Children often feel that the essay element of the 11+ is a monumental task, and parents preparing them for it often feel the same way! We hope that the advice on this page will help you and your child to break the task down into manageable pieces, and also provide you with some useful shortcuts.
On this section you will also find advice on essay writing from an 11+ veteran who took several Independent School exams. The advice given is particularly helpful for longer essays and for more challenging topics and tests.
The essay test may be as little as 20 minutes or as long as 50 minutes, and may be factual or fiction. There is usually a choice of titles, but it is important to check the type of topics that have come up in the tests for each school in the past. There are some examples below of essay titles that have come up in past 11+ tests around the country to get you started.
Examiners in different areas may have different priorities. In some areas they will mainly be interested in the content of the work, rather than demanding good spelling or punctuation. In other areas accurate grammar, punctuation and spelling may be required as well. All examiners will be looking for one key thing: the “beginning, middle and end” that most children find so difficult to achieve in essays.
If your child does not excel at fiction writing and you know for certain that they will have a choice of factual or fiction topics, you could focus on developing their ability to write a persuasive factual essay rather than battling uphill with creative writing.
Learning good planning technique is essential to success in an 11+ essay. The elements that need to be planned are:
- Who are the characters? Can you describe them?
- Where is the story set?
- What is the plot – what will happen in the story?
- How will the story begin?
- What will happen in the middle?
- How will it end?
With very limited time for planning an essay in the 11+ a child must learn to make rough notes on all of these points within a very tight timescale. In some areas the children are given 5 minutes specifically to plan their essay, but in other areas that time is included in the time allotted for the whole task, and speed is critical.
Building up a “bank” of characters and settings that your child can fall back is well worth doing. Typical characters might be: a criminal; an old lady; a spooky person; a scary man, a nice friend, etc. Settings might include: A rocky seashore; a dark wood; an old, empty house, etc.
To develop the “beginning, middle and end” balance, you can work out how much your child is likely to write in the allotted time and then start to rule 3 sections on their page, one short one, a longer one and a third short one. They then have to complete the “beginning” within the space allowed in the first section, fit the middle into the longer section and the ending must take up the whole of the last section.
Even after extensive practice a child may still find that they are running out of time. It is well worth preparing some “emergency endings”, and never, ever falling back on the stock phrase: “And then I woke up and realised it was all a dream”. It is an ending that makes the hearts of teachers and examiners sink to their boots!
Plenty of adjectives and adverbs will make for interesting writing, and you can help your child to make “stock lists” of appropriate words for different settings. For example, if the story is a “spooky” story, help them to think of dark, scary adjectives and adverbs.
As time goes on it is also worth helping a child come up with “stock phrases” that can fit into almost any essay, such as:
- Linking mood to weather: Tears like the rain/waterfalls; Eyes bruised like dark clouds; Heart beating as raindrops thundered; Eyes twinkling like dew on fresh grass.
- Descriptions of surroundings: Sweet, cloying scent; Patchwork of autumn leaves – vibrant reds, ochres, etc; Shafts of sunshine dappling; Trees whispering to each other; Angry water seething and boiling.
- Descriptions of being frightened: Being chased, hiding and anticipating being found.
For creative writing, the topics set for 11+ essays tend to have the same common themes, and it is worth having a “stock” story that can be used in each of these settings:
- Being lost, scared or alone
- Doing something exciting or achieving something (’the best day of my life was . . . ’)
- Taking a holiday
- Having an adventure
- Being in a city or in the countryside
These are topics that have come up on past 11+ papers around the country, with a few additional titles:
- A surprising spy
- Break time at school
- Write a story about a lost key
- Is life too hectic to enjoy fully?
- My favourite memories
- A farewell party
- An attempted robbery
- It was a while before I realised my cat could talk
- Moving Houses
- I don’t know what that noise was …..
- The new pupils
- The storm
- The Burglary
- My Brilliant Idea
- Visiting Relatives
- The Balloon
- The school rules
- A place that inspires you
- Your favourite day out
- Are Jamie Oliver’s new school dinners a good idea.
- What makes a good friend?
- Describe the scene and the activities at a bus station.
- What are your reactions to discipline? How far is it necessary both at home and at school?
- How does the life of your generation differ from that of your grandparents?
- Discuss the good and bad effects of competition in modern life
- Is life too hectic to enjoy fully?