What Is On the SSAT & ISEE Anyway?

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By Tom Manula

The first step is to make sure you know the requirements of the schools you’re interested in. In the DC area most schools, other than some of the Catholic schools that require the HSPT, will accept either the SSAT or the ISEE. If you're considering boarding schools outside the area you should be sure to check their policies (our educational counselors can help you get started).   

Students are allowed to take the tests multiple times, but the ISEE is a little more restrictive in how they allow for re-takes. The SSAT offers eight standard test dates and students are allowed to sit for as many of those tests as they choose, plus they can take an additional SSAT Flex test that allows for flexible scheduling. The ISEE breaks the calendar into three testing “seasons”, the Fall season runs from August to November, the Winter season from December to March and the Spring season from April to July. Students are only allowed to sit for the test once per season for a total of three tests in a given calendar year. For most students taking the test during the Spring season of 7th grade is too early taking it in the Spring of 8th grade is too late, so more realistically you can take the ISEE twice. 

The material covered by the two tests is fairly similar: both primarily test critical reading, vocabulary and math. But, the way the material is presented and weighed can often point a student in one direction or the other. 


TEST FORMAT

SSAT Upper Level 

(high school admissions, given to grades 8 and above)

Section

Number of Questions

Duration

Writing Sample

1 (unscored)

25 minutes

Break


5 minutes

Quantitative

25

30 minutes

Reading

40

40 minutes

Break


10 minutes

Verbal

60

30 minutes

Quantitative 

25

30 minutes

Experimental

16

15 minutes

Totals

166 (plus essay)

3 hours, 5 minutes


ISEE Upper level 

(high school admissions, given to grades 8 and above)

Section

Number of Questions

Duration

Verbal

40

20

Quantitative

37

35

Break


5

Reading

36

35

Mathematics

47

40

Break


5

Essay

1 (unscored)

30

Totals

160 (plus essay)

2 hours, 50 minutes


The test length, number of questions and general format are pretty similar, but let’s take a quick look at some of the differences on the corresponding sections.

MATH

While both tests have two math sections, the SSAT combines those two sections for one overall math score, which is weighed equally with the reading and verbal scores. So, math constitutes one third of the overall score. On the other hand, the ISEE separates its two math focused sections into separate scores: one for mathematics and one for quantitative reasoning. The upshot is that each of those are given equal weighting with the verbal and reading sections, so math now counts for half of the overall score. 

Additionally, the ISEE has a number of quantitative comparison questions. If you took the SAT prior to 2005 you might have some lingering memories of these questions. The questions present two mathematical expressions (A) and (B), and test takers are asked to select one of four answer choices:

            (A) The quantity in Column A is greater.

            (B) The quantity in Column B is greater.  

            (C) The two quantities are equal.

            (D) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

These questions aren’t necessarily harder than more traditional math questions, but students tend to be less familiar with the format and those that are less mathematically inclined can sometimes be intimidated by the unfamiliar. 

VERBAL

The verbal section on each test is primarily about vocabulary. On the SSAT half of the verbal questions are synonyms with challenging vocabulary words, and the other half are analogies that focus on relationships between words. The ISEE also is half synonyms, but the other half is sentence completions that depend on identifying context clues.

READING

Both tests aim to measure a student’s ability to read and make inferences from the broader context. The SSAT offers a mix of fiction and non-fiction passages and often includes poetry. ISEE passages are purely non-fiction with a mix of humanities, science and social studies and do not include any fiction passages or poetry.

The takeaway then is that students who are more math minded might benefit from the increased weight the ISEE gives to those sections. Students who are more comfortable with literature and reading fiction might prefer the SSAT. Those with more test anxiety might also prefer the more flexible re-take policy of the SSAT.  

Those differences notwithstanding, for most students the similarities are strong enough that the smart approach is to try out a practice test for each early in the test prep process to see which test he or she is more comfortable with. Our tutors can combine your feedback about your child’s strengths and weaknesses with the results of early practice tests to determine the best path for success. 

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