What to Expect in the 13+ Exam & Pre-Tests

What is the 13+ Exam?

The 13+ Exam is also known as the common entrance exam (CE). It is used to test pupils aged 13 and above in Year 8 to determine if they meet the academic criteria set by Grammar and independent schools for entry. 

This criterion varies due to the prestige and places available at the most exclusive schools around the UK. 

Check out our other blog for more details about how to apply and the timetable of events running up to, and including, the common entrance (CE) 13+ Exams. 

Subjects in the 13+ Common Entrance Exams

At 13+, pupils will sit exams in: 

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 certain subjects, papers are set at different levels (Level 1-3) according to the ability of the candidate or the time spent studying the subject. 

The decision as to which level a pupil is entered for is generally negotiated between the junior school they attend and the senior school to which the child is applying.

To find out which level your child will be sitting in the different exams, please contact your child’s current school. 

The ISEB Pre-test

Senior Schools generally offer Pre-tests to engage with potential students earlier than Year 8 and help schools build up a shortlist of suitable applicants for Year 9 Entry. 

The ISEB Pre-tests are taken in Years 6 or 7 and are set by GL Assessment - who commonly set the 11+ entrance exams. These tests are taken online, so they can be at the student’s current school under invigilation.

Contrary to the 11+ Exam format, the test is 4 multiple-choice sections, covering all of English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning and takes about 150 minutes total to complete. The split between subject sections changes every year.

​​They may be taken all together or in different sittings at any time during the ISEB Pre-Tests session (which runs from October – June in each academic year). 

Even if applying to multiple schools, candidates only take the tests once in an academic year, and the results will be shared across all the schools applied for. 

Following from the Pre-tests are: 

  • An unconditional offer (for strong candidates)
  • A conditional offer pending the 13+ Common Entrance results;
  • Not being allowed to apply for the 13+ Entrance (Highly Selective Schools)

Below are some examples of the pre-test questions supplied by ISEB themselves so you can test if you need more support or practice. Can you see how we got the answers?

English - Comprehension / Reading

This section contains several questions based on a passage of writing. It is recommended you read the passage first and then you should be able to answer the questions without having to read the passage again and again.

ISEB is testing for your reading speed and retention and your understanding of the words and language styles used. You will often have to explain what the writer or subject character intended or is feeling.

English - Comprehension / Grammar

This section is full of shorter questions based on correcting poor grammar. There will be sentences with mistakes, unnecessary/redundant words and the need to choose the correct form or spelling of a word to fit the sentences.

Maths - Arithmetic

The maths section has a large variety of maths problems you are expected to solve without a calculator. This requires knowledge of lots of math topics such as geometry, angles, times tables and dealing with large numbers. 

There are a lot of instances where the question phrasing is vital to getting the correct answer. Makes sure you take your time before locking in an answer and use a pen and paper to draw anything out so you don’t make a mistake juggling numbers in your head!

Verbal Reasoning - Word Problems

Verbal reasoning is testing your agility with words and letters while also checking your level of vocabulary. There are a lot of instances where if you didn’t know the word in the answer you would struggle to get the marks. 

As well as making words, you may be expected to solve puzzles like codes where the answers require making or rearranging letters in a word to make new words. Sometimes it helps to write these out on paper too!

Non-Verbal Reasoning - Pattern Recognition

Non-verbal reasoning is also testing your problem-solving skills in a different way. Some people can imagine words and letters much better in their head than symbols, colours and patterns and this is what is put to the test here. 

Much like non-verbal reasoning, you may be expected to solve puzzles where the answers require you to recognise a pattern and rearrange objects with a specific rule to solve it. Try to notice what is the same and what is different in the examples in the question to figure out the formula. 

Depending on the person, it may be more time-consuming than helpful to sketch out your working to help here. 

Details of the 13+ Exams by Subject

13+ exam content will vary between schools as more prestigious schools will prepare their own, possibly more advanced papers rather than using the ISEB papers. 

However, the type of tasks you should be practicing remains the same.


Your child will sit two papers for the 13+ English exam, each of which has both a reading and a writing section. There are two levels for each paper; most pupils sit on Level 2, the standard paper. 

