Exam Advice & School Guides | RSL Educational

How to get into Dulwich College in Year 7 (11-plus entry)

In this article I’ll explain exactly how to prepare your child for the Dulwich College entrance exams and interview, if they are hoping to enter the school in Year 7.

Because a large number of boys enter Year 7 from the Junior School, there are usually only 70 places available to external candidates. This means that many very able students will miss out on a place: there is a great deal of luck involved. It’s important that your child sees the Dulwich College entrance exam as a worthwhile challenge, to be approached with enthusiasm; but that they don’t set their heart on it. There are many other excellent schools in London.

  • Slightly confusingly, the first few years of the Dulwich secondary school (or senior school) are called the "Lower School". (But then, where I went to school the years were called Second Form, Third Form, Lower Erasmus, Upper Fourth, Great Erasmus, Deputy Grecians and Grecians. So it can’t be said that Dulwich have the most confusing system out there.)

The admissions process, in outline, runs as follows:

  • Applications need to be submitted by mid November. This is not a school which accepts new candidates until the week before the exams!

  • Entrance exams are held in early January. Papers are set for Maths, English, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning.

  • Interviews for the best-performing examination candidates follow in mid to late January.

If you’re interested in a bursary for your child, or an art, music or sports scholarship, there is more information here.

There is no separate academic scholarship exam: all candidates are automatically considered for academic scholarships based on their main exam peformance.

Now I’ll talk you through each part of the exam in turn – after which, I’ll discuss the interview.

Please bear in mind that exam styles can change from year to year. Everything I write here is based on my knowledge of previous years’ processes and on past papers. I can’t predict the future! Therefore, a broad 11+ preparation is always wisest: this way, your son will feel confident dealing with whatever he encounters in the exam hall.

The English Paper

Dulwich sets a slightly unusual but very well written 11-plus English paper. It’s worth bearing in mind that it tests the sort of high-level skills which prep schools tend to cover better than primaries.

  • I don’t wish to generalise unfairly about primary schools, many of which are superb. Simply put, prep schools tend to be more focused on independent senior school entrance requirements. If your child comes from a primary school background, it might be worth putting in some extra time to prepare for the Dulwich English paper, so that they don’t feel out of their depth when confronted with unfamiliar question types.

Like most independent school 11-plus English exams, the Dulwich paper tests both comprehension and creative writing. Because the writing section is the more unusual part, I’ll talk about it separately, even though it forms part of the main English paper.

Creative Writing

A distinctive feature of the Dulwich paper is that the creative writing section is usually in the middle, with comprehension questions before it and afterwards.

I imagine this is a way of making sure that candidates allow enough time for the writing piece, and don’t try to complete it in ten minutes at the end of the test! It’s also a way of making sure that they are still focused on the comprehension text: the writing task tends to be based on it.

What’s more, although the writing task is worth a third to a quarter of the marks for the paper, very little space is allowed for it: around three quarters of a page of the school’s answer paper, which is equivalent to about two thirds of a page of standard A4. Compared to the independent school norm, which is to expect answers of a page to a page and a half, this is not very much room!

For this reason, boys need to have a clear idea of what the school is looking for.

Phrases used in recent instructions for this question have included: ”inventiveness and sophistication”; “convincing description” and “inventive vocabulary”; and “appropriate use of similes and metaphors”. There is always a reminder to keep punctuation, spelling and grammar accurate.

In other words, the question is designed to see how powerfully and imaginatively children can express themselves, and how well they can condense their descriptive writing into a limited space. There is no room to waste words on uninteresting sentences which state facts without any colour.

My main advice for this section is to focus on those descriptive techniques which can be used concisely. A lengthy extended metaphor, spread across three or four lines, will restrict your ability to demonstrate other skills.

Strong, interesting verbs, on the other hand, can be enormously effective. For instance, instead of just writing “smiled”, you should consider words such as “leered”, “beamed”, “grimaced” or phrases such as “curled her lips” – whatever word most precisely catches your meaning.

Similarly, it’s important to focus on the senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing); but do so in an interesting way, which forces the reader to imagine the scene vividly. For example, instead of writing “the cake smelt beautiful”, consider options such as “the steam filled her mouth with a sweet taste of ginger”. You could add details using other senses, for example by writing that “the spongey crust pushed back against her palm, shrugging itself back into shape as soon as she took her hand away.” (Notice the way personification is also brought in by the word “shrugged”, but without occupying extra room.)

When writing similes and metaphors, make sure that you create clarity rather than confusion: “She cooked like a cheetah” may seem like a good way to say that she worked quickly, but from the reader’s point of view it is a baffling image. How does a cheetah cook?

Create images which make the scene more vivid for the reader, not less. The first part of this is to imagine the thing you are describing very clearly; then think about a suitable comparison which you can develop into an image.

A couple of warnings for this sort of task:

  • Don’t try to seem descriptive by drowning your work in adjectives! It is much better to use a small number of very effective adjectives than to stack them up in front of each noun like Fiat 500s queuing impatiently behind a lorry.*

  • Be very careful with your punctuation. Keep sentences short and simple most of the time, and be accurate in your use of commas. Clumsy sentences will distract the marker from the good ideas within them – as well as losing marks in their own right.

* Have a think about this simile, in the light of my comments just above. It is, by normal standards, over-developed, with a silly amount of detail. Why does it matter what exact make of car is queuing? Why would a noun be like a lorry? Is a noun necessarily bigger than an adjective, for instance? Does the simile add anything which was missing in the sentence already? Is the mix of “in front of” and “behind” distracting? My intention was to write something mildly humorous. Did I succeed? Was it a good place to aim for humour? If so, are there other situations in which it wouldn’t be? If you don’t like the image, would you have used a different one, or just moved on to the next sentence without offering extra colour? This is a thought-process which you need to get used to if you are going to create an effective response to the Dulwich creative writing question.

For in-depth creative writing practice which covers all the skills discussed here and plenty more, including long and short-answer tasks, example answers and detailed marking walk-throughs, you might like to look at the resources available here.


The skills tested in the Dulwich comprehension paper (leaving the writing question to one side for now) are typical of other more challenging independent schools – City of London Boys, Habs’ Boys, St Paul’s Girls, Manchester Grammar and Sevenoaks, to name a few. Once again, however, there are some idiosyncracies.

For one thing, questions have a tendency to be very specific. Have a look, for example, at Question 16 here. A student who doesn’t exactly follow all the requirements for this question will be unable to achieve a good mark.

  • Children must develop the technique of reading questions very closely, underlining all the key elements. Along with the number of marks available and the size of the answer space, this will help them reach a judgement about exactly what style of answer is required. This skill is trained very thoroughly in 11 Plus Lifeline’s materials.

Dulwich’s paper also places more emphasis on technical knowledge than is usual at 11+. It’s vital that children are familiar with all the basic parts of speech (adverbs, pronouns etc.), but also that they can recognise and reproduce similes, metaphors, alliteration, rhyme, personification, and so on. One of the hardest comprehension skills is to explain why a particular technique is effective.

A final point about the Dulwich comprehension paper is that questions have an annoying habit of requesting detailed, evidenced explanations, while at the same time providing very limited answer space! As with the writing task, it’s important to have a very clear sense of how to write concisely and effectively, without wasting words on things which won’t achieve any marks.

You may be interested in looking at the comprehension advice in my other school guides, which cover some points which I haven’t discussed here.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning

Because Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning preparation is very similar from one school to another, I recommend reading my advice for the King’s and Queen’s Schools in Chester. That way I won’t bore you to tears by turning this article into a 4000-word monster.

In summary, buy a range of books, and do occasional, careful practice, focusing on developing skills rather than speed (at least, until the final build-up to the exam). The most important skill is elimination of clearly incorrect answers and logical assessment of what’s left in order to find the most likely response.

In the exam, it’s important not to get stuck on any one question. If something’s hard, your son should leave it and come back later.

The Maths Paper

The Dulwich maths paper is more enjoyable to prepare for than some, because the questions are varied and imaginative, giving children the chance to show off a wide range of skills. They offer candidates the chance to be creative and imaginative, rather than just churning out the maths techniques they have learnt at school.

The flip-side of this is that the paper is moderately challenging in some places, and rather difficult in others.

The maths papers here are close to the Dulwich style. The solution pages demonstrate the best techniques for solving each question, which may be useful.

Because the Dulwich questions can be fairly wordy, it’s important that children practise extracting the key information: turning the words into maths, perhaps by taking notes directly above each phrase.

  • To give a simple example, above the phrase “40 percent of the fifty students” you might write “40% x 50”.

Above all else, the most important thing with a tricky maths question is to start it! Don’t stare at the page, wondering what the answer is. Write down some numbers and mathematical facts from the question, and start playing with ways of using them.

  • Firstly, this is how you will get ideas, or stumble across useful results which lead you towards a solution.

  • Secondly, even if you don’t solve the question, you’re likely to get some marks for what you have put down.

I usually spend some time in these guides discussing what the core syllabus involves. Thankfully, Dulwich have made my job easy by providing a maths topic sheet.

Bear in mind, however, that their list is only a rough guide. If you’d like a more comprehensive overview of the Key Stage 2 syllabus (on which all 11-plus exams are based), have a look at the official Department For Education document here.

I suggest working carefully through practice papers (such as those recommended above), moving slowly and thoughtfully and repeating as necessary. When a weakness comes up for a particular topic, take time out to practise it; and when a topic seems secure, tick it off on Dulwich’s syllabus sheet.

The Interview

Just as I referred you to my King’s and Queen’s article for verbal and non-verbal reasoning, I’ve said most of what I can say about interviews in my article for St Paul’s Girls’ School. I recommend having a look there.

One of the main things to bear in mind is that preparation – helping your son to feel confident about himself, and guiding him towards some areas which are likely to come up in the interview, as discussed in my St Paul’s article – is very valuable, and helps each child to show themselves at their best.

On the other hand, coaching (teaching him what to say, or even just encouraging him to prepare his answers in advance) is likely to cause a lot of problems, and should be avoided completely.

If you would like more guidance about how to prepare for the Dulwich College entrance assessment, you may like to have a look at 11 Plus Lifeline – according to Tutorful, “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.


How To Get Into King Edward’s School, Birmingham

King Edward’s School has an admirably clear, easily understood entrance process. This cannot be said of all independent schools! The exams are fairly challenging, but within the reach of any child with a good grasp of the core primary curriculum, who has practised carefully with similar kinds of test paper.

In this article I will explain exactly how to prepare your child to show themselves at their best in the KES entrance exams and interview.

The admissions process can be broken down into the following stages:

  • Applications need to be submitted by mid September in year 6. A small application fee is required from most parents.

  • Exams in English, maths and verbal reasoning are held at the beginning of October. This is earlier than for the majority of independent schools, which tend to hold entrance tests in January.

  • Interviews for some candidates are held in November. These are focused on scholarship and bursary candidates, and boys whose exam results were on the borderline between acceptance and rejection.

  • Offers go out in December.

There are other dates for music scholarships, etc.

Please be aware that entrance exams and admissions processes can change from year to year. For this reason, consult the school’s website as well as this article, and do not focus too narrowly on past papers: a solid, all-round 11-plus preparation is always wisest.

Now I’ll talk you through how to prepare for each stage of the assessment process.

The English Exam

The KES English papers are in some ways typical of many independent schools, and in some ways a little different. The questions are particularly clearly explained. If a child reads the instructions for each question carefully, they should have little doubt about what they need to do.

There are two sections: a comprehension paper, likely to last around 40 minutes, and a writing paper, likely to last around half an hour.


The King Edward’s School examiners are clear that they want to see answers in full sentences. However, do not misinterpret this as requiring you to repeat the question!

