Independent School Admissions Exams: Summer Study Tips

Last updated Jul 8, 2022 

School’s out for the summer! It’s time for kids to relax, hang out with friends, go to camp, and have fun at family barbecues. For any student who intends to apply to a private or independent school, it’s also time to start preparing for the independent school admissions exams, such as the High School Placement Test (HSPT), Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), and the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination). Although these placement tests are just one part of the admission process, having a summer study plan is a great way to build confidence, reduce stress, and boost scores.

Get to Know the Tests: HSPT, SSAT, and ISEE

The HSPT, SSAT, or ISEE are the three exams that high schools will use to determine admission, placement, and scholarship eligibility. The HSPT is exclusively a test taken by eighth graders seeking admission to Catholic high schools. The SSAT and ISEE offer tests at multiple grade levels, so students applying to private and independent high schools will take either the SSAT’s Upper Level exam or the ISEE’s Upper Grades exam. For a closer look at the SSAT and ISEE, please refer to our previous series on these exams. But right now, all you need to know are the basics.

Test Dates
  • Administered in October or November at the school to which students intend to apply.
  • Contact the school to register.
  • Administered once a month in June and between October and April.
  • Administered once per testing season (Fall, Winter, Spring/Summer) during a 12-month time period. 
  • 2 hours and 30 minutes (298 questions)
  • 3 hours and 5 minutes (170 questions)
  • 2 hours and 40 minutes (160 questions)
  • Five sections: Verbal Skills (60 questions, 16 minutes), Quantitative Skills (52 questions, 30 minutes), Reading (62 questions, 25 minutes), Mathematics (64 questions, 45 minutes), Language Skills (60 questions, 25 minutes).
  • Five sections: quantitative (25 questions, 30 minutes), reading (40 questions, 40 minutes), verbal (60 questions, 30 minutes), quantitative (25 questions, 30 minutes), experimental (16 questions, 15 minutes), and an unscored writing sample (1 prompt, 25 minutes). 
  • Five sections: Verbal Reasoning (40 questions, 20 minutes), Quantitative, Reasoning (37 questions, 35 minutes), Reading Comprehension (36 questions, 35 minutes), Mathematics Achievement (47 questions, 40 minutes), and a unscored Essay (1 prompt, 30 minutes).
  • Correct answers are worth one point.
  • There is no penalty for incorrect answers, so it’s okay to guess.
  • Raw scores are converted to scaled scores between 200-800.
  • Each school sets its own admission criteria and will look more closely at percentile rank.
  • Students should take the test once or their lowest score will be used.
  • Correct answers are worth one point.
  • Students lose one-quarter point for each question answered incorrectly, so it’s good to know when to skip versus guess.
  • Raw scores are converted to scaled scores between 500-800 points each for Verbal, Quantitative, and Reading (1500-2400 total points).
  • Score reports include a percentile rank for each category. 
  • Correct answers are worth one point.
  • There is no penalty for incorrect answers, so it’s okay to guess.
  • Raw scores are converted to scaled scores between 760–940.
  • Results are reported in percentile ranks and stanines, a score from 1-9 that is based on your child’s percentile rank (4-6 is average).
  • Each school sets its own admission criteria.
Other Considerations
  • No calculators.
  • Emphasizes grammar and vocabulary.
  • Can be taken up to eight times.
  • Computer-based testing available at Prometric testing sites and at home.
  • Taking the test more than once is discouraged.
  • Testing offered at home, at school, and at testing offices.


Plan Ahead: Assess, Schedule, Organize, and Practice

Studying for a test during the summer is not exactly going to be easy when other activities promise less stress and more fun. That’s why having a study plan makes preparing for placement tests as painless as possible. 

