November 2019. Pre-interview written tests for UK universities. Entrance exams for independent schools.

Tuesday November 19th, 2019

‘Tis the season of Oxbridge interviews!  So, in this issue we’re focusing on the sorts of pre-interview tests that some UK universities – Oxbridge and others – use as part of their application process. We’ll cover what to expect and how best to prepare, both for these written tests and for the interviews themselves.

We’ll also touch upon the entrance exams that UK independent schools use to select new students for their 6th form and for 11+ and 13+ entries.

So although it’s only about six weeks until Christmas, we’re here to help you plan much further ahead for those crucial milestones in your child’s education. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch should you like to discuss any of the subjects we cover here in more detail.

Pre-interview written tests for UK universities


The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) measures your ability to think critically and to solve problems. These skills are essential for success in higher education, irrespective of the degree you choose to study.

Three UK universities currently use the TSA as part of their application process for specific courses. University College London (UCL) and Cambridge University use a 90-minute version of the TSA comprising 50 multiple choice questions to test how well you can apply numerical and spatial reasoning and interpret arguments. Oxford uses this version for economics, history or chemistry applicants (although prospective historians must also sit another specific aptitude test) plus an additional 30-minute writing test for those applying to study philosophy, politics, psychology or linguistics. This section (TSA section 2) offers a choice of four questions and tests your ability to write clearly and concisely in a coherent argument. You’ll have space for notes and planning but your answer can only cover two sides of A4.

You’d probably sit your TSA at the end of October, almost a whole year before the academic year in which you hope to start your studies. If your test results show the necessary aptitude for the degree course of your choice, you’ll then be called for interview in November.

You can download past papers, practice papers and watch videos from students, university staff and the TSA team at


The Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT) is an entrance exam designed to identify students’ aptitude for medical and health-related degree courses. Nine UK universities (and many other higher education institutions across the world) use this specific test as part of their admissions process. Applicants can sit their BMAT in August or October and their results will dictate whether they are then called for interview later in the year.

The BMAT is two hours long in total. Section 1 involves an hour of problem solving, understanding argument, data analysis and inference. Section 2 asks applicants to apply their knowledge (learnt in science and maths lessons at school) in unfamiliar contexts in a 30-minute test paper. Section 3 tests students’ ability to develop ideas and communicate them effectively in writing in just 30 minutes. You’ll have the choice of three questions and just need to answer one. But you’ll only have one side of A4 in which to do it! Typical questions can be controversial statements such as ‘There is money to be made from not curing disease’ and ‘There is no such thing as dangerous speech; it is up to people to choose how they react’. It’s likely you’ll be asked to argue against these statements – so make sure you read the question carefully and plan your answer clearly before you begin. There’s additional space on the question paper for your notes and planning.

You can download past papers, practice papers and a guide to the knowledge you’ll need to draw upon in section 2, from

Other pre-interview written assessments

Some universities also use subject-specific pre-interview written tests as part of their application process. You can read more about these at:

Oxbridge interviews – how to prepare

As with any interview, it’s important to remind yourself what you said in your application! Your personal statement is the ice breaker; the teaser that’s made the interviewers decide they’d like to meet you. They’ll want to talk in more depth about any aspect of your personal statement so make sure you’re ready, willing and able to do that!

They’ll also want to talk to you about your choice of course. They’ll expect you to sound passionate and enthusiastic about it. If you’re opting to study something you haven’t taken at A Level, they won’t necessarily expect you to have an in-depth knowledge – but they will expect you to have read around the subject and to be able to talk about what interests and inspires you about it. Make sure you’ve done wider reading to give you the insight that you’ll need. Your school may be able to advise you – or you can find recommended reading alongside the course material in the university’s prospectus.

In order to feel comfortable and confident, prepare for your Oxbridge interview with practice interviews. Again, your school may be in a position to arrange this. Alternatively, we can offer practice interviews as part of a wider programme of support for applications to Oxbridge.  Get in touch for a no-obligation consultation today.

Entrance exams for independent schools

We covered the typical applications process for UK independent schools in our April 2019 blog. So, here we wanted to give you more detail about the entrance exams you can expect depending on your child’s age.

Entry at 6th form (16+)

Beginning your education at a UK independent school aged 16 is not the norm and so most schools won’t have that many places available. As we’ve said before, your child is far more likely to succeed and excel in their education if they can get used to the structure and expectations of a typical school week and forge firm friendships and extra-curricular interests before they begin their A Level studies.

That said, each independent school will have its own process for accepting new students into its 6th form. This will typically involve maths and vocabulary tests, usually taken in the autumn term (i.e. at the start) of Year 11. International students may also be asked to complete an additional test in English. It’s likely the head teacher or another senior staff member will interview all prospective 6th form students too as part of the application process. Offers are usually dependent on students achieving a particular set of grades in GCSEs or equivalent exams abroad as well.

Entry aged 13+

This will vary from school to school, but as a rule of thumb, you’ll need to register for entry to your chosen school in Year 9 (at age 13) by the end of Year 5, when your child is aged 10 or 11. The testing process tends to begin towards the end of the same calendar year – during the first term in Year 6.

The Pre-Test

The ISEB Common Pre-Test is a computer-based test taken in October or November of Year 6, usually at the student’s current school. It’s an equivalent test – in terms of subjects and difficulty – to the 11+ exam used for selection to state-run grammar schools. Students answer multiple choice questions in English, maths and verbal/non-verbal reasoning. Some schools require applicants to sit this test aged 10/11, followed by the Common Entrance exam described below when they reach age 12.

The Common Entrance

The Common Entrance exams (also known as the Common Entrance at 13+ but not to be confused with school-specific 13+ entrance exams!) are sat in June, at the end of Year 8. These cover the core subjects English, maths and science, plus other subjects such as history, geography, religious studies, Latin and a modern language.  The results can determine whether you achieve a place at the school of your choice and also which set you’ll be placed in for which subjects.

Entry aged 11+

For pupils entering independent schools at age 11, testing usually takes place in January (during their second term in Year 6) with places offered by mid-February. For pupils remaining in the state system, they will sit their 11+ test as early as the September of Year 6.

Independent schools will generally have their own specific 11+ entrance exam, although the subjects and format will be fairly similar across them all.  We always recommend working on vocabulary (maybe creating a child’s own personal dictionary) and comprehension (teasing facts and implicit meaning from passages of text) plus building confidence in fractions, decimals, percentages and equations. These skills will stand pupils in good stead for 11+ entrance tests and their studies there should they achieve a place.

We can advise on the specifics and support you and your child to prepare for these tests as effectively as possible.  Do get in touch if you’d like to talk it through.

Until next time…