Secondary School Tests in Admissions: An Interview with Our In-house Professional

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We are in the heart of the fall testing season for both the SSAT and ISEE. Additionally, students are already preparing for the HSPT in late November and early December. I took this opportunity to spend a few moments with Jeff Knox, our own secondary school placement specialist. Here are his answers to some of the common concerns of families.

My first set of SSAT/ISEE scores is in and we are worried they are not good enough for the schools we are interested in. Do you have any advice for us?

The first thing to remember is that testing plays a much smaller role in this process than families realize. Admissions offices take a more holistic, and therefore more subjective, approach to evaluating students. For better or worse, it is not a pure meritocracy. Students with strong grades as well as test scores are valued.

The biggest part of the process is the family’s interactions with schools. Schools are looking for students who are able to express themselves in writing as well as speaking. Also important, what schools looking for. Diversity is important in all senses of the word. Scores are actually pretty low on the totem pole. Please keep in mind that the 50th percentile means a student is on grade level. SSAT percentiles skew our understanding of this. Students taking the test, and counted in percentiles, tend to be higher achieving. At the 70th percentile level, scores are in no way a limiting factor. Schools in our area, including the most competitive ones like GDS, Sidwell, & Potomac, don’t officially require percentiles higher than this level.  

Is it more important to have a stronger reading, verbal, or math section on the test?

Anecdotally, schools tend to look at reading and math scores over verbal. Verbal is more unpredictable, more hit or miss. Reading and math are more fundamental. Admissions has to understand that verbal is more variable than reading and math. Exactly which words might appear is less certain than what math topics might be covered, or what reading concepts may be tested. This is only my hypothesis, but I tend to be more focused on reading and math when working with my own families.

How many test scores are too many?

Again, we are not aware of any official statement on this from schools, two is most common. One test is ideal. However, if a student needs three, it is ok. Schools don’t officially have a policy on super scoring. Admissions offices will be able to see both the high and the low score and can make decisions on both. We want to be thoughtful in our test preparation. Want to avoid sending three, but if it’s the best representation of the student’s performance and ability let’s send the results. This may mean holding back a dominant score in one section if the others will be a detriment to the overall profile. 

My student is worried about not getting the scores he/she needs for school. What can I do?

The more you feel prepared, the less you worry. There is more than one kind of test. Maybe the ISEE is a better way to show off your student’s skills.  Some schools are flexible on testing, and are ostensibly test optional. If standardized testing is not representative of a student’s future success, some schools accept educational testing, in lieu of standardized tests. These schools may accept the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. The Field school is a local example of this type of admission policy.  

Aside from tutoring, what else can my child do to improve his/her chances for admission?

Preparing for the introspective nature of the process is more important than scores. It is helpful to understand what your family is looking for beyond the standard private school qualities (small class sizes, stable environment). What are you, as a family, going to offer the school and the community? What skills, talents, or passion will you bring that helps the school create a potpourri of potential? What makes you unique or distinct from other candidates? What values do you have as a family? What role does your student play in current school? What do you seek beyond general qualities of a good school? What will you contribute to that school’s community that no one else can? Writing and interview preparation are a way we do this. Have a plan for your writing. Take mock interviews. Essay work is a way to practice articulating your contribution. In this essays are a way to prepare for school interviews.

How can I best help the process as a parent?

Start the process early. Let it be student driven. Ask HOW I can help. Schools are very interested in seeing that this is a student driven process. Schools want to see that students understand themselves and their school options. Admissions teams want to see that students are in the driver’s seat. Parents can help by helping the student feel independent, helping them own the process. Instead of telling, ask ‘how can I make you feel more in charge of this process?’  ‘Would you like help with understanding testing or the essays?’ 

Offering ideas, and letting the student know how you can help can make the process more effective. Additionally, starting the process early, as soon as 7th grade ends, can be productive. Going to open houses is important. Parents can really help by being in charge of the schedule and process deadlines. They can also help the student gather thoughts for the essay and interview by being a sounding board. 

Remember that your child will go to high school! It is not where you go, but how you go. Where is the right fit where the student can unfold into the best version of herself for high school? Where will he fall in the landscape of his graduating class? 


Jeff is the Director of Educational Planning Services for PrepMatters and provides comprehensive, thoughtful assistance to families in the PrepMatters network. With more than a decade of experience in education and admissions counseling, Jeff Knox is a trusted adviser for students and families, both in the DC Metro Area and around the globe. Jeff is also a valuable part of our Secondary School Team, sharing his expertise with our tutors, and connecting parents to the best tutor for their needs. As Director of Educational Planning Services, he manages the pedagogy, curricula, logistics, and quality of PrepMatters’ Educational Planning Department range of services.


If you have more questions, or would like more information about our Educational Planning team, please contact us at KnoxOffice@prepmatters.com or info@prepmatters.com.