Paper 1

Section A - Comprehension / Reading: 

  • Candidates are given an unseen passage of literary prose from a novel, play, (auto)biography or travel piece. The passage is followed by questions which test candidates’ understanding, analysis and evaluation as a comprehension exercise. Passages may be abridged (shortened, with difficult words explained) for Level 1

Section B - Composition / Writing: 

  • Candidates are given a choice of five non-fiction essay titles, from which they must select one to write about and demonstrate their ability to write for a practical purpose 

Comprehension Example 

Composition Example

Paper 2 

Section A - Comprehension / Reading: 

  • Candidates are given an unseen poem followed by a series of questions to test their poetic technique and personal response

Section B - Composition / Writing: 

  • Candidates are required to write an imaginative or descriptive response to one essay title from a choice of four


All candidates sit three papers for the 13+ Maths exam: 

  • a calculator paper
  • a non-calculator paper 
  • a mental arithmetic paper 

The calculator and non-calculator papers are levelled, with Level 3 being the hardest (most candidates sit Level 2). 

All pupils will sit the same mental arithmetic test, which is delivered via an audio CD, with pupils writing their answers on a prompt sheet after listening to the questions. 

There is not a lot of time to answer before the next question comes! 


Calculator Example


Non-Calculator Example 

Mental Arithmetic Example


Candidates will either sit one exam which combines Chemistry, Biology and Physics (Level 1), or three separate exams for Chemistry, Biology and Physics (Level 2, which is sat by most pupils). 

Physics Example

Biology Example

Chemistry Example



All candidates sit the same paper for the 13+ Geography exam, which consists of three sections: 

  1. Global Location – candidates answer questions with reference to a given map 
  2. Ordnance Survey Mapwork - answer questions about an Ordnance Survey map extract
  3. Thematic Studies – pupils are required to answer five questions; one each from five themes

Global Location Example

OS Map Example

Human Geography Example


All candidates sit on the same paper for the 13+ History exam. The paper is divided into two sections: 

Section 1 - Evidence questions: 

This section is divided into three time periods, from which candidates must choose one and answer one overarching question based on the three sources of information provided, and their own knowledge. The 3 time periods are:

  • Medieval Realms: Britain 1066-1485
  • The Making of the United Kingdom: 1485-1750
  • Britain and Empire: 1750-1914 

Section 2 – Essay questions: 

  • Candidates choose one question from a selection of broad essay titles and use their own knowledge from any of the time periods they have studied to answer it. 
  • These questions hold a lot of marks and so it is vital to be well-versed in writing for long periods of time neatly and effectively while remembering relevant quotes and references!

Essay Example

Theology, Philosophy & Religion (TPR)

Candidates taking CE TPR at 13+ will sit one paper, divided into three sections for theology, philosophy and religion. You are only expected to answer two questions. Answering one question from any two of the three sections. 

The questions in each section are all in a similar format where there are 4 questions to choose from per section and each has 3 parts, requiring longer answers.

Long Answer Examples


The Latin exam involves translation and comprehension of passages of Latin, followed by non-linguistic questions on Greek mythology and Roman life. 

The paper is levelled, with Level 3 being the hardest. Level 2 is sat by most candidates. Level 1 is for pupils who have only studied Latin for a short period of time. 

The Latin vocabulary for Key Stage 3 and Common Entrance book will be a great resource for practicing with your child and ensuring they have the right knowledge to apply to the exam.


Level 2 Example

Classical Greek 

The 13+ Classical Greek paper is levelled, with Level 1 intended for pupils who are new to Greek and Level 2 for those who have studied the language in a little more depth. 

Both levels involve some translation and, at Level 2, knowledge of Greek grammar is also tested.

Level 2 Example


The 13+ French exam is divided into four sections: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Candidates will be assessed in each of these areas at the appropriate level (most candidates sit Level 2).  

There is no prescribed vocabulary for the exam, but the French Vocabulary for Key Stage 3 and Common Entrance book is worth picking up. 

Speaking Example



The 13+ German exam is divided into four sections: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Candidates will be assessed in all of these areas. 

Practising vocabulary using a CGP revision book or similar would be recommended alongside talking with a native speaker for the speaking sections.

Writing Example 


The 13+ Spanish exam is divided into four sections: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Candidates will be assessed in all of these areas at the appropriate level (most candidates sit Level 2). 

There is no prescribed vocabulary for the exam, but the Spanish Vocabulary for Key Stage 3 and Common Entrance book will prove extremely useful.


