6 Common Questions About High School Admissions Testing

Recently, one of our most experienced SSAT tutors, Kate Kula, sat down with Katy Dunn, Director of Educational Planning, to discuss the most common questions they hear about private high school testing. Here’s the highlights of their conversation, with Kate interviewing Katy:

1. Should I submit the highest overall SSAT percentile score or the highest individual subscore?

Nothing makes your head run around in circles more quickly than staring at multiple SSAT score reports trying to determine which one to submit with your child’s private school application. If there is a single highest report with the overall highest subscores in each area for instance, then the choice to send that report is fairly clear. But much more frequently, there is a large variation among test dates. In fact, for the SSAT in particular, we often see widely varying test results, so this issue can loom even more largely. 

While there is no hard and fast rule, the first thing to look for is consistency. Schools are interested in students who are solid and prepared. They are also looking for your test scores to reflect the grades they see on your transcript. So if you have one score report that has a super high score, but also a super low one, that may not be your strongest option. If your other score report maybe does not have that very high score, but instead has three sections scores that seem to fit well with one another – say, perhaps within 10-20 percentile points of one another – that’s probably the score you want to send. 

2. Do admissions officers actually read my student’s essay? 

Absolutely! In fact, during my many years of reading admissions applications at three different schools, the essay was often a real highlight of the application review process. The essay is one of the only chances that the reader has to see how your brain works unmediated by others. (“Unmediated” means that you get to just shine without anyone else getting in the way. In the rest of the test, what you do is dependent on how the test designer wrote the questions. And in the rest of your application, there’s always a chance that an adult gave you advice on how to answer the questions. But with the test essay, it’s just you!) I always found great insight and usually a lot of joy when reading those essays. 

One important word of caution to students, however: if you have a heavy-handed adult editor re-writing your essay questions for you, this essay will probably make that secret clear. It’s fine to get advice and guidance on completing your application essays, but make sure that the final version still sounds like you wrote it! 

3. Which section is most important to do well on? Do different schools care about some sections more than others?

This question is both common and tricky. I do not know any admissions professionals who say that they prefer a high math score over a high reading score, for instance. But every school is well aware of the demands of their own curriculum. So admissions teams do often consider the question, “We have a demanding, accelerated, math program. Is this student prepared to succeed here? Or, similarly, “Our teachers assign a lot of independent reading and writing from the start; does this student have the skills they need?”

More commonly, the individual section scores are interpreted with an eye to seek balance both among the sections and between the test and the transcripts. 

For instance, an 8th-grade student who historically has been stronger in humanities may be enrolled in a pre-algebra course for her 8th grade math class. Her SSAT score would be expected to be stronger in reading and verbal because much of the SSAT Quantitative material is based on algebra skills and concepts. Should her SSAT report show a lower Quantitative score with a much higher verbal score, most schools would feel comfortable that her scores reflect her school performance. By the same theory, if a student has indicated interest in a high school STEM pathway and has historically been more successful in math, then a school would likely expect a strong math score and could consider a balance with the Reading and Verbal. 

In these two examples, the transcript is used to understand strong section scores. It can also be used to balance a slightly lower score. Private schools are well aware that any testing environment is only a single snapshot of a student’s performance. So if you have a rotten morning, and a headache, and you lost your basketball game the night before, you might see a score dipping down even in an area where you are usually strong. If that score report with, say, a lower math percentile is seen in the context of your strong math grades in honors and advanced classes, schools will usually rely more heavily on the transcript. 

4. Do middle and high schools superscore the SSAT?

I do not know of any schools who would state that they superscore the test. Superscoring is a model of reading test scores used often by colleges when considering the SAT and ACT in admissions. At the college level, to “superscore” means a college will consider only the highest section score for each section, even if those highest scores were earned on different test dates. 

Because colleges have a significantly larger body of applications, more of the admissions process has been standardized and automated, while high school admissions is usually pretty traditional. Dedicated readers on the admissions team typically read each application file cover to cover. Each reader uses the test scores as a part of an intentionally holistic review process. In my experience, if more than one test score is submitted, each reader considers each full score report as a component of the student’s story. 

5. Should I only submit scores from one test date? Will it look bad to submit more than one set of scores?

In general, yes, I recommend submitting only the scores from one testing date. Most private high schools in the Washington, DC area have not fully embraced the culture of test prep and retesting for these admissions tests. 

6. I know the SSAT is more popular in the DC area. Do schools in the DC area look down on the ISEE? Is it a red flag if my student submits ISEE scores rather than the SSAT?

In my experience, schools truly mean it when they say that either test is acceptable. Students often find that they have a personal preference for one or the other, so you should pick the test which helps you feel most comfortable. When I have spoken to principals or admissions directors about this question, they’ve always just said that they are looking for the test as one component of the larger application package, so choose the one that feels like it puts your best foot forward. 

Originally published January 23, 2020