  1. Take a diagnostic test and set score goals. An initial diagnostic test will help set reasonable score goals and identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses: Did you run out of time in a particular section? Did you make a lot of careless errors? What topics or question types cost you the most points? What topics or question types earned you the most points?
  2. Create a study calendar. Use a calendar app or paper calendar to note any upcoming activities, appointments, vacations, or other plans. Once that’s done, you can start planning your test prep. Mark down any important dates or deadlines (e.g. registration deadlines, test dates, etc.) and decide what 2-3 dates should be reserved for practice tests. Finally, think about how you study best and create weekly routines that help you hone your strengths while working on your weaknesses. For example, if you don’t like the idea of studying every day, schedule 2-3 review sessions a week that last for at least an hour. If you prefer doing a little bit throughout the week, schedule 20-30 minutes a day to work on specific skills (e.g. vocabulary, reading comprehension, geometry, etc.). Make sure you space studying out to avoid cramming and give yourself breaks to prevent burnout. 
  3. Gather study materials. It’s always a good idea to get at least one test prep book for information on the test, content review, practice questions, and several scorable practice tests. To review vocabulary, you might also want to use flashcard apps, such as Quizlet, or create your own flashcards. 
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice tests help students get comfortable with the format and timing of the test. A good study plan should include at least 2-3 practice tests spaced out throughout the summer to assess a student’s progress. Tests should be taken in close to “real world” conditions, including taking the test in one sitting in a quiet space. Always review your results and reassess your study plan and goals. Practice should not be limited to just practice tests. Each study session should focus on one or two topics followed by completing a set of practice exercises.

Study Strategies and Tips

  • Get to know your test. Visit websites for the test your student is taking to access information about the test, including registration, accommodations, and costs (e.g. About the SSAT, HSPT Parent’s Page) or download informational brochures like the ISEE’s What to Expect on the ISEE. Review the specific directions for each test, including each section of the test.
  • Setting reasonable goals. Each school sets its own admission criteria, so a good score for a particular test will depend on the schools to which a student is applying. To qualify for admission, schools will refer to a student’s percentile rank, or how a student compares to his or her peers, rather than focusing on just the scaled score. What that means is that most students should aim to earn a score at least within the 50th percentile but a good score would ideally be within the 75th percentile or above. Contact the school and ask for the average test scores of successful applicants. Ultimately, a reasonable score goal for any of the three high school placement tests could be moving from close to the 50th percentile to the 75th percentile.
  • Focus on heavily tested topics. Students should definitely plan on studying vocabulary and practicing reading in order to do well on any of the three high school placement tests. To prepare for the math sections of the test, plan on studying exponents, proportions, percents, algebraic expressions, ratios, angles, volume, and area.
  • Don’t neglect your strengths. Get the most out of your study time and maximize your score by focusing on the easiest questions you’ve missed on practice tests. The goal is to earn as many points as possible, so build on your strengths rather than spending a lot of time trying to study the hardest vocabulary words and the most difficult math questions.
  • Don’t forget to practice test-taking strategies. Doing well on standardized tests involves more than reviewing how to solve word problems and knowing where to find a main idea in a reading passage. Students should be able to use the process of elimination, understand what a question is asking, skip challenging questions in order to focus on easy questions, mark difficult questions to return to later, and write in the test booklet.
  • Reading more will boost your score. Taking some time this summer to read more is a great way to have fun while also preparing for your entrance exams. Reading will help students build vocabulary, improve comprehension, and develop writing skills. Sample a variety of genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography).

Manage test anxiety. It’s okay to be nervous, but have a plan in place to keep your anxiety from getting in the way of doing your best. Manage test anxiety by getting to know the test and any testing requirements. Practice using official test materials and avoid cramming. Try to eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep. Take a break and visualize success if you start to panic. Put things in perspective: your test scores are just one aspect of your admissions application.

How A+ Can Help

Studying for an independent school admissions exam can be intimidating, especially if you and your child are doing it alone. If you are interested in additional test prep support, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring offers SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT Test Prep services. You can schedule a free diagnostic test and sign up for one-on-one tutoring that includes ten sessions (90 minutes per session), math and verbal coursebooks, practice tests, and score review. Tutors focus on each student’s individual needs with an emphasis on content review and test-taking strategies. 

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Director Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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