Exam Prep

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For many students, preparing for admission tests and exams, like the SSAT and ISEE exams for private schools, seems like a big obstacle. These difficult exams are most students’ introduction to intensely competitive standardized testing. Since test-taking is a skill that isn’t always taught in the classroom, most students must find ways to prepare outside of school hours. 

In this article, we’ll discuss both SSAT and ISEE exams, what they are, what they entail, and some useful strategies that can make studying for these exams easier. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

What is the ISEE?

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is an exam used by most private schools to assess applicants for admission. The Educational Records Bureau (ERB) administers this test to asses students’ academic ability in elementary, middle, and high school. The exam is organized into four levels because it covers a wide spectrum of students, starting from grade two through grade 12: 

  • Primary level ISEE — grades two through four
  • Lower level ISEE— grades fifth through sixth
  • Middle-level ISEE— grades seven through eight
  • Upper-level ISEE— grades nine through twelve

The same four key competencies — Verbal Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Reasoning, and Mathematics Achievement — are tested regardless of the exam; however, the difficulty level and format may change. We’ll cover these later in greater detail. 

However, it’s crucial to mention that each of the Lower, Middle, and Upper-level ISEE tests also includes an essay question. The essay isn’t graded but submitted as a writing sample to the educational institution the student is applying to. 

What is the SSAT?

SSAT, also known as Secondary School Admission Test, is an essential component of secondary school applications. You’re most likely to submit SSAT scores if you’re applying to a private school in the US. 

The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) administers the standardized test to assess four competencies: Verbal Reasoning, Math I, Math II, and Reading Comprehension. There’s also an ungraded Experimental section in which where test providers test out new questions on students. 

It’s also important to note that the SSAT also encompasses an essay, but unlike ISEE, the writing segment of the test applies to all levels. Of course, the difficulty and formatting of the exams, including the essay, vary by the following levels: 

  • Elementary level — grades three and four
  • Middle level — grades five through seven
  • Upper Level — grades eight through eleven

The SSAT exam levels, like the ISEE, comprise students of various grade levels. Those who take the test are only evaluated against the average score of other students who took the test within the last three years. For example, a tenth-grader is only evaluated against other tenth-graders. 

It’s also important to mention that students do not take the test for the grade they are entering; rather, they take the test for the grade they are presently in. Each of the three SSAT levels is created to evaluate appropriate material for the student’s particular grade level.

The SSAT “is not an accomplishment test or an evaluation of personal traits,” according to the EMA. It is a part of the whole application. It is written and edited by curriculum and testing specialists as well as educators from independent schools.

SSAT scores are a required component of the majority of student applications to private schools in the United States. Schools, however, will probably emphasize SSAT scores differently during the admissions process.

What are the Differences Between the ISEE and SSAT?

Tests for the elementary, middle, and upper grades are available from both standardized SSAT and ISEE exam providers. Elite boarding institutions typically choose the SSAT, while private schools in New York City favor the ISEE. A lot of schools accept both tests. However, we advise you to check with each school’s admissions office to ensure they accept the exam you want.

Students must be proficient in verbal reasoning, vocabulary, quantitative reasoning, math, and reading for the two tests, which are identical in length and content. Both require a writing example — except for ISEE Primary Level — which is sent ungraded along with the test results to the schools your child is applying to. 

The main difference between the two tests is that the SSAT has two math sections and an experimental one. ISEE also has two math sections, but they’re named and conceptualized differently.

