Last Updated On: July 8th, 2014

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 from October-April (though the test must be taken by January for admission to many schools). This year, for the first time, an online version is offered at Prometric Testing Centers starting September 15. Online testing offers greater flexibility with date and time and allows all testers to type the essay, but it costs $180 compared to $100 for the paper version (with on-time registration and no extra services).

Unlike the SAT or ACT, students may not take the ISEE for “practice.” They can take it only once every six months, and are required to send their scores to at least one school. Students who take the test during any given year and have their scores sent to a school, however, are not obligated to change schools.

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.

Arash Fayz

Author Arash Fayz

Arash has been a professional in the educational field for over 10 years. He started his teaching career as an SAT instructor in 2003, while receiving a graduate degree in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of California, Los Angeles. He now uses his expertise to manage the day-to-day operations of LA Tutors and also regularly contributes to the LA Tutors blog.

More posts by Arash Fayz

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply