Test Prep Guide: ISEE & SSAT

What are the tests for?

The ISEE and the SSAT (along with some other, less popular exams) are used in the high school admissions process. While the tests are necessary for applying into high school at any grade level, by far the largest proportion of test takers are 8th graders applying to enter a new school in 9th grade. As general assessments, they are meant to measure fundamental knowledge and abilities: vocabulary mastery and verbal reasoning, reading comprehension and textual inference, quantitative problem solving, and math knowledge.

Which test is right for which students?

There are 3 primary considerations for determining the right test for a student: the amount of prep necessary, relative proficiency in verbal vs. quantitative subjects, and estimated final score.

Students who need a great deal of practice are better off taking the SSAT, which has released more official tests and which allows students to sit for several tests in a given testing season.

Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is that the ISEE favors students who are strong math students (it tests through 10th grade math), while the SSAT favors students who are strong readers and English students (it tests intensive vocabulary).

Finally, the tests are scored in slightly different ways: where the SSAT is scored by percentile, the ISEE is scored by stanine, which is simply a range of percentiles. As a gross measurement built on the normal distribution, the stanines tend to lump students in the middle in the 4–6 range, where 54% of all students fall. As a result, the scoring process for the ISEE can favor students who are aiming in the middle of the pack; conversely, the SSAT can favor students who are candidates for top scores.

When should students begin to prepare?

Depending on their student profile, their current school, and the competitiveness of their target school, preparation can begin anywhere from the spring of 7th grade to the fall of 8th grade. As a rule, it’s better for students to start early; these tests, and particularly the SSAT, include vocabulary components that can require substantial preparation.

When should students take the tests?

Strictly speaking, students should have their final scores in hand before the deadlines of their applications. However, application deadlines vary quite a bit between schools and especially between boarding schools. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that good scores are “on the books” by early December.

Outside of these official tests, students should also take practice tests in official administrations; the score reports should be sent to the student’s current school. If the scores are strong, they can be used in the application. Otherwise, the admissions office will not share them with the applicant schools.The timing for those practice tests differs by test as follows:

SSAT: The SSAT offers fairly regular tests, and students can take as many as fit in the schedule. We recommend students take 1–2 so-called “flex” tests for practice in October and November.

ISEE: The ISEE allows students to take 1 official test per “season,” which they define in 4-month increments. The fall season ends at the end of November; the winter season begins in December. In turn, we recommend students take a practice ISEE in early November in preparation for their “real” sitting in December.

How is prep individualized?

Customizing preparation for SSAT and ISEE students often begins with gauging the student’s own investment in the prep process. For these tests specially, the act of coaching is as important as the act of instruction. For one, the students are younger and often exhibit an enormous range of emotional maturities. Second, the test can be quite hard for them — 8th graders will take the same exam as 11th graders, and many students have little to no experience with standardized testing, leading to substantial test anxiety. A good tutor will individualize instruction not only to establish a clear course of study targeted toward the maximum score increase, but also serve as a mentor and cheerleader when the work is difficult or when the student loses sight of the purpose of the preparation.

What’s a good score?

Obviously, the strength of a given score in the admissions process depends on the standards of that school. For the most competitive NYC day schools, students should aim for 90th+ percentile overall in SSAT and stanine scores of 7s-9s on the ISEE; for other schools, students will typically want mid-range scores of 4s-6s and a 50th+ percentile overall on SSAT.

Are there alternative assessments?

While there are other HS entrance exams — the SHSAT for the specialized high schools, the HSPT and the TACHS for many Catholic schools — most of the popular day and boarding schools expect either the SSAT or the ISEE. Due to their narrow utility, these specialized exams are much less common subjects for tutoring. Moreover, none enjoy publicly available full-length first-party tests, so much less is known about them. Here is a quick summary of their uses and particular characteristics:

SHSAT: The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, is the entrance exam for the specialized high schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, etc.). It consists of two 57-question sections: Verbal (now called ELA), and Mathematics. The test is administered just once per year, typically administered in October, and to 8th and 9th graders only. It represents the sole criterion for entrance to the specialized high schools: all test takers are ranked in order of their score and then admitted according to their listed preferences for high school.

HSPT (et al): The HSPT, COOP, and TACHS are standardized tests for entrance into Catholic high schools. They generally include 5 sections: Verbal Skills, Quantitative Skills, Reading Skills, Mathematics Skills, and Language Expression Skills. They are offered once per year, typically in mid-November or early December, and are for 8th graders (entering 9th) only. Only small portions of genuine tests are available, and scores are not released to the students. However, they are known to be easier than the other HS entrance exams–though different schools use different thresholds to permit students to advance in the application process.

Hunter Exam: The HCHS Entrance Exam consists of two multiple-choice sections covering English and Math and a writing assignment. It is given once per year, with no make-up dates or rescheduling, in January of the 6th grade year for entrance into 7th. The 500 top scorers will have their essays read for admission. There is a very small wait list.