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What Is the ISEE? Complete Guide to the Exam


Thinking of attending a private elementary, middle, or high school in the United States? Then you'll need to take an entrance exam called the ISEE. But what exactly does this test entail? In this article, we'll go over what the ISEE test is, how it's structured and scored, what a good score on the ISEE exam looks like, and how to study effectively for it.


What Is ISEE? An Overview

What is ISEE? The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) is an exam created and administered by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). It tests students' individual academic achievements and reasoning skills as a basis for admission to private schools in the US and internationally. Currently, the ISEE is accepted by more than 1,200 institutions around the world.

The purpose of this exam is to quantify your academic accomplishments and reasoning ability. It's used by private school admissions committees to predict your success at their school and is administered in either a paper or online format.

The ISEE is given to students in specific age brackets and broken into four levels:

  • Primary (entrance to grades 2-4)
  • Lower (entrance to grades 5-6)
  • Middle (entrance to grades 7-8)
  • Upper (entrance to grades 9-12)


How Is the ISEE Exam Structured?

The ISEE test focuses on multiple educational subjects to evaluate your performance in each. Note that the Primary ISEE test differs significantly from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE exams; thus, we've divided the general exam structures below into two groups.


ISEE Exam Structure for Lower, Middle, and Upper Levels

How long is the ISEE test? The Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE exams are composed of five separately timed sections:

  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Mathematics Achievement
  • Essay (optional)

Here's a brief comparison of the structure of the ISEE test at each of these three levels:

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 (optional) 1 prompt, 30 minutes 1 prompt, 30 minutes 1 prompt, 30 minutes
Total Time 2 hours 20 minutes 2 hours 40 minutes 2 hours 40 minutes


Let's look at each section in more detail:

  • Section 1: Verbal Reasoning— Includes two subsections with questions on synonyms and sentence completion. This section tests grade-level appropriate vocabulary and sentence-completion ability. Students are asked to choose the appropriate word or phrase that best completes the sentence.

  • Section 2: Quantitative Reasoning— Addresses multiple math concepts and has several subsections as well as various word problems. Concepts tested include (1) numbers and operations, (2) algebra, (3) geometry, (4) measurement, (5) data analysis and probability, (6) concepts/understanding, (7) applications/higher order thinking, and (8) quantitative comparisons.

  • Section 3: Reading Comprehension— Tests students' ability to understand and interpret questions based on six reading passages on humanities, science, and social studies subjects. For each passage, you'll get the passage first and then questions that correspond to it.

  • Section 4: Mathematics Achievement— The final multiple-choice section on the ISEE test. This section tests topics such as (1) numbers and operations, (2) algebraic concepts, (3) geometric concepts, (4) measurement, and (5) data analysis and probability.

  • Section 5: Essay (optional)— An optional timed essay. Students are given an essay prompt and asked to produce a well-informed essay on a particular topic.


body_watermelon_sections_slicesThe four delicious required sections of the ISEE.


The first four ISEE sections consist of multiple-choice questions, each with four answer choices labeled (A), (B), (C), and (D). The optional writing exercise at the end is a timed essay.

Depending on the student's ISEE level, the number of questions and time allotted can vary. Middle and Upper Level students have more time to complete the Reading Comprehension and Mathematics Achievement sections than Lower Level students do (though they also have to answer more questions).

Here's what you'll be tested on in each ISEE exam section. Note that the difficulty level will increase as you move up the levels:

ISEE Test Section Content Tested
1. Verbal Reasoning Verbal reasoning
Vocabulary in context
2. Quantitative Reasoning Math calculation
3. Reading Comprehension Main idea
Supporting ideas
4. Mathematics Achievement Whole numbers
Decimals, percentages, fractions
Algebraic concepts
Data analysis
5. Essay (optional) Expository essay



ISEE Exam Structure for Primary Level

The Primary ISEE exam is structured differently than the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE exams. It's also the only ISEE test that's offered exclusively in an online format (the ones above are available as either paper or computer exams).

