What Is On the SSAT & the ISEE Anyway?

Thinking about taking the SSAT or the ISEE and trying to figure out which is best for you?

The first step is to make sure you know the requirements of the schools that interest you. In the Washington, 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 either test multiple times, but the ISEE is a little more restrictive in how it allows for re-takes. The SSAT offers a few standard test dates this year, and students are allowed to sit for six school-based tests. Additionally, students have the option to take an additional SSAT Flex test. Students may take one Flex Test between August and November 15 and one Flex test from November 29 through July 31. 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 ISEE 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 and 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.


SSAT Upper Level

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

SectionNumber of QuestionsDuration
Writing Sample1 (unscored)25 minutes
Break 5 minutes
Quantitative2530 minutes
Reading4040 minutes
Break 10 minutes
Verbal6030 minutes
Quantitative2530 minutes
Experimental1615 minutes
Total166 (plus essay)3 hours, 5 minutes

ISEE Upper Level

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

SectionNumber of QuestionsDuration
Break 5
Break 5
Essay1 (unscored)30
Total160 (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.


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 SSAT 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 counts for half of the overall ISEE score.

Additionally, the ISEE has a number of quantitative comparison questions. For parents who took the SAT prior to 2005, there might be 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.


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


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 mathematically 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 they are 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.