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Breaking Down the SSAT and ISEE — Your Private School Entrance Exams

This article is sponsored by Test Innovators, which offers advanced online test prep.

Although private and boarding schools offer families compelling programs and advantages, the admissions process — which can begin a year or more ahead of the entry year — can seem daunting.

The first hurdle many families encounter in the application process is unfamiliar standardized admissions exams: the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) and Secondary School Admissions Exam (SSAT). Most private, independent, and boarding schools require one of these tests for admission. Research your schools to determine which test they accept (some accept both!) and prepare accordingly.

As you go into the preparation process, keep in mind that scores on the ISEE and SSAT do not necessarily correlate with class performance. The ISEE and SSAT measure how students compare to thousands of the top students around the country, and therefore your student’s initial scores may not be as high as you anticipate.

Get started with free mini-tests for the ISEE or SSAT now.

What are the levels of each test?

The level of the test a student will take is determined by the grade to which you’re applying. Here’s the breakdown:

SSAT ISEE
SSAT Elementary Level: students applying to grades 4-5
ISEE Primary Level: students applying to grades 3-4
SSAT Middle Level: students applying to grades 6-8
ISEE Lower Level: students applying to grades 5-6
SSAT Upper Level: students applying to grades 9-12
ISEE Middle Level: students applying to grades 7-8
SSAT
ISEE Upper Level: students applying to grades 9-12

Major Differences Between the ISEE and SSAT

If you have the option of taking either test, it’s important to know the differences between the two so you can make an informed choice. One of the most significant differences between the ISEE and the SSAT is the score report. The ISEE presents four section scores, while the SSAT shows only three. Although both tests have four multiple choice sections (two math, one verbal, and one reading), the SSAT combines the two math section scores into one number on the final report, while the ISEE keeps the two separate. Thus, students hoping to highlight their abilities in math should aim to take the ISEE if possible.

Other differences between the ISEE and SSAT include:

  • Guessing strategy: The Middle and Upper Level SSAT have a guessing penalty: students receive one point for each correct answer, zero points for questions left blank, and lose ¼ point for each wrong answer. This scoring model can sometimes increase feelings of anxiety for nervous test takers. The ISEE does not remove points for incorrect answers.
  • Writing sample: As part of both the ISEE and the SSAT, students complete an unscored writing sample. This piece of writing is sent to schools along with scores on the multiple-choice sections of the test, and admissions departments consider it as part of a student’s application. On the ISEE, students are prompted to write an expository essay, while the SSAT provides Middle Level testers the choice between two creative writing prompts, and Upper Level testers the choice between a creative prompt and an expository prompt.
  • Verbal section: Both the ISEE and SSAT ask students to answer synonym questions. In addition to these, the ISEE features sentence completions, while the SSAT has analogy questions. A student should try each of these types of questions and see which is more intuitive.

When can you take the test?

The SSAT offers test dates every month, while the ISEE can be taken once in each of its testing seasons. The ISEE seasons are fall (August–November), winter (December–March), and spring/summer (April–July).

Since students can take the SSAT and the ISEE more than once, it’s a good idea to be strategic about when they first take the test. Don’t sign up for the last available test day before applications are due. Give yourself time so that your child can take the test again if the first test does not go as well as you had hoped.

View registration information and test dates for the SSAT here: EMA

View registration information and test dates for the ISEE here: ERB

How should students prepare for the test?

  • Start early – even six months before the test date. Begin with a full-length practice test, which will serve as a diagnostic. (Here’s where to find one for the ISEE and SSAT.) This will give your student a deeper understanding of the exam’s specific format and level of difficulty. Don’t expect your child to know everything right off the bat: the exams are challenging and will often delve into above-grade-level content.
  • Pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Use full-length practice tests to identify areas that need work and focus study on those areas. Learn the relevant concepts and skills, and then apply those through targeted practice. To improve performance on the verbal section, students should study 20 or so vocabulary words every week. Consider hiring a test-prep tutor if your student has some catching up to do!
  • Encourage your child to practice essay writing with different essay prompts and topics about once per week.
  • Learn test-taking skills. Quickly eliminating wrong answers and managing time efficiently will maximize your child’s performance on test day.

While certainly not the only criteria for admission, the SSAT and ISEE play an important role in creating a more complete picture for school admissions staff, helping to choose between potential students.

The Role of the ISEE and SSAT and Why Practice Nets Tangible Results

The purpose of the ISEE and SSAT is clear: to provide a standardized metric by which to compare students. Other possible metrics, such as grades or teacher evaluations, can vary significantly between schools, making them less helpful to admissions committees.

While certainly not the only criteria for admission, these exams play an important role in creating a more complete picture for school admissions staff, helping to choose between potential students. The importance of scoring well on these exams cannot be understated.

When a school receives hundreds or thousands of applications every year for only a few spots, it is highly unlikely that the admissions staff will have time to fully consider every aspect of every application. At such times, the only applications that get evaluated have standardized test scores above a certain threshold.

A lower score on standardized tests can help to identify students who may have fallen behind the expected curriculum. In this case, a lower score indicates that a student may require additional resources and assistance from the school in order to succeed.

Though standardized tests are only one aspect of a holistic application process, it is important that test scores are high enough to be consistent with the rest of the application and to represent the true capacity of the student.

In Summary

Test-taking is a Teachable Skill

Like any performance-based activity, test-taking is a skill that can be learned. The ISEE and SSAT are challenging exams that intentionally expose test-takers to material and question types not covered in a standard curriculum. Research indicates that beyond content knowledge, test-taking behavior is important for optimum test performance. Exposure and consistent practice have proven to be the most efficient method to tame both tough questions and test-related stress.

Understanding Strengths and Weaknesses

To expediently determine how much prior study will be required, take a practice test as early as possible. This serves as a diagnostic: It indicates how the student would score if taking the test today, and provides a practice roadmap, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. This gives the student realistic, data-driven feedback on where there may be knowledge gaps, and where to focus attention and effort.

Check out these free mini-tests for the ISEE or SSAT now.

About the authors: Test Innovators offers an advanced online test prep solution that leverages aspects of machine learning, AI, and big data to improve test scores and help students gain acceptance into schools with selective admissions processes. Test Innovators proprietary practice tests are an accurate reflection of the official tests. Practice exercises, scoring results, and related information are used to help students understand the gap between their existing scores and what they need to get accepted at their school of choice.   

Find a free ISEE mini-practice test here!
Find a free SSAT mini-practice test here!

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Breaking Down the SSAT and ISEE — Your Private School Entrance Exams