The ISEB Common Pre-Tests are very commonly used by senior independent schools as a part of their admissions process. This blog aims to explain:

  • The test format 
  • The best ways to prepare for the ISEB Pre-test
  • FAQs that parents often ask

ISEB Pre-Test Format 

The test is taken on a computer and consists of multiple-choice questions. It is broken down into four parts: 

  1. English – 25 minutes (reading comprehension, sentence completion, spelling and punctuation) 
  2. Mathematics – 50 minutes (in line with Year 5 of the UK National Curriculum) 
  3. Non-Verbal Reasoning – 32 minutes (shape analogies, classes like, horizontal codes) 
  4. Verbal Reasoning – 36 minutes (common words, antonyms, word combinations, letter transfer and number codes)

The test is adaptive, the questions will get harder if the student continually answers correctly, and easier if they do not. There are no practice tests available but there is a familiarisation test and during the actual test example questions will be shown. All questions are compulsory and they cannot go back once a question has been answered. There is a progress bar to show them how far through the questions they are, and a timer (re-added for 2020-21) to show the time remaining. They are allowed pen/pencil and paper for working out during the verbal reasoning and mathematics tests but not during the non-verbal reasoning or English tests. 

What are the best ways to prepare for the ISEB Common Pre-tests?

Experienced Keystone Tutor Oli gives his insights into preparing for the ISEB Pre-test:

To prepare well, focus on three key areas:

  1. Skills
  2. Variety
  3. Practice


Developing Skills is a long term process. Even many years before a student takes the Pre-Test, a good holistic approach to education can develop the key skills required.

So what are these skills?


In both the English and Verbal Reasoning Pre-test there is a huge emphasis on vocabulary, the manipulation of words and comprehension. The best, and really only, way of developing these reading skills properly is to get children, you guessed it, reading. There really are no shortcuts or substitutes to reading widely.  

What if your child, like many of my students, isn’t a natural reader? Keep trying. Do whatever it takes. Honestly, it matters far less what they’re reading; just get them reading something and get them reading regularly (so long as it’s actually a book, not a website, and it is vaguely age appropriate.) Footballers’ biographies can be just as worthwhile as vintage children’s literature, so long as these books spark a regular reading habit. This interest can then be sharpened and honed and improved, but only if a young person is in the habit of reading. So how do you do this?

First off, be a magpie for book recommendations. If a friend raves about how their child wouldn’t put a book down, buy it! Any book connected with something your child is already interested in, buy it! And don’t worry if your child doesn’t like a book. They’re bound not to like everything, and if they’re an especially reluctant reader, they might not like anything much at all, at least initially. I have a “first 50 pages rule”. If they haven’t got into a book by the end of the first 50 pages, be happy to let them move onto something else. But keep trying different books until they find something that actually sticks. (Then buy all the books in that series, if there is one. If not look for similar books online.) Keep a record of every book your child finishes reading. Ideally showcase that list somewhere prominent in your home so they can see their successes mounting. And, if all else fails, be Machiavellian; incentivise finishing books, (but make sure they have actually read it properly). 

Ideally, as a parent, you also need to get involved. If they are young, either read the book to them or have them read it to you. If they are older, pick up a book for yourself and read while they are reading too. I cannot overstate just how much this will benefit your child if you can help them find a love of reading from an early age. Sustain and nurture this love by buying them books whenever they run out of reading material and keep talking to them about what they are reading. They need to feel from your interest that reading is an important, valuable part of life which they should spend energy getting better at. And this won’t just help their Pre-test. You’ll be giving them a valuable and never-ending source of pleasure, information and guidance which will remain with them for their entire lives.

Numeracy Skills

Mental arithmetic is key. The more Maths a student can do, in their own head, the easier they will find Pre-test Maths. Simple. Times tables must be learnt comprehensively. Mental Maths strategies must be practiced. The more that students can do this with their parents or guardians the better.

You may notice that there is a strong emphasis above on the role that parents play in the life of their children’s early education. This is not accidental. As a tutor, when a parent is positively and enthusiastically involved in the educational journey of their child, I see time and time again the successes this brings. For this reason, UK Independent Schools, on the whole, like to see evidence that parents are interested and have played an active role in their children’s education.