  • Don’t write “Because he is tired.” This is not a full sentence.

  • Don’t write “The man walks up to the wall and rests his head against the brickwork because he is tired”, if the question is “Why does the man walk up to the wall and rest his head against the brickwork?” There are no marks for repeating the question, and you are wasting time and answer space.

  • Do write “He does this because he is tired.” This is a complete sentence, but is concise and focused on getting the mark(s).

The KES comprehension paper tends to include a significant number of questions, but many of these are short. There is sometimes more answer space than you will need.

An unusual feature of this paper (something shared with St Paul’s Girls’ School) is that the questions don’t always state how many marks are available. In a less clear exam, this would make it hard to second-guess how much of an answer is required. However, it ought not to cause any problems in the King Edward’s test.

The questions are wide ranging, and require a good grasp of all the main 11-plus skills: finding information, writing clear explanations in your own words, explaining characters’ personalities and behaviour, supporting explanations with concise evidence, and identifying and explaining the ways in which authors achieve certain effects – in other words, how they persuade a reader to think or feel certain things. The most thorough practice for these 11+ English skills is offered here.

Unlike at some other schools, the KES examiners rarely set longer, ‘mini-essay’ comprehension questions. The focus is on being clear and specific, and it is unlikely that boys will need to know how to structure a lengthy answer.

The best preparation for this test is with practice papers – preferably ones with worked solutions (so that boys can see what sort of answer is most effective for each kind of question) – and by using a range of past papers from other independent schools (for instance, here).

Creative Writing

Once again, the examiners are extremely clear about what they want. The task itself is often described in some detail: there is a lot more than just a title. This is very helpful, but it also means that it’s extremely important to read the instructions with care, underlining all the key information. If you do something different from what is required, you will lose marks.

The school is looking for accurate, well-paragraphed writing, and for descriptive flair. The easiest ways to make your writing interesting are by using strong verbs (“squirmed” or “shuffled”, rather than “moved”) and through a wide-ranging and imaginative use of the senses. Instead of writing “she saw the elephant”, write “the elephant’s breath wafted past her, a surprisingly delicate smell like scattered hay in an empty barn”.

Metaphors and similes are wonderful … so long as they don’t confuse the reader, and so long as they are your own! “The sight froze him to the spot” won’t get you much credit, because the examiner will have seen this metaphor hundreds of times before.

The school is keen to see dialogue, so make sure that you know how to punctuate speech correctly. Don’t over-do it: your writing shouldn’t look like a play script.

The best way for a child to prepare for a creative writing test like this is to practise with a wide range of topics, thoughtfully and slowly, reviewing and correcting their work. The most extensive range of creative writing papers with worked example answers and marking advice, well matched to the KES exam, is available from 11 Plus Lifeline.

The Maths Exam

The KES maths exam is a fair test, because although some of the later questions are quite tricky, they are well grounded in the core primary school (KS2) curriculum. It’s important to be comfortable with the paper methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, with using fractions, decimals, percentages and ratios, with simple probability, with angles, and so on.

There is nothing which will push the limits of a well prepared boy’s knowledge; however, if they are unfamiliar with the style of tests like this, some of the question types are likely to be puzzling. Therefore, steady practice with relevant 11-plus materials such as these is sensible.

There are two stages of preparation: reinforcing core knowledge and practising it in context. However, these can usually be combined quite effectively.

When working with practice papers, move slowly. When something is difficult, stop and work on it until you are comfortable (this is easiest if you have example answers to compare to your own), then move on. See it as a process of ironing: look for the creases, and smooth them until they are gone. You’ll then notice other, smaller creases, and be able to focus on those.

Bear in mind that even if you don’t finish the paper, you may still perform well enough to pass the test. Three quarters of a paper completed well will score more highly than a completed test which has been rushed and is full of mistakes.

The Verbal Reasoning Exam

The KES verbal reasoning test is designed to assess a child’s potential and linguistic ability, rather than academic knowledge. I am sceptical, because children who are lucky enough to come from families where reading and intelligent conversation are normal will have an advantage in all kinds of English test, whether for reasoning or comprehension. I’m not sure that this kind of paper is a good way of locating hidden talent.

However, philosophical considerations like this are irrelevant if your child is preparing for the King Edward’s exams: they have to sit a verbal reasoning paper whether they like it or not!

There are no past papers for this test, so the best preparation will come from using a range of practice books. You’ll find them in most decent-sized bookshops. Do a little bit of practice, once or twice a week. Focus on making it unrushed and thoughtful.

Above all else, children need to get used to dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary, and words which have more than one meaning. They will never know every word in English; however, careful elimination of unlikely answers is a good start. The next stage is to weigh up the remaining options thoughtfully to find the most likely result. What do the syllables of a word suggest? Which other words does it sound like?

Finally, because reasoning questions tend to be worth few marks, but there can be a lot of them in an exam, it is important to get used to circling tricky questions and returning to them at the end of the exam. Five minutes spent staring at a 1-mark question can be disastrous!

The Interview

KES uses its interviews in order to assess scholarship and bursary candidates carefully, and for a second look at boys who achieved a borderline result in the exam. If your child isn’t called for interview, this does not mean that they have failed to gain a place!

I have published very detailed interview guidance in this article. If you’d like some clear advice for how to help your child prepare for an interview (and how you definitely shouldn’t prepare them!), please have a look.

If you would like more guidance about how to prepare for the King Edward’s School entrance assessment, you may like to have a look at 11 Plus Lifeline – according to Tutorful, “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.


How To Get Into The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

In this article I’ll explain how best to prepare your child for the RGS entrance exam and interview. Please bear in mind, however, that 11-plus exam content can change from year to year. A broad 11-plus preparation is the safest approach - and, at any rate, the most useful.

The RGS Newcastle admissions process is clear and well-organised. This is likely to be an encouraging sign if you are selecting a school for your child!

There are three stages:

  • Applications need to be received by mid-December.

  • Exams are in the second half of January and test English, Maths and Reasoning.

  • Interviews follow soon afterwards.

The school then holds “taster days” for children who have been offered a place. These are useful when a child is unsure about RGS (perhaps they are worried about going to a different school from their friends), because they will have the chance to meet their new classmates and get excited about the school. Similarly, they can help when a family has to decide between offers from different schools.

In the rest of this article I’ll explain how to prepare for each part of the exam, and for the interview. The school offers a set of sample papers here.

The English Exam

An important feature of the Royal Grammar School English exam is that the writing section is worth more than twice as many marks as the comprehension section. Prepare for both, but don't neglect your child’s writing practice!


This is a really well-balanced 11+ exam, exploring a wide range of skills – from short answer questions which typically require a child to pick out information from the passage, to longer questions which require them to explain the text, showing understanding. There are questions which explore the meanings of words in detail, and others which require a thoughtful understanding of personality: What do a character’s actions suggest about them? Why do they behave as they do?

The word “Why?” is a typical feature of the RGS exam, and you can help your child by asking them to explain things as they go about their daily life:

  • Why does a character in their book do a certain thing?

  • Why is a particular radio news item important?

They need to develop the habit of answering such questions clearly and briefly.

Because the RGS comprehension paper includes a particularly wide range of question types, it is a good idea to prepare by practising with a range of 11-plus exam styles, ideally with example answers. This way, your child will learn exactly how to structure a response to all the likely types of question. The widest range of resources in this style is available here.

Creative Writing

The RGS exam offers a good range of creative questions. These tend to encourage lively descriptive writing, and some of them can be answered as stories.

If a questions asks you to “Write about a time when you …”, you don’t have to use a real event: you are free to make something up. However, it’s very important that your answer should be grounded in the real world (no aliens), and that it should be based on likely events from the life of somebody your age (no mafia gunfights).

If a question asks you to “Write an essay about” something, this does not mean that it should be a boring academic essay: you should still write descriptively, with imaginative language.

As is usual for an 11+ writing test, you are encouraged to use “at least one side” of paper. In practice, this means that you should write 1 to 1.5 A4 pages. Don’t write more than this: it is better to write a medium-length story and work carefully on the details. A long answer, because it is more likely to include some uninteresting sentences and a smattering of mistakes, will probably lose marks, and won’t gain any for including more words.

The key skills here are the same as for any 11-plus writing paper:

  • Plan carefully, making sure that your writing will have a nice arc, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and that there is one event which forms the emotional high point of the piece. Keep things simple!

  • Write clear sentences. Aim to keep these simple most of the time; then, in a few places, develop more complex sentences which create a different mood (which might be drowsiness on the one hand, or a sense of panic on the other).

  • Always be descriptive: not by attaching queues of adjectives to each word, but by using interesting verbs (“sprung” or “leapt” rather than “jumped”) and a wide range of senses (when the most obvious thing would be to describe the look of a thing, can you give its smell instead?). Try to use at least one simile and one metaphor, but make sure that these make things clearer for your reader, and don’t create confusion.

  • Check your work very carefully for mistakes in punctuation and spelling, because these will lose marks.

  • Make sure that you are comfortable with the most traditional conventions for writing speech: using speech marks, starting a new line for the second speaker in a paragraph, and so on.

The most comprehensive 11-plus creative writing resource in the UK is 11 Plus Lifeline, which teaches exactly the kind of writing required by RGS – with an extensive range of questions, multiple example essays for each one, and walk-through writing/marking guides, designed to teach children how to write exactly the sort of answer which an examiner is looking for.

The Maths Exam

This is a very typical 11-plus maths paper; perhaps a little on the easy side compared to some other independent schools.

This means that the focus is robustly on core Key Stage 2 (KS2) skills, and on the central elements of the primary school maths syllabus, which you can read here.

Your child needs to feel comfortable with topics such as fractions, decimals and percentages (and moving between them), and with paper methods such as long multiplication. Ratios are sometimes worth a bit of extra attention, because many children find them conceptually difficult.

Buiding on this, students need to be familiar with the various ways in which these things might be presented in an exam question. The best approach is to use a wide range of maths resources, both practice papers and other schools’ past papers, identifying weak points as they emerge and working on them before returning to exam practice.

Bear in mind that it is best to practise without time limits until your child is feeling confident and the exam is quite close. It’s also worth considering that the RGS maths paper is fairly short relative to the time available. While children should learn not to waste time in the exam, the limits aren’t especially tight here.

The Reasoning Exam

This paper sets a range of verbal reasoning (VR) and non-verbal reasoning (NVR) tasks, typical of 11+.

However, whereas many reasoning exams set a large number of questions and require ruthless timing, this one is a little more generous. There is time to think things through properly. Nonetheless, it’s still important not to get bogged down on any one question. Children need to learn to leave hard tasks and return to them at the end of the test.

The best way to prepare for this paper is with a little bit of practice (a few questions), a couple of times a week. Children need to become familiar with the likely question styles, and get used to handling unfamiliar words in verbal reasoning tasks (for instance), but there’s no value whatsoever in ‘cramming’ (intensive, mind-numbing practice).

A wide range of inexpensive reasoning books are available in most bookshops. I recommend practising with two or three publishers’ titles, in order to give your child experience with a variety of styles. There is also some verbal reasoning included with 11 Plus Lifeline.

The Interview

The RGS interview allows the school to choose those children who are most likely to fit in well and contribute positively, in and outside the classroom.

The Head of English takes part in all interviews, and writes that “it is frequently the case that an ‘off day’ in the examination is more than compensated for in the interview”. However, this should not be taken as an indication that the exam does not matter!

I’ve given a lot of interview advice in my other school guides. I particularly recommend having a look at my comments about interviews here (about St Paul’s Girl’s School) and here (about the King’s and Queen’s Schools in Chester), which should also be very relevant to the RGS Newcastle interview.

