Tips on taking the ISEE or SSAT for Private School Admissions

School girl in private school uniform and backpackChoosing and applying to private schools can be a complicated process for parents and students. Private schools select their students based on a range of criteria, including grades and academic achievement, test scores, family association with the school, personal interviews with the prospective student, and matching of talents and interests with the school’s strengths and priorities.

Test  scores on one of the two standardized exams, ISEE and SSAT, are one of the most important factors that private schools consider to make admissions decisions. Unlike more subjective classroom grades, standardized test scores give an objective indication on whether your child meets the school’s academic standards. With a bit of planning and preparation for these exams, you can make sure that your child’s admissions test scores enhance their chances of acceptance at the school you have chosen.


Which Test: ISEE or SSAT?

Both the ISEE and the SSAT are accepted by most private schools. If you have the choice of exams, it’s good to understand the differences between them. One of the best ways to decide which test will result in a better scores is to have the child take practice exams for both the ISEE and SSAT. Usually one test will appeal more to the child’s style, abilities and acquired skills.

Since these exams apply to students ranging from fifth to twelfth grade, there are different levels based on grade levels.  The ISEE is broken into three levels – lower (grades 4-5), middle (6-7) and upper (8-11). The SSAT is taken at one of two levels – lower (grades 5-7) and upper (8-11).

The ISEE exam tests learning ability, reading comprehension, math skills and writing, and includes an essay section. The SSAT similarly tests reading comprehension, quantitative skills and verbal reasoning. It also includes an unscored essay that accompanies the test results.

The two exams differ in areas of emphasis and style. The ISEE focuses more on mathematical reasoning than the SSAT. To test vocabulary, the SSAT uses synonyms and analogies, while the ISEE uses synonyms and sentence completion. The ISEE tends to include longer reading passages while the SSAT uses a wider range of formats, such as poetry. Students may find these differences subtle but they can have an impact on overall comfort level with the exam and, ultimately, on test scores.

Tips for preparing for the ISEE or SSAT

Here are a few tips to keep in mind while preparing for these exams:

  1. Take the test at least twice. Private schools don’t like to see a wide spread between verbal and math scores, since the student will be expected to do well in all their courses. Multiple testing opportunities allow the student multiple chances to optimize their scores in each section of the exam. A good time to take the exam is October and again in December, or November and then January.
  2. Private schools require strong reading comprehension skills and this is reflected on the entrance exams. Have the student read lots of books and practice vocabulary building. Select quality books that provoke thoughtful reading and present new ideas that broaden the student’s thinking. Look up new words and add them to a vocabulary list.
  3. Private schools value strong communication skills. Therefore the essay portion of the exam is important. The student should write several practice essays before taking the exam to build writing skills. For the essay, select a topic you know something about so ideas flow more easily. Use a good study guide for more tips on essay writing.
  4. Create a test prep plan early. Start at least two months before the exam. This will allow time for multiple practice exams, and for identifying and working on weak areas. If you are facing a competitive entrance process, consider a formal test prep program to give your student the best chances at a high test score.
  5. Set up a test prep program that fits your child. Some students will work independently and complete a study guide on their own. Most need some level of guidance to help them stay on track and tackle problem areas. Some students will require a more structured preparation plan. Consider a one-on-one tutor who will work with your student at the right level of support for the best test results.