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An insider’s guide to scholarship exams: expert tips

Applying for a school scholarship involves a combination of exams, personal interviews, references and a portfolio or audition where relevant. Some components of the application are easier to demonstrate than academic aptitude, like sporting achievements, artistic talents or volunteering commitments.  

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When it comes to scholarship exams, however, the testing process is designed to highlight a range of more abstract skills and aptitudes. It can be difficult for parents to know how to maximise their child’s chances of success.

We went to ACER and Edutest, two of Australia’s most prominent scholarship testing bodies, to get their tips and tricks on scholarship exam preparation.

How scholarship testing works

Most Australian private schools outsource their scholarship testing. This helps keep the process unbiased and ensures consistency across different schools. The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and Edutest are two of the organisations that provide assessment tools and reporting for schools around the country.

As part of your scholarship application process, you will need to determine which testing organisation your school prefers and make arrangements for your child to sit an exam. If you are applying for a range of different scholarships, or to several different schools, your child may need to sit more than one scholarship test.

How do scholarship tests differ from school subject-based exams?

“The scholarship tests, unlike classroom assessments, are not curriculum based and do not test the ability to retrieve learned knowledge,” says Tanya McErlain, Senior Project Director at ACER. “Students will be presented with a stimulus, such as a passage, cartoon, table, graph or diagram and will then need to apply their thinking and problem solving skills.”

The tests assess proficiencies like the quality of original ideas and how students organise their thoughts. Students will demonstrate higher order thinking, showing how they learn and express themselves rather than simply recalling facts and figures. “The tests are very challenging, designed to differentiate amongst the most highly able students,” Tanya says.

Unlike classroom testing or NAPLAN, where students are compared against the general population, scholarship exams compare students within a high performing group. As such, parents and students may need to prepare themselves for the results reports, which may appear lower than expected.  

Edutest states that it is quite normal for children to answer only 50% of the questions correctly, and to leave many questions only partially completed. It is important to view scholarship exams as different to what your child may have experienced before and to set their expectations accordingly.

How does a family prepare for scholarship testing?

Given the differences between classroom testing and scholarship testing, it can be difficult for parents to know how best to help their children prepare. Some families employ tutors or consult coaching services to work with their children in the lead up to exams.

Both ACER and Edutest provide practice tests online, but Tanya is quick to point out that ACER does not advocate coaching as preparation for sitting selection tests. “The skills assessed by ACER’s scholarship tests are developed over a long period of time,” she states.

“Parents would be advised to encourage a love of learning, wide and critical reading and engagement in classroom and extracurricular activities, rather than invest in short courses at coaching colleges.”

Similarly, Edutest states that practice tests are “NOT coaching tools, and do not duplicate the actual scholarship/entrance exam material.” They may help you and your child gain a better understanding of the style of questions presented, but unlike the actual test in an exam environment, practice tests are completed at home and in your child’s own time.

“The best advice is to ensure that your child is as relaxed as possible, and that they try to do their best” says Edutest.

What can students expect on the big day?

Scholarship testing is not designed to be high pressure, though of course children and their families will be keen to succeed. Helping children manage their stress levels may be the most valuable thing you can do to help them prepare.

“Schools try to create a calm test environment in which all students have an opportunity to perform to their best abilities,” Tanya says, but she also recommends a few strategies to keep up your sleeve if your child is anxious. Consider visiting the school in advance, for example, to familiarise your child with the grounds and the exam room.

Tanya also suggests:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep,
  • Allowing plenty of time to travel to the venue, find the room and settle in, and
  • Setting reasonable expectations about the outcomes.

Once in the exam room, students need to:

  • Listen carefully to the supervisors’ instructions,
  • Take the time to read the stimulus material and questions properly,
  • Manage their time effectively (eg. don’t spend too much time on any one question), and
  • Answer every question (as no marks are deducted for incorrect responses).

Importantly, Tanya reminds parents to “read the requirements for each scholarship application thoroughly to ensure they have submitted all the necessary information required by the school.” There is little point encouraging your child to sit an exam if other aspects of their application are incomplete or render them ineligible.

As much as a scholarship may make a big difference to your child’s education, realistically, says Tanya, “Only a small percentage of children will be offered a scholarship and there are many children sitting scholarship tests.” Schools take a range of factors into consideration when offering scholarships, so while exams are important, they are not the ‘be all and end all’ of your scholarship application. And remember, there’s always next year!

For more information on the different types of scholarships offered, check out our article about giving your child the best chance at a scholarship here.

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