The Ultimate Guide to 13+ Common Entrance | 2024 Entry

What are the 13+ Common Entrance Exams?

The 13+ Common Entrance (CE) exams assess candidates before they finish year 8 for entry into academically selective independent senior schools for Year 9. 

Almost all schools admitting pupils into Year 9 will use the ISEB standardised 13+ (13 Plus) exams which are often called "Common Entrance Exams”. Each school can determine its own pass mark for the standardised test and some more prestigious schools create their own papers entirely.

Pupils are usually entered for CE assessments if they have been offered a conditional place at a senior school. They are usually taken in the pupils’ current school but set by the school they are hoping to join during the application process.

Students commonly attempt to transfer to Grammar Schools or paid Independent Schools in preparation for senior school. If they wish to start their new school in Year 7 they will likely prepare for and sit 11+ Exams, for Year 8 they will sit 12+ Exams and 13+ for entering at Year 9. 

The preparation and application process starts years ahead of enrollment so this guide should help answer any questions and prepare you for the process.

The goal of the ISEB 13+ Common Entrance Exam Specification

What's in the 13+ Common Entrance Exams?

The subjects you will be tested on for common entrance exams will vary with your prospective school requirements and expectations as well as the student's current ability. 

Read more about what to expect for exam content in our other blog here. 

At 13+, pupils will sit exams in: 

  • English 
  • Maths   
  • Science 

Most pupils will also take papers in: 

  • French
  • Geography 
  • History 
  • Religious Studies 

Optional papers are also set for:

  • Latin 
  • Classical Greek
  • German
  • Spanish 
  • Mandarin Chinese

In some subjects, there are also two or three levels of paper. It’s important to check which Common Entrance subjects your chosen school requires, and at which level. 

For example, some require a good mark on the level three maths paper – the highest level – whereas others are satisfied with level one or two.

Common Entrance written exams at 13+ are sat across a four-day period. The papers vary from 40 minutes to one and a quarter hours, although some tests – such as speaking and listening tests in languages, and mental arithmetic – are shorter.

At this level, children with exceptional potential can also sit common academic scholarship exams (CASE) which can lead to discounted school fees and look great on a future CV.

What Schools Require the 13+ Exam?

Many independent schools use Common Entrance exclusively, in a full range of subjects, while others require Common Entrance exams in the core subjects – English, Maths and Science, plus a Modern Language – alongside their own papers in other subjects, such as Humanities.

Not all schools use Common Entrance exams. Most of the major private schools do, but a number of independent schools, particularly London girls’ day schools, set their own exams so it is difficult to prepare for them. 

London Day Schools offer papers in Maths, English, Science and French, whereas the ISEB Common Entrance Papers used elsewhere include papers on a wide range of subjects. Options such as Humanities, Languages and Classics may be required depending on the expectation of the application school.

What is an Independent School?

Independent schools are schools that charge fees rather than funded by the government. 

They usually have a board of elected governors who decide how the school is run and determine the academic focus or specialism. They are private entities and although registered with the government, they are not tied to the national curriculum.

They are often referred to as public schools which can be confusing. This originates from their roots as an open-to-public establishment, as long as you paid the fees! Other options in those days for comparison used to be religious schools and home education which were exclusive in their own ways. 

Scholarship and Bursaries

Bursaries are given to children of academic, sporting or creative promise from less well-off families. They can be worth up to 100% of school fees, though most are much less than this. The income and assets of a family are checked to determine if they qualify. The threshold can be around £50 to £60k but of course, this varies with each school.

The extent of the bursary discount is determined through the entrance examinations and assessments and reviewed annually to see if their performance is warranting the same discount. This can be quite a high-pressure situation for the student so be certain that it is for the benefit of the child. Confidentiality is usually upheld throughout their tenure at the school so they are not treated any differently.

Independent Schools also commonly offer Scholarships to convince the most talented pupils to their school over others. Most Scholarships come with a discount between 0% and 10% with obvious benefits to further applications in terms of accolades.

They can be highly competitive and depending on the school, they will be looking for strengths in certain areas so it helps to do your homework on what is desired to see if it’s right for your child to apply. 