If you would like more guidance about how to prepare for the RGS Newcastle entrance assessment, you may like to have a look at 11 Plus Lifeline – according to Tutorful, “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.


How To Get Into The King's & Queen's Schools, Chester

This article explains the best way to prepare for senior school (Year 7, or 11+) entry to the King’s and Queen’s schools in Chester.

I studied at The King’s School until I was 14, but that was a long time ago. Things are different there these days!

The King’s and Queen’s Schools have slightly different assessments. I’ve combined my discussion into one article because some parents of girls will be considering both schools. I’ll explain at each stage what the similarities and differences are.

My knowledge of the exams is based on previous years’ papers. Please bear in mind that the style and format may change. Don’t prepare your child too narrowly for a specific type of test: a good all-round 11+ preparation is sensible, as well as being much more useful for their future.

Applications – by early January

You can apply for both schools until very close to the exams.

Other than in exceptional circumstances, the schools don’t perform any advance selection: almost all eligible children are called for assessment and interview.

Entrance Exams – mid January

Both schools test maths, verbal reasoning and English (with comprehension and creative writing sections). The King’s School also tests non-verbal reasoning.

The schools’ exams for maths and verbal reasoning are similar enough to be discussed together. The English tests are a little different, so I’ll start by dealing with those separately. Non-verbal reasoning is only set by King’s.

English: The Queen’s School

The Queen’s English exam is broken into two sections of 30 minutes each.

The first part is a fairly standard 11-plus written comprehension test, usually based on an extract from a well-known book. In the past, the paper has been provided without answer spaces (separate answer paper is provided), but with helpful indications of roughly how many lines to write in response to each question.

The questions test the usual comprehension skills: careful selection of information from the text; the ability to explain key ideas succinctly in your own words; the appropriate use of evidence (preferably in the form of short quotes); an understanding of the techniques used by an author to create effects. All these skills are explained and taught thoroughly by the materials available here.

A quirk of the Queen’s comprehension paper is that there is an unusually strong emphasis on personal responses (‘Explain how you feel when you read the line “Then the faces began”‘) and on imagining yourself into the position of the character, reaching judgements which go some way beyond the information given in the passage (‘How do you think the Mole feels when he encounters the Rabbit in the wood?’). When handling questions like this, it’s important to be as specific as possible (“He feels alarmed and confused” is much better than “He feels bad”), and also to give clear reasons for what you write. It’s also important, even though your answers are likely to be based on your own instincts, to make sure that they are reasonable, plausible responses to the information in the text.

Again, I recommend looking at the extensive worked solutions and explanations available through 11 Plus Lifeline, which cover this sort of question in a lot of detail.

The creative writing part of the exam provides a wider choice of topics than is common at 11+. For instance, there may be the option to write a letter or report, as well as the chance to write more descriptively.

The examiners will aim to mark fairly, and there should be no inherent advantage to choosing one question type over another. Nonetheless, it is much easier to show flair and creativity (not to mention a wide and interesting vocabulary) when writing a description than when working in a more factual style. I have always advised my students to choose stories or descriptive pieces over letters and reports, when given the chance.

Good creative writing takes careful practice: even when a child is skilled and confident, knowing how to produce an effective exam piece reliably in 30 minutes is a skill in its own right. There is a lot more on this here.

English: The King’s School

Please read my advice about the Queen’s School English exam first. I’ll offer less advice in this section, focusing instead on the ways in which the King’s exam is different.

The King’s English exam tests the same fundamental skills as the Queen’s paper, so preparation should be very similar. However, there are a few differences in approach:

  • The King’s exam is likely to be based on more than one passage. This is because, after setting a number of questions based on the separate texts, the examiners want to see how well a child can deal with them together, making a comparison. This may be an overall judgement (Which passage do you find more dramatic?) or something more specific (in the current sample paper, ‘Which passage do you think best shows the power of the weather?’). When making comparative judgements, it’s extremely important to provide supporting evidence – preferably in the form of short (maximum five word) quotations.

  • The King’s School examiners provide answer space, but are very stingy with it! It would be impossible to offer a thorough, well-evidenced discussion of each question in the space they provide. By formatting their exam like this, they are testing a student’s focus: can they get straight to the point, making it clearly and directly, keeping any supporting evidence brief? It’s very important not to repeat the question at the start of each answer: this gets no marks, and leaves you with no space. Don’t write “The dragon walks into the playground breathing fire because …”. Do write “It does this because …”.

  • While the Queen’s exam emphasises personal responses, and imaginative interpretations of the characters, the King’s exam is particularly interested in technical knowledge [NB: This is the sort of thing which can change from year to year]. Does your child have a strong understanding of similes, metaphors, alliteration, and so on? If not, this is something to work on.

  • The King’s School’s creative writing task offers less choice than Queen’s (or no choice at all), and is likely to be a piece of descriptive/narrative writing.

Maths: Both schools

The King’s and Queen’s Schools’ mathematics exams are very similar in their level and scope. Both sit at a mid-point between the easiest and hardest 11-plus exams: more demanding than a CEM grammar school 11-plus, but much easier than (for instance) the tests for St Paul’s Girls’. In other words, they are at what might be called the standard level for independent schools.

This means in practice that a strong knowledge of the primary school (Key Stage 2) maths curriculum is likely to be sufficient for a strong performance. There aren’t many question which push beyond this and require children to apply their knowledge in unfamiliar ways. The questions also tend to be straightforwardly written: not too ‘wordy’.

There are two stages of preparation for these exams: reinforcing key knowledge, and practising its application in an exam context. However, the best approach is to do these two things at the same time: help your child get used to practice exams, working slowly and thoughtfully; and when a question reveals a gap in their knowledge, take the time to practise the relevant skills, before trying the question again.

For example, it is of fundamental importance that a child can work effectively with fractions, decimals and percentages, and move easily between them. For most children, this knowledge is partly present when they begin their 11+ preparation, and partly incomplete. You may find, for instance, that they are comfortable multiplying fractions, but can’t divide them; or that they can turn a percentage into a fraction, but not the other way round.

If you would like to help your child with these things, but feel that you lack the maths knowledge to do so, you might like to have a look at my free videos, which will show you how to do it – and why you don’t need to panic!

The UK’s most comprehensive resource for maths exams like these is at this link – it will help your child to become very comfortable with the King’s and Queen School maths paper format, so that there are no surprises, and will show them exactly how to understand the questions and structure their answers.

Verbal Reasoning (both schools) and Non-Verbal Reasoning (King’s)

Verbal reasoning tests are designed to assess children’s linguistic skill. They are supposed to spot children with strong potential, even when they don’t perform strongly in formal writing papers. However, because both kinds of paper favour children who have read widely and who think carefully about language, it is debatable whether verbal reasoning achieves anything other than making the assessment day an hour longer!

Non-Verbal reasoning may be more useful as an assessment of potential, but I have my doubts about whether encouraging children to spend hours practising picture puzzles is a helpful contribution to primary education on the part of 11-plus examiners.

At any rate, we need to work with the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

The best way to familiarise your child with verbal and non-verbal reasoning is through using some of the many books on this topic which you can find in any major bookshop. Don’t make your children practise in binges, and don’t impose time limits until near to the real exams. The best thing is to do a few questions a couple of times a week, encouraging your child to work carefully, and discussing their mistakes with them.

These are the tests in which exam technique, in its more brutal sense, is most important. Each question tends to be worth the same amount (typically, 1 mark), so children who spend five minutes agonising about a tricky question will do badly. They need to become ruthless at writing a symbol besides each tricky question and coming back to it at the end of the exam.

However, the most important skill in these tests is elimination. The correct answer may not be obvious, but it is usually possible to get rid of a number of incorrect or unlikely possibilities, leaving two or three options between which is is possible to make a judgement.

For verbal reasoning, your child needs to get used to dealing with unfamiliar words. These will almost certainly be present, however well-read a student is. Can they make a sensible guess about the meaning of the word? Can they break it into its component syllables and relate it to words which they know? These skills take a bit of practice, and are important. They will also be useful in the future when your child studies foreign or ancient languages.

The Interview – after the exams

The interview will often be held with you and your child present, and is an opportunity for teachers to get to know you both. It will not be very formal, and your child should not worry about it!

It is a very, very bad idea to rehearse responses to likely questions. A prepared answer is often easy to spot, and may damage your child’s chances.

However, some practice is useful, so that your child feels confident and able to show themselves at their best. Here are a few pointers:

  • Encourage your child to give developed responses. Even if a question such as “Do you like the school?” could be answered in one word (“Yes!”), a good answer will involve some explanation. Above all else, show your child how effective it is to give an example, and then talk about it. The interviewer wants to see how your child thinks.

  • A very common question asks about a book your child is reading, or has read recently. Don’t make them read something impressive in order to give a stunning answer (“This month, I have predominantly been reading Dostoevsky in the 1902 Hungarian translations”). Do encourage them to think about the interesting aspects of the books they most enjoy, and to develop some ideas about what they might comment on. Alex Rider novels are fine, if your child has something interesting to say about then! Again, they should aim to give examples to back up their points. The most impressive thing of all is if they can make comparisons with other books they have read. However, I want to repeat that you should help your child to develop their own ideas, and not coach them to say the things which you would like them to!

  • They may be asked something about the exams they recently sat. This shouldn’t require any special preparation, but it’s worth mentioning it to your child before they take the tests, so that they can bear any interesting points in mind, and not auto-delete them when they walk out of the examination hall!

  • Finally, your child should be ready to talk positively about their hobbies, about why they want to go to the school, and about how these things fit together: bearing in mind their interests and skills, how can they contribute to school life? Chat through these things with your child, so that they know what they think before the interview.

If you would like more guidance about how to prepare for the King’s and Queen’s School entrance assessment, you may like to have a look at 11 Plus Lifeline – according to Tutorful, “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.


How To Get Into St Paul's Girls' School

I’ve prepared many children for the St Paul’s Girls’ School entrance exams over the years - and often, I’m happy to say, with success. They are some of the most challenging, and also some of the most interesting, 11+ tests set by a UK school.

In this article I’m going to outline the admissions process, explaining how best to prepare for each stage.

You may have read elsewhere that some stages can’t be prepared for: that they are “tutor-proof”. This isn’t true. Careful preparation won’t earn an unsuitable child a place, but it will allow an intelligent and motivated student to give themselves the best possible chance.

Application – by early November

Application forms need to be sent in by early November. At this stage parents need to decide whether they are interested in applying for a bursary and/or a music scholarship. There’s an application fee, which is set at £125 in 2018.

Computer Pre-Test – November

This test covers verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and maths.

It is possible to prepare effectively for the computer pre-test. The essential skills are not different from similar paper exams in the same subjects.

For maths, well-organised 11-plus preparation will cover all the relevant knowledge. The core Key Stage 2 syllabus content (which your child will have studied at their primary or prep school) is at the heart of all maths exams at this level. If this is backed up by the regular, careful use of 11-plus practice papers, there is no reason why a child with good maths knowledge can’t do well in this part of the entrance process.

For more comments about maths preparation for St Paul’s, see my discussion of the maths exam below.

The verbal and non-verbal reasoning elements can be practised using any of the wide range of books, available from Amazon and bookshops, which focus on these skills. I recommend using a range of books (to encourage familiarity with the widest possible variety of question types and wording), and practising in small doses, once or twice a week.

As with any kind of exam preparation, don’t encourage your child to work quickly (or with a time limit) until close to the exam: it’s almost impossible to develop question skills and timing skills at the same time. One squeezes out the other. Once a child feels confident, it is usually quite simple to teach them to work within a time limit.