Here's what to expect on the Primary exam:

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 hour + writing time 1 hour + writing time

*Not required for students applying to schools in New York City

And here's a quick look at the content tested on each Primary ISEE exam:

ISEE Test Section Content Tested
1. Auditory Comprehension (grade 2 only) Auditory comprehension
2. Reading Main idea
Supporting ideas
Figurative language
3. Mathematics Number sense and operations
Algebraic concepts
Geometric concepts
Data analysis
4. Writing Sample* Basic writing skills

*Not required for students applying to schools in New York City




How Is the ISEE Test Scored?

Most students get their ISEE test scores seven to 10 business days after they take the test. ISEE test scores are automatically sent to the schools you've indicated.

Contrary to what you might expect, an ISEE score is not a simple measure of right and wrong; rather, students receive a scaled score on their ISEE test.

The scaled score is provided by ERB, the group that administers the ISEE exam. Scaled scores run from 760 to 940 and include a percentile ranking (1-99) to compare the student's score with the norm of test takers from the last three years.

The percentile ranking helps private schools compare a student's performance with others in their applicant cohorts. The higher your percentile, the better your ISEE score. For example, a 45th percentile ranking means that the student scored the same as or better than 45% of students in the last three years.

As for the essay, it is not scored by ERB but instead forwarded to schools for inclusion in the applicant's portfolio.


What's a Good ISEE Exam Score?

There's no one definition for what a good ISEE exam score is. Ultimately, what makes a good ISEE test score is determined by the school you're applying to. Each private school has its own view of what's considered an acceptable ISEE score. If you want to learn more about what to aim for, it's best to contact that school's admissions office.

Generally speaking, though, many schools will accept ISEE scores in the 25th-40th percentiles. More selective private schools might require scores in at least the 75th percentile.

Many students applying to a private school are already high performing. Even if you rank average on the ISEE, that doesn't mean you have average academic performance; rather, it just means you rank on average when compared with other high-performing ISEE test takers.

For more details on what's considered a good ISEE score, check out our guide.




How to Study for the ISEE Test

Preparation is key to doing well on the ISEE. And the better you do on it, the better chance you'll have of getting admitted into the independent school you want to attend.

The best way to do well on the ISEE exam is to have a strategy for before and during the test.

Before taking the test, you should practice and study accordingly, drilling yourself on various questions relating to each test section.

Many students struggle with timing, so practicing timed tests under similar conditions to test day (i.e., in a silent room with only the prescribed breaks) can help ease nerves and set yourself up for success when you take the real thing. The more you understand the structure of the ISEE, as well as how it's scored, the more confident you'll feel on test day.

Students can use a number of different resources to prepare, including ISEE study books and online practice questions and tests. They can also work in groups or one-on-one with a qualified ISEE tutor.

One thing to note: the ISEE is not the only determining factor for private school acceptance. Other achievements such as extracurricular activities, academic accomplishments, motivation, and personality are also considered in the admission process.

So if your ISEE score isn't ideal, don't lose heart: there are other factors that will be evaluated, too!


Recap: What Is ISEE and How Can You Do Well on It?

The Independent School Entrance Examination, or ISEE, is an important stepping stone in a child's academic career and a big factor for private school admission.

But that doesn't mean you need to worry about it! Through effective preparation, your student can score well on the ISEE and get into the school of their choice. As a wise scholar once said, "Don't stress. And do your best."


What's Next?

When is the next ISEE test? Figure out how much time you have left to prep for the ISEE with our guide to all the upcoming ISEE test dates.

Aiming for a good score on the ISEE? Then you'll definitely want to check out our in-depth collection of the best ISEE practice resources you can use.

How does the ISEE differ from the SSAT? Both are admissions tests used by private schools, but they're not at all the same thing! See how these two exams compare with each other in our expert guide.


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Hayley Milliman
About the Author

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.

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