The Common Academic Scholarship Examinations (CASE) usually occur separately to the CE exams in January to determine if they are eligible for the scholarship. 

Try to be realistic, if your child is not outstanding in academic grades, sports, music, art or drama, then it is likely to be a fruitless endeavour that may damage confidence. If they have long been learning above their age level then speak with their teachers about the possibility. 

Try not to apply too much financial pressure to this goal. The motivation will be much more potent coming from the child themselves and it’s best to have an attitude to just give it a go!

Who makes the 13+ Exams?

The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) is the most commonly used regulator for the 13+ exams. You can see a list of schools that use the ISEB exams here.

Set up in 1903 by each of the three major independent school associations and first used in 1904, the ISEB is a trusted and highly-respected 13+ CE provider. 

Specifications for ISEB are developed in partnership with a panel of academic specialists and representatives from three patron associations; HMC, GSA and IAPS. The papers are set by a panel of examiners appointed by ISEB. You can find specimen example papers for all of the subjects (including mark schemes) on their website here.

As mentioned before, some of the more prestigious schools such as the London girls’ day schools choose to write their own exam papers. You can’t easily find examples of these papers as they are a closely guarded secret.

Students need to be registered with their destination school somewhere between 1 and 4 years before intended entry, with 2-3 years before being the normal. This allows for potential pre-testing and application admin.

What is a 13+ Common Entrance Pre-test?

The 13+ ‘Pre-Test’ is an assessment for students in Years 6 - 7, intended to filter the number of prospective applicants to the school before sitting the 13+ entrance exams in Year 8. 

The Pre-Test is organised as part of the Common entrance process. If the school the student currently attends is not familiar with Common Entrance tests, you may need to register your child for this pre-test in advance of the Common Entrance exams.

Schools that require students to take a Pre-Test include Eton and Harrow and the expectations for both exams are usually very high.

The content is quite similar to the 11+ exams in the sense that they cover Maths, English, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning Tests. For that reason, they are commonly made by GL assessments which are a major 11+ exam board. 

Increasingly these pre-tests are now computerised and seem to focus on logic and reasoning (both Verbal and Non-Verbal) in order to test the aptitude and potential of prospective students. 

An example of a non-verbal reasoning question.

You can practise the format of the ISEB common pre-tests practice here, or visit our blog on what to expect in the 11+ exam to get a feel for the content to expect in these earlier tests for the other tested subjects. 

They may be taken all together or on individual sittings at any time during the ISEB Pre-Tests session (which runs from October – June in each academic year). They must be taken at an approved invigilation centre which could be your existing school.

What happens after the Common Entrance Pre-Test? 

It’s up to the prospective senior school to decide how to use a child's Common Entrance Pre-test results. 

Senior school places may rarely be offered just on the strength of these tests, but usually, children still have to sit Common Entrance exams in Year 8. 

Highly selective and oversubscribed schools may tell parents that their child has not been selected to go onto the next stage of the admissions process, so they won’t take the Common Entrance for that school. 

Others run a reserve list or use the results as just one part of the total admissions process. You should check with each individual school to find out their own process exactly.

Successful students will at this point be made a firm offer, conditional on their passing 13+ Common Entrance papers in the required subjects (these vary by school, but will always include Mathematics and English). 

The ISEB set papers across the subjects by the level of ascending difficulty. Schools using these papers will usually state their required pass mark and level, and share this information openly with parents.

When are the 13+ Exams Held?

  • Most candidates will sit their Common Entrance (CE) Exams in the Summer of Year 8.
  • ISEB CE 13+ exams are also held on three occasions during an academic year - Autumn, Spring and Summer.
  • ISEB CASE 13+ exams are held only in Spring & Summer exam periods.
  • Schools that have their own entrance test (e.g. Winchester College) have different examination dates to ISEB, though most would run in Spring and Summer terms. 
  • Common Entrance Exams occur Mid to late January for London day schools.
  • Dates vary a lot between certain schools and so it is important to speak directly with your prospective school to get the right information.

