Get to Know the ISEE and SSAT: A Closer Look (Part 2 of 2)

Last updated May 7, 2021 

Previously, we explored the key features of the ISEE and SSAT. Now that you know the basics, we will take a closer look at each test. Armed with this information, you will be able to choose the best test and best test prep plan for your child.

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Private elementary and secondary schools use the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) for admission throughout the United States. The ISEE can be taken three times a year or once per testing window (Fall, Winter, Spring/Summer). It is recommended to take the test in the Fall Season. Since there are no national testing dates, your child can only register for dates offered in the local area, usually at School Test Sites at prospective schools. Students can also take the test in a private or group setting at a Test Office, which is great for younger kids, students with testing anxiety, or for those who are unable to attend due to scheduling issues. Prometric testing sites offer online-based tests.

The ISEE is most commonly taken by students applying to middle grades, but it is offered at three levels: Lower (students in grades 4-5 applying to grades 5-6), Middle (students in grades 6-8 applying to grades 7-8), and Upper (students in grades 8-11 applying to grades 9-12). The level of the test your child will take depends on the grade level to which he or she is applying.

All students in each testing level will take the same test. A child in the fall of 6th grade applying for admission into 7th grade will take the same Middle Level test as a child in 7th grade applying for admission into 8th grade. So those 6th graders who take the ISEE are going to be challenged a lot because they are taking the same test the 7th graders take. It will be harder for them, but that’s okay. Not only will schools compare their scores only with other 6th graders, but tutoring and test prep can give them an extra edge.

All levels of the ISEE are scored on a 760-940 point scale. The Lower level test will take 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete while the Middle and Upper level tests both take 2 hours and 40 minutes. Each level of the test includes a Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Math Achievement, and Essay section.

Here is a breakdown of each section of the Middle and Upper Level ISEE:

  • Verbal (40 minutes, 20 questions): Sentence Completion and Synonym questions that assess a student’s vocabulary.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (37 minutes, 25 questions): Word Problems and Quantitative comparison questions that assess a student’s problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Mathematics Achievement (47 minutes, 40 questions): Questions assess a student’s knowledge of math skills, concepts, procedures, and terminology (straightforward but requires more complex operations to solve).
  • Reading (36 minutes, 35 questions): Read passages carefully and analytically in order to assess a student’s critical thinking skills.
  • Essay (30 minutes): Write a well-structured, well-supported, and well-written response to questions, such as “Describe your ideal future career.” (Middle Level) or “What accomplishment are you most proud of?”
  • (Upper Level).
  • Note: The essay isn’t scored, but it is sent to school admission committees to be evaluated as a writing sample.

Each question on the ISEE is worth one point, and there are no penalties for wrong answers. Although students should try their best to answer every question, time management is important. There may be some questions you cannot answer and will have to choose your best guess.

Students’ raw scores will be translated into a scaled score, percentile rank, and stanine. Percentile rank indicates the percentage of students in the same grade who have scored at or below a student’s scaled score on recent administrations of the ISEE. So if your child earns a score in the 71st percentile, she scored the same as or higher than 71 percent of her peers taking the test. Stanine scores simply group percentile rank into nine levels. For example, if a 7th grade student is applying for 8th grade and earns a score in the 59th percentile, he would be assigned a stanine score of 5. A student who scored in the 99th percentile would have a stanine score of 9. Stanines are distributed in a typical bell curve with 54 percent of students ranking in stanines 4-6. Students who are ranked in stanines 1-3 represent 22 percent of students while 23 percent of students rank in stanines 7-9.


Private elementary, middle, and high schools also use The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) to evaluate applicants. A Standard Administration of the SSAT can be taken on Saturdays eight times throughout the year, but preferably should be taken in November and December. January is also a popular testing date. Students can take the Standard Administration of the SSAT as many times as they want. Flex tests that are administered by consultants and member schools are another option, but a Flex test (an individually scheduled test in a small group setting) can only be taken once.

