Bonus Material: Step-by-step plan for choosing between the ISEE and SSAT

Thinking about applying to private elementary, middle, or high schools? 

Then you’ll have to take (and succeed on!) either the ISEE or the SSAT, the standardized exams private schools use to evaluate applicants. 

These tests differ in multiple ways, so choosing the right test for you is critical for gaining admission to selective private schools. 

In this blog post, we’ll cover the differences between the ISEE and the SSAT, show you a few sample questions, and, most importantly, offer ways for you to decide which test plays to your strengths. 

Jump to section:

ISEE vs SSAT At a Glance
ISEE: Primary Level (Grades 2-4)
Test Formats: Lower/Elementary Level
Test Formats: Middle and Upper Level
Content: Math on the ISEE vs SSAT
Content: Reading on the ISEE vs SSAT
Content: Verbal on the ISEE vs SSAT
Scoring
Which Should You Take?
Next steps

Bonus Download: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the ISEE or SSAT


ISEE vs SSAT at a glance

The ISEE and SSAT are two tests used by private schools when evaluating applicants. Both exams test math, verbal, and writing skills, with slightly differing formats.

should students take the ISEE or the SSAT for private school admissions?

The Middle and Upper Levels of the exams are available in paper and computerized versions, while tests for those applying to elementary schools are only available in paper form. 

One key thing to note is that there are different levels of each test, depending on which grades you’re applying to:

ISEESSAT
LevelGradesLevelGrades
Primary2–4
Lower5–6Elementary4–5
Middle7–8Middle 6–8
Upper9–12Upper9–12

Note: the SSAT does not offer a test for admission to grades 2 and 3. For application to those grades, you’ll have to take the ISEE. 

Whatever grade you’re applying to, make sure you’re studying and signing up for the correct level!

Phillips Andover Academy (MA)
Phillips Andover Academy (MA)

ISEE: Primary Level (Grades 2–4)

The Primary Level of the ISEE is very different from the upper levels of either test. See below for a detailed explanation of the format for each grade level up to grade 4. Remember: your student would only take this test for admission to grades 2-4. 

SectionQuestionsTiming
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
students

Test Formats: Lower/Elementary Level

The next level of the ISEE is the Lower level, for admission to grades 5–6. The SSAT offers an Elementary level, for admission to grades 4–5. 

Both the ISEE and SSAT attempt to test students’ potential as a student as measured by verbal, quantitative, and writing skills. But they do so in different ways: 

One key difference is the SSAT has students complete a short experimental section. This section contains a mix of quantitative and verbal questions, and, most importantly, is not scored. It’s just there for the test-writers to try out some new questions, though unfortunately it means another 15 minutes of test-taking for students. 

Another key difference is the way each test splits up its math section. The format of each test is outlined below. 

Lower Level ISEE

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

Elementary Level SSAT

SectionQuestionsTime
Quantitative3030 minutes
Verbal2020 minutes
Break15 minutes
Reading2830 minutes
Writing115 minutes
Experimental*15-1715 minutes

* The experimental section is not scored. It’s a way for the test-makers to test future questions. 


Test Formats: Middle and Upper Level

Students applying to higher grades will have to take either the Middle or Upper level ISEE or SSAT. These formats are very similar to the Lower Level tests, but with more questions. Take a look at the structure for each test below:

Middle/Upper ISEE

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

Middle/Upper SSAT 

SectionQuestionsTime
Writing Sample225 minutes
Break5 minutes (paper test),
10 minutes (computer test)
Quantitative 2530 minutes
Reading4040 minutes
Break10 minutes
Verbal6030 minutes
Quantitative2530 minutes
Experimental*1615 minutes

* The experimental section is not scored. It’s a way for the test-makers to test future questions. 

students


Content: ISEE vs SSAT Math

Both the ISEE and SSAT generally test the same set of math concepts:

  • Pre-Algebra and Algebra
  • Numbers and Operations
  • Measurement
  • Data Analysis/Probability

But each test organizes and presents the math questions differently. It’s important to note that neither test allows the use of a calculator. Take a look below for a detailed breakdown of each math section, with example questions. 

Deerfield Academy (MA)
Deerfield Academy (MA)

ISEE Math 

On the ISEE, you’ll see one section called “Quantitative Reasoning” and another called “Mathematics Achievement.” Both test your math skills, so you might be wondering what the point of separating them out is. 

