5 tips for Selective School exam success

4 March 2016 The Alchemy Team

This article, originally published in 2016 continues to be one of our most read posts in our blog. Given the recent changes to the 2021 Selective School Test, we thought it was time for an update. You can check out the recent changes below!

There is no denying that the selective school entrance exam is a tough test. If you have tried to go through it with your child you will know what I am talking about. We get calls from parents all the time saying “Help! I tried to do it with my daughter, but I couldn’t even work it out!”.

This is all for a reason of course. The selective school entry requirements are fiercely competitive because they want to ensure only the most advanced students succeed.

In certain areas like the Northern Beaches, things are made even harder by the sheer volume of students competing for a place in just one selective school (or 2 if your child is willing to take the long ride to North Sydney).

I’ve been helping students prepare for the selective school exam for the last ten years, and in that time I have come to learn that sadly, it is not about how smart a student is, but how well they prepare. The just-above-average student who follows a preparation program will always outperform the top of the class student who relies on natural ability, hands down. I wish it wasn’t like this – I almost wish it was a surprise test that no student could prepare for, so that it would be based on ability alone, but sadly (although to the advantage of many students), it is an exam format that can be learnt and mastered.

Here are the 5 strategies I share with my students before the exam:

Practice is everything

Ok, I don’t tell them this before the exam – I tell them this 6 months before so they have time to do it. Understanding the layout of the exam, the style of questions they ask and the best way to approach questions they don’t understand is crucial to success. I recommend students take a practice paper – or at least one section, weekly for the 6 months before the exam, increasing as it gets closer. That might sound like an outrageous demand on an 11 year old, but you need to remember we have students who start seeing a tutor more than a year ahead of time – so in many situations it is actually behind the ball.

If you are only a few weeks out from the exam and you have yet to do much about it, then cram as much practice in as possible – do a different section each afternoon. I don’t usually recommend cramming, but in the selective school exam, crammed preparation is better than nothing at all.

Challenge yourself

There will be words in the exam that you don’t understand. Hey, even words that I don’t understand.

The best way of reducing the number of these words is by challenging yourself daily. My best recommendation is for students to read books that are beyond their comfort level each day. Expanding vocabulary happens in little increments – not all at once. By reading daily, students will encounter words and phrases that they may not have seen before and file them away for later use.

Increasing reading speed will also be advantageous in the comprehension section – but it is also important to ensure this speed doesn’t replace the ability to absorb what is being read.

Become a problem solver

A large part of selective exam strategy is knowing the best answer when you don’t necessarily know the correct answer. This is fundamentally problem solving – a skill that will carry through long in to adulthood. In both the exam and life, you won’t always have an obvious choice – so you need to use your skills of deduction to choose the next best option.

Start by crossing off the answers you know it isn’t. Of what is left, which one makes the most sense? Think about the root or similar words. Try substituting the number in the question. Are there similar patterns you have seen before?

Pay attention to time

40 minutes for each section (and 20 for the written) is tough. Watch that clock and ensure you are ahead of it – track where you are at the halfway mark – and then the three quarter mark.

If you run out of time before you get to the end of each section, don’t leave questions unanswered. The exam does not punish you for getting questions wrong, so just fill those little circles in – you have a 25% chance of each one being right – which is much better than a 0% chance if you don’t answer them at all.

Know when to move on

The general ability section in particular will have some serious brain melters. You have 45 questions in reading, 40 in maths and 60 (!!!!) in general ability, all to be complete in 40 minutes. That means that based on these number you can’t spend more than 40 seconds per question in general ability. That is insane!

Remember that each question is weighted equally – you won’t earn more marks for that really hard question that you spent 5 minutes solving than you would for the one that took 30 seconds. If you are stuck on one, move past it and come back to it if you have time.

Your writing component will also be a test of time. Learning to maximise 20 minutes is something that takes practice. You don’t want to finish too early and then sit there watching the clock tick. But nor do you want to be only halfway through when your time runs out. Practice this – see how much you can comfortably write in 20 minutes. Then ask your parents for topic ideas and go for it. Don’t be afraid to spend a few minutes at the start thinking about your response – as Erwin Rommell once said, ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” (homework: find out what that means!).

A few extra practical tips:

Keep track of what number question you are doing, and match it up to the multiple choice sheet regularly. There is nothing worse than discovering you have missed a question and all your answers are out of sync!

Have a big, nutritious breakfast before hand. It is a long day of exams – probably the longest a year 6 student would have had up until then. Ensure there is plenty of fuel to burn.

Arrive early at the exam centre. I had a student a few years ago, and we had been working on exam prep for at least 6 months. The students was doing great and I was really confident that he would do well, but the morning of the exam, the parent forgot it was on! We might wonder how that was possible, but we’ve all done things like that when you are juggling multiple kids and work. The student ended up being late to the exam, and they still let him take it, but he missed out on a large chunk of time, and subsequently narrowly missed out on his entrance. The exam will not wait for you if you are late.

I hope these help. To all the students getting ready to take the exam – good luck. Do your best, practice hard and remain confident. Whatever the outcome, if you carry forward that same attitude to high school you will do very well indeed.

At Alchemy, we have been helping students get into selective schools for more than 15 years. Our preparation program has proven successful for thousands of students over the years. The best part is that it is one-on-one, so every lesson is tailored around your child’s unique needs. Don’t let your child do it alone – the support of a private tutor is invaluable. Learn more here.


2020 updates: The Board of studies recently announced that from 2021, the selective school test will take on a new format and they have partnered with a UK testing company to deliver the test. The new format replaces mathematics with mathematical reasoning and general ability with thinking skills. In addition, the most significant change is that from 2022, the test will be fully online and taken through a computer rather than using pen and paper. You can purchase newly formatted practices papers here.

Alchemy are fully equipped to help your child prepare for this new format test. Our tutors are the best at what they do and bring more than 15 years of experience to helping students success in the selective school test. Learn more and book your first lesson with an Alchemy tutor here.

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