoning and a paper on Science.

At 7/8+ schools often invite pupils in so they can observe them in a classroom setting and will ask that they sit small English and Maths tasks which the school will have created. 

At 11+ schools generally write and mark their own papers which will consist of Maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. 

At 13+ schools will most often test in English, Maths and occasionally Science. 

At 16+ schools will have candidates sit their own exams and consider these results along with interviews. In many cases, schools will make an offer of a place conditional on the candidate’s GCSE results. The examinations can be in the subjects a candidate is wishing to study in the Sixth form or it may be papers in maths and English. 

To find out more about the examinations your child will be taking you should check the school’s websites as many schools will publish their past papers or sample papers on here, particularly for the 16+ entry point. 

Standardised tests

A large number of independent schools will use standardised tests as described below which will mean they can use the results as a data point and against the average for Independent school pupils.  

The London 11+ Consortium

Girls applying for 11+ entry at one of the consortium’s 14 independent schools located within London will sit this exam in the January of Year 6. 

These 14 schools have made an effort to remove the requirement for candidates to sit lengthy examinations in English and mathematics and instead, focus on three complementary assessment approaches. Their statement on the exam:

  • A bespoke cognitive ability test of 70 minutes, incorporating mathematics, verbal and non-verbal questions. The questions will be mainly multiple choice;
  • A common reference form requiring, amongst wider contextual information on attitudes and character, detailed commentary on the candidate’s academic performance. Although not compulsory, it is hoped that this form will be widely used;
  • An imaginative interview experience (individual to each senior school) that explores the skills, aptitudes and intellectual acuity of the candidates. 

Along the lines of the ISEB Common Pre-Test, some schools will use this exam to select which candidates they would then like to invite to interview, the majority though will interview all candidates regardless of the exam result.  

This exam is taken at one of the consortium schools. If your daughter has applied for more than one of the schools that consortium have stated that it will not make a differnce to her application which school she sits the test at. 

Further information can be found on the consortium’s website:

2021 update: Due to the difficulties arising from the Covid pandemic, the consortium has had to use the ISEB Common Pre-Test as their preliminary assessment tool. This will also be the case for candidates applying for 2022 entry. 

ISEB Common Pre-Test 

Several schools have moved towards pre-testing for 13+ and these take place most often in Year 6 or sometimes Year 7.

The test is an age-standardised measure of ability and attainment. It includes; verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, English and mathematic.  The questions are in a multiple-choice format and split into the four parts just mentioned.

In total it takes approximately two-and-a-half hours to complete but can each part can be taken at different times although most choose to sit in one go or over two days.  

This computerised test is usually taken at the candidate’s current school. If arrangements cannot be made at the current school, the potential senior schools can sometimes accommodate the exam to take place with them, although where a pupil sits the exam does not affect the application. 

The vast majority of schools now use the ISEB Common Pre-Test to build a shortlist of their Year 9 candidates early. Some use the test to slim down their number of applicants then move on to the next stage. Other schools use the test in conjunction with interviews or another assessment stage, such as a group activity day. 

Further information can be found on the ISEB website: 


The Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) is a diagnostic assessment that helps schools to see how pupils learn and what their academic potential might be. It is the UK’s most widely-used test of reasoning abilities measuring verbal, non-verbal, quantitative and spatial reasoning. 

Schools use this exam across many of the entry points including for occasional places (when applying for the non-standard entry points) and often for those at prep school age, although it can be used from 6-17 years.

Often schools will not state that it is using the CAT4 test but will refer to the examination as ‘online reasoning tests’ or similar. 

Further information can be found on the GL website.


This is a computerised test with 30 minutes then allocated for the student to write an essay. Schools most often ask International students to take this test although it can be used for native English speakers also. It is designed for students from 9.5 – 18 years old and measures four skills; Non-verbal reasoning, verbal reasoning, mathematics and English. 

It takes up to two hours to complete and can be taken anywhere in the world at various test centres, British Councils or International schools. 

More information can be found on the UKiset website.


Common Entrance

Pupils sit the 13+ Common Entrance early in the Summer of Year 8. The core subjects of English, Maths and Science are compulsory. In addition to these, pupils can also sit papers in History, Geography, Classical Greek, Religious Studies Spanish, French, German and Latin. 

In the past, Common Entrance was used by almost all schools as a major stage in the assessment process. With Pre-tests now commonplace, there is not so much emphasis on Common Entrance but schools will still ask that this is part of the process. Even if a place has already been offered to the candidate it can be on the condition that they achieve a certain mark at Common Entrance or the results are used for setting purposes. 

Further information can be found on the ISEB website


As you would imagine, scholarships are highly competitive and each school has a different way of deciding on which pupil(s) they are awarded to. Schools will tend to run the scholarship exams after the main admissions process. This could be an extra round of testing or one you opt for instead of the standard admissions process. 

One may also think of bursaries when considering scholarships. We have not included a description in this article as there are not usually exams/tests invoiced in the bursary applications. Children will sit the same exams as other pupils applying, the bursary will be means-tested with each school having their individual procedures. 

Along with the entrance examinations you must remember that there are always other factors which schools will consider – references, school reports, interviews etc. but we hope the above gives you a good overview of the examination side of independent school admissions.  Remember to use your Scholato account to check when these examinations will be taking place. 

About the author: Georgina Lesmoir-Gordon has been an educational consultant with Bonas MacFarlane for over six years. She has advised many families from the UK and overseas on every step of the school entrance process. 


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