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ISEB Common Pre-Test: the ultimate parents' guide

By Atom | Dec 13, 2023, 5:05 PM

Young girl in a school classroom, smiling while looking at something on a laptop screen

If you’re applying to a senior school that uses the ISEB Common Pre-Test, this guide will help you and your child know what to expect at each stage. Read on to:

  • See example questions for each subject

  • Understand how the exam changed in 2022

  • Learn how to prepare

  • Download ISEB preparation resources

What is the ISEB Common Pre-Test?

The ISEB (Independent Schools Examination Board) Common Pre-Test is an online exam that children take as part of the admissions process for some senior schools.

It's the only one of the ‘big three’ entrance exams that is adaptive. This means that the questions become more difficult depending on how your child is performing.

The ISEB is different to any other style of entrance exam, so there are unique strategies for succeeding at it.

ISEB registration

You now need to register your child directly with the ISEB. Previously, children were registered by the senior schools they had applied to.

Registration is free and takes places on the ISEB website admissions portal. You only need to register your child for the test once, no matter how many different schools they are applying to. You can sign up for email updates and registration reminders here.

We recommend checking with your chosen schools for their individual admissions processes and closing dates. You will need to apply directly to each school as well as registering for the ISEB.

Once registered, your child will sit the ISEB in Year 6 – normally in the autumn term, but occasionally in the spring term. In previous years, the closing dates to register candidates were 1st October (for the autumn exam) and 1st December (for the spring exam).

Your child's exam date will be set by the school you are applying to. Children applying from within the UK usually take the test at their current school. If your child's school is not able to facilitate the test, your target school will usually be able to assist. Overseas applicants can take the test at a registered testing centre, such as a British Council Office.

The ISEB can only be taken once within a year – any additional tests will not be valid and the first result will stand.

Which schools use the ISEB Pre-Test?

Here is the full list of schools that use the ISEB Common Pre-Test for entry.

If you're applying to more than one school which uses the ISEB as their entrance exam, your child's results will be shared between the schools. This means that your child only sits the exam once to apply to multiple schools.

Changes to the ISEB from 2022

The ISEB Pre-Test was previously administered by GL Assessments. In autumn 2022, it switched to a new provider.

  • You now need to register your child for the ISEB, instead of being automatically registered by your chosen senior school.

ISEB Pre-Test subjects & timings

The ISEB Common Pre-Test assesses four subjects:

  • Maths: 40 minutes

  • English (reading comprehension and SPaG): 40 minutes

  • Non-verbal reasoning: 30 minutes

  • Verbal reasoning: 25 minutes

The English and maths sections are based on the Key Stage 2 national curriculum taught up to the end of Year 5. They assess your child's ability to recall what they have learned and apply this knowledge to solve problems.

Verbal and non-verbal reasoning test your child’s academic potential with unfamiliar question types. They focus on the ability to acquire new information and apply it to new situations.

Your child can sit the four subjects together or at separate times. If taking them all on the same day, they are allowed a short break between each section.

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Format of the ISEB Pre-Test

The ISEB is a multiple choice test, sat entirely online on a computer. It's helpful for you and your child to be aware of its unique features:

  • No back button: because the test is adaptive, children can’t go back to review or change their answers. They must as sure as possible about the answer they have chosen before moving on to the next question. They will not be able to check their work at the end like they're often urged to do at school.

  • The next button won't appear until an answer is selected: This can throw children off at first, but it is a good thing! It will ensure your child doesn't move on from a question without selecting an answer.

  • Progress bar: This is useful for your child to be aware of so they can see how much of the test they have completed so far and how much is left.

  • Timer: There will be a timer on the top right-hand corner of the test. Your child has the option to hide this if it is distracting or makes them feel anxious.

An example non-verbal reasoning question on an Atom ISEB mock test

Because of this unique format, it’s a good idea for your child to practice questions in the exact format and style of the ISEB. There is one test walkthrough available on the ISEB website.

Your child can also try hundreds of ISEB practice tests with an Atom Home subscription.

ISEB Pre-Test example questions

Take a look at some ISEB Pre-Test sample questions below to help you and your child get familiar with the content and format of the test.