How Does the 13+ Common Entrance Process Work?

If your child currently attends a prep school that is a regular user of Common Entrance exams, they are likely to be registered for the exams by their school and help prepare them. They will also sit the papers at their own school. 

Children who attend a state school or an independent school that doesn’t use Common Entrance exams themselves will need to be registered online through the ISEB website by their parent or guardian.

In this case, children can take the test at an exam sitting centre which could be their current school if staff are able to invigilate the exams. They will be responsible for preparing themselves for the entrance exams in their own time without help from their current school.

TOP TIP: Contact both the current school and prospective school admissions department at least 2 years in advance to help understand their exact process as they will vary. 

Typically, candidates will go through some or all of the following steps for 13+ exams for September 2024 Entry for independent schools:

Before Year 7: 

Visit the prospective schools during open days. Meet the head and stay for a half day to get a feel for what it’s like as a student. Keep your options open so you do not set expectations on the test results too high.

Before July 23 (Year 7): 

Sit a Common Entrance Pre-test online at your school in Year 6 or 7 if required by the prospective school.

October 2023 (Year 8)

Deadline for Entrance Exam, Scholarship and Bursary Applications for September 2024 entry. You will need to choose exam subjects. This may require a non-refundable deposit of around £100.

November 2023 (Year 8)

Autumn 13+ Entrance Exam Period; may also be sat in January 2023 and May 2024 depending on the school.

November 2023 to January 2024 (Year 8): 

Scholarship assessments for Sport, Music and Drama. 

January 2024 (Year 8): 

Academic Scholarship Exams.

Spring Term 13+ Entrance Exam Period; may also be sat in May 2024 depending on the school.

January - June 2024 (Year 8): 

Interviews for potential students take place who have "passed" the common entrance exams. The final offer is received within weeks.

May/June 2024 (Year 8): 

Summer 13+ Entrance Exam Period. Last chance to sit CE exams.

September 2024 (Year 9): 

The Year 9 term begins at your new school!

Other points to consider include: 

  • Year 7 school reports are requested, with reference from the current headteacher at least 2 weeks before the exams. 
  • Results are received around 1 week after the exams are completed - but a good mark does not guarantee an offer from your first-choice school.
  • Applications can be made much earlier than Year 8 (and often are, most likely starting with the Pre-Test in Year 6) 
  • The process can differ greatly for applications from overseas. The exams can often be taken in the student’s own school and the ISEB regularly sends exam papers to schools in countries including Hong Kong, China, Kenya, Nigeria, the US, and Russia.

ISEB 13+ Exam Timelines for 2024 Entry

For schools that follow the ISEB common entrance regime, there are several options throughout the year to register for September 2024 entry. 

The most common entrance exam period is the summer session - but it’s best to allow time to apply to other schools later in the year. Results are posted to your prospective school around 7 days after the end of the exam period, then they will notify you of their decision the day after.

ISEB 13+ CE Autumn session (November 2023)

  • Registration opening date: 3rd July 2023
  • Registration closing date: 1st October 2023
  • Geography fieldwork deadline: 15th October 2023
  • Headmasters report deadline: 23rd October 2023
  • Listening & speaking exam dates: 6th - 9th November 2023
  • Written exam dates: 6th - 10th November 2023
  • All results date: 17th November 2023

ISEB 13+ CE Spring session (January 2024)

  • Registration opening date: 9th October 2023
  • Registration closing date: 1 December 2023
  • Headmasters report deadline: 8th January 2024
  • Geography fieldwork deadline: 15th January 2024
  • Listening & speaking exam dates: 22nd-25th January 2024
  • Written exam dates: 22nd - 26th January 2024
  • All results date: 2nd February 2024

ISEB 13+ CE Summer session (May/June 2024)

  • Opening date: 2nd December 2023
  • Closing date: 1st March 2024
  • Geography fieldwork deadline: 15th March 2024
  • Headmasters report deadline: 28th April 2024
  • Listening & speaking exam dates: 13th - 16th May 2024
  • Listening & speaking results date: 24th May 2024
  • Written exam dates: 3rd - 7th June 2024
  • Written exam results date: 17th June 2024

Is the 13+ Exam Compulsory?

