Are you interested in going to private school? If so, you might need to take the SSAT to get in. But what is the SSAT? It's an admissions test that independent schools throughout the U.S. and the world use to assess their prospective students.
The test is available in three levels, so students in elementary, middle, and high school can take it. This comprehensive guide will go over each level of the SSAT so you can learn all about its purpose, structure, and questions. You’ll also find six useful tips for test prep. To start, let’s go over the purpose of the test.
What Is the SSAT and Who Takes It?
The SSAT is designed for students in grades 3 through 11 who are seeking admission to private schools. It’s available in three levels: elementary for students in grades 3 and 4, middle for students in grades 5 through 7, and upper for students in grades 8 through 11.
Students take the test according to their current grade, not the one to which they’ll be applying. If you’re in 7th grade, for instance, you'd take the middle level test, not the upper level one. Similarly, 4th graders applying to 5th grade would take the elementary level, not the middle level.
Since you’ll have to wait several weeks for your score report, you should take the test well ahead of any school application deadlines. Students can take the test more than once on various Saturdays throughout the school year. If you need to arrange a different testing date, then you can set up a “Flex Test.” Unlike the regularly scheduled SSAT tests, you can only take one Flex Test per year.
For most students, the most convenient testing center will be a nearby private school. There are independent schools that administer the SSAT in countries all over the world. You can find the full list of private elementary, middle, and high schools that give the test on its official website.
The SSAT, like the SAT for colleges, is just one piece of a student’s private school application. Along with strong grades and extracurriculars, the student should aim to present competitive test scores. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what the SSAT tests at all three levels.
The SSAT offers three delicious levels for elementary, middle, and high school students.
What Does the SSAT Test? Questions and Skills
Despite their differences, all levels of the SSAT share the same goal, to measure your verbal, quantitative, and reading comprehension skills. The verbal sections of the test ask about vocabulary, verbal reasoning, and relationships between ideas. The quantitative sections will ask you to solve problems with mathematical concepts. Finally, the reading sections present passages and ask questions about their content.
All three levels of the SSAT also have a writing section. This section is unscored, but your written response will be sent to score recipients. This means that admissions officers might read your response and use it as a sample of your writing skills. Younger students answer a creative writing prompt, while older students have a choice between writing a story or a more traditional essay.
Now that you have a general answer to the question of what the SSAT is, let’s take a closer look at each level, starting with elementary. All of the sample questions are borrowed from the official website.
SSAT: Elementary Level
The elementary level is geared toward students in grades 3 and 4. The test at this level is unique since it’s further divided into sublevels, one that’s slightly easier for third graders and one that’s a bit more advanced for fourth graders. Both tests, though, share the same format and structure.
The elementary level SSAT lasts one hour and 50 minutes and has a math, verbal, reading, and writing section. You can see the complete structure in the chart below.
|Section||Number of Questions||Time|
|Total:||89||110 minutes (1 hour, 50 minutes)|
With this overall structure in mind, let’s take a closer look at each individual section, starting with Math.
Elementary Level Math Section
The Math section features all multiple choice questions that ask about a variety of concepts. They might involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You could be asked to put numbers in order from least to greatest, or vice versa. You’ll also encounter some basic geometry, measurement, and graphs.
The fourth-grade version of the test may also have a question or two about angles. Below are a couple of sample questions from the math section of the elementary level test. The first is a word problem testing comprehension and multiplication while the second is straightforward subtraction.
- 75 miles
- 304 miles
- 600 miles
- 1200 miles
- 1500 miles
After the 30-minute math section, students will start on a 20-minute verbal section.
Elementary Level Verbal Section
The verbal section asks two main types of questions: vocabulary questions and analogy questions. It tests vocabulary by presenting a word and asking you to choose its synonym from five options. The questions feature words from various subjects, including science, technology, and social studies. Here’s an example of a typical vocabulary question that asks you to choose the presented word’s synonym.
Analogy questions ask test-takers to make comparisons between two words or phrases. The relationship might be that of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, or part to whole, to give just a few examples. The words may also fall into similar categories or share certain characteristics. Here’s an example of a typical analogy question.
Minute is to hour as
- men is to our
- week is to day
- cow is to milk
- month is to year
- man is to woman
The third and fourth grade tests share the same kind of questions, but, just as in the math section, the fourth grade test may be slightly more advanced. Simply put, the fourth grade test may feature more advanced vocabulary.
Moving onto the third section, read on to see how the elementary SSAT tests reading comprehension.