There are other differences in how tests are performed and scored: 

  • Verbal — Both tests have synonyms, but SSAT has analogies, and ISEE has students completing sentences. 
  • Essay — Both tests have unscored essay sections. ISEE students write expository essays, while middle-level SSAT students write creative essays, and upper-level SSAT students write either creative or expository essays, depending on personal choice. 
  • Math — both tests have two math sections, and while they’re named differently, they cover the same arithmetic material. However, ISEE math sections are typically thought to be more challenging.
  • Difficulty — the SSAT or ISEE will be more or less challenging for students depending on whether they’re better at math or English Language Arts. The arithmetic parts on the ISEE are also thought to be more challenging than those on the SSAT, whereas the verbal component of the SSAT is thought to be tougher than the ISEE’s.
  • Scheduling — Students can take the SSAT multiple times each year. Exam dates are actually provided each month. The ISEE is only taken once per testing season. Students who take the ISEE endure additional psychological hardship if they cannot retake the exam and receive better results. 

Scoring Difference

Scores on the SSAT and ISEE vary. In the SSAT, each accurate response is worth one point, whereas each incorrect response deducts one-quarter of a point. But incorrect responses are not penalized in the ISEE. Making an educated guess is harmless. 

This is where tutoring may be really beneficial: learning how to plan the entire test and learning the critical step of identifying the obviously incorrect answers in multiple-choice questions before making a guess as to which answer is best.

Another significant distinction is that the ISEE separates the two math components (Quantitative Reasoning and Math Achievement) into separate scores, whereas the SSAT combines the two math sections into a single Quantitative Reasoning score. This is another reason why students with weaker math skills might choose the SSAT. 

Should I take the ISEE or SSAT?

This is a somewhat tricky question because the right answer depends on the student’s preference and aptitude and school requirements. The school’s requirements are the most important factor in deciding between SSAT and the ISEE test. Although we previously mentioned that most schools are likely to accept either test, checking with the school’s administration never hurts anyone. 

If the school of choice doesn’t have a preference and accepts both tests, it’s vital to understand the difference between them. If a student is more mathematically inclined, the ISEE may be a better fit. However, if the student excels at verbal/writing skills, SSAT might be a better choice. As previously stated, the SSAT’s verbal section is more difficult than the ISEE’s, while the ISEE’s math section is more difficult than the SSAT’s.

Diving Into the ISEE Test

In this section, we’ll dive deeper into the ISEE test, everything it encompasses, and how to adequately prepare for the upcoming admission. 

Is the ISEE Test Hard?

The ISEE exam is a fairly difficult test designed to challenge multiple grade levels, so it’s natural that it contains material some students will be unfamiliar with. Ultimately, they’ll be graded compared to other students at their grade level. 

The ISEE contains material that most students should be familiar with through their regular schoolwork, so it shouldn’t be too challenging if the students are on top of their current coursework and performing well in classes. 

However, ISEE can be challenging for some students falling behind in their studies for various reasons or who may not feel comfortable taking timed exams. That’s why it’s crucial to begin the ISEE test preparations as soon as possible to fill in the gaps and develop the student’s test-taking strategies. 

Of course, the challenges of ISEE mostly depend on the student. Due to the extensive vocabulary, many students find the Verbal Reasoning segment to be challenging, particularly if they’re not regularly reading and learning new words. 

Some people might find the Mathematics Achievement part more difficult because it includes some more complex math concepts that students might not have studied in school yet.

How Long Does it Take to Prepare for the ISEE

The best approach is to have the student take a free test online to determine their baseline score. It should be treated like a real test, and it will provide the student and the tutor with a starting point. The practice tests allow students and tutors to determine the areas and topics the student’s struggling with, so they can focus their effort on said areas. 

Students with the average baseline score usually require 6-8 months of ISEE test prep. The test is difficult for most students since it covers material at a higher level. There’s a good chance a stunt might run into language or mathematical material they haven’t covered in class. Thus averagely scored students should take at least six months of ISEE prep time.

Students with higher baseline scores could prepare in less time, while students with lower baseline scores might take roughly nine to 12 months to adequately prepare. Additionally, having a test prep tutor with years of experience can make the difference between passing and failing; online and in-person private tutoring sessions may be viable options. 

What is the Best Way to Prepare for the ISEE? 

