Skip to main content

Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

Most independent schools require a standardized test as part of the admissions process, usually the ISEE or the SSAT. Many parents and students ask the question: What’s the difference?

Before pondering the question too much, it’s important to check if the school(s) to which you are applying require(s) a certain test. In Los Angeles, many independent schools have agreed to use the ISEE as their only admissions test. Other schools may allow students to choose.

If you do have a choice, here are some key differences between the tests:

Test length and format

The ISEE offers four levels of tests:

Level Grade (next academic year) Length Sections
Primary (new, online only) 2-4 53-60 minutes, and 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


This year, for the first time, the ISEE is offered online at Prometric Testing Centers, starting September 15. Students who take the online test will type their writing sample, while those who take the paper version will write it by hand (unless they have a special accommodation). The paper test is offered at select schools between October and April, but many schools require it to be taken by January to qualify for admissions.

The SSAT offers three levels of tests:

Level Grade (current academic year) Length Sections
Lower 3-4 1 hour, 50 minutes Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Writing Sample
Middle 5-7 3 hours, 5 minutes Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Writing Sample, Experimental
Upper 8-11 3 hours, 5 minutes Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Writing Sample, Experimental


The SSAT is offered on paper on select test dates, about once per month between September and June. Students also have a “flex test” option where an individual or small group can arrange to take the test on a date that is not offered with standard registration.

In Los Angeles, there are more test locations for the ISEE than the SSAT, but the SSAT has test dates throughout the school year, while the ISEE test dates are mostly in the fall.


Both tests are challenging and are designed to distinguish between high-achieving students. They both test Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension, along with an unscored writing sample that gets sent to the school where a student is applying. Except for the writing sample, the tests use standard multiple-choice format, in which each question has one correct answer. The Verbal sections of both tests contain challenging vocabulary words. Both tests release very little official preparation material.


There are several key differences between the tests, including

Repeat testing: Students may take the ISEE only once every six months and may not take it for “practice,” meaning that a student’s scores must be sent to at least one school. Students may take the SSAT multiple times during respective standard test dates, though the students are only allowed one flex test.

Guessing Penalty: The ISEE has four answer choices per multiple-choice question and no guessing penalty, so a blank answer is marked the same as an incorrect one. The SSAT has five choices per question, with a ¼-point penalty for each incorrect answer, so students are better off leaving a question blank if they have no idea what the answer might be.

Writing Sample: Students have 30 minutes to complete the ISEE writing sample, which usually asks a personal question that can be answered with a true personal narrative or essay. Students are given only one prompt. The practice test in the current Middle Level ISEE official guide uses the question, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? Explain where you would go and why.” The Upper Level guide includes the sample prompt, “Of the books you have read in the past year, which one made the biggest impression on you and why?”

The SSAT sample is 25 minutes long. Students are given two prompts and are allowed to choose one. The Middle Level test allows students to choose between two creative prompts. The practice test in the Official Guide to the Middle Level SSAT includes the prompts, “I didn’t expect to learn anything new, but . . .” and “I had fifteen minutes to solve the puzzle.” The Upper Level test allows students to choose between two prompts, one creative and one essay. The essay prompts are personal questions that are similar to the ISEE prompts. In the Official Guide, one of the creative prompts is “I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out . . .” and one of the essay prompts is, “If you were to create a perfect school, what would it be like and why?”

Verbal Reasoning: The ISEE contains synonym questions and sentence completions, while the SSAT contains synonym questions and analogies.

Math/Quantitative Reasoning: The ISEE contains many multiple choice questions, along with some Quantitative Comparisons, where students must choose whether Column A is greater, Column B is greater, both columns are the same, or there is not enough information to decide. The SSAT contains multiple choice math questions but does not contain Quantitative Comparisons in this format.

Reading Comprehension: ISEE reading comprehension passages are usually non-fiction, on topics related to history, literature, science, and contemporary life.

According to the Official Guide, “the SSAT uses two types of writing: narrative, which includes excerpts from novels, poems, short stories, or essays; and argument, which presents a definite point of view about a subject.” The passages include Humanities, Social Studies, and Science. Unlike the ISEE, they can be fiction or non-fiction.

Experimental Questions: The ISEE does not contain questions marked as “experimental.” If there are any experimental questions on the test, they are included within the regular testing sections and students have no way to tell that they will not be counted in the score.  The SSAT contains a clearly labeled experimental section, which is fifteen minutes long and does not count towards a student’s score.

Which test is easier?

Which test is easier is a matter of opinion. If students know that their dream schools require a certain test (more likely the ISEE for Los Angeles schools), it is probably easier to focus on that one test instead of on two tests. If students have a choice, they may want to try one practice test for each to determine which one is the better fit, then prepare for that test.

How should one prepare for the SSAT or the ISEE?

The best place to begin test preparation is the official Web site of each test. The ISEE offers free downloadable What to Expect test guides online, which can be found here. The SSAT offers a free downloadable guide for its Lower Level test, and sells official guides for the Middle and Upper Level tests for $35 on its Web site, available here. Each guide contains one full-length practice test.

Besides the official guides, neither test offers much preparation material. The preparation materials available vary widely in quality, and much guesswork is involved in creating practice materials. There are, however, top-quality preparation materials available, including the resources and programs used by LA Tutors.

Though many schools contend that students do not need to prepare for the tests, both tests are challenging, and applicants will be competing against other students who have enrolled in test preparation programs. Top-quality test preparation can help students prepare for the pacing, format, and content of either test and can help increase their confidence and academic skills.

LA Tutors is attuned to changes in the test and is ready to help students prepare for either the ISEE or the SSAT with high-quality materials, practice tests, and tutors. Come and experience the LA Tutors difference!

About LA Tutors 123

LA Tutors 123 is a premier in-person and online private tutoring company based in Beverly Hills, CA. If you have specific questions or want a personalized plan, reach out to us here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply