11+ success: last minute tips for your child's entrance exam

So last weekend our little family did The Thing. My eldest son sat the assessment tests for a local selective secondary school. The school in question is one of his options for entry in September 2015 and we had discussed, long and hard, whether he wanted to go through the entrance exam process. 

Once we had made the decision for our son to go for it, we wanted to ensure he would:
a) do as well as he possibly could to secure a place and
b) not be overwhelmed or upset by the experience.

If you enter the assessment process from a state primary school, as my son did, it is not a normal experience to be tested en masse and they are not familiar with some elements of the 11+ maths papers or the Verbal or Non-Verbal Reasoning tests. They need to be prepared.

I've labelled these tips last minute because they don't include long term planning strategies for the 11+. I’m working on the assumption parents have ticked these boxes and will have done anything from one to 12-months preparation including hiring a tutor or buying exam preparation workbooks – or both. Our blog To tutor or not to tutor, that is the 11+ question may have helped you work out your bespoke plan.

I haven't gone down the 'get plenty of sleep, have a good breakfast with a protein portion' route either. I feel certain you will have your own eat/sleep family routines established and suddenly whizzing up a super green smoothie with a slug of fish oil instead of a bowl of cheerios may be unsettling for your child. Common sense is the most useful exam prep partner.

Remember: these are my tips that worked for my son. You are the expert on your child and will naturally pick and choose from my ideas.

1. Explore the wider point of the test. Of course the result is hugely important but a large part of the test is about doing The Thing. It’s about preparing for the day, and then, when the day arrives, getting up, eating breakfast, going to the test venue (which may be new and a bit daunting) and getting through the experience minus a meltdown. Place emphasis on the process and not just the end result. The test is the test. 

2. Think about the language you use in the run up to the Big Day. Most ten and 11-year olds will naturally be a little apprehensive and unsure the meaning of the word exam. But they have done tests. Lots of tests. Spelling tests, times table tests, SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) in Year 2 and many will be preparing for their Y6 tests. It’s a small thing but talk about taking a test rather than an exam and it may make the process seem less daunting.

3. On that note, do Google pictures of traditional exam halls. Many schools now encourage children to sit their 11+ tests in small informal groups in colourful classrooms. My son was expected to sit in a large hall laid out in a traditional way with individual desks for all the candidates. At his primary school they sit tests in the bright and cosy library alongside four or five friends. If I hadn’t shown him images of this setting in advance, it could have been quite a shock. 

4. Warn them about the classic test personality types too. There may well be a child who will whizz through the paper and then sit back smugly with his arms folded and, unwittingly or not, distract the others. Remind them to focus on their work and their space. The time is set for a reason and there are no extra points for finishing early.

5. While it can be tricky for a child to cope if too much pressure is applied, too little pressure can be counterproductive. Many of us are inclined to say, ‘Don’t worry; just try your best...’ and underplay the stress that they may feel on the day. It’s okay to discuss the fact that doing The Thing is, in reality, doing The Big Thing and you may find it better to prepare by discussing the challenging nature of the event and all the ways that your child is suited to that challenge rather than playing down the experience as nothing to worry about. 

6. Ah yes, coping with the physical symptoms of stress. Do talk to them about the way they might feel when they enter the test room and see the real papers for the first time. Their hearts will beat a little faster; they may feel slightly breathless. Talk to them about the fact it’s a normal ‘fight or flight’ response, and explore ways they can calm themselves down by breathing deeply or trying a positive visualisation exercise.

7. Discuss common sense strategies like not getting stuck on one question and not being flummoxed by trying to over-think responses. Story writing was my son's biggest worry and, in practice sessions, he'd often frozen and been unable to start because he kept rejecting story ideas as not interesting or good enough. Remind them that they don't have to have the best idea ever, they just need to have an idea and excute it as well as they possibly can in the given time. 

8. Practise, practise, practise is key for many of the tests but do try and judge how much your child can cope with in the final few days. We spent the majority of the final week talking through the timings of the tests (‘You will sit down at 9am and start with the English paper. You have 20-minutes for your comprehension and then 40-minutes to write a story….’) and techniques such as looking out for questions with higher marks. Make sure they are 100% familiar with the mechanics and structure of the morning including what pencils, pens and ruler they will use. 

9. The night before the test and, even the morning of the test if there is time, try and factor in both some exercise and pro-active relaxation. Exercise and fresh air will help relieve tension and mean they sleep better. Relaxation should be of the type whereby they can, if possible, completely switch off. We watched an old episode of You’ve Been Framed with Harry Hill. Daft, giggly and utterly unrelated it was just what my son needed before a relatively early night. 

10. Finally, do discuss what you will do when the exam is over and remember this doesn’t need to involve a big or expensive reward. One of the key aspects of preparing for the tests for my 11-year old was that he felt, probably for the first time in his life, that his time at home was not completely his own. Time was taken away by preparing for the tests albeit in a low pressure way. So we felt the greatest reward was to give him time. So, after the test, his time was 100% his own for the entire day and night and he could do with it whatever he chose – within reason. I had in mind a celebratory lunch out but, no, he just wanted to go home, have beans on toast and sit on the sofa and watch a movie. Done.

Good luck to all of you families preparing and do share your tips with us below and let us know how you get on.