Last Updated On: January 7th, 2020

What is the ISEE?

The ISEE is a test required as part of the application to many independent schools. It is administered by the Educational Records Bureau.

How much does it “count?”

The test is one factor in the school’s admissions process, but some schools will weigh it more heavily than others. The best way to tell how much it “counts” is to contact the individual school, but even then you may not get a clear answer.

This philosophy found on Harvard-Westlake’s website is probably similar to the answer that many schools will give:

“Test results are just one factor we consider in gaining a clearer academic picture of each applicant. They serve to illuminate the school record and to provide us with a common denominator, given that students apply to Harvard–Westlake from so many different schools and bring with them their own individual qualities. As the President of ETS, a group that devises and administers a number of standardized tests, once said, multiple-choice tests can’t “…assess the glint in a student’s eye.” We wholeheartedly agree.”

That said, improving one’s performance on the ISEE can only help a student. In fact, quality preparation for the test can help not only with school admissions, but also with a student’s overall academic progress.

How do students take the test?

Students must register to take the test on the ERB website. The test is offered at schools across the country, and there are numerous options in the Los Angeles area, especially during the most common testing months of October-January. An electronic version is offered at Prometric Testing Centers, which offers greater flexibility with date and time and allows all testers to type the essay. The electronic test costs $180, compared to $100 for the paper version (with on-time registration and no extra services).

The ISEE may be taken once per “testing season”: Fall (Aug.-Nov.), Winter (Dec.-March), and Spring/Summer (April-July). If a student wants to have the option of taking the test more than once but still have time to prepare, the best month to take it is November, with the option of a retake in December or early January. The November test dates fill fast, so it’s important to register early! Since most schools require the test to be completed by January for the normal admissions cycle, most students do not take it during the Spring/Summer season.

The ERB no longer requires that test results be reported to at least one school, though individual schools have their own policies. Some school admissions offices ask students to send all score reports if they take the test more than once, while others require only one score report.

What is the format of the ISEE test?

The ISEE offers four different tests:

Level Grade (next academic year) Length Sections
Primary (new, online only) 2-4 53-60 minutes, plus an untimed writing sample Auditory Comprehension (grade 2 only), Reading, Math, Writing Sample (untimed)
Lower 5-6 2 hrs, 20 mins Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematics Achievement, Reading Comprehension, Essay
Middle 7-8 2 hrs, 40 mins
Upper 9-12 2 hrs, 40 mins


What makes the ISEE challenging?

Many students (and their parents) find that they score lower on the ISEE than they score on their school’s grade-level tests, such as the CTP-4 (often referred to as simply the “ERBs”) or the CST— often significantly lower. Here are the main reasons:

  • ISEE scores are normed using other ISEE test-takers, who comprise a selective group of students with higher-than-average achievement.
  • ISEE questions often include many above-grade-level concepts.
  • The ISEE is fast-paced, so many students are unable to finish every question.
  • Unlike the SAT, students are not allowed to use a calculator on the math section of the test.
  • ISEE questions are often written in a more challenging way than a standard grade-level test. For example, the Mathematics section may include many multi-step word problems.

In addition, the ISEE tests multiple grade levels using the same test. For example, students going into seventh and eighth grade both take the middle level test. Though they are scored based on how they compare with other students in their same grade-level, some may find it overwhelming to take a test with questions about unfamiliar concepts.

How can a student prepare for the ISEE?

The Educational Records Bureau and many schools say that ISEE preparation is not necessary, and the ERB releases only one practice test for each level (available in the “What to Expect Guides“).  In reality, however, most students do practice and prepare for the test. ISEE tutoring can be useful for several reasons:

  • Pacing- The ISEE is a fast-paced test, and it is a good idea to prepare for that ahead of time. For example, students who have been taught to underline and make notes on a reading passage will probably find that they run out of time before they finish the Reading Comprehension section, so they will need to learn and use a different reading strategy for the test. Through practice and preparation, students can know how to pace themselves appropriately.
  • Advanced concepts and skills- Unlike the tests students take during school, the ISEE contains some questions with above-grade-level vocabulary words and skills, which they will not learn at school until after the test. A quality tutoring program can teach students these skills.
  • Extra practice with academic skills- The good news about the ISEE is that it tests useful skills that extend beyond the test. Students who prepare for the ISEE will learn new vocabulary words, reading comprehension strategies, review previously-learned math concepts, and get a head start on more advanced math concepts. Some students find that their grades in school go up after ISEE tutoring because they are already familiar with many of the concepts taught in class.
  • Confidence- The ISEE can be a daunting test, especially for young students. By practicing their skills and knowing what to expect, students can have the confidence to do their best and feel more comfortable during the test, even when they encounter challenging questions.

LA Tutors has many highly qualified tutors who know about the ISEE and can help students prepare for the test. Through practice and preparation, the challenge of the ISEE can be turned into a valuable learning opportunity.

Katherine Friedman

Author Katherine Friedman

As the Program Co-Director at LA Tutors, Katherine is responsible for developing LA Tutors' curricula and contributes to the LA Tutors educational resources and blog. She has over ten years of classroom teaching experience in a variety of settings with diverse groups of learners: in the United States and internationally, special and general education, and public and private school. With a Masters degree in Education, she has been tutoring throughout her career and loves the opportunity to reach students in a one-on-one or small group setting. She began working as a test preparation tutor in graduate school and enjoys helping students build their understanding and confidence of standardized tests, including the ISEE, SAT, GRE, and CBEST.

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