The truthful answer is no. This comes down to the student's needs and the desired school you would like them to attend. 

Most private schools in the country will require a student to sit their own common entrance exam or the ISEB CE exam and their performance will determine their eligibility to be enrolled amid other applications. 

If your child attends an Independent School with its own Junior School, they will most likely use internal exam results and historical school reports to offer places to the pupils at that junior school, so they will not sit the 13+ exams.

So, if you think your child has potential and will do well in the entrance exams then give them a go, whilst keeping in mind the following questions:

  1. Is my child academically gifted?
  2. Are the school reports they receive above average?
  3. Did they receive above average results in their recent summative (end-of-year) assessments?
  4. Does the teacher feel that your child can pass the 13+?
  5. Is the school you are applying for right for the whole family?

What Documents are Needed to Apply?

  • Completed and signed application forms (only one school at a time) 
  • Application fee (usually non-refundable fee of around £110)
  • Passport size photographs of your child.
  • Photocopy of the child’s birth certificate.
  • Photocopy of child’s passport.
  • Photocopy of parents’ passports.
  • Historical school reports
  • Any speech/language, educational psych testing, or learning needs evaluations/records (if applicable).

All documents must be supplied to the school in English or a certified translation. 

Who marks the 13+ Common Entrance Exams?

Completed Common Entrance exams are sent to the child’s prospective senior school for marking. 

Although ISEB provides a marking scheme, schools are free to mark the papers in the way they see fit, depending on their entrance criteria and required pass marks

If the first-choice school decides not to admit the pupil, their papers can be sent on to their second-choice school, and they can assess them for entry. You will need to ask your first-choice senior school to forward the completed exam papers to your second-choice school by secure post.

This all means that comparing the required CE scores of different schools is not really representative of the respective "difficulty" of those schools. There are instances of some leading schools using negative marking and deducting half a mark for every mistake in papers.

When are the 13+ Common Entrance Exam Results Available?

Results of the CE at 13+ examinations for September 2024 entry should be available to parents by:

  • Autumn 2023 Exams: the Thursday of the week following the examinations and before parents are informed on Friday 17th November 2023 

  • Spring 2024 Exams: the Thursday of the week following the examinations and before parents are informed on Friday 2nd February 2024 

  • Summer 2024 Exams: the Friday of the week following the examinations and before parents are informed on Monday 27th May 2024 for listening & speaking exams and Monday 14th June 2024 for written exams.

How Do I Choose the Best School for My Child?

From Years 6 to 8, children seeking to gain a place at top independent secondary schools will potentially sit a range of testing exams and feel the burden of expectation that goes along with them.

The best way to prepare children for any exam is to give them the belief that they can do it but try to manage expectations so there is not too much pressure.

Getting into a new school should be framed as a possibility, not a necessity. If they find that they did not get accepted, it’s simply because it wasn’t the right fit for them, not because they weren’t good enough. 

The school you get into should be right for the whole family and not an opportunity for the parents to live vicariously through their child and bask in the prestige reflected on them in return. 

How can I help with passing the 13+ Exam?

With that being said, it all really comes down to getting the top marks in exams, so plenty of practice and consistent sessions with a 13+ tutor will help you pass with flying colours.  

Our 11+ tutors and 13+ tutors are experts in the different demands of the distinct exams and acknowledge the unique strengths of every child, as well as recognise the need to address weaknesses. 

The training and experience they have means they work with focus and empathy which has led to great success in preparing students for these exams due to the personalised approach of one-to-one tuition.

Sherpa is an online tuition platform specialising in one-to-one tutors. It is built to help you find the perfect tutor for your needs, whatever they may be. Our aim is to provide affordable and accessible, top-quality tuition from qualified teachers and tutors.

Click the link below to start your search and meet with a tutor for a free 20-minute introduction in our online classroom today.

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Good luck and remember, your tutor on Sherpa is with you every step of the way!

Author's profile picture

Russell Kilgour

3rd July

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