For verbal reasoning, the most important skills are to do with handling unfamiliar vocabulary. No child (indeed, no person) can be expected to know every single word in English. However, an intelligent reader will get used to assessing unfamiliar words based on their context, their different syllables, words which sound like them, and so on.

Furthermore – and this is true of verbal and non-verbal reasoning assessments – an enormous amount can be achieved by eliminating unlikely or impossible answers, then making rational, probability-based judgements about which of the remaining options are most likely to be correct.

Computerised pre-tests change from year to year, but they are very often designed with an “adaptive” structure. This means that if your child does well in the first few questions, they are likely to be set a more challenging set of questions in the middle section of the test; and if they do well in these, they will be set the very hardest questions at the end. The harder the question, the more marks are available for it.

On the other hand, if your child makes several mistakes in the first few questions, they will be set easier tasks, worth fewer marks – and so on.

To summarise: If a child makes a number of mistakes at the beginning of the test, while they are ‘warming up’, it may be impossible for them to score highly from then onwards. Therefore, encourage your child to work carefully from the very start, taking care not to make avoidable mistakes or ‘slips’.

Entrance Exam – January

The St Paul’s Girls’ entrance exam has three sections: Comprehension, English and Maths. You can find sample papers for St Paul’s here. I’ll discuss each section of the exam in turn.

The Comprehension Exam

The name might be misleading: this exam is nothing like a standard 11-plus English comprehension. Instead, it offers source material – particularly on scientific, cultural and historical topics – and requires children to make reasoned judgements based on this information. For instance, there may be a range of primary sources about a historical period, from which the student needs to reach conclusions about which is most to be trusted, and what is likely to have really happened. There may be a brief chemistry lesson, after which they need to explain what is likely to happen when a slightly different combination of substances meet.

This exam requires the ability to weigh up information sensibly, exercising judgement. It also requires children to find the most relevant ideas in a large amount of text, explaining it clearly. In other words, although it isn’t an English comprehension paper with fictional prose passages and poems, the main skills are not very different. Careful English comprehension training is likely to be very valuable for this test. (For advice about this, see my discussion of the English exam, below.)

Another important area of preparation is with science knowledge. By this, I don’t mean that your child should be sitting late into the night, hunched over biochemistry textbooks. They will already by studying science at school – probably not very formally, but by performing experiments, drawing diagrams, discussing the results with their class. You can help them by talking about this schoolwork: asking them questions, looking for answers in which they explain things simply and clearly to you. This sort of practice is what they need in order to feel ready for the scientific elements of the St Paul’s Comprehension exam.

The Maths Exam

The St Paul’s Girls’ mathematics exam is probably the most interesting maths test set by an 11-plus school. I have used their past papers extensively over the years, with students preparing for schools across the country. Even the easier sections are interesting; meanwhile, the later sections present children with some real challenges, while nevertheless helping them not to feel out of their depth.

The exam has historically been broken into three sections. Section A focuses on core maths knowledge, and feels like many other 11+ exams. Section B deals with applied maths, but in fairly short questions. Section C has longer, more challenging questions, which are designed to identify the most able mathematicians.

Because sections A and B include reasonably typical (although unusually well written) 11-plus material, I won’t say too much about them here: I cover this sort of preparation extensively in some of my other school guides.

Section C is a slightly different beast. Typically, the questions in this part of the exam present children with maths topics they will not have studied. This may seem alarming, but the intention is to see whether a student can think like a mathematician – not to find out how much they already know. If the question is broken into parts (a) to (e), it’s likely that (a) and (b) will be fairly simple, getting the student used to the main ideas dealt with in the question. Parts (c) and (d) will start to combine these concepts: students will need to form logical connections, showing understanding. (e) will pull together the elements from parts (a) to (d), and require the student to apply all the ideas they have developed in the rest of the question.

There are a few important ideas which your child will need to get the hang of in order not to be intimidated by the last part of this maths exam.

  • In the early parts of a question, see whether you can directly apply the information given to you. Everything you need to know will have been given to you by the examiner. Underline all the key ideas in the explanation, and see which parts might be relevant.

  • As the question develops, resist the temptation to start everything from scratch. In part (d) of a question, how might you use your answers from (a) to (c) to help you?

  • The most important skill, however, can be summarised with a metaphor:

Don’t stand on the edge of the lake, testing the water with your toes and wondering whether you fancy a swim. Jump right in, with the confidence that the more energetically you swim, the sooner you will feel warm again.

  • Turning this into English: When a maths question looks impossibly difficult, or just plain weird, don’t stare at the page in bemusement. Start to write down some of the things you already know, and mess around with them. This is how you will start to get ideas and see connections, and how you will have a chance of solving the problem.

  • Finally, be judicious with how you order your work. If Section C contains, for example, four long questions, start with the ones which you have a good idea how to solve; then come back to the ones which look harder. The important thing is to get as many marks as possible within the exam time, not to do everything in order.

The only resources which offer a large number of maths questions in the St Paul’s Girls’ School style, with worked solutions showing children how to develop the skills above, are 11 Plus Lifeline and RSL 11+ Maths.

I have a vested interest, insofar as I am the author of both these resources; but for an objective opinion, please read the review here (“RSL Educational's materials are cited by many as the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”). I have no commercial or personal relationship with the reviewer.

The English Exam

This is the only part of the St Paul’s exam which feels like a normal independent school 11-plus test.

A prose passage is followed by a set of comprehension questions. These emphasise understanding and explanation. The examiner is often interested in seeing how well the student can put themselves in the place of the author. They don’t just need to explain what is happening in the text: they need to set out why the author has chosen to use certain words; why they structure the text in they way they do; and so on.

One slightly unusual feature of this exam is that the questions usually don’t state how many marks are available. Instead, children need to analyse the question thoroughly, working out exactly what they need to do, and using the size of the answer space as a guide to how much is expected.

The skills for St Paul’s Girls’ English comprehension test are developed carefully and in detail by the papers and solutions available here.

The last part of the St Paul’s English exam is almost always a descriptive/creative exercise. This section is usually based on the comprehension text: students need to imagine their way into the story and create a piece which shows both their descriptive skill and their understanding.

Careful creative writing practice is a good idea: even children who are skilled and creative need to learn how to produce texts which reliably demonstrate the sort of skills which an 11+ examiner is looking for. The most extensive range of 11+ creative writing resources, with St Paul’s-style questions, marking guides, example answers and step-by-step discussions, is available through 11 Plus Lifeline. If you would like advice for how to help your child with creative writing at home, my free video series may be of interest.

Interview – late January

If your daughter makes it this far, she should feel enormously proud. Even if she doesn’t get a place (there are a huge number of applicants, and the results are not always fair), by getting through the exams she has demonstrated remarkable ability.

Schools usually say that children shouldn’t be coached for interviews because teachers can always spot it and it works against the child. Indeed, it’s something that’s said so often that the people giving this advice barely seem to question it any more.

Like many things said about admissions preparation, it is bad advice. If children are unprepared, then confident and charming children benefit, while those who are more shy lose out. This is not a good outcome.

What you should not do is teach your child a set of answers to likely questions. Reading a memorised script is disastrous and dishonest, and will almost certainly be picked up: the interviewer will be able to recognise if a child is trying to remember a sentence, or even a set of talking points, which they have already learnt.

What you should do is practise with your child, so that they are familiar with the interview environment and able to talk freely without clamming up.

Here are some of the most important ways in which you can usefully help your daughter when preparing her for the St Paul’s interview:

  • She needs to understand that the interview is an opportunity for her to talk. Even if a question could be answered with one word, this doesn’t mean that it should be! “Would you like to come to St Paul’s?” “Yes.” Encourage them to add information, and above all else, to give examples to illustrate their points. They should turn the interview into a discussion, not a list of questions and short answers.

  • Get them used to sitting confidently, with their feet on the floor and an open body posture. Remind them not to fidget! (I’m a terrible fidgeter, so I understand how hard this is.)

  • Your daughter should have a clear idea of what they like about the school, and be prepared to say so. Teachers at St Paul’s are rightly very proud of their school, and not just because it has fabulous exam results. If your child likes the atmosphere of the place, they should explain why. If the older students who showed them round seemed knowledgeable and kind, they should talk about this. If they enjoy a particular sport for which the school has good facilities, they should be able to praise them. Spending half an hour before the interview looking through the school website with your child and discussing it is really valuable preparation.

  • A very common question asks about a recent book your child has read, or what they are reading at the moment. Don’t push your child to read something ‘high-brow’ in order to sound impressive. Do get them used to talking enthusiastically and intelligently about the books which they actually enjoy. Incidentally, the most impressive thing a child can do when talking about a book is to draw comparisons with other books.

  • It is very important to answer the question which has been asked and not a slightly different question. However, it is absolutely fine to take a question as a starting point, and – having answered it – lead the conversation towards a related point which is of interest.

  • Some interviews involve talking about a short text which a child is given at the time. Sometimes they will be asked to solve a simple maths problem, verbally. These are not things to be afraid of: if she has reached this stage, your daughter has already shown that she has the maths and English skills which St Paul’s are looking for. However, there is one important piece of advice which applies to this kind of interview question: don’t sit in silence, working out the answer. The interviewer already knows that you can solve maths problems and find answers in a text. The reason they are asking you these things now is that they want to find out about your thought process. Take the interviewer through your ideas as you work towards the solution. Even if your answer is wrong, you’ll have given them a positive insight into your way of thinking.

I hope this article has proved useful. If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to use the chat box at the bottom of this page - and please leave a comment below this article with your thoughts!

For the most comprehensive range of resources to help with preparation for the St Paul’s Girls’ 11+ exam, you might like to try 11 Plus Lifeline (with a full money-back guarantee in the first month). Every question has a full example solution and a detailed discussion and explanation – like the best private tuition.

If you’d like further advice about DIY 11-plus preparation, my free video series gives some helpful pointers.


How To Get Into Manchester Grammar School

This article explains how to prepare for the MGS entrance assessment. I'll show you how to guide your child effectively, without wasted effort, if they are hoping to enter the Senior School in Year 7.

I’ll start by outlining the school's admissions process, and then I’ll explain exactly how to prepare for each part of the entrance exam.

The admissions procedure has two stages: an Assessment Day, held in the autumn term, and an entrance exam in January.

The Assessment Day

This is designed to give the best possible opportunity to children who have not benefited from a prep school education or a private tutor, by seeing how they respond in a classroom situation: how well they learn and use new knowledge, and how they interact in a group. They will be taught a new maths concept which they’ll then have the chance to use; there will be a topic-based lesson; and there will be some group activities. There will also be a creative writing assessment, which in effect is part of the entrance exam.

The Assessment Day is designed to be fun, and the best preparation for this occasion is to encourage your child to be enthusiastic and positive, and to show kindness and consideration for the other children who are there.

It’s also a good idea for your child to practise their creative/story writing, because even if they are confident writers, most children don’t have a clear idea of what examiners are looking for (a wide range of 11+ creative writing resources is available here, including fully-explained example answers).

Although the Assessment Day is different from an exam, a good level of Key Stage 2 (i.e. 11-plus) knowledge will definitely help.

The Entrance Exam

The entrance exam for MGS has four sections, apart from the creative writing which is tested during the Assessment Day. You can find past papers on the school’s website if you’d like to have a look at the style of each section.

In the rest of this article, I’m explain how to prepare for each part of the exam.

Arithmetic Section A

This section focuses on core Key Stage 2 (11+) maths knowledge, and tends to have 20 questions, which are similar to the questions in many 11-plus maths exams for independent schools.

When preparing for this paper, the first thing is to make sure that your child has a good knowledge of the core primary (KS2) syllabus. Above all else, they should be confident with:

  • Fractions, decimals and percentages, and converting numbers between these forms

  • Metric measures such as metres (and mm, cm and km), litres and mililitres, grams and kilograms, etc.

  • BIDMAS/BODMAS (the order of mathematical operations)

  • Paper methods for multiplication and division (as well as addition and subtraction)

  • Mean and median averages, mode, range etc.

  • Area and volume

  • Simple probability

This list is not exhaustive! Have a look at a syllabus like this one for a fuller outline.

The next stage is to use a range of practice papers in order to get your child used to all the likely question types. My advice is to use a variety of paper styles – not just Manchester Grammar School’s own – so that your child doesn’t get tunnel vision. They need to feel confident with whatever kind of question comes their way.

As often as possible, try to use practice papers with worked solutions. This way, your child will have models to compare to their own work, showing them how to improve: how to lay things out more clearly; how to get started with a tricky question; what other techniques they may not have thought of. 11 Plus Lifeline is the best resource for this style of practice.

Arithmetic Section B

This paper focuses on using maths for problem-solving. The level of maths knowledge required is not unusual in itself; but the exam requires a lot of logical thinking, and some of the questions (which are often quite long) are difficult.

Many of the questions in this section require the student to plunge in confidently with their working, without necessarily knowing exactly where they will end up. This is an important skill in any maths exam, but especially here.

For this section, my advice about using practice papers is the same as for Arithmetic Section A. You might also like to look at the later sections of past maths papers for schools such as St Paul’s Girls’ and Habs’ Boys, which are sometimes similar to questions in Manchester Grammar’s Section B.

English Section A

This is an excellent exam paper, and completely unique to Manchester Grammar School. It’s the hardest multiple-choice 11-plus exam in the UK, but this doesn’t mean that it’s something to be scared of.

The questions are usually very fair, and they are interesting. There are lots of past papers available on the MGS website, and multiple-choice skills are taught in detail here.

Some parts of the paper require comprehension answers based on prose texts and poems, while some sections are more abstract: for example, students are sometimes required to learn the grammar rules of an imaginary language and then apply them.

When using MGS’s past papers to practise, it is very important not to start using a time limit until your child is confident with what they are doing and is able to get a good mark (above 75%) while taking as long as they want. The real exam timing is relentless and won’t give your child the opportunity to develop their skills. It’s something to practise in the last few weeks before the exam.

It’s also important not to race from one past paper to the next, until you find that you have run out! Ask your child to complete a paper; go through the answers carefully and discuss the mistakes; then ask them to try it again. Meanwhile, save a few papers until your child is ready for proper timed testing, near to the exam date.

English Section B

This is a traditional written comprehension exam of medium difficulty – a type set by many independent schools. The emphasis is on finding information in a prose passage, interpreting and explaining it.

All the usual written comprehension skills apply: learning to read a passage quickly and intelligently; analysing questions to understand exactly what is required; providing clear evidence in the form of short quotations; explaining ideas clearly and accurately in your own words. There’s lots more about these things elsewhere on my blog - and through the papers and solutions available here.

For the most comprehensive range of resources to help with preparation for the MGS 11+ exam, you might like to try 11 Plus Lifeline (with a full money-back guarantee in the first month). Every question has a full example solution and a detailed discussion and explanation – like the best private tuition.

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.

If you would like advice for how to prepare your child for 11-plus without a tutor, you might like to watch my free videos for parents.


The Essex (CSSE) 11+ papers are some of the more traditional entrance tests used by grammar schools. In many ways they are similar to exams often set in the independent sector. The questions are varied and sometimes challenging. This means that they give children the opportunity to show their skills and to be creative.

If a child prepares well for the Essex 11-plus, they will have consolidated their most important skills and knowledge, and be in a strong position to make a success of their first year at secondary school.

In this post I’ll take you through the most important areas which your child will need to cover for effective CSSE preparation. These are relevant to all 11-plus exams, but with a special Essex focus!

First of all, it might be useful to include some background about the CSSE (The Consortium Of Selective Schools In Essex) and its admissions process.

The CSSE schools are King Edward VI Grammar School, Colchester County High School for Girls, Colchester Royal Grammar School, Southend High School for Girls, Southend High School for Boys, Westcliff High School for Girls, Westcliff High School for Boys, St. Bernard's High School for Girls, St. Thomas More High School and Shoeburyness High School.

  • Applications for the CSSE exams need to be received by mid July. You can do this online at www.csse.org.uk.

  • You also need to apply on your local authority's secondary school application form. Check with them for the relevant cut-off dates.

  • Exams are in mid September. There are papers for English and maths. The English paper includes some verbal reasoning (VR).

  • Results are sent out in October.

I’ll begin by discussing the things to focus on when preparing for the English test, then discuss reasoning and maths.

1. Develop a clear understanding of basic grammar

This probably isn’t the most important item in this list, but it’s one of the easiest to deal with. The Essex English exam often asks candidates to find adjectives or verbs in a text, for example. Make sure that your child is able to identify nouns (and proper nouns), verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and pronouns. They should also practise the correct use of punctuation: especially full stops, commas, apostrophes, question marks and quotation marks.

2. Learn to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary (and learn some new words)

A distinctive feature of the CSSE English test is that it often includes a difficult text (also see point 3 below), which may include advanced grammatical structures and old-fashioned vocabulary. Authors in recent years have included Saki and Laurie Lee.

This does not mean that your child needs to know every word in English!

Instead, they need to become comfortable when reading words they haven’t seen before, or whose meaning they can’t exactly pin down. The best way to help them practise this skill is by reading with them and asking them about difficult words as they arise. Without using a dictionary, can they reach a sensible best guess by covering the word and working out what idea best fits in the gap; by breaking the word into parts and looking for clues; by thinking of similar words which they know; and so on?

It’s also a good idea to develop vocabulary actively. I’m quite sceptical of vocabulary-training books. In my view, the best approach is for your child to write down new words they come across when reading, then practise using them in their own writing. This way they will really get to know a word and develop a sense of how it might be useful – as well as learning to recognise it.

3. Become a nuanced reader

The CSSE examiners like to see how children deal with texts including humour, irony, and things which are not quite as they seem. For example, can your child cope with situations where a character says one thing but means another?

Rather like in point 2, the best way to help your child with this is to talk to them. Can they identify and explain these moments in their own reading? When somebody in real life uses irony or sarcasm, can your child explain what the person really meant and why they spoke in that way? Finally, they should experiment with these ideas in their own creative and story writing, in order to understand them from a writer’s point of view.

4. Work on comprehension skills and become familiar with different question types

Learning to work out exactly what is intended by a question is more of a science than an art: it involves a range of techniques which are not obvious, but which most children can learn. They need to become familiar with breaking a question down into its parts, isolating the relevant information in the passage, interpreting the number of marks available, and writing in a clear, well-evidenced way.

For advice about how best to develop these skills, see point 11 below.

5. Learn to write in an interesting and thoughtful way

The CSSE includes a kind of very concise creative writing question which is quite unusual at 11-plus. Children have six or seven sentences to describe or explain a topic in detail, showing originality and descriptive skill.

There are too many skills involved in effective descriptive writing for me to discuss the topic thoroughly in this post. However, a few skills, such as the use of strong, specific verbs (“ambled” instead of “walked”, for example), and imaginative use of the five senses, can make an enormous difference.

This is another area covered in a lot of detail by 11 Plus Lifeline (discussed in point 11). It’s also a focus of the free videos mentioned in point 10.

6. Practise verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning (or ‘applied reasoning’, as the Essex exam calls it) shouldn’t be scary: it’s no more than a formal term for ‘word puzzles’. The best approach is simply to practise: not in bulk, but by doing a few questions from a relevant book a couple of times each week.

The important thing is to think about strategies. The advice in point 2 for dealing with unfamiliar words is important here. Also, children should be careful not to waste time on a difficult verbal reasoning question. It’s best to put it to one side and come back to it later.

7. Develop a solid understanding of the Key Stage 2 maths syllabus

The CSSE exam doesn’t push the limits of primary school knowledge, as some independent school 11+ tests do. It focuses on the core content of the syllabus. Make sure that your child is familiar with all the core concepts they have been taught: in particular, they should be confident using (and converting numbers between) fractions, decimals and percentages, and they should be able to interpret a range of graphical formats such as bar charts, pie charts and Venn diagrams.

8. Get used to turning wordy maths questions into clear working

A lot of children find ‘word problems’ confusing. They need to get used to noticing that “of” means “times” and “out of” means divide; that “8 children in a class of ten” means “eight tenths”; and so on.

Above all else, they need to develop the habit of starting to write working by jotting down what they do know, even when parts of the question are not yet clear to them. As explained in RSL Educational’s Free 11 Plus Videos (see point 10), there are some simple things which you can do to help them out.

9. Work on exam skills (including timing)

Timing is best practised close to the exam, when everything else is secure. It’s very hard to learn maths or English and learn to work quickly at the same time.

As with other exam skills, such as learning which questions to leave for later, how to deal with questions which look unfamiliar, and so on, this is best developed by using past papers from a range of schools, or with specifically developed practice papers (see point 11).

10. Find motivating strategies

The biggest obstacle to success is often not any of the points 1-9 above: it’s a lack of confidence. Parents tell their child that their 11-plus exam is REALLY IMPORTANT, and because of this the child feels overwhelmed: the task simply looks too great, and the risks of failure too terrifying.

What every parent wants is for their child to enjoy studying: to view it as something challenging but achievable, without worrying about it.

Much of my best advice for how to achieve this is included in the (completely free) RSL Educational 11-Plus Video Series, which you can sign up for here:

11. 11 Plus Lifeline

11 Plus Lifeline is the UK’s leading 11+ preparation service (please read this independent review from Tutorful), and is designed with the CSSE strongly in mind. It teaches children exactly how to deal with all the English and maths question types discussed above, with realistic exam practice and step-by-step advice for every question, of the kind usually only available from the most experienced private tutors.

The service has a one month money-back guarantee, so you can try it with no risk.

You can learn more by clicking here:

I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.


Have you ever felt confused by all the advice on offer from schools, websites, other parents ... ?

Have you ever wished that you could just lock a group of education experts in a room together, and not let them out till they've told you how to get your child ready for 11 Plus?

Well, today I did that job for you!

I asked prominent education specialists, including headteachers, writers and leading tutors, to send me their very best advice for parents and children preparing for the 11 Plus – especially for those families who are taking a DIY approach, without help from a tutor.

Here’s what they had to say. There are some brilliant tips – and you’ll spot some important themes which run through the advice.

(If you find this article useful, why not share it on Facebook or Twitter?)

Sebastian Hepher, Headmaster, Eaton Square School

For the child:
Begin the process of revision and practice papers early. Where possible, work through 11+ maths and comprehension papers under timed conditions, at least 6 months in advance. Go through the papers and work out whether there are common areas requiring further focus and then develop these.

At 13+ Common Entrance, again begin the process as early as you can, in Year 7 ideally, building up a bank of revision cards along the way. It is the volume of revision and information needed for 13+ CE that is often the telling factor for pupils, so the earlier the better where revision is concerned.

For the parent:
Be as calm and supportive as possible. Try to avoid any emotional encounters and never become frustrated with your children. Always follow the school’s advice on which senior school to aim for and do not merely follow the crowd. Look carefully at your child and be sure to base the future school selection on their character as well as/more than their academic ability.

Nathaniel McCullagh, Founder and Managing Director, Simply Learning Tuition

For the child:
To pass the 11+ with flying colours you need practice, practice and more practice! Exam papers aren’t really that frightening when you get used to them and you almost certainly know a lot more than you think you do. Part of the challenge with 11+ is understanding what the exam paper is really asking you and tailoring your answer to include just the information the question requires. I recommend that you buy no fewer than ten sets of past papers (with mark schemes) and practice working under exam conditions. For Maths (Numeracy) I would assume anyone preparing for the 11+ has a good grasp of the basics (times tables and basic numerical functions) but practising multi-step word problems with your parents can be a good way to keep you on your toes and to try harder and harder questions; if you are able to confidently calculate these answers in your head you will find them a doddle when faced with a question in the exam where you are able to write down your calculations. For English (Literacy), ask your parents to set you some essays and compositions. Then they should read the answer sheets and help explain the answers and the mark scheme to you.

For the parent:
Keep your cool and put your effort into helping your son or daughter learn, rather than focusing on what the outcome of the 11+ will be. The 11+ is a particularly important exam but you will help your child most by rising above the media-fuelled anxieties and coffee circle chat about the UK school admissions system. The system may be over-burdened but it generally does work and provided your son or daughter has worked reasonably hard at school they should perform in a way that accurately reflects their ability. Over-coaching to push a child beyond their natural abilities may get them into a ‘better’ school in the short term but ultimately there is little point - they will perform best at the school that is right for them. So, after taking a deep breath, you need to find a nice quiet spot in the house, get a plate of chocolate biscuits and start helping your child understand the gaps in their subject knowledge - then work on exam technique. Lots of encouragement, support and practice are essential. I find that going over the basics and physically sitting with your child as they do the work is the best way to demonstrate your support and help them develop academic confidence.

Femke Bolle, Private Tutor

For the parent:
The way to score well in the maths and English exams is to be excellent at maths and English. Focus on improving core skills, deep understanding, and flexible, nimble minds. While a cursory knowledge of the exam format is useful, trying to teach entirely 'to the test' is usually counter-productive. Additionally, if your child does get in by that type of rote learning, they may be out of their depth once they actually enter the school.

For the child:
For English, find books you enjoy and read them. Ask teachers, librarians, your parents, and Google for recommendations. There's a reading list on my website, and many selective schools also release their own lists. Read books that are challenging, but not hopelessly difficult. Even if you hate reading, there will be some books which will be at least 'okay' for you to read, and it will make an incredible difference to your English. Aim to read 30 minutes every day.

For maths, learn how to write down your workings in a logical and tidy way. It's no good doing workings if they end up squished up, or mixed together with workings for a different question. A huge number of marks are lost every year because students couldn't understand what they'd just written down. The ability to write down your mathematical thoughts is one of the most important skills you learn at this age - make sure you master it!


Tim Butcher, Headmaster, Perrott Hill School

For me it’s all about the bigger picture.

For the child:
Make sure you have discussed with your parents and see (and agree with!) all the benefits of getting to the target senior school. Hopefully you will have visited it. Motivation is key. Thrashing through preparation papers without motivation is horrible for all concerned. Try to take a joy in the puzzles and challenges within the papers, seeing them as tasks to be tackled and overcome in victory by exercising your brain ‘muscle’. Take an interest in how any errors occurred and know that they are good! It’s how the learning bit happens. Be active and be ‘live’ within your preparations and learning – this is not about robotically achieving ‘success’. Do a little and often; make it a part of your weekly routine. Most importantly, remember that passing or not with an 11+ (or similar) does NOT define you and your ability to be a fantastic learner.

For the parent:
Success at 11+ is something that is achieved over a childhood of taking joy in learning and showing a curiosity in the world around, not over an intense 6-month preparation period where the stakes feel so high that ‘failure’ will damage your child’s esteem. Above all else, ensure your child knows that ‘success’ at 11+ will in no way affect the terms in which you talk of or think of them. Your love and support must be seen to be unconditional at all times, and this must be clear in the way you tackle the whole task of preparation for the papers. The best preparation, therefore, is to know your goals early in your child’s life and take an earnest interest in the latest understanding of how children learn, so that this gently informs the way you go about the daily joy of living and learning. Removing fear of failure is a large part of being intellectually adventurous and this can provide something of a paradox when preparing for the likes of 11+. Don’t knowingly set your child up for a fall due to your own ambitions. They may ‘fall’, and that has to be OK, but be realistic and understand that the only point in assisting your child to successfully pass through the gate posts is if they will flourish in the environment beyond.

In light of all of the above, practice papers should be a familiarisation and refinement toolkit that hones learning practices and understanding already embedded through your child’s upbringing. For example, many of us read to our children at bedtime, but quietly asking some questions as we go, about how characters feel, what effects certain words create, what someone’s motivation was, helps bring an understanding of the author’s craft. If you’re worried this will spoil the simple joy of the story and getting pulled in, then simply log the questions in your mind as you go, and then have a short chat at the end of the chapter.

In the more immediate lead-in phase, talk to your child about why they are undertaking the papers and the benefits of the target senior school. Help them to develop buy-in, understanding and motivation from within themselves, not taking a ‘because it’s what mum and dad want’ approach. It is imperative that your child has as much self-motivation as possible. This is a tricky line to tread when also reassuring them that all will be well if they don’t pass.

Susan Lalic, Eleven Plus Mock

For the child:
My top tip is to practise timing. My daughters took twice as long as permitted when they sat their first 11+ practice paper at home, but after some months were able to complete a paper in time. Don't forget to read a range of books as often vocabulary is tested extensively in 11+ exams.

For the parent:
Sitting a mock test is invaluable in order to get used to all the noises that can occur during an exam and learn to ignore them. A number of children drop stationery, want to visit the toilet or have a bad cough - all of which can be distracting. Parents will then get some results of the mock tests and have a realistic idea of how their child is doing in relation to others. There are many free 11+ sample papers online so it is not necessary to spend lots of money on workbooks etc.

Fred de Falbe, Headmaster, Beeston Hall School

I used to be in London at a prep school with an 11+ exit that meant parents and children sweating with tutorials. Now I head up a rural boarding school in Norfolk where children all do the 13+ and have a much less stressed time as a result. Taking the country option is the way forward, if you can!

For the parent:
Happy children thrive, so line up the target school accurately – do not aim your child at a school he or she is going to struggle to get in to because he/she will, likely as not, continue to struggle all through the teenage years of growing independence. Think how this must feel for the teenager. Also, listen to the advice of your child’s school.

If you need to use practice books, do it together, try to make it fun, so that explaining them as you go becomes something of a dialogue – rather than trawling through the papers solo and checking to see if child is finished. [To learn more about how you can use the approach Fred mentions here, you might be interested in my 11 Plus videos for parents.] Spend the time but don’t judge, and don't suck your teeth when your child hasn’t grasped something you knew at his/her age or you would have expected them to know.

For the child:
Try not to think of it as school work to struggle with ... Try some other games like cross words, Sudoku or strategy games like Risk (online or board games). Number plate games in the car can be good for mental agility.

Try not to get cross with your parents – they’re only wanting the best for you. If they want to sit down with you do let them – and let them try to explain … Agree the rules of engagement first if they are acting as helper. Strategy games like Age of Empires are, with limited use, quite handy for practising online tests. READ LOTS, AND LOTS MORE!

Luke Courtier, Bright Young Things Tuition

For the child:
The 11 Plus is for many children in the U.K. the first real exam that they’ll encounter. As a result there can be a myriad of unconscious pressures, stresses and preconceptions surrounding it. The key really is for you to remember that there won’t be anything in the exam that you won’t have seen before. You’ll have done a lot of comprehension and creative writing tasks in school, and with practice you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can achieve in Maths. So really just take each question as it comes, reading carefully and making sure you’re very clear about what’s being asked of you. Your parents can help you by going over practice papers nearer the time so that you can get the hang of just what they look like and how they feel to do.

For the parent:
The 11 Plus can be a source of unexpected strain on parents just as much as on their children and, at Bright Young Things Tuition, we believe it need not be. With talk of competitive schools entry, rising difficulty levels, and what feels like manifold exam boards (from ISEB to CEM), it’s important to cut through the noise with a clear mindset. The 11 Plus is, at its core, a basic test of numeracy and literacy. Of course, a little practice when it comes to Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning is a good idea, as is regularly touching base with your child’s school. You can also really help with a 'little but often' approach to textbook work at home.

James Hanson, Headmaster, Aldro School

For the child:
Just be yourself – an interview is just a chat, with a specialist subject of you!

Play Taboo, Scattergories or the Fishbowl Game to help practise talking about something for a minute. Make the game categories your choice: a favourite book, your best lessons in school, your proudest memories, your hopes and dreams. Take a favourite memory with you (e.g. a photo, a certificate, an award, or something you have built up in a collection) – and be prepared to talk about it

Remember for exams that you are going to do exactly the same work that you normally do in school, all the time.

For the parent:
Always sit down and informally talk to the current school about the right fit for your child for their next school. Don’t worry about the dinner-party conversation – your child is not your friends' child.

Be happy when your child has plateaued on scores in practice tests – this means they have reached their real potential.

Remember, some children are late developers and a one-size-fits-all 11+ will not always play to their strengths; I have two degrees from Oxford Uni having ploughed 11+ English.

Victoria Olubi, Founder, The Tutoress

For the child:
My number 1 tip for any 11+ child is to build your vocabulary. These days, pretty much every 11+ exam assesses a child's vocabulary skills but sadly there are a lot of children who find it quite difficult to improve their understanding of new words. To help with that, it's vital that you read a mixture of classic and modern texts and write down the definitions of any new words that you learn. By building your vocabulary, you'll be much better equipped to do well in the exam.

For the parent:
My number 1 tip for parents is to start 11+ preparation early. The vast majority of parents leave everything to the last minute which causes a lot of stress and increases anxiety. It makes things so much easier if you start going through the 11+ books at least one year before the exam, but two years is ideal. Also, try not to panic or be too stressed as your feelings and behaviour will rub off on your child.

Will Orr-Ewing, Founder and Director, Keystone Tutors

For the child:
Systemically build your vocabulary and work on your sentence structure: creative writing is one of the best (and most fun) ways to differentiate yourself in a competitive field.

For the parent:
It is generally much better to start the process early (the beginning of Year 5) and to set up a non-intensive weekly structure that fits easily with the grain of family life, rather than trying to pack everything into a mad, stressful rush in the final months before 11+.

Mylene Curtis, Owner and Managing Director, Fleet Tutors

For the child:
On written English papers, prepare for each question before you start answering. This focuses your brain and makes sure that you actually answer the question and avoid the common mistake of writing all you know about the subject.

The best way to do this is:
1) Underline the key words in the question.
2) Look at the number of marks and write down the equivalent number of key terms (words) that the question is looking for, or the key skills the question is testing.
3) Then answer the question making sure you get the key points across in your answer. You can cross them out as you use them if it helps.

For the parent:
Early preparation. Times tables and mental maths, strong vocabulary and a good command of grammar rules are great foundations. Start early and make sure this core knowledge is secure - and that’s half the battle won.

One of the most common issues is not finishing the paper. Timing is important in the exam so help your child work out how long to spend on a question and help them to set targets for themselves. They need to be confident to move on to the next question without worrying about the one left unfinished. Make it a game, not an added pressure.



So, you’re feeling stuck:

You’ve a mountain of maths revision to do.

Maybe you made a start … wrote a timetable …

Failed to stick to it …

Gave up

Went back to watching funny videos on Youtube:


And now you’re here.

Don’t panic!

There are loads of methods you can start using RIGHT NOW to get yourself back on track.

And in this list, I’ll tell you what they are!

Why not let your friends know about this article too?

You’ll find plenty of new ideas all the way down to number 47. One of them might be the tip that revolutionises your revision!


Also, while you’re here: Why not download 48 pages of free exam practice materials* with unique, highly detailed answers?