The SSAT is administered at three levels: Elementary (students in grades 3-4 applying to grades 4-5), Middle (students in grades 5-7 applying to grades 6-8), and Upper (students in grades 8-11 applying to grades 9-12). At the Elementary Level, students can earn 300-600 points per section for 900-1800 points total. Students taking the test at the Middle Level can earn 440-710 points per section and 1320-2130 points total whereas students taking the test at the Upper Level can earn 500-800 points per section and 1500-2400 points total. The Elementary Level test features a Quantitative, Verbal, Reading, and Writing section that is taken over 1 hour and 40 minutes. Both the Middle and Upper Level SSAT include a Writing Sample, Quantitative, Reading, Verbal, Quantitative, and Experimental section taken over 3 hours and 5 minutes.

Let’s look at a more detailed breakdown of the structure of the Middle and Upper Level SSAT:

  • Quantitative (25 questions, 30 minutes): Does not test advanced math skills. Difficulty comes from figuring out what a question is asking and knowing what skills to apply and what steps to follow to solve it.
  • Reading (40 questions, 40 minutes): Students must read passages carefully in order to analyze them. Questions test comprehension and critical thinking, which may be challenging for students who are inexperienced with these skills.
  • Verbal (60 minutes, 30 questions): Synonym and Analogy questions test students’ vocabulary.
  • Essay (25 minutes): Students must respond to their choice of either a Creative Prompt (Middle and Upper Level) or Formal Prompt (Upper Level). Creative Prompts asks students to write a narrative piece following a sample opening (e.g. It was the most embarrassing moment of his life.). Formal Prompts are primarily expository (e.g. Explain a hobby you have that makes you special). This essay is not scored but is sent to admission committees as writing sample, so it can still be important.


SSAT raw scores are calculated by adding up a student’s number of correct answers and subtracting a quarter of a point for each incorrect answer. Students will not lose points for skipped answers. Raw scores are then translated into scaled scores and percentile rank. The percentile rank is the number that schools care about the most.

What this scoring system does is allow students to significantly improve their percentile rank (e.g. move from the 61st percentile to the 77th percentile) by either answering just six more questions correctly or learning how to balance answering four more questions correctly while skipping eight questions. Test prep is a great way for students to learn how to master this strategy.

Choosing a Test

If you have confirmed with prospective schools that either the ISEE or SSAT can be submitted for the testing requirement, then how do you choose which test is best for your child? Although both ISEE and SSAT are about the same level of difficulty and most students earn comparable scores on them, you should consider the key differences between these two very similar standardized tests when selecting which one your child will take.

Students should consider taking the SSAT if they…

  • perform better on shorter tests
  • are anxious about their math skills
  • don’t mind reading poetry passages
  • can cope with more abstract math
  • would like more time to answer math questions

Students should consider taking the ISEE if they…  

  • find it difficult to apply strategies that would help him or her identify easy/medium/difficult questions or decide when to guess (the SSAT penalizes students for wrong answers)
  • prefer more familiar curriculum-based math questions to abstract math questions
  • can handle taking a slightly longer test
  • like the idea of reading slightly shorter reading passages

Ultimately, however, your first step to choosing the perfect test will be to have your child take a practice test of each test. You can use the results of these diagnostic tests, including the scores and your child’s feedback on the features of both tests, to determine what test would be best to focus on in terms of test prep.

Test Prep Planning

Test prep will give students tools to break down difficult question types and apply their knowledge. For example, students can learn how to use “clue words” to answer sentence completion questions on the ISEE. Younger students, in particular, can benefit from learning how to identify question topics (e.g. probability) and apply math knowledge. Students can also be coached to cope with new concepts. On the SSAT, for example, the Math section contains advanced math content (e.g. slope of a line) that many 8th graders will not know, but test prep can review these new concepts. The Reading section will ask students to read primary source documents and poetry, which could also be challenging, especially for younger students. Learning active reading strategies and process of elimination can be helpful. Tutoring can even help shore up other skills like vocabulary, math skills, and writing. One of the clearest benefits of tutoring, especially for the SSAT, is teaching students how to choose which questions to attempt and which questions to skip to maximize their raw score.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. Our excellent team of tutors can help with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you would like more information, Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware  at are available to answer questions and provide solutions. Please call us at 215-886-9188.


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