Test Prep Guide: Why to Start Prep Early

After quite some time tutoring the ISEE and SSAT for independent/boarding school admissions, I have heard parents voice the same regret year after year: “I wish we’d started earlier.” In my experience, the families that start preparing for these tests one school year before the testing season have found the prep process to be more pleasant and the end results to be more satisfying. (Note: though my focus here is the ISEE/SSAT, I would make a similar argument for high school students taking the ACT/SAT.)That is to say, if you’re planning to apply out in 8th grade, begin test prep in 7th grade, ideally in the fall or winter. If you’re applying out in 5th grade, start prepping in 4th grade, and so on. Here are 5 reasons to begin preparing for these tests in the school year before the test will actually be taken.

Forming New Habits

A big part of my task in tutoring these tests with such young students is to help them learn new habits and behaviors at a time when their cognitive development may make it hard to do so. The executive functioning, organization, discipline, metacognition, and self-awareness that are required to perform consistently well on standardized tests represent skills and attributes that most students begin to cultivate in high school and continue building years after college. The younger the students are, the more likely it is that the requirements of the test will be out of step with where they are developmentally.

The best remedy for this challenge is time. Because these test takers are so young, they require more time to wrap their heads around these cognitive skills. In truth, many of them will need to be conditioned to exhibit certain behaviors as a force of habit because they likely won’t be ready to consciously adjust their behavior, and that sort of conditioning, again, takes time.

Mastering Advanced Content

For most students, the vocabulary on these tests is hard. The reading passages are long, complicated and boring. The math is like nothing they’ve ever seen before (think trigonometry, matrices, advanced algebra, and puzzle-like word problems…for 8th graders). I always end up teaching at least some new math concepts to my students. The vast majority of students will need to learn a lot of new math, and the amount of math covered during the preparation period is often a determining factor of student scores on the math evaluations. Mastery of the math content is one of the biggest reasons to start preparing early.

On the verbal side of the test, the sooner students begin actively learning and practicing new words and reading more advanced texts (e.g. books with complex language, The New Yorker, science articles), the better. If a student is not a natural independent reader or does not have a strong vocabulary, the verbal and reading scores will be difficult to improve significantly in a short time.

Minimizing Pressure and Anxiety

Most students who take these tests have not been exposed to the sort of pressure that these tests and school admissions generally represent. Burnout and anxiety are huge factors in student performance here. During the application year, students not only contend with regular schoolwork and extracurricular activities but also weekly tutoring sessions, extra ISEE/SSAT homework, essays, interviews, and school visits. One of the keys to success is minimizing pressure and anxiety as much as possible; spreading the prep process over a longer stretch achieves just that.

Managing Unexpected Blips

Time allows us to navigate the endless variables that can pop up at any moment. One student might lose confidence after a bad mock test. Another might turn out to have intense algebra-phobia after several months of fairly straightforward prep. A longer prep process allows us to devise and deploy solutions to unexpected challenges without unnecessary angst.

Keeping Up With Other Families

The fact is many families begin their preparation early, and that gives them an edge. Given that scores on these tests are based on how students perform relative to other kids their age, taking some extra time to prepare for the tests can help your student to stay in step with other applicants.


The benefits of beginning ISEE/SSAT prep early cannot be overstated. If you are looking to apply to some of the most competitive schools, an early prep process will help ensure you get the scores you need. If your student has any history of testing anxiety or other learning challenges, more prep time is really quite essential. Even if you envision a fairly “laid-back” admissions process, longer test prep will reduce stress for all parties involved — yourself included. If you have any doubts, ask a parent that has been through it.