Test Prep

How to Prepare for the ISEE and SSAT

How to Prepare for the ISEE and SSAT
August 17, 2022

Guest Post Written By: Ivy Tutors Network

What are the ISEE and SSAT?

The ISEE and the SSAT are the two exams used by independent and boarding schools to evaluate students for admission. There are four levels of the ISEE (Primary, Lower, Middle and Upper) and two for the SSAT (Upper and Middle), depending on the grade a student is applying to. The Upper Level is required for high school, the Middle Level for grades 7 and 8, etc.. Although they are just one component of the application package, strong test scores provide objective evidence to the admissions committee that your child is academically competent and prepared for the challenges of high school. 

For many students, taking the ISEE or SSAT will be their first time sitting for a long standardized test with a high stakes outcome. There’s pressure on them to perform well, as their scores can impact where they go to high school. This pressure can be too much for some students (and parents!), so it’s essential to be smart and strategic about test prep in order to maximize results and get ahead of test anxiety, therefore removing unneeded stress from the school admissions process.  

How to Choose Between the ISEE and SSAT 

The first step is to choose which exam your child should take. New York City schools will accept either the SSAT or ISEE, but you should still check the individual requirements of the schools you are applying to be 100% sure (in the past, the ISEE was for private day schools and the SSAT for boarding schools). We don’t recommend taking both exams unless it is absolutely necessary. 

The ISEE and SSAT are very similar in terms of the content covered, though there are some differences in the test structure and what material is emphasized. For example, the verbal section on the SSAT is considered harder than that on the ISEE, so strong humanities students may prefer the SSAT. Likewise, the math sections on the ISSE are more difficult than those on the SSAT, so this could be the better option for more math-oriented students. Another major difference is that the SSAT takes off points for wrong answers, while the ISEE just counts the number of correct answers. This difference means that students need to study a different guessing strategy depending on the test they choose. For more information on the differences between the two exams, check out this article here

To choose which test to take, we recommend students take a diagnostic exam for both the ISEE and SSAT. If a student scores higher on one than the other, then that is the exam to focus on. Students will also often have a preference for the structure of one test over the other, so it’s important to have a little experience with each test before deciding.

How to Prepare for the SSAT: Differences in Structure Between the ISEE and SSAT

How to Register for the ISEE/SSAT

Both tests can be given online at home, online at a test center, or as a paper test. You should find out whether your school is going to administer a paper test, and if not, you can sign up for the ISEE here and the SSAT here.  

It’s important to note that while the SSAT can be taken multiple times a year (there are test dates every month), the ISEE can only be taken up to 3 times per year, or once every testing season (Fall, Winter, and Spring/Summer). We recommended signing up for your test dates early to ensure a spot and avoid late registration fees. 

Start Test Prep Early

Students applying to high school should take a diagnostic test and begin studying for the ISEE in 7th grade. Due to the pandemic, many students have not yet caught up to grade level, so we recommend diagnostic testing about a year before the test date, which is earlier than our recommendation prior to the pandemic.  While students may be flourishing in schools and getting straight As, many schools are very behind grade level, especially when it comes to math; starting early allows for extra time to fill in these content gaps. A well designed test prep program also has the added benefit of getting students up to speed in their normal course work (improved grades) and making sure they are well prepared to be confident and eager high school students.

How to Prepare for the ISEE and SSAT

  1. Take a Diagnostic - This is a very important first step. The diagnostic will help determine which of the two tests a student should take, and also provide a roadmap for future study. Seeing which questions a student got wrong or struggled with is valuable intel on what content areas need to be filled in. 
  1. Encourage Reading - Independent reading is the single most important determinant for success on standardized tests. Ideally, this should be happening way before ISEE or SSAT prep even enters the picture. Regular high level reading, whether it’s novels, magazine/newspaper articles, or short stories, is the single best way to boost reading comprehension skills and improve vocabulary. 
  1. Don’t Skip Vocab - The Verbal Section of the ISEE is pretty much all vocab. Unfortunately, there really is no way to prepare for this section other than memorizing lots and lots of words. There are readily available lists of ISEE/SSAT vocabulary words in test prep books and on the internet. It’s important for students to start studying vocab early and regularly, so that they are not cramming hundreds of words before their exam date. Encourage your child to create flashcards (writing them by hand increases retention) and work with them consistently. 
  1. Regular Practice Tests - Successful test preparation not only requires students to learn the content covered on the exam, they also need to master test-taking strategies like time management and intelligent guessing. The best way to enforce these skills is through frequent full-length practice tests, which should be timed and attempt to replicate the testing conditions as closely as possible. The results of these mock tests are also a great way to track progress and see which areas a student still needs to work in. 
  1. Ask for Help - Many students don’t yet have the maturity to study for a standardized exam independently, and many parents simply don’t have the time to be “on” their child about test prep. If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a reputable tutoring company (like Ivy Tutors Network) to get you started. Working with a seasoned tutor individually or in a small group class can really pay dividends for a student, both in terms of score increases and overall academic confidence and success. 

ISEE and SSAT Resources  

We highly recommend signing up for an account with Test Innovators for either the ISEE or SSAT. Test Innovators is endorsed by the ERB and uses real ISEE and SSAT testing materials. 

Ivy Tutors Network has 20 years of experience helping students prepare for the ISEE and SSAT. Work with one of our expert tutors or check out our blog for free articles and resources.