In 1903 HMC set up the Common Entrance Examination Committee and the first Common Examination for Entrance to Public Schools was in 1904. Twenty-five senior schools participated; today some two hundred and fifty senior schools use Common Entrance.

The first examinations comprised papers in English Grammar, Composition and Literature, French Grammar, Composition and Translation, Greek Grammar, Composition and Translation, Latin Grammar, Composition and Translation, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, English History and Geography. Scripture was added in the 1930s and a general Mathematics paper in 1954. Science was not included until 1969, although during the Second World War naval candidates borrowed a Science paper from the Board of Admiralty as an alternative to Latin.

Common Entrance for girls was introduced after the Second World War and was run by a separate committee, the Common Entrance Examination for Girls' Schools. Entry to girls' schools was normally at 11+, sometimes at 12+ and occasionally at 13+, when papers were borrowed from the boys' committee. At 11+, papers were taken in English and Arithmetic, later replaced by Mathematics; Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning papers were introduced later. At 12+, as well as English and Mathematics, there were French papers, a General paper and eventually a Science paper.

The boys' and girls' committees amalgamated in 1989 and in 1990 the Common Entrance Board (later renamed the Independent Schools Examinations Board) was born. A number of changes ensued. Most significantly, Common Entrance was brought into line with the National Curriculum. At 13+, the irreducible core was established as English, Mathematics and Science with optional papers in Classical Greek, French, Geography, German, History, Latin, Religious Studies and Spanish. At 11+ Science was introduced and Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning papers were dropped at the end of the 1990s.

The year 2003 marked the introduction of non-prescriptive mark schemes for all subjects and the demise of the 12+ examination. A year later the Common Academic Scholarship Examination (CASE), based on Common Entrance syllabuses, was introduced. Since then, there has been a constant refinement of all Common Entrance syllabuses and papers. In most subjects there are different levels to encourage weaker candidates and to help identify stronger ones. Both knowledge and skills are tested in all papers.