Exam preparation is a marathon not a sprint

Jemma Zoe Smith
February 24, 2021

We have all heard it - someone who stayed up late all night cramming for an exam and came out with full marks.

Is it possible? Yes. Is it sustainable? No.

One of the key skills that preparing for exams like 11+ instils in students is the power of regular study. Just like a marathon runner trains regularly, eats well and has time to relax, so must a student preparing for the 11+. But sometimes it is difficult to get the balance right.

My name is Jemma Zoe Smith , Director of The Education Hotel tuition agency. I have tutored for eight years supporting hundreds of students in passing their 11+ and 13+ entrance exams. I focus specifically on super selective grammar schools and top independent schools. I now run The Education Hotel and we support students from Year 1-3 in building key skills, then for Year 4 and 5 for 11+ preparation. We also support 13+, GCSE and A level exams.

What do you mean by 'building key skills'?

Key skills are twofold - firstly academic key skills. You can't cancel a fraction without knowing about division, you can't answer comprehension without knowing vocabulary. Therefore key skills include: reading, numeracy, how to tell the time, how to dissect a key piece of vocabulary to decipher what it means.  Without those foundations, a student will never be able to fully tackle word problems or do an 11+ comprehension.

But secondly the key skills such as independent working, focus, resilience, determination and being happy to attempt questions even if you know that you won't get them right. These are built during Year 1-3 and allow a student to be ready to focus on the 11+ and for life beyond.

Is it worth 2 years of preparation? What if my child doesn't get in?

Before students start with my tutors, I ask them about what the 11+ means to them.

To many, it is a nice to have. From Year 4, they will take 1 hour a week with my tutors and be set 1 hour of homework in between. They may do a few more sessions of preparation each week at home. They may start earlier with key skills practice. They may decide that the 11+ is not for them after all.

For others, they may be taking the 11+ exam as part of a move to the UK, or a long held dream of the student. For those students more work is often required and usually across a shorter amount of time - starting in Year 5.

Both types of student will discover new vocabulary skills, pull ahead of their classmates in math and English and try using their brain in new ways with verbal and non verbal reasoning. Plus they will also gain softer skills such as independent working skills and time management. These students will be better equipped to deal with academic challenges and more confident in their knowledge.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Its the not the Destination, It's the journey.” and the journey of studying for the 11+ has many learning points along the way.

What if my child refuses to do the 11+ prep?

Consider the reasons behind this refusal. Is it that they are jealous of their friends who are not preparing for the exam? Are they burned out? Or do they really not want to take the exam?

I run advice sessions for parents and this is one of the most common questions from parents. Ultimately you know your child best and you can tell if this is a blip in the road, or whether pushing them is not going to work. Sometimes, 10 year olds struggle to see the long term - they would like to go to their target school, but they also want to go outside and play football. Their short term goals can sometimes outweigh their long term goals and you may need to take charge.

However sometimes the 11+ school that they are aiming for isn't right for them, or the 11+ exam is just too much pressure.

While one of the things that the 11+ instils is the importance of hard work little and often, there are guaranteed to be some blips in the road. But that is just another chance to build resilience and determination!

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Why is it good to start early?

For my international students, the timeline for preparation is very tight and so I support students with intensive 11+ and 13+ preparation - often where they have only months. I live with the student or nearby, support the preparation, mentor the student and also advise the parents.  It is possible provided that they have great foundations and are really invested. However, if you have the time - I would always recommending spacing out your preparation. Little and often is much less stressful than intensive.

Additionally by approaching exams as a marathon, not a sprint, your child has longer to develop the softer skills needed in later life. Instead of cramming their spellings, they have time to delight in the rules (and exceptions) in the English Language. They will develop their interview answers as they discover why they enjoy a subject - instead of having to think of it at the end of the process.

What about other exams - are they all like this?

Whilst each exam (GCSE, A level, 16+) has different content and points of stress, all of them will use skills that your child has learned during the 11+ process. They all require students to be able to prioritise, to work independently, to self motivate - and all of them are better if you start the preparation early.

Having worked with hundreds of families for many years it is clear to me that exam preparation is a marathon, not a sprint, and when we approach it like this we can build in children the skills they will need for life!

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Written by
Jemma Zoe Smith

Jemma Zoe Smith has tutored for 11+ and 13+ for the last 8 years. Her students have entered top grammar and independent schools including QE boys, Eton, Harrow, Tiffins, Winchester, Cheltenham Ladies, HABS, Dame Alice Owens and more. She supports families all over the globe to enter top UK schools and universities. She now runs The Education Hotel - a bespoke tuition agency which offers 1:1 tuition to students studying 11+ and beyond.

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