ISEB maths questions

Your child will have 40 minutes to work through the maths section in the ISEB test. Questions are based on the Year 5 national curriculum – although children in Year 6 often find this section challenging. The questions range from arithmetic to multi-step problem solving.

The topics tested on the maths section of the ISEB are:

  • Number and place value

  • Calculations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)

  • Fractions, decimals and percentages

  • Measurement

  • Geometry

  • Statistics

Some questions cover more than one topic. The number questions come up most commonly.

Your child is allowed a pen and paper during the maths test to jot down any calculations or notes that they want to make. This working paper is not marked.

These examples from ISEB maths practice tests on Atom show how the maths questions are formatted.

Multiplication example question

Example multiplication question on an Atom ISEB maths mock test

Geometry example question

Example geometry question on an Atom ISEB maths mock test

ISEB English questions

The English section of the ISEB is also up to 40 minutes long, and based on the Key Stage 2 national curriculum taught up to the end of Year 5. It is split into two sections: comprehension, and SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar).

1. Comprehension

The comprehension section assesses your child’s ability to analyse and interpret text. Your child will see several short passages of around 300–500 words). These may be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry from a range of time periods.

Each passage has a series of multiple-choice questions designed to assess the following skills:

  • Literal (retrieval of information)

  • Deduction

  • Inference

  • Vocabulary, explaining the meaning of words in context

  • Summarising ideas

  • Literary devices (personification, alliteration, similes, metaphors)

  • Making comparisons (across the text, between characters, between formality)

These examples from ISEB English practice tests on Atom show how the comprehension questions are structured. In the new version of the test, children will no longer need to click through numbered buttons to read the text. They will be able to read the whole passage simply by scrolling.

Literary devices example question

Example literary devices question on an Atom ISEB English mock test

Summarising example question

Summarising example question on an Atom ISEB English mock test

2. Spelling, punctuation and grammar

In this section, your child is assessed on their knowledge of English grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and spelling.

  • Vocabulary: knowledge of word meaning, word families, prefixes and suffixes

  • Punctuation: knowledge of how punctuation should be used

  • Grammar: identifying nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions, clauses, formal and informal language, identifying correct verb agreement and sentence structure

  • Spelling: knowledge of spelling patterns and common exception words

There are three types of questions in this section:

  • Cloze sentences (your child will have to fill in a blank space in a sentence)

  • Jumbled sentences (your child will have to rearrange a sentence into the correct order)

  • 'Spot the mistake' questions

Example jumbled sentences question in an Atom ISEB English mock test

ISEB non-verbal reasoning questions

Non-verbal reasoning assesses your child’s logic, critical thinking and problem-solving skills using figures and diagrams. It is about 30 minutes long. Your child will need to show that they can:

  • Analyse 2D figures and diagrams to look for patterns (similarities and differences, completing the diagram, code matching)

  • Manipulate 3D figures and diagrams to visualise them in a different way

New types of non-verbal reasoning questions added in 2022 are 'how many blocks?' and 'silhouettes'.

There’s no way to know which question types will appear on the ISEB in future years. The best way to prepare is making sure your child is familiar and confident with all non-verbal reasoning question types. You can learn more about preparing for non-verbal reasoning here.

These images from ISEB non-verbal reasoning practice papers on Atom show how the questions are formatted.

Non-verbal reasoning question on an Atom ISEB mock test

Non-verbal reasoning question on an Atom ISEB mock test

ISEB verbal reasoning questions

Verbal reasoning puts your child’s logic and comprehension to the test. This section takes 25 minutes and uses letter, word and language-based questions to assess the following:

  • Problem solving techniques

  • Trial and error skills

  • Working logically

  • Recognising suitable solutions

  • Knowledge of vocabulary and definitions

As with the maths section, your child will have a pen and paper for notes and working out, which will not be marked.

However, there’s no guarantee that the same topics will reappear in future tests. Atom Home is designed to give your child a secure understanding of all possible verbal reasoning question types, and have fun while they learn too.