Exam Tips for the 13+ English Paper

The assessment is split evenly across comprehension and composition. The following points are what are most acutely assessed, so mastery of these is vital:


  • Comprehension skills (practice using a range of different texts, including poetry) 
  • Exam technique: answers should be governed by the number of marks available in a question 
  • Structure of longer comprehension answers; use P-E-E (Point-Evidence-Explain) 
  • Vocabulary/word recognition: keep a record of unknown words and phrases encountered in reading and check these either with dictionaries or adults 


  • Maintain logical progression of ideas 
  • Solid structure (e.g. story mountain
  • Confident use of paragraphs 
  • Balance of setting, character, description, action an dialogue 
  • Powerful first and last line 
  • Range of literary devices (e.g. similes, metaphors, alliteration, pathetic fallacy, onomatopoeia, rhetorical questions) 
  • Broad vocabulary
  • Consistent spelling, punctuation and grammar 
  • Clear handwriting 

Exam Tips for the 13+ Maths Paper

The key is in broad and profound knowledge of the below core sub-topics, as well as quick and efficient problem-solving:


  • Powers and roots 
  • Percentages 
  • Four operations with decimals 
  • Negative numbers 
  • Order of operations 
  • Fractions 
  • Properties of number 
  • Probability 


  • Expansion and factorisation 
  • Solving equations 
  • Inequalities 
  • Straight line graphs 
  • Sequences 

Geometry and Measures 

  • Transformations 
  • Coordinates 
  • Statistics 
  • Averages 

Top tips to remember for the Maths paper include: 

  • Read questions carefully 
  • Do not rush to answer 
  • Underline keywords in questions 
  • Attempt all questions 
  • Always show working 
  • Check work thoroughly 

Make sure your child can show their working neatly so it can be read by an examiner, especially under time pressure. 

Most schools will give marks for showing working alongside an answer so it’s a great habit to get into.

How to Prepare for Interview Questions during the 13 Plus Common Entrance

These interviews are predominantly to screen some social skills and gauge their potential for assimilating to their prospective school. 

They will not often make or break an application but with the higher-performing schools, it can sometimes come down to how relaxed and keen the student comes across in the interview.

Keeping a good posture and smiling, enthusiastic demeanour throughout will help - as will practicing the sort of questions that will be asked.

Questions in these interviews tend to fall into two categories – Standard and Expansive:

Standard - the areas that are often covered in shorter interviews (typically 15-20 minutes) include: 

  • Family (e.g. How do you like to spend time as a family?) 
  • Your school (e.g. What is your favourite thing about your current school?) 
  • Reading (e.g. Tell me about what you are reading at the moment) 
  • Academics (e.g. What are your favourite and least favourite subjects?) 
  • Extracurricular (e.g. What interests would you like to pursue further at your new school?) 

Expansive – in longer interviews that are common with more sought-after schools, bursaries and scholarships, the following might be raised as well as the standard topics above: 

  • Hobbies (e.g. What do you like to do in your free time?) 
  • Achievements (e.g. How would you like to be remembered?) 
  • Ambitions (e.g. What would you like to do in your adult life?) 
  • Strengths (e.g. How would your best friend describe you?) 
  • School choice (e.g. What is it about [the prospective school] that most excites you?) 
  • Logical thinking (e.g. Is it better to be nice or right?) 
  • Task (e.g. Imagine I can’t see this picture. Describe it for me.) 
  • Poem (e.g. What do you think this poem is about?) 
  • Mental maths (e.g. If P = 4 + 2m, find ‘P’ when ‘m’ equals 6) 
  • Object (e.g. Tell me why you brought this object.) 
  • Piece of work (e.g. What are you most proud of in this work?) 

It can help to go through these questions with your child or use a family friend to simulate the interview and prepare them for what can be a strange conversation for students of this age. 

How do I Prepare Effectively for a 13 Plus Exam?

A good set of general guidelines for effective preparation are as follows:

  • Start early. 12-18 months of regular tuition has been proven to drastically improve grade potential.
  • Include both independent work and ‘guided’ work (i.e. with parent/guardian, teacher or tutor). Students should be invested enough to learn outside of lesson time. 
  • Begin practice papers as of Christmas break in Year 8. 
  • Don’t start any new learning in Easter, just revision of current knowledge. 
  • Frequently assess gaps in knowledge (either with online facilities, checklists or assessment from tutors or teachers) 

There are various ways to access Common Entrance past/sample papers, the most convenient of which are ISEB and Galore Park.

Schools that conduct their own Common Entrance equivalent to the ISEB tests will often publish specimen papers or past papers on the Admissions sections of their websites. Here are a few linked examples.

Where Do You Find a Qualified Tutor?

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!


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Russell Kilgour

6th July

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