The best possible way to prepare for the Independent School Entrance Examination test is to do it in a timely manner and with aid from a mentor with teaching experience. The best possible approach to adequate preparation is to obtain in-person or online tutoring and begin the preparations well in advance of the upcoming admission period. 

As previously stated, the baseline score should determine the timeframe necessary for prep, but adding more to the student’s study plan can’t hurt. This will allow for incremental progress and improvement over time, additional planning, and time management. 

It’s also worth mentioning that ISEE preparations are more akin to a marathon than a sprint, so slow and steady wins the race. It’s generally considered best that the preparation aligns with and extends from the student’s current curriculum framework. 

This would allow both students and their tutors to tie in the preparations with what the student is already learning or is about to learn in their own curriculum. All learning is significantly improved when it’s related to something the student already knows, is familiar with, or has the desire to learn. 

With this approach, studying for 30 to 60 minutes a day, with ISEE tutoring sessions at least twice a week, should be more than enough to pass the test in higher percentiles. However, students with busy and extremely hectic schedules could find it difficult to fit the ISEE studies into their daily activities. 

How Many Questions are on the ISEE?

The Upper and Middle-level ISEE exams contain approximately 161 questions, divided into the following segments: 

  • Verbal Reasoning — Vocabulary plays a large part in the ISEE’s Verbal Reasoning component, which features synonym and sentence completion questions. This section moves quickly because there are 40 questions and students only have 20 minutes.
  • Quantitative Reasoning — Word problems and quantitative comparisons are the two types of questions included in the Quantitative Reasoning section. Students must decide which quantity in column A or B is greater to make a quantitative comparison. There are 37 questions in this session, which lasts 35 minutes. 
  • Reading Comprehension — The ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section takes 35 minutes to complete and consists of 36 questions over six passages. Students will respond to a series of multiple-choice questions for each passage that will require them to select the passage’s key ideas and supporting details, make deductions, and assess the vocabulary, structure, tone, and figurative language employed. 
  • Mathematics Achievement — This section lasts 40 minutes, has 47 questions, and focuses more on evaluating students s on specific math concepts than it does on thinking. The following are the major subject areas covered: numbers and operations algebra, geometry, measurements, problem-solving with data analysis, and probability.

Calculators aren’t permitted. Therefore, it’s crucial that students know the key formulas required to solve problems.

Diving into the SSAT Test

We already covered what the SSAT test is, but what does it really entail, and how does one prepare for the test? In this section, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about the SSAT test. 

Is SSAT Test Hard?

The SSAT is meant to be more challenging than other school tests. It is common for diligent students to feel dissatisfied if they do not correctly answer 90% or more of the SSAT questions. On the SSAT, almost every student will come across a few questions that they are unable to solve. 

The SSAT isn’t designed or intended to reflect a student’s academic performance or grades, and students need specialized tutoring in order to attain adequate preparedness for the SSAT. Regular schoolwork doesn’t suffice, but it does lay a good foundation upon which student may build their knowledge.

As with the ISEE test, test-takers who fell behind on their coursework may feel that the SSAT test is difficult. To fill in the gaps and refine the student’s test-taking techniques, it is imperative to start the SSAT test preparations as soon as possible. This also implies that different students might find different exam sections more challenging than others. 

How Long Does it Take to Prepare for the SSAT

Most experts suggest six to four months of preparation but like to recommend eight to six months, just like with ISEE tests. Starting early will grant students more time to study the challenging material and important test-taking strategies.

Additionally, having more time to prepare would also allow them to become more acquainted with the test’s format and material in a relaxed setting, which lessens test-related anxiety. Of course, adequate preparation plans and methods will significantly benefit the student, which is why we recommend looking into private tutoring

Start by having the student take a full-length, comprehensive SAAT practice exam. The result will act as a starting point for the preparation. As previously stated, the preparation period length mostly depends on the student’s test exam scores, with lower scores taking more time to prepare and vice versa. 

