Insights into the 11+ exam

Guest post by MaiHanh DeLorenzo, Metal Rocks Education Advisors (see further info and bio below)

When Anke asked me to write about the 11+ exam, my first response was that it was like trying to write another Churchill biography, that is: What new is there left to say? But then, realising that new Churchill biographies come out every year, I decided that giving my perspective on the exam and the process would hopefully provide some anxious parents and students with a few meaningful insights, despite the hundreds of websites and thousands of pages already out there on the topic. And so, first let me say that my experience is in the top 15-20 selective schools in London and its environs, and I will write to an audience I believe doesn’t need basic answers to the question of “What is the 11+?” as only savvy parents will be reading this piece. I will answer what I perceive to be the important questions a parent should be asking about the 11+exam and the admission process.

When should my child start preparing for the exam?
Most people start at the beginning of Year 5, which is fine. However, if possible, six months earlier than that is ideal for two reasons. First, it gives you two summers to prepare. Summer is the key time given the amount of freedom available away from fixed schedules and extracurricular activities. Secondly, learning things slowly over time (drip-feeding) always trumps cramming, which involves far more stress for the parents and child. Starting earlier, depending upon the school, also allows the parents to prepare their child for the CAT exams, which are important to many top-tier schools. At the very top academic schools, if your child scores below 120 on the CAT, you will need to ace the exams and the interviews to have much of a chance. Sound harsh? Yes, it is.

What or how do I teach my children for the exam?
One only need look at five or six old exams to see patterns emerge in the questions. I have identified 16 different exam problem types that, over time, have accounted for approximately 80% of most exams. We all know what these things are, inter alia, basic arithmetic, time, simple probability, number patterns and so on. If your child is well prepared for the obvious, you can assure yourself of 60-80% of the exam in the bag. What separates the applicants from the admitted is the other 20%: logic puzzles,
pattern recognition and other mental gymnastics.

Schools like to say that they create exams that are tutor-proof: this is a common untruth in this annual rite of passage. You want to get better at piano? Practice the piano. Want to get better at tennis? Play more tennis. And if you want your child to be able to think more logically and creatively, he or she can practise that, too. Studies abound proving that creativity can be nurtured, as can logical thought (playing chess is one great endeavour to build this type of mental scaffolding). I have developed a few key exercises that, over time, help develop the thinking necessary to have a good shot at capturing that extra 20%.

Have you ever sat down with your child and looked at a picture and had them talk you through it? What are we seeing, what is happening, why is it happening, what does it mean? Try this with “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” or “The School of Athens” or “The Tower of Babel” and see how they compare after doing this a few times. Playing board or card games with your children is another simple way to help develop a ten-year-old’s critical thinking skills.

More importantly, once you have identified your top schools, make sure to understand either from other parents, online forums or professionals in the field of how their testing have evolved over the last year or two (you needn’t go back more than that). This year, one top London school Head announced to parents during the call back day that “almost all of the callbacks” had done well on the maths exam, but that many of them found the reasoning too difficult. You can guarantee that this school will have a tougher maths and an easier reasoning section in 2017. Knowing this is a key edge to admission to that one school.

Outside the usual tuition, how can I best prepare my child for this exam?
I’m glad you asked that question! You could start by searching online for Carol Dweck and the research she has done on developing mindsets and the perils of praising your children directly. But there are lots of evidence-based tasks you can do to help them through this stressful period. For a start, did you know that children who perform in spelling bees handle stress better than those who don’t? This isn’t an exhortation to enroll your child in the nearest spelling tourney, but you should know that children
who deal with stress on a regular basis from sporting teams, chess competitions, etc., handle testing stress better than those who don’t. Stress, like pain, is relative: some people find something stressful while others find it stress-free.

Did you know that studying something for 15 minutes in 2 rooms induces better recall than studying for 30 minutes continuously in the same room? Did you think a quiet, uncluttered place is the best place to learn? Not according to multiple studies going back to 1978. Varying what you study in one sitting dramatically improves learning, yet few people (and no schools) do this. No wonder Mark Twain said he never let his schooling interfere with his education!

My simple point it that if you want to be one of the 10% of parents of applicants lucky enough to get their children into some of the top schools, you should be preparing your children more creatively and more efficaciously than simply sitting them down and drilling through the fifteen times tables. If your child is young enough, read up on the benefits of a musical education or learning a second language: these will help with the exam and, more importantly, have lifelong mental benefits.

My child is smart and in the top of the class, isn’t this enough?!
Mostly: yes but often times: no. One very prominent boarding school just outside of London rejects 40 of the top 100 applicants based on their test scores alone. Why? They are not only looking to select the best students but to accept the best class. They need an orchestra; they need a rugby team; they need to put on plays; and so on. My recommendation to clients I get early enough is for the child to specialise in one specific thing that he or she loves: play chess, collect stamps, keep bees or write haikus if that’s your thing. You don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes.

Here is a small but telling example to gain an easy edge: If your child is 5 and you want him to learn a musical instrument, do not choose the violin. Choose the viola. Why? Everyone plays the violin; it doesn’t set you apart. However, few choose the viola (which some think is easier to master) and every school orchestra needs one.

Do I need to tutor my child?
Every school has the same answer to that question: absolutely not! I usually answer this question with another question, which usually startles my interlocutor: Would you bring a knife to a gunfight? Of course you need to prepare your child! Everyone else will be, although most people will simply lie and say they are not doing anything extra with their children. This is another dirty secret.

Do you need to hire a tutor? The answer to that is definitely not. If you have the time, the skills, the patience and the inclination, by all means do it yourself. The sad fact of the matter is that parents who listen to their schools and do nothing but a few old exams over the weekend here or there are leaving their child at a very significant disadvantage to those children who are learning things above and beyond their curriculum. The top schools condemn extra tuition while concomitantly
writing exams wherein only students learning beyond the school curriculum succeed.

Finally, one only needs to look at a few recent high profile placements at tutoring and test preparation shops to understand what’s really going on: former Headmasters and Headmistresses who only last term decried tutoring are now themselves working for the Dark Side and doing their best to help parents get their children into their desired schools. The only way to respond to this harsh reality is to do as they do and not as they say.

Re-reading this, I expect I might have increased the anxiety of some parents, especially those with only a year to prepare for the most selective institutions. This was not my objective. However, the fact of the matter is that more and more people are applying to the most selective schools, thinking that this maximises chances to the best universities, which maximises chances to the best careers. All of this is true.

Keeping your eyes on the prize is key. Be truthful about the abilities and desires of your child, get a good understanding of each institution and have an idea of which one is the right school for your child. Do a little work each day in an intelligent, focused and deliberate way.

I wish you the best of luck with your child’s progress in preparing for the 11+. If you have made your way through this whole article, you are likely already one of the few very committed parents ready to help your child through this process. Your commitment will make all the difference.

MaihanhMaiHanh DeLorenzo is the Founder and Advisor at Metal Rocks Education, Ltd. based in central London. She has over 13 years of experience teaching and inspiring children to achieve their potential. With an extensive and deep knowledge of top schools in London and its environs, MaiHanh has successfully placed children at 7+, 8+, 11+ and 13+ at the following competitive schools: Westminster School, St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Eton, North London Collegiate School, City of London School for Girls, South Hampstead High, Colet Court, Westminster Under, King’s College School Wimbledon, City of London School for Girls’ Prep School, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, Highgate and Westminster Cathedral Choir School.

MaiHanh graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. with degrees in Finance and Economics. She is a former Mergers & Acquisition investment banker at J.P. Morgan and a private equity investor specialising in the education sector. Please email her at if you have any questions.

3 thoughts on “Insights into the 11+ exam”

  1. What an informative piece – my daughter is only 5 and in private schooling, but how helpful to have this sort of direction years in advance! We’re also considering what instrument to introduce her to at the moment, and we’re considering violin and piano – perhaps the viola (or the flute, a suggestion from a violinist we know!) should be considered instead.

    Many thanks 🙂

  2. What an informative piece – my daughter is only 5 and in private schooling, but how helpful to have this sort of direction years in advance! We’re also considering what instrument to introduce her to at the moment, and we’re considering violin and piano – perhaps the viola (or the flute, a suggestion from a violinist we know!) should be considered instead.

    Many thanks 🙂

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