How to prepare for the ISEB exams?

ISEB (short for The Independent Schools Examination Board) is known for running Britain’s oldest exam, the Common Entrance exam, and the Common Pre-Test. These are taken by children as part of their entrance application to senior independent schools. The COVID restrictions implemented in 2020 forced many schools to rethink their admissions process, resulting in several adapting their entrance exams to online, forgoing the paper option. The ISEB Pre-Test exams are now popularly used by many schools including,Westminster Boys, Wetherby, St Paul’s Boys, Lady Elleanor Holles School and James Allen Girls School, as the first stage of the application process. The ISEB Common Pre-Test is often taken in Year 6 or 7, consisting of English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning.

What is the ISEB Common Pre-Test?

The tests take approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete:

  • English – 40 minutes
  • Mathematics – 40 minutes
  • Non-verbal reasoning – 30 minutes
  • Verbal reasoning – 25 minutes

The four exams can be taken together or at separate times, either in the candidate’s current school or at the senior school for which he or she is entered. The Pre-Tests are a shared test: this means pupils only need to sit this once as the results are shared amongst the senior schools. Those currently living abroad will be happy to hear these exams are also open to overseas applicants. Pupils with SEND, who have had extra time approved by the senior school, will be given 25% extra time.

Each test will begin with a set of instructions which candidates must read carefully. Options to personalise the screen are offered to students; these include options to select a coloured overlay to help improve visibility, adjustment of font size and the option to hide the timer to reduce anxiety.


The topics covered in the test include:

Verbal reasoning: Questions are designed to test children’s comprehension, reasoning and logic. Question types include synonyms, antonyms, word combinations, letter transfer, number codes, letter codes, muddled sentences and analogies.

Non-verbal reasoning: Designed to assess logic, critical thinking and problem-solving. Question types include similarities, odd one out, completing the diagram, codes, nets and spatial reasoning.

English: The English test entails reading short passages of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, and answering a number of question types including: inference, retrieval, context of words, identifying figurative devices, summarising main ideas, comparisons of texts. In addition, students will be assessed on: vocabulary (word families, prefixes, suffixes); punctuation ; grammar (knowing what is grammatically correct and being able to identify nouns, verbs, clauses, sentence structure etc); spelling (knowledge of common spelling patterns and rules)

Maths: The Mathematics content is in line with the National Curriculum. Candidates are assessed on their knowledge of Key Stage 2 National Curriculum topics, which are taught up to the end of Year 5. These include numbers, calculations, measurements, fractions, geometry, statistics and problem solving.


The ISEB assessments, designed by GL, are adaptive meaning the questions will vary in difficulty depending on whether students consistently answer the questions correctly or incorrectly. The assessments aim to anticipate when an answer might have been selected at random and is not characteristic of the child’s general ability. The ISEB website states, ‘The ISEB Common Pre-Tests are not speed tests. Pupils should have ample time to complete the questions without rushing. Pupils do not achieve a higher score for answering more questions. Their result is obtained through accuracy and consistency.’ In addition, they are age-standardised which means children’s scores will be adjusted according to their age.  Each question must be answered, and candidates cannot go back to previous questions. While taking the tests, candidates can track their progress on how many questions they have answered, as the question numbers will be shown, e.g. Question 7/ 25.


How to prepare for the ISEB test?

The ISEB website states there is no special preparation needed for the exams, and we agree. Preparing for the ISEB exam is no different to preparing for any other entrance exam. The emphasis should NOT be on focusing on the format of the exam, but rather on ensuring children are comfortable and confident with the content of the paper.

At 11 Plus London, we focus on developing children’s skills and confidence to tackle any exam, regardless of the format, whether online or on paper, multiple choice or standard format answers.

Here are our top tips on how to prepare for the ISEB exams:


1. Learn the content – it is a marathon, not a sprint

Many parents start preparing too late, making the 11+ preparation a sprint rather than a marathon. Children need time to develop their understanding, harness their skills and gain the confidence needed to excel in exams. A slow and steady approach is always better than a last minute cram. This is why we recommend parents contact us when their child is in year four, so we can assess and provide the right suggestions to help your child prepare for their upcoming exams. Opting to get a tutor for one to one tuition, joining a group class or DIYing it yourselves are all possible paths to success.

2. Familiarise your child with the format

Children should gain familiarity with the format of the online assessment by completing the walkthrough found on the ISEB website:

Children can also practise online tests using websites such as Atom Learning or Pre-Test Plus. However, as stated on the ISEB website, ‘ISEB cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third-party Common Pre-Tests practice resources that are not endorsed by ISEB. They may not accurately reflect the presentation, difficulty, test content and scoring of the live Common Pre-Tests.’ Thus, we recommend taking the results of these third-party platforms with a pinch of salt.

3. Practice some papers

Exam technique plays a huge part in a student’s success in an exam, and for the majority of children, this is something that does not come naturally. Ensuring your child completes timed exams, in an exam environment,will give children the opportunity to develop their understanding of how best to approach an exam situation. Coaching from a tutor is also an ideal way to boost your child’s confidence in an exam setting, as well as formal mock tests to squash jitters.

4. Support your child at home 

For English and verbal reasoning, it is imperative for parents to have a hands-on approach to assist them with enjoyably expanding their vocabulary. We learn best when engaged and there is no better way to engage a child than to make it fun! Parents should read to their child and encourage them to read aloud to them too, taking the time to discuss any complex words or concepts so children can better understand the text and the world around them. Games such as Scrabble or Bananagram are excellent for learning new vocabulary, and classic wordsearches are a fun way for children to practise their spelling.

For non-verbal reasoning, playing with Lego and Magnatiles are great for improving spatial awareness. Games like spot the difference also help children to develop a keen eye for detail. In addition, plenty of discussions and encouraging children to articulate their reasoning behind their answers will help.

Finally, for maths, parents should encourage children to develop their mental arithmetic skills. Learning all of their times tables and perfecting column addition, subtraction, multiplication and short division will lay the imperative foundation for mastering future topics in maths.


5. Track and respond

Most parents will find the road to success pathed with many hurdles, with their child’s results astounding them with glee one day and disappointing them the next. The results of a child depend on many factors and some are beyond anyone’s control. The best you can do is to continuously track your child’s progress and results, then respond appropriately to fill in the gaps showing. Many parents find a professional tutor incredibly useful, providing a third-party perspective on the process.


If your child is preparing for an ISEB exam and would benefit from coaching, tuition or advice, then please contact us on 0203 488 1278 or contact us by email: