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.
NOTE: ADAPTIVE TESTS
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 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.