Quantitative Reasoning is designed to test your “mathematical thinking.” Believe it or not, according to the ISEE test-makers, this section “requires little or no calculations.” 

The Quantitative Reasoning section is itself split into two parts. The first contains word problems similar to what you may have seen in class or on previous math tests. They might look like this: 

ISEE math word problem
example ISEE question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

The key here isn’t doing a complicated calculation. Instead, it’s understanding what happens to the whole expression when you change one piece. (In this case, the correct answer is A: can you see why without doing much math?)

The second part of this section has “Quantitative Comparison” Questions that each give you two mathematical expressions and ask you to decide which of the two–if any–is greater than the other. They look like this: 

ISEE math comparison question
example ISEE question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

The answer here is A.

The “Mathematics Achievement” section presents you with 47 more questions (30 on the Lower Level test). These are a mix of word problems, geometry, and charts/tables that test your knowledge of key math concepts, terms, and operations. Unlike the “Quantitative Reasoning” section, you’ll definitely have to do calculations here! 

You might see a question like this: 

ISEE math calculation question
example ISEE question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Notice that here, the correct answer (which is B) really depends on your ability to perform specific calculations. 

St Pauls School (NH)
St Pauls School (NH)

SSAT Math

The Middle/Upper SSAT, on the other hand, has two identical quantitative sections titled (as you might expect) “Quantitative 1” and “Quantitative 2.” Each has 25 questions that test a broad range of mathematical concepts, including your ability to perform calculations. 

For a detailed guide that breaks down the SSAT Math section, check out our post here.  


Content: ISEE vs SSAT Reading

The reading sections between the tests are quite similar in terms of length, structure, and pacing. 

ISEE

The Middle/Upper ISEE Reading sections have 6 passages with 6 questions each. These passages will be a mix of historical, scientific, and literary. Questions test your ability to understand the main idea, supporting ideas, vocabulary in context, and tone/style. 

The Lower Level ISEE Reading is the same, but with easier readings and only 5 passages with 5 questions each. 

SSAT

The Middle/Upper SSAT Reading section gives you shorter passages, but more of them (7–8). There are also slightly more total questions than on the ISEE. However, it still tests the same fundamental concepts, and the passages themselves are similar to those on the ISEE.

The Elementary level SSAT Reading section has 7 shorter, easier passages with 4 questions each. 

Hill School (PA)
Hill School (PA)

Content: ISEE vs SSAT Verbal

While the reading comprehension sections are very similar between the two tests, a major difference exists in how they structure their verbal sections. 

ISEE

The ISEE’s Verbal Reasoning section consists of two types of questions: Synonym and Sentence Completion

Synonym Questions are very straightforward: they present you with a word, and you have to pick the answer that most closely says the same thing. 

They might look like this: 

ISEE synonym question
example ISEE question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Sentence Completion Questions give you a sentence with one word missing: you have to pick the correct word based on the context of the sentence. You might see something like this: 

ISEE sentence completion question
example ISEE question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved
Spence School (NYC)
Spence School (NYC)

SSAT

The SSAT’s Verbal Section is also split up into two types of questions: Synonym and Analogy

The Synonym questions look a lot like the ones on the ISEE. You might see something like this: 

SSAT synonym question
example SSAT question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

While the Synonym questions probably feel pretty familiar, the Analogy questions are likely to be new to you. In fact, it’s these Analogy questions that students often struggle with most on the test. 

Analogy Questions give you two words with a particular relationship, and ask you to pick an option that has the same relationship. For example: 

SSAT analogy question
example SSAT question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Try giving that one a shot on your own. If you find it tough, you might want to check out our post on how to tackle the SSAT Verbal section. (The correct answer, by the way, is D.)

Phillips Andover Academy (MA)
Phillips Andover Academy (MA)


Scoring

Answer Options and Penalties

There are several important differences in terms of scoring. For one, the SSAT always presents you with 5 answer options. The ISEE, on the other hand, gives you 4. 

Even more importantly, the SSAT penalizes you for wrong answers: putting the wrong answer down for a question causes you to lose ¼ point. Leaving an answer blank does not deduct points from your score.

Because of the penalty, on the SSAT, you should only guess if you’re able to eliminate one or more of the options. 

