ISEE vs. SSAT: What You Need to Know About Each Test


The SSAT and the ISEE are the two most widely used entrance exams for independent schools. Both tests are designed to assess students’ academic abilities and potential for continued scholastic success. So how do these assessments compare? Let’s take a look at the ISEE vs. SSAT.

ISEE Explained

We’ll start by discussing the basics of the ISEE, developed by the *Educational Records Bureau (ERB) to be used as an admissions tool for its member schools.

What is ISEE?

The ISEE, otherwise known as the Independent School Entrance Exam, is a carefully designed assessment featuring content based on the standards of leading educational institutions, including the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), International Reading Association (IRA), and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

Paper-pencil and online versions of the test are available at three main levels:

  • Lower Level: Admission to Grades 5 and 6

  • Middle Level: Admission to Grades 7 and 8

  • Upper Level: Admission to Grades 9-12
  • What Kind of Questions Can You Expect on the ISEE?

    At all three levels of the ISEE, students answer questions divided into five different sections. The sections appear in the following order:

  • Verbal Reasoning (synonym and sentence completion questions)

  • Quantitative Reasoning (mathematical reasoning questions that require little to no calculation)

  • Reading Comprehension (passage-based questions focusing on main idea, supporting details, organizational elements, figurative language, and inferences)

  • Mathematics Achievement (mathematical questions that do require some calculation and focus on Numbers and Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis and Probability, and Problem Solving)

  • Essay (short, open-ended essay prompt that requires no outside information)
  • What is the Format of the ISEE?

    The first four sections of the test ask exclusively multiple choice questions. Aside from the Reading Comprehension section, each multiple choice portion of the test asks questions with an increasing level of difficulty.

    The number of questions and the time limit varies between test levels. The Lower Level ISEE takes 140 minutes to complete and asks 127 questions, in addition to the essay.

    Middle and Upper Level students are given 160 minutes to complete 160 questions and the essay.

    How is the ISEE Scored?

    Instead of providing an overall score for the test, the ISEE will give you a score for each of the four multiple choice sections.

    The ISEE does not penalize incorrect answers, so scoring begins with a simple calculation of the raw score (number of questions answered correctly) for each section.

    The raw score is then converted to a scaled score and percentile rank using ISEE norms. These norms are determined using the ISEE scores of students in your grade level who have taken the ISEE within the past three years.

    The percentile rank is a score from 1-99 that represents how well you performed in comparison to other students in your norm group. If you are in the 78th percentile, you scored better than 78% of students in your grade level who took the ISEE within the last three years.

    Percentile ranks are converted into a stanine score, which is a score from 1-9. Each stanine represents the following percentile ranges:

  • 1: 1-3%

  • 2: 4-10%

  • 3: 11-22%

  • 4: 23-39%

  • 5: 40-59%

  • 6: 60-76%

  • 7: 77-88%

  • 8: 89-95%

  • 9: 96-99%
  • The stanine score is the number most heavily considered by independent schools, who will likely average your child’s four stanine scores. Because the ISEE is such a difficult and competitive exam, a stanine of 5 or higher is generally good enough to gain admittance to an independent school.

    More elite independent schools may require a 7 or above, but only 23% of ISEE test-takers fall into this range.

    SSAT Explained

    Now let’s examine the SSAT, a highly reliable exam written by independent school educators in collaboration with content and testing experts.

    What is SSAT?

    The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, is an independent school entrance exam that is designed to measure basic verbal, math, and reading skills considered necessary for academic achievement.

    Like the ISEE, the SSAT offers three levels of the test:

  • Upper Level: Admission to grades 9-PG

  • Middle Level: Admission to grades 6-8

  • Elementary Level: Admission to grades 4-5
  • What Kind of Questions Can You Expect on the SSAT?

    ssat sample question.jpg

    The Middle and Upper Level tests are divided into five sections:

  • Writing Sample (creative or traditional essay for Upper Level students, a choice of two creative story starters for Middle Level, and a response to a picture for Elementary Level test-takers)

  • Quantitative (two sections- measures the ability to problem solve using arithmetic, basic algebra, geometry, and other quantitative concepts)

  • Reading Comprehension (passage based questions that measure a student’s ability to read, analyze, and comprehend various genres of literature)

  • Verbal (synonym and analogy questions)
  • The Elementary Level SSAT has only four sections, with one Quantitative section instead of two.

    What is the Format of the SSAT?

    In total, the Upper and Middle Level SSAT asks 167 questions and takes 3 hours and 5 minutes to complete.

    The Elementary Level SSAT allows students 1 hour and 50 minutes to answer 89 questions.

