Private School Entrance Exams

Applying to private schools can be incredibly overwhelming for many students. In addition to completing an interview and application essays, many students must score competitively on the SSAT or ISEE to improve their chances of being admitted to their school of choice. 


If you’re unsure what these two tests entail, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s an overview of the SSAT and ISEE to give you an idea of how they differ and the best way to move forward. 


What Is the SSAT?

The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, is an exam most private schools require students to take as part of the private school admissions process. Schools use this test to assess students in comparison to their peers. 


The SSAT is composed of six sections: 

  1. 1 essay prompt – 25 minutes
  2. 1st math section with 25 questions – 30 minutes
  3. Reading section with 40 questions – 40 minutes
  4. Verbal section (synonyms and analogies) with 60 questions – 30 minutes
  5. 2nd math section with 25 questions – 30 minutes
  6. Experimental section with 16 questions (does not impact score) – 15 minutes

Key differentiators from the ISEE: guessing penalty, five answer choices instead of four, shorter reading passages, and analogies


What Is the ISEE? 

The ISEE, or Independent School Entrance Exam, is an alternative test used for assessing students during the private school admissions process. 


The ISEE is composed of five sections: 

  1. Verbal section (synonyms and sentence completions) with 40 questions – 20 minutes
  2. 1st math section (including quantitative comparisons) with 37 questions – 35 minutes
  3. Reading section with 36 questions – 35 minutes
  4. 2nd math section with 47 questions – 40 minutes
  5. 1 essay prompt – 30 minutes

Key differentiators from the SSAT: no guessing penalty, four answer choices instead of five, quantitative comparisons, and sentence completions


What Private School Admissions Officers Learn from Students’ Test Scores

Here’s what private schools are looking to learn from a student’s SSAT or ISEE test scores: 

  • They have achieved a competitive percentile of at least 70th across all sections (though some schools are looking for higher scores)
  • They have written a well-structured and thoughtful essay
  • They know how to study for a high-pressure test
  • They have matured through elementary/junior high school and have picked up vital skills to be a competitive student with their peers
  • They don’t buckle under the pressure of a timed exam but instead rise to the challenge


How to Decide Which Test to Take

Wondering which test to take? Many private schools require students to complete a particular test, so the first course of action when deciding between the SSAT and ISEE is reaching out to your list of schools.

If the schools on your list do not require a specific test, we recommend gaining exposure to the two tests to determine which one aligns best with your skills. Start by taking realistic, full-length practice tests in a distraction-free environment. 

If you tend to second guess your answers, the ISEE may be the better fit since there are four answer choices and no guessing penalty. If you are a slower reader or have stress or anxiety when it comes to reading comprehension, then the SSAT may be the better fit since the passages tend to be shorter while still having the same amount of time per passage.


Common Mistakes Students Make on the SSAT and ISEE 

Because the SSAT and ISEE are similar but different, there is some overlap in common mistakes to look out for and some that are common to each test. 


Frequent mistakes students make on both tests: 

  • Rushing and not properly assessing the question
  • Not writing their work down for math
  • Not carefully reading the entire question
  • Not selectively annotating the reading passages to help with focus and retention

Frequent mistakes students make on the SSAT: 

  • Not choosing the essay prompt that best suits their skill set
  • Failing to account for the guessing penalty (we recommend skipping up to five questions per section for which you cannot eliminate any answer choices) 
  • Not writing detailed bridges for the analogies

Frequent mistakes students make on the ISEE: 

  • Not using context clues, including transition words, to conquer the sentence completions
  • Forgetting that they don’t need to calculate every column in the quantitative comparisons


Preparing for the SSAT or ISEE 

Success on the SSAT and ISEE starts well before the day of the test. Adequate preparation and studying can ensure that students put their best foot forward by helping them learn and retain the information or, in the case of students with test anxiety, teaching them crucial tools for remembering and presenting the information they do know. 


For many students, a professional tutor can be an invaluable resource for developing the strategies necessary to conquer the SSAT or ISEE. At Signet, our test prep tutors tailor their approach to each unique student to provide personalized support. 


Connect with us to let us know your goals regarding private school admissions. Our team of tutors all have varied skill sets of their own, and we will work to link you to the right tutor for you. Contact us today to start a conversation

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Liz Mazzola

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