These examples from the unlimited ISEB verbal reasoning practice papers on Atom Home show some common question styles. You can find more tips and techniques in our verbal reasoning exam preparation guide.

Verbal reasoning question on an Atom ISEB mock test

Verbal reasoning question on an Atom ISEB mock test

What’s the pass mark for the ISEB Pre-Test?

The ISEB Common Pre-Test has no set pass mark because every school has different requirements. Your child will be given a standardised age score (SAS). This is a calculation based on:

  • Correct and incorrect answers

  • The level of difficulty of each question they answered

  • Their date of birth (this stops the younger children in the school year from having a disadvantage)

You won't see your child's ISEB results – they're sent directly to the school.

For the most competitive schools, it's wise to aim for a standardised age score of 120 or higher. 100 represents an average score, 142 is the maximum score, and a score under 82 is considered low.

Should my child take the ISEB Pre-Test?

Schools use the ISEB to help them decide whether their learning environment is a good fit for your child. They will often use the test alongside an interview and a reference from your child's current school. Some schools might also set their own bespoke tests – often as a second-stage assessment.

When deciding whether to apply for a school that uses the ISEB as an entrance exam, here are some things to consider:

  • Does your child regularly attain ‘exceeding expectations’ on their school reports?

  • Are your child’s test results above average in English and maths?

  • How much tutoring will your child need to pass the exam? If they’ll need a large amount of support, will they be able to keep up with the academic demands of the target school?

  • Talk to your child’s teacher. How do they think your child is likely to perform on the ISEB? They will have a clear idea of your child’s areas of strength and challenge.

  • Use an adaptive learning platform like Atom to get data-driven insights into your child’s academic performance, and spot learning gaps and areas for improvement.

How accessible is the ISEB?

Accessibility for SEND

The ISEB test platform is designed to be accessible to all children. Here's an overview of the new accessibility features:

  • Your child can select a coloured overlay to improve the visibility of the questions. This can help support children who face visual discomfort and disturbance when reading.

  • Your child can adjust the font size.

  • All the questions have been written to improve the experience for pupils, with less reliance on short-term working memory.

Where appropriate, children with SEND can request 25% extra time to complete each section of the test. Other access arrangements can include:

  • A reader for the tests

  • Supervised rest breaks

  • A separate exam room

You can request extra time or other access arrangements for your child when you register on the ISEB website. You should also tell your target school about your child's needs so that they can make arrangements for other assessments. Schools must approve the arrangements before the test and will let you know what documentation you'll need to upload with your ISEB registration.

Accessibility for EAL

The ISEB is designed to be accessible to children with English as an additional language (EAL). You should discuss this with your chosen senior schools. You may be able to request adjustments such as extra time or a bilingual dictionary.

How to prepare for the ISEB Pre-Test

We recommend taking a balanced approach to your child’s ISEB exam preparation. Your child should be confident with the national curriculum before starting practice papers.

Verbal and non-verbal reasoning are not taught on the national curriculum, so practising at home is key. Introduce your child to reasoning questions as early as possible to minimise pressure. When exam day arrives, they'll be able to focus on problem-solving rather than getting distracted by unfamiliar question types.

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ISEB Common Pre-Test FAQs

We asked our parent community what they needed to know to prepare for the ISEB. Find answers to our most frequently asked questions below.

Yes, children are allowed to use pencil and paper for their rough work throughout all sections of the ISEB. (Until 2022, pencil and paper were allowed for the verbal reasoning and maths tests only.)

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Get ready for the ISEB with Atom Home – the leading online learning and exam prep platform for ages 7–11. In 2024, 91% of Atom users got offered a place at their top-choice school.

Why do families choose Atom for ISEB prep?

  • Atom's mock tests mirror the real ISEB. The curriculum, the timings, the controls and even the colours.

  • See how your child's ISEB practice scores compare to applicants to the same schools.

  • Exam preparation is a marathon, not a sprint. Atom is motivational, engaging, and fun for kids to use.

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We understand how important the ISEB is for them, and for you. Please don't hesitate to get in touch with any questions you may have about the exam or applying to selective senior schools.

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