How to Approach the SSAT and ISEE Essays

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Originally published October 23, 2019

The essay is the first section that students tackle on the SSAT and their final task on the ISEE. On the ISEE, each student is given 30 minutes to answer a single prompt – typically a question that asks for their position on a somewhat-relatable issue (“Do you think the driving age should be raised to 21? Why or why not?”). The SSAT offers two prompts for students to choose between – a question (“What do you think needs to be invented, and why?”) and the first line of a story, to be written by the student (“His hands shook as he tried to untie it.”)

The most important thing to keep in mind about the essay on each of these tests is that they are NOT scored. Not by a reader at the SSAT, and not by an admissions officer at a school to which the student is applying. Therefore, the essay will not positively or negatively affect a student’s composite score from the multiple-choice sections of the test.

However, admissions officers at middle and high schools will likely at least glance at a student’s SSAT essay to get a sense of that student. While they understand that no student can produce their best-written work in such a short time frame, the essay can still provide useful insights. How does Maggie articulate her thoughts? What might her interests be? Does this essay reveal anything special about her that we might not know otherwise?

Less often, the test’s essay may raise a red flag. If the personal statements that a student submits to accompany their application are significantly more polished in tone or style than is their test’s essay, then an admissions officer may question who really wrote the personal statement!

For these reasons, students taking the SSAT or ISEE should take the essay seriously, but they should not approach the task with too much fear or anxiety. Writing several essays over the course of a few practice tests is the best way to alleviate any stress. Following the test, read your student’s essay and sit down with them to have a casual discussion about it. Gently suggest corrections to any punctuation, grammar, or spelling errors that stand out – but remember, their writing is not expected to be flawless. If they got stuck and only managed to get a paragraph or two down on paper, help them brainstorm topics that they’d love to talk or write about – writing more is always better. Most importantly, encourage them to be themselves and simply do their best!