How to Prepare for the ISEE: A Guide to Getting Ready for Test Day

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s step-by-step strategy guide to preparing for the ISEE

Taking the ISEE

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is an important component of private school admissions. If you or your student is planning to apply to private school, scoring well on the ISEE helps to boost your chances for successful admission to your school of choice. 

The first step to achieving this goal, whether you’re working independently or with a private tutoring company, should be to formulate a strategic ISEE study plan. 

Since 2005, we’ve helped students boost their ISEE scores and get into their top choice private schools.

In this post, we’ll share valuable information about when  to start prepping for the ISEE, how to create a strategic ISEE study plan, and how to best prepare your student or yourself for success on your testing day. 

Want a step-by-step-guide on how to prepare for the ISEE? Our Step-by-Step Guide to Making an ISEE Plan covers ISEE test prep strategy, a month-to-month test plan guide, quirks of the ISEE, and resources you can use to maximize your score. Download our guide for free here. 

Jump to section:
What is the ISEE?
Keys to Preparing for the ISEE
  Start Early
  Take a Diagnostic
  Analyze the Diagnostic
  Determine Your Resources
  Learn the Test Itself
  Strategically review important concepts 
  Use the predictability of the test to your advantage
Ready to get started? 

What is the ISEE?

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is a standardized test that many private schools require as part of the admissions process.  Be sure to reach out to the school’s admissions office to understand their testing requirements.  

A strong score, along with other strong application materials, can boost a student’s chances for admissions at the school of their choice. 

For more detailed information about the ISEE, check out our post: What is the ISEE?

Keys to Preparing for the ISEE

1. Start early 

If you do elect to take the ISEE, it’s important to start prepping early. Sometimes students prepare too last-minute for the ISEE test and find themselves rushing to learn the test and its concepts. 

We suggest you start prepping as soon as possible, but generally not less than three months prior to your testing date if possible. 

Some students choose to start preparing 1+ years beforehand, which is a great way to effectively build vocabulary, learn academic concepts that appear on the ISEE that may not have been covered in their school curriculum, and develop standardized testing skills. 

Because students are limited to taking the ISEE three times, it’s important that they are ready to earn a high percentile score on their first, second, or third try. 

Starting early and getting to know the structure of the test, and identifying any weaknesses such as gaps in academic knowledge or any issues with time management skills, will help control exam stress and maximize a student’s chance for success on the ISEE. 

2. Take a diagnostic 

Take a full-length practice test under actual testing circumstances. Time (or have a friend or parent time) each part of the test, and do the entire test in one session with real time constraints. 

Finish each section under the time limit indicated on the exam. Taking a diagnostic will help students measure their progress and compare their starting score to their final score.  We include suggestions for resources, including practice tests, in our step-by-step strategy guide

3. Analyze the diagnostic 

Score the test. It will be hard to have an exact picture of an ISEE score from a practice test because ISEE scores are compared to other students’ who took the test on that date; their percentile rank is determined by their test performance compared to other students. 

This is then converted to something called a “stanine score.” This stanine score is what most committees consider for admissions. 

It can be difficult to determine an accurate score report from a practice test because of the confusing way that ISEE scores the test. You can read more about ISEE scoring in our post about the ISEE here: What is the ISEE.

One way to estimate a stanine score is to take the number of correct answers and then divide it by the total number of questions, then multiply that result by 100. The percentage can be estimated as follows:

  • 90% or above – 9 stanine score
  • 80 – 89% – 8 stanine score
  • 70 – 79% – 7 stanine score

And so on. While this won’t give an exact stanine score, it will help students to estimate their performance on the ISEE test. 

However, the ISEE test analysis can go further than just stanine scores and percentile scores. Again, this is another instance where an experienced tutor can help by creating a personalized, targeted study guide. The ISEE diagnostic should be analyzed for academic concepts where a student is weaker. 

Instead of reviewing all the academic concepts on the tests, students should focus only on the concepts they need. By determining which question type is the most difficult for the individual student and using our free ISEE study guide, the student can maximize their study time.

4. Determine your resources 

Once the student decides what concepts they will need to review, they should determine what learning tools are available to them and what practice materials are best for them. 

Students should ask themselves: What books will I use? Are there additional resources online that will be helpful to me? 

PrepMaven helps guide students to the right resources to use to prepare for the ISEE and resources for additional practice exercises. 

They also provide complete practice tests for students to measure their progress. Contact us today to learn more about what ISEE prep packages we offer and how we can boost your student’s chances for success on the ISEE. 

5. Learn the test itself 

Learn the different levels of the ISEE, and what you’ll be responsible for on the test. Get to know the ISEE, what’s on it, what the different timed sections consist of, the types of questions you’ll see, and what you should expect on the day of the test. 

