ISEE vs. SSAT? What Are the Differences?

ISEE vs. SSAT? What Are the Differences?

The SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test) and ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination) are the standardized tests most widely requested by private middle and high schools as part of their application processes. 

Both of these tests cover very similar material, but there are some key differences to be aware of when considering both tests.

When choosing whether to take either the SSAT or the ISEE, the first consideration is to check the requirements of the school(s) you are applying to; many schools prefer a particular test. Assuming you do have a choice between the two, here are some things to keep in mind:

Test Content & Structure

The content of both exams is quite similar: both tests have an essay, one section on verbal skills, one section of reading comprehension, and two sections of math and quantitative reasoning skills. The biggest structural difference is found in the types of questions asked in the verbal section. Specifically, the SSAT features analogies, which aren’t found on the ISEE. Similarly, the ISEE utilizes sentence completions, which don’t appear on the SSAT. (Both tests, however, ask students to identify synonyms for vocabulary words.) In the math sections, the SSAT questions are all multiple choice, whereas the ISEE also has some “Column A/Column B” type questions, which test your ability to compare quantities.

Both the ISEE and the SSAT offer different versions of the test, depending on the student’s current grade. The SSAT has three levels: Elementary Level for students in grades 3 and 4, Middle Level for students in grades 5–7, and Upper Level for students in grades 8–11. The ISEE also has three levels, with slightly different divisions: Lower Level for students in grades 4 and 5, Middle Level for grades 6 and 7, and Upper Level for students in grades 8 and up. While taking a test that covers material beyond your grade level can be scary, rest assured that most schools value the applicant’s percentile (which only compares you to others in the same age bracket) more than the numerical score.

Test Dates

The ISEE is offered several times a year between November and May; however, students can only take it once within a six-month period. On the contrary, the SSAT is offered once a month from November through April, and again in June, and there is no limit to the number of times one can take it. The ability to take the SSAT several times often relieves the pressure on students to score their best in one sitting. Thus, students who only need to take the ISEE can also reduce their test-taking stress by taking the SSAT as practice.

The SSAT also allows the option of a ‘flex test’, a test date that you can schedule individually, which is a great opportunity for particularly anxious test takers.

Scoring & Guessing

Each question on the SSAT has five answer choices, whereas questions on the ISEE have four choices. The biggest difference in scoring, however, is that for every wrong answer on the SSAT, students lose ¼ point. On the ISEE, on the other hand, a wrong answer does not raise or lower one’s raw score. This format encourages guessing; therefore students should always fill in the blanks on the ISEE, even if they do not have time to read the question. On the contrary, on the SSAT, students should only guess if they can eliminate at least one answer choice.

Types of Essay Questions

On both tests, the essay is not graded. Instead, students’ essays are sent directly to the schools along with the scores. The school’s admissions committee then reads the essay to make their own assessment of the student’s writing skills. Nevertheless, the two tests do differ in the type of essay prompt. The SSAT tends to give an aphorism, asking students if they agree or disagree and to support their opinion with examples. The essay prompts on the ISEE, however, are more open-ended, asking questions such as, “How would you define a hero or heroine?”[1]

The good news is that students can easily prepare for both tests at the same time because the exams overlap in content and structure. 


[1] Cited from Educational Records Bureau’s study guide “What to Expect on the ISEE,” 2008 edition.

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Mariah Steele

Mariah Steele