    Aside from the essay, all test sections are multiple choice. Five potential answer choices are provided for each question.

    How is the SSAT Scored?

    On the Upper and Middle Level SSAT, there is a penalty for incorrect answers, while Elementary Level students are not penalized.

    Upper and Middle Level students lose ¼ point for each incorrectly answered question, gain one point for a correct answer, and do not lose or gain points for an omitted response.

    Like the ISEE, the SSAT is a norm referenced test, so SSAT norms are used to convert raw scores to scaled scores and percentile ranks. The SSAT norm group is comprised of all test takers of the same grade and gender who have taken the SSAT (for the first time) in the United States or Canada over the past three years.

    Percentile ranks are provided comparing your performance to the performances of other students within your norm group. For example, an 8th grade girl in the 80th percentile scored as well or higher than 80% of all other 8th grade girls who took the SSAT within the last three years.

    The SSAT provides you with scaled scores and percentile ranks broken down by section, as well as an overall score for the assessment.

    What’s the Difference Between the ISEE and the SSAT?

    Although the ISEE and SSAT are similar in many ways, there are several key differences.

    ISEE vs. SSAT: Verbal Section

    Both the ISEE and the SSAT ask two types of questions on the verbal section.

    Synonym questions appear on both the ISEE and the SSAT. Students are provided with a word and must select the answer choice that is closest in meaning. The ISEE provides four choices, while the SSAT offers five possible choices.

    However, only ISEE Verbal includes sentence completion questions. Students must select the answer choice that logically completes a provided sentence. Upper Level students may be given two blanks instead of one.

    The other type of Verbal question on the SSAT is analogies. Students are provided a pair of words and a third word. They must select the answer choice that should be paired with the third word in order to mirror the relationship between the first pair. There are several types of analogy questions:

  • Antonyms

  • Synonyms

  • Part to whole

  • Uses (pencil is to write as broom is to sweep)

  • Users (hammer is to carpenter as brush is to painter)

  • Category (crow is to bird as shark is to fish)

  • Product to Producer (art is to artist as statue is to sculptor)

  • Degree (snow is to blizzard as rain is to hurricane)

  • Homonyms
  • So ISEE Verbal asks synonym and sentence completion questions, while SSAT Verbal includes synonym and analogy question types.

    ISEE vs. SSAT: Math Section

    ISEE math sample question middle lev.jpg

    Both the ISEE and the SSAT require students to complete arithmetic and word problems, and only Upper Level students are required to answer questions involving algebra and geometry. For the most part, however, the two tests assess mathematical ability very differently.

    The ISEE has two mathematical sections: Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement. The Quantitative Reasoning section is designed to measure mathematical reasoning skills and requires very little actual calculation. This section includes word problems for all levels and quantitative comparison questions for Upper and Middle levels only.

    The Mathematics Achievement section focuses on curriculum based mathematical questions that do require some calculation. Questions focus on Numbers and Operation, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis and Probability, and Problem Solving, although not all question types are asked of each grade level.

    The SSAT has two Quantitative sections on the Upper and Middle Level tests and only one on the Elementary Level assessment.

    These sections measure the ability to problem solve using arithmetic, basic algebra, geometry, and other quantitative concepts. Very little calculation is required.

    ISEE vs. SSAT: Essay

    On the ISEE, students at all levels are given a simple, open-ended essay question that does not require any outside information.

    On the SSAT, the essay question type varies according to level. Upper Level students can choose between a traditional essay prompt and a creative essay. Middle Level students choose between two creative story starters, while Elementary Level students describe a provided image with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end.

    On both tests, the essay is not scored. Instead, it is sent to your schools of interest, where the essay will be evaluated by the admissions committee.

    Is there a Guessing Penalty on the ISEE and SSAT?

    On the ISEE, there is no guessing penalty, so students should fill in an answer for every question.

    The SSAT has no penalty for incorrect answers on the Elementary Level test, but Middle and Upper Level students are penalized for wrong guesses. An incorrect answer leads to the loss of ¼ point.

    How Much Time is Allowed for ISEE and SSAT Essays?

    The ISEE gives students on all three levels 30 minutes to craft the essay.

    On the SSAT, Upper and Middle Level students are allowed 25 minutes, while Elementary students have only 15 minutes.

    Of course, the Elementary Level test simply asks students to look at a picture and create a brief story with a beginning, middle, and end that describes the image.

    Format Differences

    The SSAT offers four answer choices for each multiple choice question, while the ISEE provides five choices.

    There are also differences in the timing of the two tests.