Elementary Level Reading Section
On the Reading section, you’ll get seven short passages of poetry, prose, fiction, or nonfiction. After each passage, you’ll answer four multiple choice questions about what the passage’s mean. The questions might ask you to summarize the main idea, to locate specific information, or to define words in context.
The slightly more advanced fourth grade test may additionally feature questions that ask about theme. Below is an example of a typical nonfiction passage, followed by a question about the main idea and a word in context.
A hiker’s foot dangling from a boat sets the crocodile in motion. When saltwater crocodiles sense food, it can start a "feeding frenzy." Crocs race in from all directions. They go wild, attacking all within reach, including humans. They have been known to jump out of the water and attack humans or dogs on land.
Crocodiles are highly territorial, especially females with babies. It is not wise to approach baby croquettes. They may look cute and harmless, but they are not.
Smaller freshwater crocodiles might attack if bothered. A camper poked what he thought was a sleeping crocodile with a stick. Suddenly the croc turned and bit off his leg.
1. This passage is primarily about
- hiking safety rules
- the dangers of fishing
- why crocodiles attack
- dangers of baby crocodiles
- different kinds of crocodiles
- mental illness
After Reading, students will move onto the last section, Writing.
Elementary Level Writing Section
This final section asks students to write a story based on a picture. The prompt reminds students to make sure their story includes a beginning, middle, and end. Remember that this writing sample isn’t scored, but schools will receive a copy of it.
Below is an example of a Writing prompt on the elementary level test.
Look at the picture and tell a story about what happened. Make sure your story includes a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Once students finish the Writing section, they’ll be all done with the test!
Cheer up, melancholy knight. The SSAT also has a test for the middle ages.
SSAT: Middle Level
If you’re in grade 5, 6, or 7 applying for grades 6, 7, or 8, then you’ll take the middle level SSAT. The middle level test is much longer than the elementary level at three hours and five minutes. Its Writing section, while still unscored, comes at the beginning of the test. It also features an unscored experimental section with 16 multiple choice questions.
The chart below shows the full structure of the middle level test.
|Section||Number of Questions||Time|
|Total:||167||3 hours, 5 minutes|
Like the Writing section, the experimental section is unscored. It will ask six verbal, five reading, and five math questions to test out material for future tests.
Now that you have a sense of the test’s overall structure, let’s examine each individual section in more detail, just as we did with the elementary level above. First up is Writing.
Middle Level Writing
Students taking the middle level SSAT will choose from one of two creative prompts. Based on one of two “story starters,” they’ll write a story in 25 minutes. Below are typical instructions for the Writing section, followed by two story starters.
Directions: Schools would like to get to know you better through a story you tell using one of the ideas below. Please choose the idea you find most interesting and write a story using the idea as your first sentence.
- The classroom was empty.
- I looked into its eyes and suddenly...
Again, the story is unscored, but score recipients will get a copy of the response. The next section, however, is definitely scored. After a five-minute break, students will continue on to the Math section.
Middle Level Math
The Math section asks you to solve problems that fall into four main conceptual categories: number concepts and operations, algebra, geometry/measurement, and data analysis/probability.
- Number concepts and operations involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, arithmetic word problems, ratios, percentages, estimation, sequences, rational numbers, and frequencies.
- Algebra includes algebraic word problems, line equations, patterns, absolute value, and exponents.
- Geometry/measurement asks about area and circumference of circles, area and perimeter of polygons, volume, properties of triangles, parallel and perpendicular lines, coordinate geometry, and slope.
- Finally, data analysis/probability involves interpreting tables and graphs, trends, inferences, and probability.
Below are a couple sample problems from the math section of the middle level test. Both fall into the number concepts and operations skill area.
2. An elevator is on the first floor. It goes up 8 floors, then down 5 floors, and then up 4 floors. What is the final position in terms of the first floor?
- 3rd floor
- 4th floor
- 5th floor
- 7th floor
- 8th floor
Since students in grades 5 through 7 take the middle level test, some may find this section easier than others. Younger students might need to learn new concepts before taking the SSAT, while older students likely have had more more experience with the tested concepts in school. After Math, you’ll move immediately onto Reading.
Middle Level Reading
The 40-minute Reading section contains passages of 250 to 350 words taken from literary fiction, humanities, science, and social studies. These passages might be narrative or argument-based.
The multiple choice questions ask about main idea, details, words and phrases in context, along with the author’s purpose, attitude, and tone. They might also ask you to make inferences, evaluate arguments, or make predictions.
The following is a sample passage taken from literary fiction. The first question is detail-oriented, while the second asks you to make an inference.