ISEE Levels

Students will answer multiple choice questions and one essay question. The amount of questions and time on each section will depend on whether the student is taking a Primary Level, Lower Level, or Middle Level/Upper Level ISEE exam. There are time sections that differ in timing depending on the level of the test. 

Primary Level

Auditory Comprehension (Only for Grade 2)1 audio passage w/ 6 questions7 minutes
ReadingGrade 2: 18 QuestionsGrade 2: 20 minutes
Grade 3: 24 QuestionsGrade 3: 28 minutes
Grade 4: 28 QuestionsGrade 4: 30 minutes
MathGrade 2: 24 Multiple ChoiceGrade 2: 26 minutes
Grade 3: 24 Multiple ChoiceGrade 3: 26 minutes
Grade 4: 28 Multiple ChoiceGrade 4: 30 minutes

Lower Level

Verbal Reasoning3420 minutes
Quantitative Reasoning3835 minutes
Break10 minutes
Reading Comprehension2525 minutes
Mathematics Achievement3030 minutes
Break10 minutes
Essay130 minutes

Middle Level and Upper Level

Verbal Reasoning4020 minutes
Quantitative Reasoning3735 minutes
Break10 minutes
Reading Comprehension3635 minutes
Mathematics Achievement4740 minutes
Break10 minutes
Essay130 minutes

6. Strategically review important concepts such as vocabulary, reading concepts, and mathematics topics 

Some ways to get started prepping for test day:

  • Review vocabulary. Consult a list of vocabulary that commonly appears on the ISEE, and consider making flashcards or asking a parent or friend to quiz you week-to-week to see how your vocabulary skills are building up and how your level of knowledge is improving. 
  • Read both to build skills and for enjoyment. Reading regularly builds important reading and verbal skills. Head to your local library and build important ISEE skills while enjoying a good book. 
  • Build important mathematics skills for success on the two math sections of the exam. Target any math weaknesses that the diagnostic test reveals. Take time to do regular homework with practice questions and practice drills, targeting any skills in math that need improvement. 
  • Build a comprehensive study plan and stick to a study schedule to prepare in time for your ISEE testing date. Again, a private tutor can help you use the right prep materials and applicable practice exercises combined with a practice schedule to fulfill an efficient and effective study process. 
  • Consistent practice is key! It can be very helpful to have someone help to keep you accountable despite busy schedules from school and extracurriculars. 

7. Use the predictability of the test to your advantage 

There are aspects of the test that can be confusing at first–however, it’s important to think like a test-maker, not a test-taker. The average student may not be used to some of the unusual aspects of standardized tests and how they differ from in-school testing. 

Once you learn the quirks of the test and exam format, you can use the predictability and regularity of the test to your advantage. The higher the level of knowledge you build about the exam, the better! Building your comfort level and confidence level with the exam will mean anxiety reduction and thus more success on the day of the test. 

Since the ISEE test covers a finite number of concepts, it’s possible to learn all the concepts that will be covered on the test. 

The test’s structure doesn’t change, so it’s also possible to learn important test-taking skills that will help improve your chances of a better score. These skills also combat test anxiety because they’re simple, straightforward ideas that can be used even if the ISEE is a difficult test. Some important skills are: 

  • Process of elimination: narrow down the answer choices to one or two possibilities. 
  • Time management insights: making sure you don’t spend too long on any one question, and even doing the test out of order if it means answering questions accurately and quickly. 
  • Not falling into the usual tricks and traps of the ISEE. Again, working with an ISEE test prep professional, such as one of PrepMaven’s tutors, can help you avoid the most common mistakes made by students on the ISEE. 

Ready to get started? 

Navigating how to prepare for the ISEE is daunting. The ISEE itself is complicated in structure and it can be difficult to know how much time to devote to the various topics you’ll be tested on. 

A professional tutor will help you strategize a prep plan, assign you homework to build skills from week to week, hold you accountable for putting in prep and practice time, and measure your progress. 

Maximize your chances for success by contacting us today to learn how a personalized ISEE prep plan can work for you. 

Our Step-by-Step Guide to Making an ISEE Plan covers ISEE test prep strategy, a month-to-month test plan guide, quirks of the ISEE, and resources you can use to maximize your score. Download our guide for free here. 


Alexis graduated from Princeton University and holds a Masters in Music from Mannes College. She was a Fulbright scholar to Austria and a research fellow at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. She is enrolled in a doctoral program at City University New York, where she is on a prestigious Five-Year Fellowship. She has over a decade of subject tutoring and test prep (SSAT / ISEE / SAT / ACT) experience.