School entrance exams: understanding the process

Most independent schools around the world have some form of entrance test. For certain highly-desirable private schools, the entrance test can be a very competitive process with children preparing often for years in advance. We take a look at some of the tests and offer a few tips for success.

St Lawrence College

St Lawrence College, UK

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The perceived benefits of a UK education mean that it remains a highly popular choice for overseas students.Independent schools have a reputation for success – producing high achieving, confident students who are well placed to thrive in the future workplace.This means that competition for some independent schools is extremely fierce and new applicants have to demonstrate strong academic credentials and that they are suitable for the school’s unique learning environment.

Admissions exams in UK independent schools

Most private schools admission processes involve an entrance exam and an interview. Some schools set their own exams but many use national tests that are set by examination boards such as the Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB). For students who have not grown up in the British school system and are applying from overseas, the process can seem overwhelming. Each school sets its own admissions criteria and there is no standard method for applying. School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts


UKiset is an online assessment for international students that determines their suitability to study at some of the UK’s leading independent schools. Over 270 independent schools use the test, including some of the UK’s best-known schools such as Eton and Winchester College.The results of the test indicate how well the student compares to British children of the same age in the UK system and will be used in conjunction with other assessments to determine their suitability for studying at the school.“What is helpful about UKiset is the way students are benchmarked against the average for the independent school sector and the clarity of information about the candidate's English language,” explains Lorna Dolan, head of Sixth Form Admissions at Sevenoaks School, an IB World School in Kent.The online test enables students to sit it wherever they are in the world. It measures four skills:
  • Non-verbal reasoning (using images and diagrams to solve problems)
  • Verbal reasoning (using words to solve problems)
  • Maths
  • English
The student selects which schools they would like to send their test results to and their profile is then sent to the schools admissions teams. The benefit to families is that it is a single entry test that can be used to apply to multiple schools, removing the lengthy preparation involved in sitting tests for individual schools.St Lawrence College is a co-educational day and boarding school in Kent that uses UKiset and deputy head, Simon Heard believes that there are several benefits for students taking the test: a smoother application process and teachers knowing more about them which enables them to put them in the right class before they arrive.“UKiset gives us a gold standard by which to compare pupils from all over the world and be in a position to make an offer immediately afterwards,” he said. “It enables us to offer without any further tests needed and gain really useful information for teachers before they arrive.”Many schools insist on students having a UKiset profile before they will consider an application. Does Mr Heard have any tips for those preparing for the test? “Read English as much as possible; watch English films and listen to news,” he said. “Overall, work hard in your studies!” 

Prep school admissions

To gain a place at a Preparatory School for students aged 8 to 13 during the normal admissions rounds, pupils sit the 7+ entrance exam which normally focus on maths and English but may have some reasoning tests involved.The test is normally quite short and is held at the chosen school on a specific date. The process may also involve an interview.

Post 11 school applications

At the age of 11 or 13, children will take the Common Entrance Exams (CEE), which are set in either a full range of subjects or just the core subjects such as English, maths and science. The tests are taken over two days (11+) or four days (13+).In some schools, even before reaching this stage, children are required to sit Common Pre-Tests in Year 6 or 7. The results from these will determine whether a child is suitable to sit the Common Entrance exam for their chosen school.With such a complex and competitive process involved, it is vital that parents ensure that they have all of the facts before deciding on schools and making financial commitments.

American and international schools

The Secondary Schools’ Admissions Test (SSAT) and The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) are American-based testing systems used by independent schools around the world. Like UKiset they assess the student in areas such as non-verbal reasoning and maths and then rank the student against other students within the same grade.The tests can be taken either online or at one of the global test centres.

The importance of interviews

If a family is set on a certain school, preparation to pass the entrance exam is obviously important but the importance of the interview should not be underestimated.“Interviews are very important,” says Ms Dolan. “We really care about students' character and how they will interact with others in the classroom. When possible, we do a group interaction with other candidates.In this situation, students should be themselves and not worry about pushing themselves forward: often the highest rating goes to the student who has listened carefully and makes a thoughtful, decisive intervention.“Similarly, in a one to one, students shouldn't be over prepared: this often leads to anxiety and tension. Thinking ahead about books, lessons and activities that enthuse them is helpful. Genuine passion is great.”

Tips on preparing for entrance exams

  • Set realistic targets taking into account the academic ability of your child and their natural abilities
  • If hiring a private tutor, ensure that they have experience of tutoring for the specific test the child will be taking
  • There are some excellent resources that parents can use with their children, the SSAT has an official guide which parents can order. In the UK, many useful resources are listed on the Independent Schools Exam Board (ISEB) website
  • In addition to regular study, it is important that children also spend time doing practice examination papers to get them used to the format. Many good resources such as Bond 11+ Books include practice exams
  • Your child is likely to have an interview and enabling them to practice beforehand (perhaps with a friend or relative) will help them to get used to a process that may feel very alien to them at this stage

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