Little Jim was, for the time, Engine Number 36 and he was making the run between Syracuse and Rochester. He was fourteen minutes behind time, and the throttle was wide open. As a result, when he swung around the curve at the flower bed, a wheel of his cart destroyed a tulip. Number 36 slowed down at once and looked guiltily at his father, who was mowing the lawn. The doctor had his back to the accident, and he continued to pace slowly to and fro, pushing the mower.
Jim dropped the handle of the cart. He looked at his father and at the broken flower. Finally, he went to the tulip and tried to stand it up, but it would only hang limply from his hand. Jim could not repair it. He looked again toward his father.
1. According to the passage, Jim's father was a
(D) train engineer
(E) business executive
2. Jim apparently thought that when his father saw the broken flower his reaction would be one of
As you can see, a strong grasp of vocabulary is important for doing well on the Reading section. Vocabulary comes directly into play in the next section, the 60-minute verbal.
Middle Level Verbal
The verbal section tests your understanding of vocabulary and of the relationships between words and ideas with synonym and analogy questions, just like the verbal section in the elementary level. Synonym questions simply present you with a word and ask you to choose its closest synonym, as in the following example.
Analogy questions ask you to recognize the relationship between two words or phrases, like synonym, antonym, cause/effect, and part/whole. The following, for instance, shows two antonyms.
Translucent is to opaque as light is to
As you can tell, the elementary level and middle level SSAT are very similar in terms of skills tested and question types. The similarities continue into the upper level test, which simply incorporates more advanced material for older students. Read on for its full structure, along with a breakdown of each individual section.
Are you hoping to attend a private high school? If so, you'll be taking the upper level SSAT.
SSAT: Upper Level
The upper level test is geared toward students in grade 8 to 11 who are applying to private high schools. It has the same structure as the middle level test, but again, it features more advanced material. This chart shows the test’s format as a whole.
|Section||Number of Questions||Time|
|Total:||167||3 hours, 5 minutes|
The experimental section asks six verbal, five reading, and five math questions. These questions are unscored and are just given to test out material for future tests. As with the other levels, your response in the writing section is unscored but will be sent to your score recipients.
Read on to see what kind of prompts you’ll get in the Writing section.
Upper Level Writing
Students get two prompts in the writing section and choose just one to answer. One prompt is creative while the other is a more traditional essay question that asks for your personal opinion.
Below are the typical directions for the writing response, followed by two sample topics. Remember, you only have to answer one!
Directions: Schools would like to get to know you better through an essay or story using one of the two topics below. Please select the topic you find most interesting and fill in the circle next to the topic you choose.
1. If you could do something over again, what would it be and why?
2. He couldn't believe they wanted his help.
Even though this section’s unscored, you’ll want to make sure your response is clear, organized, and features strong grammar and syntax. Admissions officers will likely use it to evaluate your writing.
After writing your story or essay, you’ll move on to the Math section.
Upper Level Math
The concepts that the upper level math section tests match those on the middle level. The questions will just be more complex and advanced. To review, the skill areas are number concepts and operations, algebra, geometry/measurement, and data analysis/probability.
- Number concepts and operations questions involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, arithmetic word problems, ratios, percentages, estimation, sequences, rational numbers, and frequencies.
- Algebra might involve algebraic word problems, line equations, patterns, absolute value, or exponents.
- Geometry/measurement asks about the area and circumference of circles, area and perimeter of polygons, volume, properties of triangles, parallel and perpendicular lines, coordinate geometry, and slope.
- Data analysis/probability questions ask you to interpret tables and graphs, find trends, make inferences, and calculate probability.
1. Which number represents one thousand four hundred and thirteen thousandths?
2. Find the missing number in the sequence:
___, 29, 35, 41, 47
After the math section, you’ll move onto Reading.
Upper Level Reading
The Reading section features narrative or argument-based passages of 250 to 350 words each. They’re taken from literary fiction, humanities, science, and social studies. The subsequent multiple choice questions might ask you to recognize the passage’s main idea, locate details, make inferences, derive the meaning of words or phrases, determine the author’s purpose or tone, evaluate opinions, or make predictions.
The following sample question features a passage taken from literary fiction. The questions ask you to interpret a detail and describe the passage as a whole.
We had a consuming desire to see a pony rider, but somehow or other all that passed us streaked by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom was gone. But now the driver exclaims: "Here he comes!" Every neck is stretched and every eye strained.
Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears. Soon it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, sweeping nearer and nearer, and the flutter of hoofs comes faintly to the ear. Another instant a whoop and hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!
1. At the driver's call, the people became more
2. This passage can best be described as
- an account of an event
- a news article
- a research study
- an epic poem
- an advertisement
While the reading section tests your vocabulary with words in context questions, the verbal section tests your vocabulary with synonym and analogy questions.
