Expert Guide to Writing an Impressive ISEE Essay


The ISEE is an entrance exam for independent schools that is designed to measure verbal and quantitative reasoning skills, as well as student achievement.

The assessment can be administered at the following three levels:

  • Lower Level: Admission to Grades 5 and 6

  • Middle Level: Admission to Grades 7 and 8

  • Upper Level: Admission to Grades 9-12
  • There are five components to the test. Four are multiple choice subtests, and the fifth is an essay. In this article, we’ll answer all of your questions about the ISEE essay, and we’ll also provide a strong example to help your child make a positive impression on the admissions committee.

    The ISEE essay is written in response to a 1-2 sentence contemporary, high interest prompt. Prompts are randomly selected from a pool of over 100 topics, so a large range of subjects may be addressed.

    Students are given 30 minutes to craft a response to the provided prompt. Two pre-lined pages are provided, and students cannot request additional pages. Scratch paper for notes and planning is also available.

    The essay is not scored, but it is sent to your child’s school(s) of interest along with the ISEE score report.

    Does the ISEE Essay Matter?

    Since the essay is not scored, parents often wonder if the ISEE essay actually matters. Does it have any impact on a child’s chances of admission to an independent school?

    The amount of emphasis placed on the essay will vary according to which school(s) your child is interested in, but the essay will be sent to each schools’ admissions office. To some extent, it will be a factor in determining if your child should be admitted.

    Like a college application essay, the ISEE essay is also your child’s opportunity to show who she is as a person rather than a number. The essay is not a GPA or a test score, but a chance for your child to let her thinking skills, creativity, and personality shine through.

    Advise your child to take the essay just as seriously as the other four test sections. After all, the admissions committee will read the essay and take it into consideration when evaluating your child for admission.

    What is the Purpose of the ISEE Essay?

    In addition to providing insight into a student’s personality, the essay gives admissions committees information about a child’s ability to read, write, and think.

    With the essay, your child can demonstrate the ability to comprehend and effectively respond to a writing prompt. The essay should be organized, focused, and filled with connected ideas and supporting details. This indicates that your child can think and write logically.

    The admissions committee can also evaluate fundamentals like your child’s spelling and grammar skills and ensure that she can express herself in writing and communicate effectively.

    We’ll talk more about how to develop and show off these skills a bit later.

    How Long Should the ISEE Essay Be?

    There is no specific length requirement for the ISEE essay. However, you should encourage your child to spend the full thirty minutes writing. If there is time left, the essay is probably not as polished or as strong as it could be, so your child should add more supporting details or continue proofreading.

    Although the essay does not necessarily need to be the standard five paragraphs, it should have a beginning (introduction, middle (body), and end (conclusion). In order to accomplish this, your child should write at least three paragraphs, but we do recommend 4-5.

    The essay cannot exceed the two provided pages, so if your child tends to write a lot, she may need to be more concise.

    How is the Essay Scored?

    The ISEE essay is not scored, and it is not likely that the essay will be assigned a score by the schools who review it either.

    The way your child’s essay will be evaluated by each school is, to be honest, a mystery. Different schools may have a different set of criteria they look for when reviewing essays. Some may assign a higher or lower weight to the essay than others.

    What we do know is that your child’s essay will be read by each schools’ admission committee and will influence the decision of whether or not to admit your child.

    We also know the standard criteria for a good essay: focus, organization, clarity, support and elaboration of ideas, and grammar and mechanics. We can assume that when each school reads the essay, these factors—or very similar criteria—will be considered.

    Of course, you can also try asking the school or schools your child is applying to for information about how they evaluate the essay.

    What are Some ISEE Essay Topics?

    ISEE essay topics can cover a wide range of subjects, but they are always simple and open-ended. There is no right answer, and they do not require any outside information.

    Topics may ask about students’ favorite book, relative, or season. Students may be asked to describe a dream job or dream vacation, or to point out a problem in the world and how they think it could be solved.

    These topics simply require students to take a position and then explain why they chose this response.

    How Can My Child Write an Excellent ISEE Essay?

    Let’s take a look at how to write an effective introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, plus some general tips on writing an excellent ISEE essay.


    You may want the first sentence of your introduction to be a “grabber,” something that catches the audience’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. A grabber can be any of the following:

  • A question

  • A quote

  • An anecdote (a brief story about something that you’ve experienced)

  • A vivid description
  • Of course, you have to make sure that your grabber is relevant to the prompt you’ve been assigned. For example, if you decided to start your essay with an anecdote, the anecdote would need to be about something you’ve experienced that is related to your topic.

    In the introduction, you should also be very clear about your stance on the topic. For example, if the topic asks, “What is your favorite season and why?” the introduction should include a sentence stating which season is your favorite and listing 2-3 reasons supporting your choice.

    For example, “My favorite season is winter because of cozy fires in the fireplace, Christmas, and time with family.”

    Body Paragraphs

    In the body of your essay, you’ll explain and elaborate on the reasons listed in your introduction. It is generally a good idea to arrange your body paragraphs in the same order that they were listed in the introduction.

    If we were to write body paragraphs based on our introductory sentence above, the first body paragraph would focus on cozy fires in the fireplace, the second on Christmas, and the third on time with family.

