Most private schools in the United States require applicants to take an entrance examination as part of the admissions process. If you're preparing to go to private school, you're likely wondering what exam you'll need to take.
There are two standardized exams used by admissions committees at private elementary, middle, and high schools: the ISEE and the SSAT. What is the difference between ISEE and SSAT exams? In this ISEE vs SSAT guide, we will explain the difference between the two and offer tips to help you decide whether to take the ISEE or SSAT.
What Is the ISEE?
The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) is a standardized test whose purpose is to help admissions committees at private primary, middle, and high schools evaluate the potential performance of applicants. More than 1,200 independent schools around the world accept ISEE scores as part of their admissions processes.
There are four levels of the ISEE:
- Primary (entrance to grades 2-4)
- Lower (entrance to grades 5-6)
- Middle (entrance to grades 7-8)
- Upper (entrance to grades 9-12)
What Is the SSAT?
The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) is a standardized exam used to assess the abilities of students who want to attend private school. It is not an IQ test; rather, it measures your verbal, math, and reading skills. The purpose of the SSAT is to determine whether you will be successful at an independent school.
There are three levels of the SSAT:
- Elementary (entrance to grades 4-5)
- Middle (entrance to grades 6-8)
- Upper (entrance to grades 9-postgraduate)
Should You Take the ISEE or SSAT? Do Schools Prefer One?
Most independent schools don't have a strong preference for the ISEE or SSAT. The two exams are fairly interchangeable: both show your preparedness for independent school.
That said, there are some factors you should consider when deciding between the ISEE and SSAT.
First, ask the school(s) you're applying to whether they have a preference for one of the two. Make a list of the private schools you want to apply to and call each admissions office to ask which test—the ISEE or SSAT—they'd prefer applicants to take.
Even though many schools' websites claim that they accept both tests, they might actually prefer one over the other. Many New England boarding schools, for instance, prefer the SSAT, whereas lots of New York City prep schools prefer the ISEE.
Secondly, you'll need to consider how old you are and what grade you're seeking entry into. The ISEE exam begins at the primary level with an exam for students entering the 2nd grade. The SSAT, on the other hand, begins with an exam for entrance into the 4th grade. If you or your child is very young, you'll have no choice but to take the ISEE.
Finally, take into account your test preparedness and anxiety level. The ISEE and SSAT have different rules regarding how often applicants may retake them.
The ISEE can only be taken up to three times a year (i.e., once during each of the three testing sessions). Practically speaking, this means you can only take the test once per admissions cycle. If you don't do well on it, you'll need to wait an entire year to take the exam again.
Conversely, you can take the SSAT as many times as you want. That doesn't mean you need to take the SSAT a dozen times (in fact, that would be extremely stressful), but it does give you some flexibility, particularly if you're a nervous test taker. Being able to retake the test can help you feel at ease if your score isn't what you'd hoped it would be on a first attempt.
ISEE vs SSAT Exam Format
For both the ISEE and SSAT, the test length can vary depending on which version you're taking.
With the ISEE, the Primary tests differ slightly in number of sections and total time from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level tests. Similarly, with the SSAT, the Elementary test differs in test time and number of sections from the Middle and Upper Level exams.
Let's take a closer look at the structures for the ISEE vs SSAT.
The Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE exams are each broken down into five sections:
|Section||Lower Level||Middle Level||Upper Level|
|1. Verbal Reasoning||34 questions, 20 minutes||40 questions, 20 minutes||40 questions, 20 minutes|
|2. Quantitative Reasoning||38 questions, 35 minutes||37 questions, 35 minutes||37 questions, 35 minutes|
|3. Reading Comprehension||25 questions, 25 minutes||36 questions, 35 minutes||36 questions, 35 minutes|
|4. Mathematics Achievement||30 questions, 30 minutes||47 questions, 40 minutes||47 questions, 40 minutes|
|5. Essay*||1 prompt, 30 minutes||1 prompt, 30 minutes||1 prompt, 30 minutes|
|Total Time||2 hrs 20 minutes||2 hrs 40 minutes||2 hrs 40 minutes|
The Primary Level ISEE tests, meanwhile, are structured a bit differently:
|Section||Primary 2 (for current 1st grade students)||Primary 3 (for current 2nd grade students)||Primary 4 (for current 3rd grade students)|
|1. Auditory Comprehension||6 questions, 7 minutes||—||—|
|2. Reading||18 questions, 20 minutes||24 questions, 28 minutes||24 questions, 28 minutes|
|3. Mathematics||24 questions, 26 minutes||24 questions, 26 minutes||28 questions, 30 minutes|
|4. Writing Sample*||1 prompt with picture, untimed||1 prompt with picture, untimed||1 prompt, untimed|
|Total Time||53 minutes + writing time||1 hr + writing time||1 hr + writing time|
*Not required for students applying to schools in New York City
Here's the SSAT structure for the Middle and Upper Levels. Like the ISEE, these tests are divided into five sections (excluding the Experimental section at the end):
|Section||# of Questions (Middle)||# of Questions (Upper)||Time|
|1. Essay*||1 prompt||1 prompt||25 minutes|
|2. Math I||25 questions||25 questions||30 minutes|
|3. Reading||40 questions||40 questions||40 minutes|
|4. Verbal||60 questions||60 questions||30 minutes|
|5. Math II||25 questions||25 questions||30 minutes|
|6. Experimental*||16 questions||16 questions||15 minutes|
|Total||167 questions||167 questions||2 hrs 50 minutes|
And here's the SSAT Elementary Level exam structure, which, as you can see, is much shorter:
|Section||# of Questions (Elementary)||Time|
|1. Math I||30 questions||30 minutes|
|2. Verbal||30 questions||20 minutes|
|3. Reading||28 questions||30 minutes|
|4. Essay*||1 prompt||15 minutes|
|5. Experimental*||15-17 questions||15 minutes|
|Total||89 questions||1 hr 50 minutes|
ISEE vs SSAT: 5 Key Differences
In many ways, the ISEE and SSAT are very similar tests. After all, the ISEE and SSAT have a similar purpose: to help your student gain admission to a private school. They also test similar content.
That said, there are five key differences between the ISEE and SSAT. Let's take a look at them.
#1: Score Report
Although the ISEE and SSAT both have four multiple-choice sections, the score reports for each are pretty different.
For the ISEE, you'll get scores for each of the four sections individually. For the SSAT, though, you'll only get three scores, as your two math section scores are combined into a single number on the score report. So if you're looking to highlight your math ability, you should take the ISEE.
#2: Writing Sample
The ISEE and SSAT each have an unscored writing sample, or essay. For both exams, the sample is sent to admissions committees to be used as a factor in their admissions decision; however, it's not factored into your overall score on either the ISEE or SSAT.
The difference in the writing samples lies in topics. On the ISEE, students are required to write an expository essay, whereas students taking the SSAT must choose between creative writing prompts at the Middle Level, and creative and expository prompts at the Upper Level.
#3: Verbal Section
The ISEE and SSAT have slightly different approaches to their verbal sections. Although both exams have synonym questions, the ISEE asks sentence completion questions, whereas the SSAT asks analogy questions.
It's a good idea to try out both sentence completion questions and analogy questions to see which type comes more naturally to you.
#4: Guessing Strategy
Students taking the SSAT have to contend with a guessing penalty: they get 1 point for each correct answer, get no points for questions left blank, and lose 1/4 point for each wrong answer.
The ISEE, on the other hand, has no such penalty and doesn't take away points for incorrect answers.
#5: Available Test Dates
The SSAT offers test dates every month throughout the year, and you can take the SSAT as many times as you want. By contrast, you can only take the ISEE once during each of its three annual testing sessions.
How to Study for the ISEE and SSAT Tests
Preparation is key to doing well on both the ISEE and SSAT. The better you do on your test, the better chance you'll have for admission into the independent school you want to attend.
The best way to do well on either test is to have a strategy and prepare. You should practice before you go in to take the official test. Take a sample test under similar conditions to test day (i.e., in a silent room with only prescribed breaks) to help ease your nerves and set you up for success.
You can also look up resources to help you prepare. There are tons of free and paid ISEE and SSAT materials, including study books, online practice questions, and tutors.
Finally, remember that your test score isn't the only factor in private school admissions. Admissions committees will also look at your skills, grades, extracurriculars, and recommendations when making their decision.
Conclusion: The Difference Between ISEE and SSAT
The ISEE and SSAT are admissions exams used by private elementary, middle, and high schools in the US and abroad. While the two tests are similar, they do have some major differences in terms of scoring, content, guessing strategy, and test dates.
Whether you should take the ISEE or SSAT depends on a number of factors, such as which is accepted by the school you're applying to, what your strengths are (e.g., students who do well on math might want to prioritize the ISEE), and how often you want to be able to take the test.
Ultimately, deciding to take the ISEE or SSAT is a very personal decision, much like the decision of which independent school to apply to.
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Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.