Dulwich College: Admissions & Entrance Exam Advice (11+)

How To Get Into Dulwich College in Year 7 (11-plus entry)

Taking Dulwich preparation too seriously?
Robert Lomax
Robert is a teacher and educational author. His books and online materials are popular in the UK and internationally. For a full biography, click here.

I n this article I’ll explain exactly how to prepare your child for the Dulwich College 11+ entrance exams and interview, if they are hoping to enter the school in Year 7. I’ll offer advice about the admissions process, and explain where it is different from the system at other 11-plus schools.

Because a large number of boys enter Year 7 from the Junior School, there are usually only 70 11+ places available to external candidates. This means that many very able students will miss out: 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 offering 11-plus entry.

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 in 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 entrance 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 College 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 exam requirements. If your child comes from a primary school background, it might be worth putting in some extra time to prepare for the Dulwich College 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 College English paper is that the creative writing section is usually in the middle, with comprehension questions before it and afterwards. Have a look at the past papers on the school’s site, and you’ll see what I mean.

I imagine this is a way of making sure that candidates allow enough exam 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 (and my standard advice for 11+), 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 part of the exam have included: ”inventiveness and sophistication”; “convincing description” and “inventive vocabulary”; and “appropriate use of similes and metaphors”. There is always some added advice 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 limited space on the exam paper. As you’ll see when you look at the past papers, there is no room to waste words on uninteresting sentences which state facts without any colour.

My main advice for this section of the exam 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 (and not just at 11+). 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, my advice is 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 (which won’t score well in an exam). 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 (a common 11-plus exam mistake)! 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.

SIMILES

* 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 College creative writing question.

For in-depth 11+ creative writing practice which covers all the exam 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.

Comprehension

The skills tested in the Dulwich comprehension paper (leaving the writing question to one side for now) are typical of other challenging independent schools with 11+ entry – 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 core 11+ exam 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 College’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 exam skills is to explain why a particular technique is effective.

For this too, I suggest having a look at the advice available here.

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 11-plus entrance exam and interview guides, which cover some points which I haven’t discussed here.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning

Because 11+ 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, I recommend buying a range of books, and doing occasional, careful practice, focusing on developing skills rather than speed (at least, until the final build-up to the exam).

The most important reasoning exam 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 11+ 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 exam papers here are close to the Dulwich style. The solution pages offer thorough advice about the best techniques for solving each question, which may be useful.

Because the Dulwich College questions can be quite 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 entrance exam 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 interview 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 for the interview (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 found this post useful or have a question, please leave a comment below! I’d love to have your feedback. (Tick the “Receive email updates” box to receive an email when I reply.)

For the most comprehensive range of resources to help with preparation for the Dulwich College 11+ exam, you might like to try 11 Plus Lifeline (with a money-back guarantee in the first month). Every practice paper has full example solutions, with a detailed discussion and explanation for every question – like being taught by an excellent private tutor.

According to Tutorful, it’s “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

If you’d like further advice about DIY 11-plus preparation, my free video series gives some helpful pointers, and comes with an extensive set of free RSL practice papers, example answers and solutions:

1 Comment

  1. Robert

    If you have any questions about Dulwich College admissions or exam/interview preparation in general, please ask them here: I’ll help as much as I can!

    Reply

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