Upper Level Verbal
If you’ve read about the elementary and middle level verbal sections, then you should be familiar with its question types. The upper level verbal section is no exception and similarly features synonym and analogy questions. The following, for example, is a synonym question; it wants you to choose the answer that most closely matches the presented word in meaning.
This next analogy sample question wants you to recognize the relationship between the presented words and then find that same relationship between words in the answer choices. In this case, an epidemic occurs when a disease becomes widespread. Similarly, a famine occurs when hunger becomes widespread. The relationship between the words in answer choice A matches the relationship between epidemic and disease.
Epidemic is to disease as
- famine is to hunger
- creative is to creation
- persuasion is to composition
- mountainous is to climb
- ache is to gluttony
So there you have it, the structure of each level of the SSAT and a breakdown of each section, writing, math, reading, and verbal, with official sample questions. Before considering how you can prep for this important test, let’s go over what you need to know about how the test is scored.
Aim for a high percentile to stay ahead of the bell curve!
How Is the SSAT Scored?
Your SSAT score report will tell you how you did on each scored section - verbal, math, and reading - as well as your total score, or the sum of your section scores. You’ll also get percentiles that show how your performance compares to that of other test-takers.
Each level is scored on a different scale. Section scores for the elementary level range from 300 to 600. For the middle level, section scores range from 440 to 710. Finally, scores for each section range from 500 to 800 for the upper level.
|Level||Minimum Score by Section||Maximum Score by Section|
As there are three sections per test, verbal, math, and reading, your total scores represent your three section scores added together.
|Level||Total Minimum Score||Total Maximum Score|
At all levels, you’ll get one point for every correct answer, zero for skipped answer, and a deduction of ¼ point for wrong answers.
While you may have personal goals for your SSAT scores, you can also set target scores based on what you need for admission to your private school of choice. Many private schools release data on the average SSAT scores of accepted students. You can research this information and set your target scores above the average. Once you have your goal in mind, you’ll need to prep to achieve those scores.
As with the SAT and ACT for college, studying and taking practice tests are important for doing well on the SSAT. Read on for a few tips for preparing effectively for the test.
Preparing for the SSAT: 6 Tips
Even though the SSAT is a skill-based, rather than content-based test, it still calls for a good deal of studying. Prepping with high-quality materials is a key part of achieving your target scores and getting into your private school of choice.
Below are six tips to guide your studying. First, you should consider how much you need to study and when you plan to take the test.
1. Design a Study Schedule and Test-Taking Timeline
How much do you need to study? How much time do you have? When do you plan to take the test? All of these are questions you should ask yourself as you start to plan your SSAT prep.
The SSAT is offered on eight Saturdays from September to June, and you can take it as many times as you want. If none of the offered test dates work for you, then you might be able to arrange a Flex Test. Remember that you can only take one Flex Test per year.
You might take the test for the first time months ahead of your private school application deadlines so you have the opportunity to take it again if you want higher scores. If your application deadlines are in the winter, for example, you could take your first SSAT in the spring. That way, you have a second opportunity to test the following fall.
Once you set your first test date, consider how long you have to study. Ideally, you have at least three to four months to prepare. The best way to meet your studying goals is to build prep into your routine by setting aside specific time each day or week.
By designing a study plan and test-taking schedule several months before your first deadline, you can ensure that you have plenty of time to prepare so you can achieve your target scores.
Time yourself when you take practice tests so you can get used to the rhythm of the SSAT.
The SSAT is a unique test; chances are, you’re not accustomed to answering dozens of synonym and analogy questions anywhere else (to give one example). As a unique test, it’s critical for you to get familiar with its structure, format, and question types.
Reading through this guide’s a great first step. Then you should set aside time to take practice tests, especially under simulated testing conditions - time yourself, find a quiet environment, etc. Make sure your materials are high-quality and specific to the level that you’ll be taking.
After you take timed practice tests, score your tests and carefully go over your results. Figure out why you got a question wrong. Were you fuzzy on a specific concept? Did you make a careless error? Did you run out of time?
By rooting out the reason behind your mistake, you can figure out what to do about it. You may need to review concepts in geometry or try time management strategies for skimming the passages. By pinpointing and addressing your errors, you can fill in any gaps and see improvement the next time.
You might begin with a diagnostic practice test to gauge your starting point. Then you could stagger practice tests throughout your prep to measure your progress and readjust your study plan if need be.