There comes a point when formal Pre-test preparations must begin. This can be anywhere between a couple of months to upwards of 18 months. With longer term preparation, skill gaps can be addressed. Shorter term preparation deals with how students actually deal with the four papers: English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. As we know, it’s challenging to predict exactly what is going to come up in the Pre-Test. There are many companies that try though, and a couple of them are very good at it. The best way to prepare for the Pre-Test is to use a mixture of the best online testing platforms. Not only does this increase the chance that a student will have seen a specific question type before, but the variation in styles and formatting develops flexibility and resilience to new and difficult situations (exactly like they’ll experience in the Pre-Test.)


These are the platforms I particularly recommend and use during my Pre-Test preparation sessions:

Atom Learning – Atom has pulled ahead over the last year as the market leader. Not so much the content of their testing, which is much the same as the other top providers, but their data analysis makes it very easy to quickly identify problem areas on a very granular level. Crucially “custom tests” can then be created which target these problem areas much more forensically than previously possible.

BOFA Pre-Test – My previous favourite and a worthy option. Also a more cost effective option than Atom; great for using when starting preparations more than 6 months in advance. 

Pre-Test Plus – Another popular option, with the added claims that their tests are “created by an actual ISEB Pretest question writer.”

Bond Online – The giant of paper based test preparation has moved online. Very much more cost effective than any of the options above, although the difficulty of the tests at the higher end is somewhat lacking.

As the Pre-Test is an online test, I’d always recommend students practice, for the most part, online. All of my lessons are taught online, and I’ve found that this really helps get students more familiar with this format of testing.


There’s no getting around it. Practice is key. However, practice also needs to be targeted, regular and not overdone. Too much practice, especially in one go, can have negative effects. So, strike a careful balance. I give a broad range of different question types over the four areas English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. Parents can do an awful lot to help their students with this process. If, however, you find that you’re finding it challenging explaining particular concepts to your children, or it needs more time than you can spare, that’s where ISEB Pre-test tutors can step in.

Do complete our request a tutor form or give us a call if you’d like to talk about your child and how to help them on their journey towards the Pre-test and beyond. 

ISEB Pre-test FAQ


The senior schools you have applied to will register your child for the test, they will then ask where your child will take the test so they can provide the registration information to the test centre.  


For most students this will be their current school but the test can also be taken at an approved test centre (such as the British Council) which is often the case for candidates that live outside of the UK. Do ask the senior schools for a list of accepted test centres as they might dictate where the test must be taken. 


Registration for the ISEB Pre-Tests, and the exams themselves, follow the schedule below: 

  • Candidates can be registered for the ISEB Common Pre-Tests between the 1st September and 16th June 
  • Candidates are registered by the senior school they are applying to and typically sit the test at their current school 
  • Candidate’s results can be shared with more than one senior school, but it is only possible for a candidate to sit the ISEB Common Pre-Tests once per academic year 
  • The ISEB Common Pre-Tests can be taken any time between 1st October and 30th June 
  • Senior Schools set testing windows within this period the most common of which is between the 1st October and 30th November when candidates are in Year 6 
  • However, it is important to check with the senior school you are applying to for the exact dates the ISEB Common Pre-Tests needs to be sat.


Students can take the test once per academic year (between October 1st and June 30th). If you are applying for multiple schools, the same set of results will be shared with all schools registering that student during the same academic year. 


Students can only take the test once per academic year so the test will need to be taken before the earliest deadline. For example, if a student has applied to 3 senior schools and the deadlines are October, January and April. The test will need to be taken before October and all 3 schools will receive the results from that sitting. 


No, the 4 parts can be taken with breaks in-between or even on separate days. You will need to speak to the invigilator at the test centre to ask how they plan to administer the test and whether they allow sections to be taken over multiple days.  


To understand how the ISEB scoring system works, and how schools judge the results from the test, have a look at our detailed article on the topic


Adjustments can be made to the test for candidates that have diagnosed special educational needs or English is their second language if the senior schools permit it. For example, extra time can be added or the text on the screen can be enlarged. Families must inform all the senior schools they have registered for about any requirements as any adjustments need to be agreed by all schools that will receive the results. 


If you are interested in reading more about the ISEB Pre-test, do take a look at our other articles


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