Now, let’s get started.


1 Build up from the basics: Make your life easy!

Well, you might think that’s a pretty obvious place to start this list – but it really isn’t!

Almost everybody starts revision by plunging right in with the hardest topics.

But how much are you going to learn if you practise complex proportion problems, for example, without a thorough understanding of how to multiply and divide fractions?

You’re telling me to revise multiplying and dividing fractions? You must be joking!

Ok, maybe not that … But hang on … are you sure you know it?

You wouldn’t believe how many of the Year 11 people I teach have forgotten their Year 7 skills!

Get the basics right; then build on them. The simplest maths is the most important!

  • You’ll find lots more about how to do it if you keep moving down this list!


2 … And keep coming back to them!

Keep a list of the essential skills you had to revise, and check back from time to time to make sure they’re secure.

Simple, right?

If you understand the foundations of GCSE maths really well, you’ll be able to work out a whole lot of more complex things you haven’t specifically studied.


3 Let yourself forget things sometimes: relax!

Yes, I’m serious:

Don’t obsess about learning each thing perfectly the first time. If you forget something and have to re-learn it, you will end up knowing it really, really well.

There’s more about forgetting, further down the page.

(And please REMEMBER to share this article with your friends!)


4 … And find different strategies for re-learning, so it really sinks in.

Ok: your first learning method didn’t work perfectly.

  • So try a different approach!


Now you know the topic in two different ways.


5 Don’t time your work too soon! It isn’t a race!

Timed work is very useful exam practice, but it isn’t a great way to learn maths.

Practise slowly and carefully, reviewing your work in detail. Don’t start doing most of your work timed until the exams are a few weeks away.

Ok, maybe that’s obvious!


6 But when you DO work to a time limit, focus on understanding WHERE IT WENT RIGHT and WHERE IT WENT WRONG.

This is important:

Don’t just churn through each timed paper, then move on to the next one!

Mark your answers carefully and re-do anything you got wrong … Make sure you have learnt all the important lessons from each paper.

As for the timing: work out where you got held up. What kinds of question delayed you, even if you got the answers right?

You will need to go back to the textbook and practise any difficult topics some more.


7 Do a little bit, often!

The subheading pretty much explains this one!

You know that feeling when you’re fighting to keep your eyes on the page and your head off the desk?

Of course you do! We’ve all been there.

But how much do you actually learn when you feel like that?

Most of your learning will happen in the first 20 minutes of a revision session. For most people, 45 minutes of learning is enough at any one time.

And if you only have five minutes to do some maths, USE IT!

  • You could learn a couple of formulae really well in that time.


8 Be a list-making maniac!

.. Even if you lose them the next day!

The very act of writing things down in order is brilliant for learning.

But there are some lists you really don’t want to lose…

… like this one! DON’T LOSE THIS LIST!

But seriously:

There are some very useful lists you can make, and perhaps keep safe in an exercise book.

Here are some incredibly useful lists:

  • A list of basic maths skills which need firming up (“Converting fractions into decimals”).

  • A list of facts to memorise (“Area of a triangle is half base times perpendicular height”).

  • A list of your most common mistakes (“x² is not the same as 2x”) (see Point 26 below).


I might mention these again further down …


9 Focus on your weaknesses TILL IT KILLS YOU …

OK, not that much.

But still:

Once you’re pretty confident with the basics, resist the temptation just to study the topics you like!

When I did a lot of exams (yes, this is one moment when I can feel smug about not being a student any more), I used to list all the topics for a subject.

  • Every time I thought I understood a topic a bit better, I’d put a tick next to it – and I always revised the thing with the fewest ticks.


If you work like this, in the end the thing which started with the most ticks will have the least, so you get to revise it again.


This method doesn’t suit everybody, but I really like it.


10 … But make sure you are ROCK SOLID on the topics you find easy.

Everything is forgettable, so don’t relax too much!

Just because you like finding volumes of prisms, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practise it!

Look at it this way:

  • In an exam, you want to get 100% for the topics you know well, in case you lose marks in your weaker areas. So make sure those 100% topics are in the bag.


11 Don’t be afraid to cram sometimes …

Whatever they may say, cramming isn’t bad revision.

It isn’t just for the day before your exam, either!

Sometimes writing a list of facts and walking round the park, repeating it over and over – or sitting at your desk and copying it five times, if that works for you – is incredibly effective.

  • When you cram lots of information into your mind at once, you often find connections between ideas and new ways of looking at things which you never spotted when you were working topic by topic.


Not all facts have to be learned ‘in context’.

Besides, any last minute cramming will only really pay off if you’ve crammed (and possibly half-forgotten) the same information before.


12 … But most of the time, don’t.

Because the most important thing is to understand your knowledge.

You won’t get a Level 9 by repeating memorised information onto the page like a strangely literate parrot.

13 Use the official syllabus as a checklist …

I find it amazing how few (5%?) of my students have ever looked at the exam board syllabus/specification or the official mark schemes (more about them below!).

It’s a list …
___________... an OFFICIAL list …
_______________________________… of the things you have to know!


Print a copy, and tick things off as you go.

Your own list of topics (see Point 9 above) will be more useful day to day, but the syllabus is so valuable.

  • It’s your only 100% certain proof that you've learnt everything you need.


14 … But make sure you really know the things that actually come up all the time.

There’s a definite method for this, and everybody should do it.

Print out all the specimen papers (and 9-1 past papers, once they exist) you can find online – and you might want to look at the other exam boards too (with care).

Here are the key links:
OCR: http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/gcse-mathematics-j560-from-2015/
Edexcel: http://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-gcses/mathematics-2015.html
AQA: http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/mathematics/gcse/mathematics-8300
WJEC: http://www.wjec.co.uk/qualifications/mathematics/r-mathematics-gcse-2015/
CCEA: http://www.rewardinglearning.org.uk/microsites/mathematics/gcse/past_papers/index.asp

(I don’t think it’s a problem if you’re saving some of these papers for timed practice later: you’re not likely to remember any questions clearly after doing this, anyway.)

Go through all the papers. Each time you find a new kind of question, note it down.

For example:

  • Finding the equation of the tangent to a circle.


Add a tick or cross next to each entry on your list each time you find it again.

For example:

  • Finding the equation of the tangent to a circle x x


Then number the list, from the most common question (most ticks/crosses) downwards.

When you’ve done this for the 9-1 papers, start a separate list for the final few years of the A* A B C D style papers from your exam board. The syllabuses are a bit different, but most of the core topics are similar.

Now you have an incredibly useful list of what the examiners actually like to test. These are the topics to know REALLY, REALLY WELL.


15 … But but BUT … Don’t rely TOO MUCH on what they set in previous years!

Your list from Point 14 will be an awesome revision aid …

But you have to prepare for the exam board to test any part of the syllabus in any way they like.


16 Get used to the wording of questions.

Have you noticed some of these phrases that keep coming up?

  • “Write down …”: This means you don’t need to show any working out if you don’t want to. The answer will either be a fact you are expected to know, or something you can work out directly from the information in the question, without any in-between stages. For example: “Write down the exact value of sin45°.”

  • “Evaluate …”: This means “Find the value of …”, or just “Work out …”. For example: “Evaluate _____”

  • “Hence …”: This means you can get to the answer of part (b) by using your answer from (a).


And so on!

Get used to recognising what all the common ‘key phrases’ mean.

You’ll find they help you a lot.


17 Get used to re-writing words as maths – because this skill is IMPORTANT!

The infamous WORD QUESTIONS!

... Which shouldn’t really be scary, because they’re just, well, maths questions … with a few more words than usual.

But turning examiner-waffle into maths is a skill that takes some getting used to.

Here are a couple of simple tricks to show you what I mean:

  • “Of” always means “multiply” (for example, “What is 2/5 of 3/4?” … Or “Kate takes five of the bags” means “Kate takes 5 x a bag”).

  • “Out of” always means “divide” (“I take three out of the four beads” means I have taken 3 ÷ 4 or 0.75 of the beads).


18 Get used to the structure of questions, so you don’t get lost.

I’m not talking about the way a question is worded, here.

I’m thinking of how a multi-stage question is put together.

For example, part (c) of a question might require you to know information which is written above part (a), right at the head of a question.

Or it might require you to build on your work in part (b).

Your understanding of the structure of questions can help you get marks, if you also understand the mark scheme (see Points 20 & 21 below):

  • If you know that part (b) of a question builds on part (a) – and you made a mess of (a) – you can still use your answer from (a).

  • This won’t usually lose you any extra marks, because of follow-through marking.


19 Use the internet cunningly: get the most VALUE from it!

Youtube, for example, is full of videos to talk you through the main methods.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of useful websites for GCSE Maths students.

However … however … use the internet carefully.

  • Watching videos and reading online explanations is less useful than actually practising maths. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re working, when in fact the information is drifting in through your eyes and out of the top of your head! [photo]

  • It’s natural to stumble from one topic to another on Youtube (for example) and lose track of the topics (and details of topics) you’re missing out. Too much of this, and there will be big gaps in your knowledge.

  • And of course – When you’re online, Facebook is only ever two clicks away!


See what I mean?

For all these reasons, it’s best to use the internet to research specific topics from the syllabus or from your own list of topics.


20 Learn to find your way round the mark scheme …

Some teachers dislike too much focus on mark schemes: you should be learning mathematics during your course, not just learning to write exam answers!

However, I look at it differently:

  • There isn’t much point knowing maths if you can’t express your knowledge in a way that gets the marks.

  • What’s more, it’s VERY difficult to do a timed exam if you don’t know how much working is needed and how to set it out – you could, for example, waste time writing too much where it isn’t needed, and end up writing too little where it IS important.


Incidentally, this is why my own GCSE Maths materials* show full handwritten answers! This way you can learn to set out your answers clearly and effectively.

(OK, that was a shameless plug.)


21 … And get to know that mark scheme REALLY WELL.

For all the reasons given above, it’s a very good idea to use the official mark schemes carefully when reviewing past papers …

So you learn to write your answers with a clear idea of what the examiner wants to see.

Keep doing this until you know exactly what is needed.


22 Swap work with a friend for marking: BE THE EXAMINER!

Lots of teachers encourage this because it saves them work …

Well, it might seem that way!

But in fact, it’s an incredibly useful method:

It’s so hard to look at your own work through the eyes of a marker: you can’t help thinking what you thought when you wrote your answers!

When you look at somebody else’s work, you start to see all sorts of things which will help:

  • Mistakes you also make;

  • Things which aren’t quite clear;

  • Better ways of doing things.


Find someone whose work’s worth a look, and give it a try!


23 Practise setting out your working effectively – and hoover up a HEAP of marks!

If you’ve tried Point 22, you’ll have started to get a sense of how other people organise their working out.

Ask yourself these questions about each answer of your own:

  • Is it clear how I got from the question to the first line of my working?

  • Have I missed out any important steps?

  • Do I need to add explanations to any lines of my working?

  • Does everything build up logically?


On the other hand …

  • Did I really need all the working I showed?


To get a sense of how I like to set out my own working, have a look at my handwritten answers towards the end of this*.


24 Always have a go! Practise making a start.

Or, to put it another way: If you’re stuck, write down what you know!

The worst thing you can do with a horrible, head-scratching question is to stare at it desperately.

Get used to responding positively instead, whenever you feel like this.

Say this to yourself:

“I don’t know how to solve this. But what DO I know?

Pull out the key information from the question, and write it down.

  • Just scribbling down the important things can give you ideas you’d never have found otherwise.

Of course, one of the best ways to organise your ideas is to …


25 Line up your thoughts by drawing simple diagrams.

Let’s say you’ve got a question about changing the amount of beer in a barrel; or about the relationship between the sides of a trapezium.