3. Study Vocabulary and Word Relationships
As you noticed above, all three levels test your verbal skills in the same way, with questions about synonyms and analogies. Studying level-specific vocabulary is an important part of your SSAT prep. Rather than just focusing on the traditional vocab term + definition list, you should look at groups of words with similar meanings.
Your prep materials should have vocabulary lists for your level of the test. You can also find vocab lists on the website Quizlet, or even upload your own for review with interactive games.
To master analogy questions, make sure your prep materials break down the different relationships that can appear. Some of these might be synonym, antonym, part to whole, or cause/effect. By studying these relationships and pairing them with practice questions, you should be able to recognize the relationship when you answer analogy questions on the test.
For the verbal section of the SSAT, don't just study the meanings of words, but also their relationships with each other.
4. Review Tested Math Concepts
The math section of the SSAT can be challenging, especially for younger students who haven’t studied as advanced concepts as their older counterparts who are taking the same test. You should make sure your study materials explain all the concepts you’ll need to know. Algebra on the upper level test, for instance, can be broken down into lots of subtopics, including word problems, line equations, and exponents.
If there are concepts that you’ve never encountered, then you may study them from books or find a tutor who can teach them to you. As a younger student, you shouldn’t have to score in as high a percentile as an older student. Still, though, you don’t want to be taking the test and come across problems that look totally unfamiliar.
As you review each concept, pair it with lots of related practice questions. While it’s useful to review each rule individually, remember that some questions may require you to combine concepts in order to solve them.
The math section may be closely aligned with what you’re doing in math class. The problems are probably more typical to your homework and class tests than the questions in the verbal section, for instance. Still, though, make sure to study with realistic SSAT practice questions so you can get used to their wording and format.
5. Read Widely and Often
How can you study for the reading section? To some extent, all of the reading you’ve done over your lifetime will help you on this section. While you’ve developed your reading comprehension skills over the long-term, you can still take a specific approach to this section.
First, keep in mind that the reading section tests you on works from various genres, including literary fiction, nonfiction, and argument-based writing. Reading fiction will help, but you should also practice reading articles from areas like science and social studies. As you read, take notes on essential elements like main point, key details, and tone.
Beyond taking the time to really engage with and analyze a work, you should hone your ability to read quickly and with purpose. Practice your ability to skim a work for its main point and important details. The test is timed, so you need to be able to gather important points under time limits. The more you practice time management strategies with practice SSAT reading sections, the more efficient you’ll become.
While math, reading, and verbal skills will get you far, you also want to have some tried-and-true test-taking strategies up your sleeve.
6. Be Strategic with Your Time and Guessing
Finally, you should go beyond studying math concepts and vocabulary to develop test-taking and time management strategies. You’ll only get about a minute or less to read, consider, and answer each multiple choice question.
The more you practice and try different tactics - like skimming passages or process of elimination - the more efficient you’ll become. Taking timed practice tests will also help you get accustomed to each section’s time limits and how to allocate your time well.
As mentioned above, scorers take ¼ point off for every wrong answer. If a question totally stumps you, then you might consider skipping it. If you can confidently eliminate at least one answer choice as wrong, though, then you might benefit from guessing.
The best way to do well on the SSAT is to develop solid quantitative, verbal reasoning, and reading comprehension skills. Since it’s a timed standardized test, though, practicing various test-taking and time management strategies is a useful approach too.
In closing, let’s review the key points to remember about this private school admissions test.
To Sum Up…
If you’ve made it this far in the guide, then you should have a good sense of the structure and skills tested across all three levels of the SSAT. Students in grades 3 through 11 can take the elementary, middle, or upper level of the test to apply to independent schools.
The SSAT is skills-based and seeks to measure your verbal, math, and reading skills. Each level also includes a writing section, which is unscored but will be available to admissions officers that you indicate as score recipients.
The SSAT features similar question types at all three levels, with the upper levels incorporating more advanced concepts and vocabulary. The scoring systems are different, though, so you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the scale, as well as your prospective schools’ expectations, to set your target scores.
Once you have a goal in mind, you should set aside time for several months to prepare. The earlier you start, the more time you’ll have to get ready. Plus, you might benefit from retaking the test once or twice to improve your scores.
By planning early and studying with high-quality SSAT materials, you’ll see improvement and make progress toward your target scores. While the SSAT is just one piece of your private school application, it can go a long way toward making you a strong candidate for your school of choice!
One of the best ways to improve your test scores is to analyze your mistakes. This guide explains how to review your errors on practice tests so you can make big improvements for next time.
Did you know that test scores are just one piece of your private school applications? You should also show admissions officers who you are and what you're interested in through your extracurricular activities. Check out this comprehensive list to explore hundreds of extracurricular activities!
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.