What are pre-tests?

Pre-tests are exams set by UK public schools which students take in advance of their actual entrance examinations. They are designed to test academic potential rather than ability, and as such are often closer to an IQ test than to a traditional academic exam. Grammar schools also sometimes have a first round of tests prior to their entrance exams. This post is about public school pre-tests; for more about the grammar school tests, please click here.

Pre-tests typically place a high value on verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and are often taken on a computer in a multiple choice format. The tests feature a mixture of numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, logic, spatial reasoning and reading comprehension. Many schools, including Eton, Harrow and Westminster, test students up to three years in advance for Year 9 entry.

Is there more than one type of pre-test?

There are three main types of pre-test: CEM, ISEB and UKiset. ISEB tests are used by Harrow, St Paul's Boys and Westminster whilst Eton, Marlborough, St Paul’s Girls and City of London School for Girls / Boys use the CEM tests. The UKiset is mainly used by schools to test their overseas students, as it gives an idea whether a student is a viable candidate without requiring them to visit the UK.

Why have schools begun using pre-tests?

Increased numbers of applicants

Top public schools put a lot of time, money and effort into selecting their students. A poor quality intake of students could potentially be devastating to the school's reputation. Additionally, the last decade has seen a surge in the number of students applying to fee-paying schools.

"We have 95 places for non-Westminster Under School boys; 500 register for the process. When I started 14 years ago it used to be 300."     John Curtis, the Registrar of Westminster.

Schools need a quicker, easier way to sift through the mountains of applicants, and many have adopted computerised pre-tests as the answer. After paring down the number of applicants with the pre-test, they set their entrance exams and conduct their interview process as usual.

"About 600 apply for 90 places. When we saw the numbers jump from 400 to 600 recently, we decided we just couldn’t interview all those children. We needed to find some way of reducing the numbers down to 350."  — Andy Mayfield, Director of Admissions at St Paul's School for Boys

Can you study for the pre-tests?

Schools and test designers are very secretive about the content of the tests and try to discourage preparation. Many of the computerised exams are designed to be adaptive, which means that correct answers cause the program to throw harder questions at the students. As a result, each student takes a slightly different version of the test.

In spite of these precautions, the data (from the similar grammar school tests) shows that prior schooling and coaching definitely influences the outcome of the pre-test. (Source) But it's important to remember that this is still not like preparing for any traditional exam, and parents should be skeptical of textbooks and resources which claim to know exactly what students will be asked.

So How Should my child prepare?

1. Work on the essentials

My view is that preparation should emphasise the core body of Maths and English knowledge that children are expected to learn at this age. Mental nimbleness should be encouraged by asking thought-provoking, interesting questions which require problem-solving and deep understanding of the material.

2. Practice verbal and non-verbal reasoning...but not at the exclusion of real learning

Some time should be spent learning the layout of typical verbal and non-verbal reasoning questions. Although 'reasoning' is supposed to measure IQ, you can definitely get better with practice. However, too much detailed preparation for "reasoning" is probably wasted effort and learning the tricks to spotting the next shape in the pattern probably does little for your child's overall development, so think carefully about how much time you want to dedicate to this.

3. Timing is everything

Many students come unstuck when asked to work under the strict time pressure of the pre-test, so plenty of timed practice is crucial.

4. The big picture

It is not in your child's interest to focus all preparation simply on passing the entrance examination. Students should be well prepared not only for the test, but also for future academic life at their chosen school. 'Teaching to the test' will do little for their overall academic achievement, and an over-prepared child might find themselves out of their depth on entering the school.

Where can I find past papers?

Neither the schools nor the test designers release sample tests or preparation materials. ISEB commissioned GL to design their computerised test; it is taken online and a demo can be seen here.

However, grammar schools' entrance exams are designed by the same companies, and thus there is likely to be some overlap in the types of the questions asked. Therefore, you may want to look at the resources listed for grammar schools here.

Bond Online has a good range of English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning resources. The online version is self-marking and provides an overview of the student's strengths and weaknesses, as well as being fairly cheap to subscribe to.

In addition, there are some good phone / tablet apps to practice verbal and non-verbal reasoning below.

Apple Apps: Verbal reasoning   //  Non-Verbal Reasoning

Android Apps: Verbal Reasoning  //  Non-Verbal Reasoning


Over the years, I have helped dozens of students gain entrance into a wide variety of schools including Eton, Harrow, City of London and Westminster as well as many others.  Read my testimonials.

I prepare my students for the specific exam they will be sitting, as well as working to develop the whole child academically. This means they will be fully ready for life at their chosen school as well as for the tests.