Although we advise beginning at least six months before your exam date, practicing at any time helps. So, there’s no better time than now!

What is the Best Way to Prepare for the SSAT?

Just like with ISEE, the best way to prepare for the SSAT is to do it early and with help from someone who has experience tutoring. Finding a mentor/tutor and starting the preparations far before the approaching admission period is the best way to ensure proper preparedness.

As previously said, the baseline score should define the amount of preparation time required, but it doesn’t harm to have the student add more time to their study schedule. This will enable gradual advancement and improvement over time as the admission period approaches. Here are some tips and tricks that apply to both SSAT and ISEE tests: 

  • Schedule with consistency — Instead of a few lengthy sessions, it is preferable to practice more frequently and for shorter periods of time, as opposed to once a week for five hours. Students are more likely to improve and retain their test-taking skills and topic understanding by regularly practicing. 
  • Take practice tests — By taking practice tests, students will become more comfortable with the test’s format, style, and content, which will increase their confidence and alleviate any test-day anxiety. Taking a mock exam under the guidance of a tutor is among the most efficient studying techniques. 
  • Study vocabulary — Students should learn as many new words as possible because they’ll likely run into them in the Verbal Reasoning section. Even only 15 minutes a day of study time can make a big difference. There are various methods for learning vocabulary, such as making flashcards, creating sentences using the vocabulary terms, making illustrations of the phrases, and using the words in regular conversation.
  • Read challenging texts — Students can prepare for Reading Comprehension by reading various materials, such as nonfiction books and newspaper articles. Reading difficult literature is essential for the development of their reading abilities. It’s also a great way to sharpen their focus, which will help them with vocabulary, writing, and test-taking ability in general. 

How Many Questions are on the SSAT?

The Upper and Middle-level SSAT exams contain approximately 167 questions, divided into segments comparable to those of ISEE exams. Even the timing is similar, with small distinctions that make SSAT’s inclinations towards literacy skills more noticeable. The question count is as follows:

  • Quantitative Reasoning I (Math I) — 25 questions
  • Reading Comprehension — 40 questions
  • Verbal — 60 questions
  • Quantitative Reasoning II (Math II) — 25 questions
  • Experimental — 16 questions 
  • Essay — 1 question

How do I Tutor the ISEE?

Parents that want to tutor their children to prepare for the ISEE should prepare them for the long format of the test, which includes the aforementioned sections spread across 2 hours and 40 minutes — not counting two 10-minute breaks.

You should also help the student build up the ability to focus for long periods, mimicking the test environments. ISEE test consists of three blocks, each consisting of two test segments and two breaks. Each block, with the exception of essay writing, is comprised of one math and one ELA segment.

This type of grouping allows students to change and better maintain their focus before the break, followed by another block. With that said, you should train your student to maintain focus for at least an hour per block.

Lastly, focus on all skills that are required for the ISEE, and double down on the ones in which the student underperforms. Everything said, for the best results, we advise that you seek help from a professional ISEE tutor. 

Preparing for Your Test With a Tutor

Many families seek private tutors or tutoring centers’ help to improve their child’s test scores, and many of them claim that tutoring play a key role in successful school admissions. A competent tutor will evaluate the student’s current level and pinpoint precisely which abilities they need to focus on to raise the student’s results. 

Tutors can provide both students and their parents with a preparation plan and help direct the actual preparation, assisting the student in increasing their self-confidence and performance. If you’re looking for a private tutoring service, we suggest contacting Kenny Tan — a private tutor with more than 10,000 hours of test prep experience as both tutor and a student. 


SSAT and ISEE tests don’t have to be stressful, provided adequate test prep. If you decide to hire a tutor, make sure you hire an expert. Kenny Tan, with his patient and creative approach to tutoring, can help you or your child succeed on the SSAT, ISEE, HSPT, SHSAT, and other admission tests.