The 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam is a challenging hurdle to cross in securing a place for your child at your chosen independent school. With a rigorous syllabus covering 11 subjects, preparing for the 13 Plus effectively is vital to give your child the best chance of achieving the results they will need in the face of strong competition from other candidates.
In the article below, Keystone have gathered together a range of the best tools and strategies for passing the 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam, based on their tutors’ experience of successfully guiding hundreds of students through this demanding exam.
This guide aims to explain:
How difficult is the 13 Plus Common Entrance?
What is the 13 Plus Common Entrance Pass Mark?
How is the 13 Plus exam structured?
13 Plus Common Entrance English paper
13 Plus Common Entrance Maths paper
Common Entrance Interview Questions
How to prepare for the 13 Plus exam
How does the process work?
When are the exams held?
13 Plus Common Entrance Past Papers
The 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam: Difficulty and Pass Mark
Parents often have lots of questions about the 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam, especially in light of its importance. Many of the UK’s best independent schools make use of it: the Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) publishes a full list of the schools in question. Two key questions that often come up in tutoring children for the 13 Plus are around how difficult the exam is, and what the pass mark might be.
How Difficult is the 13 Plus Common Entrance?
The ISEB 13 Plus Common Entrance is a challenging pre-GCSE/IGCSE course that assesses candidates across multiple difficulty Levels (1-3), with papers normally being sat at Level 2. Candidates may also take the Common Academic Scholarship exam (CASE) – to identify pupils of exceptional proficiency in particular subject areas, and who may also be awarded a scholarship and potentially reduced school fees with it.
Other points to bear in mind:
- Exams are sat in Year 8, where there is great variety in levels of student maturity
- There are three assessment sessions per year: November, January and May/June (again, difficulty levels vary according to student birth dates)
- Core compulsory subjects tested are: English, Maths and Science (strengths are expected in at least two of these)
- Core subjects are tested at four levels (from least to most challenging): Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and CASE
- Level 1 assessments are typically within the grasp of most Year 7
Expectations on students at Level 2/3 Common Entrance are not wholly dissimilar to those on students in Year 10 (i.e. first year of GCSE course) state schools, especially in English and Maths, whose respective curricula are ambitious and cover topic areas including Poetry Analysis and Advanced Algebra.
What is the 13 Plus Common Entrance Pass Mark?
- There is no official pass mark.
- Some schools have their own minimum attainment levels (e.g. 55-60% at Marlborough College).
- A pass mark of 60% and upwards is considered selective, with +70% very selective.
- Some schools will accept lower scores in some subjects if higher scores are seen elsewhere in a student’s results (a lower score in English might be acceptable if attainment across Maths and Science is, on average, higher than the school’s own pass mark).
- Student papers are marked by teaching staff in the senior school for which a student is entered.
- Senior schools award candidates a grade for each subject, from A to E. Each senior school decides the range of marks represented by each grade, and this may vary from school to school.
How is the 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam Structured?
The 13 Plus Common Entrance Exam splits into two categories: exams maintained by ISEB (the majority) and exams maintained by schools themselves (the minority). All are entrance examinations for top independent UK schools, and all are selective. The exam is the final stage in the admissions process for these selective schools (a process that can start with the 11 plus pre-test exams).
The 13 Plus consists of written papers, with assessment in core subjects (English, Maths, Science), as well as in extensions (Languages, History, Geography, etc). Papers last between 40-90 minutes depending on subject, with speaking assessments in language subjects and a mental arithmetic component in Maths.
How to Prepare for the 13 Plus 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
Keystone Tutor Cameron gives his top tip for preparing for the 13 Plus English paper
"For the 13 Plus, read lots with an adult, and at the end of each page, talk about the book. What do you think of the characters? Any new words? What will happen next? Any great writer's tools? Independent reading is great, but discussion is the best."
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
- Four operations with decimals
- Negative numbers
- Order of operations
- Properties of number
- Expansion and factorisation
- Solving equations
- Straight line graphs
Geometry and Measures
Other points to consider in the Maths paper include:
- Read questions carefully
- Do not rush to answer
- Underline key words in questions
- Attempt all questions
- Always show working
- Check work thoroughly
Keystone Tutor Olly gives his top tip for 13 Plus Maths
"Make sure your child practices writing their working clearly and neatly, especially under time pressure; most senior schools will allocate marks for working alongside the answer so it's a really useful skill to develop"
Questions in these interviews tend to fall into two categories – Core and Extension:
Core - 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?)
Extension – in longer interviews, as well as covering the topics above, the following might be raised:
- 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 [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?)
How do I Prepare Effectively for a 13 Plus Exam?
A good set of general guidelines for effective preparation are as follows:
- Start early
- Include both independent work and ‘guided’ work (i.e. with parent/guardian, teacher or tutor)
- Begin practice papers as of Christmas break in Year 8
- No new learning in Easter, just revision
- Ensure plenty of diagnostic work to assess gaps in knowledge (either with online facilities like ATOM Learning or via external assessment)
How does the 13 Plus Process Work?
Typically, families/candidates will go through some or all of the following steps for 13+ exams (i.e. those administered by schools themselves, not by ISEB):
- Visit school
- Registration for school
- Year 7 school reports requested, with reference from current headteacher
- Entrance exams
Other points to consider include:
- Applications can be made much earlier than Year 8 (and often are, most likely starting with the Pre-Test in Year 6)
- Process can differ for applications from overseas
When are the 13 Plus Exams Held?
- ISEB 13+ exams are held in each of Autumn, Spring and Summer
- Most candidates will sit their Common Entrance in the Summer of Year 8
- Dates for ISEB common entrance are selected at least two years in advance
- Schools that have their own entrance test (e.g. Winchester College) have different examination dates to ISEB, though most would run between Spring and Summer
Where Can I Find 13 Plus Common Entrance Past Papers?
Schools who conduct their own Common Entrance equivalent will often publish specimen or past papers on the Admissions sections of their websites.
- Perse School
- Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School
- Winchester College
- Merchant Taylors’
- Oundle School
13 Plus Common Entrance Tuition
Each year Keystone supports many students preparing for the 13 Plus Common Entrance. The tutors we represent are experienced in the intricacies of the 13 Plus exams and how they differ between schools' assessments. We would normally recommend that preparation begins around 12 – 18 months before the exams. Tutors will devise a programme tailored to the specific circumstances of the student.