ISEB common pre-test: a simplified guide

Words by Quintessentially Education

21 November 2022

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Quintessentially Education’s tips for preparing for this widely used assessment.

For Year 6 children applying for 13+ independent senior school entry, the entrance assessment process is now in full swing. With many schools kicking off this process with the ISEB Common Pre-Test, Quintessentially Education aims to shed a little light on this widely used assessment, and how best students can prepare.

What is the ISEB common pre-test?

The ISEB Common Pre-Test is an adaptive, online entrance assessment used by more than 70 of the most prestigious independent schools in the UK. The pre-test provides schools with invaluable information about a student's current academic profile and their developing academic potential.

The exam takes place every autumn – usually in November – and is typically taken by students aged between 10–11 years old when they are in Year 6 (but a small number of schools opt to test in year 7).

The assessment takes around 2.5 hours to complete and is comprised of four individual tests: English, maths, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning. These four elements are entirely separate and do not need to be taken in the same sitting, with many prep schools opting for children to sit the assessment over four days.

Following a multiple-choice format, the assessment is adaptive – meaning that the questions increase in difficulty after each correct answer in order to find a student’s current academic ‘level’. Students only have one chance to answer each question, as there is no ‘back’ button available.

Where does the exam take place?

Candidates can take the test at their current prep school, target school or at an independent test centre. For families living abroad, children can sit their ISEB common pre-test at a designated consulate office.

Wherever you want your child to sit the exam, we recommend organising the test arrangements as early as possible to reduce any additional stress on the day. Typically, UK-based prep schools will have lots of children taking the test, and they will often take the lead in making the arrangements accordingly. However, parents are usually still required to register their children independently of their school, and so it’s therefore important to be well-organised and mindful of deadlines.

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How is the ISEB pre-test scored?

Raw results for each component are combined and converted to a Standardised Age Score (SAS), which takes into account the student’s age (in years and months) and then gives an indication of performance, relative to a national sample of pupils of the same age. The scoring will typically represent 100 as an average score, with 142 as the highest. The most academically competitive schools tend to be looking for scores above 115–120, but this can vary from year to year and is dependent on each year’s cohort of applicants. It is not possible for parents to work out their child’s SAS score from their raw results, as the SAS is dependent on the relative difficulty of the paper and the performance of the overall cohort, as well as the age of each student.

When will I find out the results?

Test results for the ISEB are sent directly to the prospective schools you have already registered with and are not typically shared with parents. As such, you might not find out your results until much later in the process when you hear from the prospective senior schools. Each school will then assess the results in line with its own admissions processes. Highly selective, academically rigorous schools may use the test as a filter to determine which students are to be invited to attend an interview and to sit the school’s own entrance assessments. This is particularly common for very popular schools which see large numbers of applicants per place. Other schools may take a more holistic approach, inviting all candidates to attend an interview and/or assessment day, with a decision being made based on a variety of factors – not just the ISEB common pre-test results.

Invitations to attend a school-specific assessment, and/or an interview (often referred to as the ‘second round’), are usually sent in the month following the pre-test, but this varies from school to school.

People using calculators on desk full of stationery

When should I start preparing my child?

Although the exam takes place in the autumn of Year 6, many parents and schools choose to begin the preparation process much earlier.

The ISEB common pre-test is somewhat unique, as, despite the number of schools a student is applying to, the test is only taken once. Whilst this helps to simplify the process, it can also feel daunting that the ISEB has such a far-reaching impact. As such, parents are often keen for their children to be well-prepared with what to expect, to reduce stress and pressure on the day.

To help children familiarise themselves with the pre-test, many parents choose to use online preparation platforms such as Atom Learning, Planet BOFA and Century. These are extremely useful resources, allowing children to practice ISEB common pre-test-style assessments. For children who require a little more support or who perhaps struggle with independent learning, a specialist 13+ tutor can be helpful. Offering a more interactive and personal approach, the right tutor should be able to support students to develop exam techniques, in turn making them more confident for exam day.

No matter which senior schools you are targeting, it is important to remember that it is never too late to increase your child’s confidence. We have a range of fantastic tutors who can work through mock exams, offer intensive crash courses or one specific, component of the test, or can provide last-minute tips to calm your child’s nerves on the day.

If you are thinking about the next stages of your child’s application process or would like any advice on how best to prepare your child, our team of expert consults at Quintessentially Education are on hand to offer support and guidance. Email us today at [email protected].

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