In contrast, the ISEE does not deduct points for wrong answers

This means that on the ISEE, you should never leave an answer blank.

Use these differences between the ISEE and the SSAT to determine which is a better fit. Our convenient quiz and step-by-step guide makes this much easier!

Score Reports

ISEE

The ISEE Score report can look confusing, but we’ll break it down below. It’ll look like this:

ISEE score report
Image source: erblearn.org

The ISEE gives you four separate section scores, each on a scale from 760 to 940. That score will be accompanied by a percentile rank and a stanine rank for each section: these are really the important metrics. 

The percentile rank tells you how many students you outperformed on each section. A 95th percentile on Verbal Reasoning, for example, would mean you scored higher on that section than 95% of other students who took the test in the last 3 years. (Congrats!)

The stanine score is a bit confusing (and a bit redundant). It runs on a scale of 1–9 and also corresponds to your percentile rank on a bell curve: a stanine of 9 corresponds to the top 4% of scorers, while a stanine of 1 corresponds to the bottom 4% of scorers. In general: 1–3 is below average, 4–6 is average, and 7–9 is above average. 

The writing isn’t scored. Instead, it’s sent directly to schools for them to evaluate on their own. 

SSAT

The SSAT score report is a bit more intuitive: 

Image source: ssat.org

The SSAT is scored on a range of 1500-2400, with each score corresponding to an overall  percentile, as on the ISEE. No messy stanines to deal with here: just focus on the score and percentile. 

You also receive three subscores for Verbal, Quantitative, and Reading, each ranging from 500 to 800. Each of these scores also has a corresponding percentile. 

As with the ISEE, the essay portion is unscored and sent to schools directly. 

Collegiate School (New York City)
Collegiate School (New York City) – Image courtesy of Ajay Suresh. Used by permission under CC BY 2.0.


Which Test Should You Take?

The first and biggest factor is the school you’re applying to. If your school has a preference for one test over the other, you should make sure to prepare for and take that test to maximize your chances. 

School preferences vary, but many schools accept either the SSAT or the ISEE without preference. If that’s the case for your schools, then the choice is up to you, and will depend on which test’s content you prefer. 

The best thing you can do is take a diagnostic test for each one. This’ll really give you a feel for the tests’ pace and content. But there are some other things to consider:

Are you more of a verbal person? In particular, do you find that you’re good at the analogy questions? If so, you’ll have an advantage over other students on that section of the SSAT, since many struggle. 

Another factor to consider is your math performance. If you find the math sections equally difficult on the tests, it’s worth noting that the ISEE will report two math scores for you, and the SSAT will only report one. 

That means the SSAT is better for “burying” a weak math score, since ⅔ of your overall score will come from the Verbal and Reading sections. 

On the other hand, many people find the ISEE test more straightforward than the SSAT. If analogies aren’t your thing, or if you find that you perform well on the ISEE’s dual math sections, that may be the better test for you. 

Another consideration is how often you can retake each test. The Middle and Upper SSAT can be taken in paper form every time they’re offered (5 times per year) and in computerized form twice per year. The Elementary SSAT can only be taken twice per year. 

The ISEE is stricter: the ISEE can only be taken three times per year: once in the fall, once in the winter, and once in the spring/summer. 

We organized all of these details into a convenient quiz and checklist, which you can download for free here. Simply follow the steps to determine with confidence which test plays to the strengths of your student!

Regis School (NYC)
Regis School (NYC) – Image courtesy of Ajay Suresh. Used by permission under CC BY 2.0.

Next steps

Once you’ve read over the differences between the two tests and checked whether the schools you’re eying have a preference, the best move is to take a full practice test of each. You can find these official tests for free on the test-makers’ websites: SSAT.org and ERBlearn.org. 

We’ve also created this free step-by-step guide to help you prepare for and choose the right test stress-free. Download it here and use it to get started!

If you need help breaking down your performance on these tests, there’s nothing like personalized one-on-one tutoring to help you maximize your score. We’ve helped thousands of students excel on these tests, so feel free to reach out here and be paired with an experienced test prep expert. We also offer free short test-prep consultations — just drop us a line.

ISEE or SSAT? Follow our step-by-step guide to decide

Bonus Material: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the ISEE or SSAT


Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She was a National Merit Scholar and has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.