    Each body paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, something along the lines of, “First, winter is my favorite season because I get to enjoy cozy fires in the fireplace.”

    All information in the body paragraph should explain and support the topic sentence. If the topic sentence is about cozy fires in the fireplace, the details in the body paragraph must focus on this topic only.

    The author could explain why winter is the only time she gets to enjoy cozy fires. She could describe what she does when sitting by the fire: curls up in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa, reads a good book, watches Christmas movies, etc. She could explain why this is such a treasured activity, etc.

    Each body paragraph should end with a concluding sentence that wraps up the paragraph and restates the reason.

    For example, this paragraph could end with a sentence like, “Relaxing by a cozy fire is just one reason that winter is my favorite season.” This also provides a neat segue into the second body paragraph.


    The conclusion does not need to be a long paragraph. 2-4 sentences is generally sufficient.

    In the conclusion, you should restate your position and reasons, but without using the exact same wording from the introduction.

    If possible, end with a strong closing sentence that neatly sums up your essay, such as, “Thanks to cozy fires, Christmas, and quality time with family, I wouldn’t mind if it was winter all year long.”

    General Tips

    Of course, this formula isn’t required. However, a formulaic approach can be helpful for young students. In general, your essay should do the following:

  • Include an introduction, at least two body paragraphs, and a conclusion

  • Provide a clear thesis statement explaining your position and listing 2-3 reasons to support it

  • Stay organized and on topic. Each body paragraph should include only details relevant to the topic sentence.

  • Elaborate on your ideas and reasons with explanations, examples, anecdotes, etc.

  • Use good spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

  • Use transitions to connect ideas and help the essay flow smoothly.

  • Be written in legible handwriting that the admissions committee will be able to read.
  • It’s also a good idea to encourage your child to use the provided scratch paper to plan her essay ahead of time. Planning should be a quick process due to time constraints, but a simple bubble map or other graphic organizer can help students organize ideas and ensure they have enough information to write a developed essay.

    Example of a Great ISEE Essay

    Using the topic we’ve discussed above, here’s an example of how a great ISEE essay might look.

    What is your favorite season? Many people love the warm days of summer or the leaves changing color in the fall. I personally prefer winter because of cozy fires in the fireplace, Christmas, and time with family.

    First, winter is my favorite season because I get to enjoy cozy fires in the fireplace. Every winter, my dad makes warm fires in our fireplace and my mom makes us giant mugs of hot cocoa with marshmallows. Sometimes we sit under blankets and watch Christmas movies. Other times I read one of my favorite books by the fireplace, or I snuggle with my dog Bruno. I look forward to each winter when the weather is finally cold enough for a warm, cozy fire. Relaxing by the fire is just one reason that winter is my favorite season.

    Next, I prefer winter because we celebrate Christmas during this season. I enjoy everything about Christmas, from the colorful lights to picking out and decorating the Christmas tree. In my family, we make new ornaments every year to hang on our tree, all while listening to Christmas music and eating steaming hot bowls of chili. I also love seeing presents slowly appearing under our tree. Christmas Eve is always an exciting time as we eagerly wait for the next morning. Finally, on Christmas, we eat delicious food and open all the presents from our wonderful family. The Christmas season makes winter a special time.

    Finally, I think winter is the best season because of all the time I get to spend with my family. My family has many Christmas traditions that we do together. For example, every year we go on a hay ride to look at lights, and then we go to my grandmother’s house for a family dinner with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and even close family friends. Winter is the only season when I get to see some of my relatives who live on the other side of the country, so it’s always a happy and exciting time for our family. Enjoying the company of my family, including relatives I rarely see, is another reason winter is the best season.

    In conclusion, I think winter is the superior season because of warm fires in the fireplace, Christmas celebrations, and time spent with family. Thanks to these wonderful experiences, I wouldn’t mind if it was winter all year long.

    Analyzing the Sample Essay

    Why was this a great essay? It had every element that a strong essay needs: focus, organization, clarity, support and elaboration of ideas, and grammar and mechanics.

    The essay was organized, easy to follow, and on topic from beginning to end. Each body paragraph contained only details relevant to that paragraph’s topic sentence, and the author used concluding sentences and transitions to make the essay flow smoothly.

    The author also provided elaboration on each of her three reasons. She used examples, descriptive details, and explanations to support each reason. The author uses some high level vocabulary and vivid imagery to emphasize her writing skills.

    Lastly, there were no glaring mistakes with grammar, spelling, punctuation, or usage. Keep in mind that admissions committees understand your child only has 30 minutes to craft the essay, so a few errors aren’t a big deal. However, it is important that your child’s grammar and spelling don’t impede the committee’s ability to read and comprehend the essay.


    Although the ISEE essay is not scored, it is still an important factor in your child’s admission to the independent school of your choice.

    Only 30 minutes are permitted for the essay, so the committee does not expect an extraordinarily long or complex piece of writing. They simply want the chance to see that your child is able to effectively express ideas in writing with clarity, organization, and elaboration.

    Leading up to the ISEE, you may want to have your child practice writing a few essays on simple, open-ended topics so you can evaluate her writing. Ensure that your child’s handwriting is legible, her grammar does not interfere with your ability to comprehend the writing, and the essay is appropriately organized.

    If you follow these simple steps, your child should be able to write an essay that will impress any admissions committee.