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Last Updated On: February 24th, 2021

By now you’ve probably heard of the big, bad independent school entrance exams. What you might not know…the differences between these two contenders. While some students don’t get the option to choose which entrance examination they take, others receive the gift of choice. When choosing a test it’s so important to weigh all the factors, so here’s a quick look at key differences between the ISEE and the SSAT and how to make the right choice for your student.

1. Attempts Needed

Consider their test-taking abilities. Each test allows for a different number of attempts.

On the SSAT→
Eight SSAT tests annually and one SSAT Flex test per testing year (August 1st to July 31st)

Side note⇨ Q: Flex test? What is that? A: Tests given by educational consultants or authorized schools on a date that isn’t listed online.

On the ISEE→
The ERB allows one ISEE test per testing “season”. Although there are 3 seasons, in practice, most students are only able to take the test twice – once in the Fall Season, and once in the Winter season.

Side note⇨ Q: What do you mean by “season?” A: Fall= August, September, October, November; Winter= December, January, February, March; Spring/Summer= April, May, June, July.

If your student would like the ability to take the test more frequently, SSAT might be the best option for you. However, with the ISEE, most students get around the hurdle of only one test per season by taking a test in November and December so they can submit their best scores before school deadlines.

My thoughts: Personally, I recommend that every student takes their standardized test at least twice. No matter what the test is. Big bonus! You don’t have to submit the scores. If you’d like, you can wait until you receive two sets of scores and then submit the best one.

2. Stamina

Does your child struggle with taking long tests? Is this their first lengthy entrance examination? Consider the timing of each test.

On the SSAT→
Upper and middle level students= 3 hours, 5 minutes
Elementary Level students= 2 hours, 5 minutes

On the ISEE→
Upper and middle level students = 2 hours, 50 minutes
Lower Level students= 2 hours, 30 minutes

3. Math Sections

While both tests offer extensive math, it’s important to know the time limit where your child might “tap out.”

On the SSAT→
Upper level and middle level students get two 30 minute sections (one in the beginning and one towards the end, both named Quantitative) with 25 questions in each. That means 60 minutes total. And 15 minutes of experimental questions with some math.

On the ISEE→
Upper level and middle level test-takers get two math sections (Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement) with QR offering 37 questions in 35 minutes and MA offering 47 questions in 40 minutes. So that’s 75 minutes total. A lot of math!

My thoughts: The math sections are pretty similar. Usually students are required to know algebra and geometry a grade level or two above their current knowledge. Algebra, Geometry, and early Trig are required. ISEE typically frames their QR section to be more “tricky” and reasoning based and their MA section to be more like standard math questions. SSAT expects the same reasoning and computation skills for math, but they all fall under the “Quantitative” section.

4. Verbal Sections

While both sections test students on their synonym knowledge, they do have some differences in length and content. What is your child’s strongest skill?

On the SSAT→
For a middle or upper level test-taker you will face 30 synonyms and 30 analogies in 30 minutes. That’s 30 seconds per question. Speed is necessary here.

On the ISEE→
Middle level and upper level students are required to answer 40 questions in 20 minutes, 20 synonyms and 20 sentence completion questions. This is a similar pace but with different styles of questions.

My student’s thoughts: “I think the vocab section on the SSAT was definitely more difficult, the synonyms. They also had analogies which were way more difficult than sentence completion. That’s a big difference too. So I think overall [the SSAT] was a little bit more difficult.” – Ariana N.

To hear more from student Ariana N. read her interview on How I Rocked My ISEE Upper Level Test: Part I and How I Rocked My ISEE Upper Level Test: Part II.

My thoughts: Typically my ISEE students finish the verbal section early during practice tests and even on the test date. Also I’ve heard rumors that the synonyms chosen on the SSAT can tend to skew harder than those chosen for ISEE. While all of these tidbits are subjective, it’s nice to hear what is spoken through the grapevine. However, at the end of the day you must see which verbal section connects more with your child. In my student Ariana’s case she was weaker in the verbal section and took both the ISEE and SSAT practice tests before deciding which one to focus her test prep on. I recommend this strategy for anyone on the fence.

5. Guessing Penalty

Is your child naturally instinctive? Are they good at eliminating at least two answers? Each test has a distinct scoring system and it’s important to factor this into what best suits your kid.

On the SSAT→
For middle and upper level test takers there is a guessing penalty. For each answer that is incorrect you lose a quarter of a point. Unanswered questions do not deduct points from your raw score.

On the ISEE→
There is no guessing penalty. Students should fill in every question even if they have no idea. There will be no deduction for any incorrect answers. They will only increase their raw score with questions deemed correct.

My thoughts: I encourage students to eliminate at least two answer choices for every answer, if possible. If they can get that far they should ALWAYS guess. Personally, I think the ISEE’s guessing policy is so much more forgiving and really allows students to go for it and trust their gut instincts. The SSAT requires a bit more critical thinking as students must decide if their guess is worthy of losing a point.

Overall thoughts?
Find the best fit for your student. Every child is different and has various strengths. Take two diagnostic tests and score them. On which test were they the most successful? While that might not be the best indicator to decide, it’s definitely a good place to start. Schools are continuing to hone their admissions process and these standardized tests are just one piece of the puzzle.

For more insider tips from yours truly, check out my blog discussing the new writing samples for private school applicants: Private School Admissions: Insider Tips and Ways to Prepare for the Mysterious New Writing Sample

Additional Resources:

To get started with the SSAT check out their starter practice materials: SSAT Practice Materials | Official Guide Books & Tests

If the ISEE is calling you instead, here’s a great spot to start with test preparation: ISEE Preparation for Families

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