    On the ISEE, the number of questions and the time permitted for each section varies according to level. In total, Lower Level students have 110 minutes to answer the 127 multiple choice questions. Upper and Middle Level test-takers are provided 130 minutes to answer 160 multiple choice questions.

    Timing of the SSAT is arranged as follows:

  • Quantitative: 30 minutes and 30 questions for Elementary, 30 minutes and 25 questions for Upper and Middle

  • Reading Comprehension: 30 minutes and 28 questions for Elementary, 40 minutes and 40 questions for Upper and Middle

  • Verbal: 20 minutes and 30 questions for Elementary, 30 minutes and 60 questions for Upper and Middle
  • In total, Elementary students have 80 minutes to answer the 88 multiple choice questions, while Upper and Middle Level students must answer 125 questions in 100 minutes.

    Overall, the SSAT is a shorter and faster test than the ISEE.

    Are Calculators Allowed on the ISEE or SSAT?

    No, calculators are not permitted on the ISEE or the SSAT. Although some calculation may be necessary on the Mathematics Achievement section of the ISEE, a calculator is not needed to answer the questions.

    The ISEE and the SSAT do not test students on scientific knowledge or history. Students also are not directly tested on grammar or spelling, although these may be taken into consideration by the schools and admissions committees who view the essay.

    Now that you know the key similarities and differences between the ISEE and the SSAT, let’s discuss the most important information: how to earn a great score and admission to the independent school of your choice!

    For tests like the ISEE and SSAT, the best way to prepare is by answering practice questions and completing full length exams. Although the SSAT has released less information than the ISEE, some sample questions for each test are available.

    As you answer practice questions, make sure you understand why each of your wrong answers are incorrect. Look over the right answer and think about a more effective way to approach this question type in the future.

    If you notice that you struggle with a particular type of question, focus your study sessions on this area until you begin to see improvement.

    To improve your vocabulary and reading comprehension, you can read a certain amount of pages or minutes a week. It doesn’t have to be a boring textbook; pick something that you’re interested in and start reading.

    Making vocabulary flashcards or learning about roots, prefixes, and suffixes can also help you on the difficult vocabulary questions found on these tests.

    General test prep strategies can also be tremendously helpful on these tests. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Use process of elimination to narrow down the possible answer choices.

  • Write or sketch out answers to test questions on scratch paper or in the test booklet. If you have a test booklet, feel free to circle and underline key words, cross out wrong answers, etc.

  • If you get stuck on a question for too long, skip it and come back to it later.

  • Pay attention to the clock and the amount of time that you have left within each section. Your teacher or test administrator should also give you reminders.

  • No matter what, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are capable and prepared.

    What are Some Tips for the Actual Test Day?

  • Prior to the actual test, be sure that you get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty, nutritious breakfast. It’s a good idea to gather all the materials you’ll need the night before and put them in one place, so on the morning of the test you can just grab your items and get ready to go.

    Wear comfortable clothing with layers. This way, you’ll be prepared whether the testing room is hot or cold. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable or spend time distracted by the temperature of the room.

    ISEE and SSAT in Summary

    Both the ISEE and the SSAT are designed to measure whether students are capable of handling a challenging curriculum at a competitive independent school.

    Both tests assess reading comprehension, vocabulary, and verbal and quantitative reasoning. The ISEE also assesses curriculum-based mathematical ability. Both tests also require a short essay. The essay is not scored, but it is sent to your schools of interest.

    The ISEE and SSAT are known to be challenging tests, although the SSAT is slightly shorter. On both tests, you can expect to see a lower score than usual, but this is only because the norm group is composed of high achieving students seeking admission to competitive schools.

    How Do I Register for the ISEE?

    You can register for the ISEE online through the ERB’s admission portal. Be sure that you have a VISA, MasterCard, American Express, or fee waiver code available to pay the testing fee.

    If you prefer to pay via mail, you can find a mail-in registration form inside the paper copy of the ISEE Student Guide.

    The ISEE can be administered individually or in groups at approved ERB member schools, Prometric locations, or at ERB’s New York City office.

    How Do I Register for the SSAT?

    To register for the SSAT, you must first create an account on the SSAT website.

    Next, click on “Register for the SSAT” followed by “Let’s Get Started.” You’ll provide some information, such as your current grade, your access code (if applicable), whether you require accommodations, and if you need Sunday testing due to religious reasons.

    Once your information is provided, you’ll select a date and site and be given the opportunity to add score recipients. Lastly, you’ll submit payment with VISA, MasterCard, Discover, or a fee waiver code.


    We hope you now have a clear understanding of the differences between the ISEE and the SSAT. Whichever independent school entrance exam you take, reading the tips and information here should be a great start toward earning a high score and a place at the right school for you!