It might be difficult to imagine in your head, so:

Draw a nice, big, clear picture, and label it with as much information as you can find in the question.

Then see if you can work out anything you don’t know yet.

Often, this will give you the ideas you need to find a solution.


26 Be ruthless with your common mistakes!

If you go through, say, five papers you’ve done, and work out how you lost marks, I’m pretty certain you’ll discover this:

Most of your marks disappear on the same mistakes, again and again.

At least, that’s what happens to me.

Keep a list of your main mistakes, and really focus on dealing with them: get to the point where you know you won’t mess up in the same way again!

  • Square root does NOT mean “divide by 2”! … for example.

27 Always write SOMETHING, for the chance to scrape out another mark or two …

A blank space gets no marks!

Even if you have no idea what to do with a question, write down your best guess.

  • Even just some random thoughts to do with the topic!


These might get you a mark or two … and those marks might be enough to tip you into a higher grade.


28 … At least the units!

Yes – if nothing else, write the correct units in the answer box!

Just occasionally, this could sneak you a mark.


29 Get used to writing units!

Didn’t I just say this?

Not exactly:

You might be brilliant at Point 28: you stick the right units on even the most horribly wrong answer.

But I bet you’ll still forget to do it sometimes, when you’ve written the right answer!

It is so natural to struggle through a question … then … EUREKA! … you get it!

YES!” you shout, and scribble down the answer – and in your excitement, you flip the page over and move on to the next question.

__________And of course, you forgot to write the correct units!


Checking the units needs to be a habit for every single question.

  • Even when you remember to write units, be careful to check whether they should be cm, cm² or cm³, for example. You need the right ones!


30 Develop an exam timing system …

OK – I can’t find any way to make this heading exciting:

But it’s still really important!

When you look at the clock after half an hour, how do you know whether you’re ahead of time, behind time – or working at exactly the right speed?

Maybe you’ll find your own way of doing this.

One simple approach is to divide the total number of marks in the exam by the total number of minutes, which will give you a ‘marks per minute’ target:

You need (on average) to be ahead of this target:

  • This way you’ll have a bit of spare time for tricky questions, and for checking through at the end.


For example:

If an exam is 100 marks long and you have 90 minutes, 100/90 = 1 1/9 marks per minute.

Whenever you check the clock, you should aim to have completed slightly more than one mark for each minute used up.

  • Let’s say you realise you’ve completed 25 marks’ worth of answers after 30 minutes: this isn’t a disaster, but you know you have to speed up if you are going to complete the exam in time.


31 … And a set of funky symbols for difficult questions!

This is so simple, but hardly anybody does it.

Dare to be different!

With a good system of symbols, written beside some key questions, you’ll be able to use a spare 5 or 6 minutes at the end in the best possible way.

You’ll find your own code, but here are some suggestions:

____♥ means “Check this one carefully! Probably mistakes somewhere in here.”
____♦ means “Not too hard, but might take a while.”
____© means “If I can’t find a way to do this, at least write down some notes to get some working marks!”
____₦ means “This one is horrible: leave it till last.”
____€ means “I reckon I’ll get this if I have a couple of minutes to think about it.”

OK, I admit:

Those symbols weren’t that funky. In fact, I came up with them at random.

You can do better!

But the method is awesome, because you end up knowing exactly how to use those vital few minutes after you’ve come to the end of an exam.

32 Focus on quality, not quantity, of revision.

Many of the points above have touched on this – especially Point 7.

Don’t force yourself to work for an hour if you just aren’t in the mood and it isn’t sinking in.


Work for 20 minutes, give yourself a 10 minute break, then do another 20.

Or even …

Work on something else, and come back to maths tomorrow!

33 Use a timetable if it works for you …

Some people find it really helpful to have a clear schedule, telling them how long they are going to spend on each subject each day.

To be honest, I’m not one of them.

Schedules hurt me!


34 … But don’t schedule revision too rigidly if you know it will put you off.

Because for some people (ME!), a three week chart with huge coloured blocks of revision filling in every day is about as encouraging as a gloopy plate of cold stew.

{{ image 82fac151-e931-11e6-9551-9397b75e4f0a }}

(Sorry if you like cold, gloopy stew. But you get the point.)

For some people, it’s best to start each day’s revision with an open mind about what to cover, perhaps using something like the method in Point 9 to decide which topic (or even which subject) to study next.

Just make sure you don’t miss any topic out for TOO long.

35 Value all the time when you aren’t revising.

Perhaps it’s just me …

But the time when my knowledge really sinks in isn’t when I’m working: it’s when I’m doing something totally irrelevant (reading; playing sport; going for a walk; messing around with a computer game).

When I’m doing these things, ideas flash into my mind.

Bits of knowledge jumble around in my head and somehow sort themselves out into something useful!


  • Don’t feel guilty about doing things which have NOTHING to do with work

But of course, this only works if you’re studying hard the rest of the time, putting those ideas into your brain in the first place!


36 Build a list of facts to learn, while you work.

I mentioned this one in Point 8 above.

Sure, you can build a list of formulae and facts to memorise from the syllabus and/or your textbook.

But this is REALLY boring – and it’s really difficult to remember things when you write them down without any memory hooks to hang them on.

But there’s a better way:

It’s much more useful to record key facts as they come up in your practice – and even better, to write them down with a short example.

  • It’s a bit like learning words in a foreign language: the more you learn facts in context, the better they will sink in! (Although, on the other hand, think about Point 11.)


Make sure you re-memorise your list every few days. This way, you won’t have to start learning it for the first time when it’s already five pages long!

I like memorising lists while I go for a walk; but everybody’s got their own way.

37 And separate revising FACTS from revising SKILLS.

Memorise facts; practise skills.

If you try to memorise skills/techniques mechanically, by repeating them to yourself, copying them out ten times – whatever the method might be – you’ll probably get overwhelmed and bored.

Anyway, it doesn’t work very well.

Save cramming for facts; for the techniques, focus on practice – perhaps by doing a particularly tricky question again the next day.

Also, this way you’ll get lots of opportunities to practise using the facts you’ve learnt by applying them to real situations.


38 Use the textbook intelligently.

In other words, don’t try to revise by going through it from beginning to end!

Your textbook is a brilliant resource for practising particular topics when you realise you’re stuck.

  • Having problems with simultaneous equations? There’s a chapter for that!

  • You’ve forgotten exactly how to make a histogram? That’s me about once a year. Use the textbook!

… But use it wisely.

39 Develop exam routines to avoid disasters!

All sorts of important routines can help in an exam:

So it’s worth practising them while you revise.

For one thing, you ought to have a routine for each question:

  • Underline key words/numbers in the question.

  • Re-read the question.

  • Write down first ideas.

  • Write the working and answer.

  • Write units.

  • Re-check the question.

  • Does the answer seem likely, based on the question?

  • Have I fully answered the question?


There are other useful exam routines you can develop.

For example:

Get used to scribbling down some facts you’ve revised when you first sit down, before you’re allowed to open the paper.

  • This way, you tune in your mind to its Maths Channel.


40 Practise CHECKING your answers …

I mentioned this just now, in Point 39.

But what does it actually mean?

Well: All kinds of things! (And read on for some more tips in Points 41 and 42 .)

For one thing, in algebra questions you can usually check that your answer is exactly right.

  • For example, if you’ve solved an equation (or a system of equations), put your solution back into the original equation(s) to see whether it works.

And … I might have mentioned this already ;) … ALWAYS CHECK YOUR UNITS!

41 … Including by re-checking the question

After all, the one thing an exam is definitely testing is whether you can answer the questions!

You could write ground-breaking mathematics – a unifying theory of physics, say – in the answer space of a GCSE question, and it still wouldn’t get any marks unless the question had asked for it.

So: you need to get used to breaking the question down into a set of instructions, and making sure that you have followed each one.

42 … And using common sense!

Think about these examples:

  • The question is asking me to calculate how much liquid is left in a jug. I say 72 litres.

  • The question is asking about the average speed of a Formula 1 car in a race. I say 34.5 km/h.

  • I need to calculate 1.7 x 24. I give the answer as 4.08.


What do these answers have in common?

None of them makes any sense!

  • Nothing which can hold 72 litres is likely to be called a ‘jug’. A tank, or a trough, maybe!

  • I suppose 34.5 km/h might be the average speed of an F1 car while it’s being driven into the garage.

  • How can 1.7 x 24 give an answer which is less than 24?!


But people make mistakes like this all the time!

There’s an easy solution:

  • Before you start answering a question, make a sensible guess. If the answer isn’t in the same region as your guess, check it carefully.

For example:

  • I guess that a jug is unlikely to hold more than 3 litres.

  • I guess that the average speed of an F1 car (in a race) will be between 200 and 350 km/h.

  • I guess that 1.7 x 24 will be between 35 and 45.


Another very useful, common sense tip, while we’re here: Get to know the graphs of sine, cos and tan, so you can predict (for example) that cos165 is going to be close to -1.

You’ll find other useful shortcuts like this while you revise.


43 Develop your own mnemonics.

Mess around with different memory ideas to help tie down the key facts.

The weirder and wonkier your mnemonics are, the better you’ll remember the information.

You can try absolutely anything:

Have you tried singing the quadratic formula to the tune of Space Oddity?

  • It doesn’t really work, to be honest! … But you’ll learn the formula, just by trying.


And all that SOH-CAH-TOA stuff (I apologise, on behalf of maths teachers)?

Well at least put a picture to it!

A grandmother, holding her sewing in one hand, towing a car with the other, perhaps …


44 Get used to your calculator …

How many people buy a new scientific calculator the week before their exam, then waste about ten minutes in the test working out how to use it?

Too many people!

Get a reliable, new calculator a few months before your exam, and use the same one for all your practice.

  • Make sure it’s a design that’s permitted by the exam board.

If you lose it or break it soon before the exam, replace it with an identical one!

45 … But learn to do almost everything WITHOUT A CALCULATOR!

For one thing, you also have to sit non-calculator papers.

For another, people who don’t understand how to do maths without their calculator often believe any nonsense it spits out!

Get right back to basics.

  • Can you do long division, reliably?

  • Can you subtract, add and multiply on paper?

  • Are you comfortable handling decimals with these methods?

  • Can you move easily between fractions, decimals and percentages?

  • Can you do any percentage calculation on paper, if you have to?


Strong, quick times tables are fundamental – if they need practice, do this as a priority!

A useful tip for paper division, while we’re here:

  • Get used to writing the division as a fraction and simplifying it if possible, before using long division/ the ‘bus shelter’ method.


46 Re-use papers you’ve done before.

Re-doing old work is often more useful than doing something new.

Come back to a paper you tried a few weeks ago, and try again!

Sometimes you’ll re-do the whole thing; sometimes you might just want to focus on the difficult parts.

  • This way you get to understand the questions (and associated topics) really thoroughly.


This approach also taps into the power of forgetting and re-learning, mentioned in Point 3 – expecially if you leave a decent gap before trying again.

47 Get used to ignoring advice!

Well done!

You’ve made it to the end of this list!

Now actual GCSEs will be easy, interesting … downright enjoyable by comparison to all this revision chat.

There’s a lot of advice in this article … and you’ll get lots more from teachers, parents, helpful friends … and lots of their suggestions will be totally contradictory.

So that’s why you need to get used to ignoring advice.

Try out lots of things:

  • Keep what’s useful;

  • Ditch the rest!


At the end of the day it’s your work, and it’s your future.

  • One last suggestion (to ignore, of course): try the free paper and solutions, taken from GCSE Maths by RSL, which you can download here*.


Good luck!

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