Contemplating going to a private day or boarding school? Take the SSAT or the ISEE. Your scores will be used by admissions officers as a supplement to your entire application. Learn more about the exam with this helpful breakdown.
The SSAT consists of five sections:
Writing Sample*: A two-page, handwritten response to one of two essay prompts. One is a creative prompt (“She couldn’t believe what she saw when she turned on the light.”) and the other is a persuasive one (If you could create one invention to solve a major problem, what would it be?). This section is not scored but is scanned and sent to schools with the score report. The writing sample gives admissions officers a sense of how you write and how you think. It’s a chance to show off your creativity and your analytical skills.
Quantitative Reasoning: Two sections of word problems that test a student’s math ability, especially math reasoning . The Upper Level test covers Algebra, Geometry, Fractions, Numbers and Measurements, Exponents, and Proportions.
Reading Comprehension: A section in which students read passages and then answer up to six questions about each passage. Passages each cover one topic from the areas of history, fiction, science, poetry, etc. This section allows you to show off your critical reading and analytical skills.
Verbal Reasoning: The first half of this section asks synonym questions to test vocabulary, and the second half consists of analogies. Studying difficult vocabulary is a must to succeed on this part of the exam. It’s not unusual for students to need to learn hundreds of challenging vocab words. The good news is that if you build your vocabulary now, by the time you get to the standardized tests in high school–the ACT/the SAT/the APs–you will have a huge advantage.
Experimental**: This section is ungraded and may cover any of the above content. The test-makers use this section to write future SSATs, but our students don’t need to worry about preparing for this section.
The ISEE consists of five sections:
Verbal Reasoning: The first half of this section asks synonym questions to test vocabulary, and the second half consists of sentences with fill-in-the-blanks. Like the SSAT, its crucial that you learn many new and challenging words in order to succeed in this section. Building your vocab now will make you a stronger reader and test taker in the years to come.
Quantitative Reasoning: Same as SSAT Quantitative Reasoning. The end of this section has a set of questions called “quantitative comparisons” in which a student evaluates the equations, numbers, or graphs in two columns and determines if one is larger, the values are the same, or they have no relationship. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Many students are confused by this subsection at first, but it’s teachable.
Reading Comprehension: Same as SSAT Reading Comprehension. A variety of readings on different topics.
Mathematics Achievement: Similar to Quantitative Reasoning, but rather than primarily testing the student’s reasoning, this section tests the student’s math abilities with questions more similar to the types of questions they get in school. It’s less “tricky” than the Quantitative section.
Essay*: Similar to SSAT Writing Sample (there is no creative option; just one essay topic).
*The Writing Sample/Essay sections are not scored. Instead, the students’ essays are scanned and submitted to schools with their scores.
**Both tests include unscored, experimental questions that help the test creators write future tests. On the SSAT, these questions are grouped into a separate section at the end of the test. On the ISEE, several experimental questions are scattered in each section. In both cases, experimental questions are not scored.
Note that both tests have an essay, two math sections, a verbal section, and a reading section. Both of them offer two breaks and last about 3 hours. These tests are very, very similar.
Should I take the SSAT or the ISEE?
In almost all cases, a student should take the SSAT, as its advantages can be seen in the side by side comparison below.
|SSAT (Upper Level)||ISEE (Upper Level)|
Can Take Monthly
Most students take the SSAT twice, but they have the opportunity to take
Restricted Re-Taking Procedures
Students can take the ISEE once per testing “window:” Fall (Aug – Nov), Winter (Dec – Mar), Spring/Summer (Apr – Jul). Fall & Winter windows fall during the admissions cycle.
Verbal: Synonyms and Analogies
Analogies are very learnable, especially for students who struggle with vocabulary.
Verbal: Synonyms and Fill-in-Blanks
Fill-in-blanks are harder for students
Math: Both “Quantitative”
Since both sections have the same name, it eliminates confusion for students.
Math: Quant, Math Achievement
The Quantitative section includes a subsection called “Quantitative Comparisons” that is unnecessarily confusing to almost all students.
¼-Point Penalty for Guessing,
Learning when to guess and when
No Penalty for Guessing,
4 Answer Choices per QuestionIf you don’t know it, guess and move on.
Due to the opportunities to re-take the SSAT, the teachability of SSAT Analogies, and the confusion of the ISEE Quantitative Comparisons, the SSAT is almost always the preferable test.
The only time it would be preferable to take the ISEE, then, is if a student is able to gain accommodations on the ISEE but not on the SSAT. (Being different companies, the makers of these tests could come to different conclusions about a student’s necessary accommodations.)
What level exam should I take?
The SSAT is taken by students currently in grades 3 through 11.
|Which grade are you in?||Take this SSAT level:|
|Grade 3||Elementary Level Grade 3|
|Grade 4||Elementary Level Grade 4|
|Grades 5 – 7||Middle Level|
|Grades 8 – 11||Upper Level|
The ISEE is taken by students applying to grades 2 through 12.
|To which grade are you applying?||Take this ISEE level:|
|Grades 2 – 4||Primary Level (online only)|
|Grades 5 and 6||Lower Level|
|Grades 7 and 8||Middle Level|
|Grades 9 – 12||Upper Level|
Each test uses a different qualification (which grade are you in vs. which grade are you applying to).
This means that a student currently in 8th grade would take the Upper Level SSAT or the Upper Level ISEE. A student currently in 5th grade, though, would take the Middle Level SSAT but the Lower Level ISEE.
Timing for the SSAT vs. ISEE
Upper and Middle Levels
|Writing||1 question, 25 minutes||1 question, 30 minutes|
|Quantitative Reasoning and/or Math Achievement||50 questions, 60 minutes||84 questions, 75 minutes|
|Reading Comprehension||40 questions, 40 minutes||36 questions, 35 minutes|
|Verbal Reasoning||60 questions, 30 minutes||40 questions, 20 minutes|
|Experimental||16 questions, 15 minutes||NA|
|Total Time||3 hours and 5 minutes||2 hours and 50 minutes|