Your Guide to the SSAT’s Format

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s SSAT Guidebook

If you’re thinking about applying to private elementary, middle, or high schools, you’ll almost certainly need to take the SSAT, a difficult standardized test unlike most things you’ve done in school. 

While it may seem stressful, the truth is that for the most elite schools, a stellar SSAT score is crucial for the admissions process. Fortunately, we’ve spent the past two decades helping countless students excel on the SSAT and earn admission to top private schools. 

Acing the SSAT starts with understanding it, so in this post we’ll offer you the need-to-know information about the SSAT sections, timing, and overall structure. Our SSAT format breakdown is based on decades of experience, and is designed to help you take your first steps in the SSAT-prep journey. 

Because we’re serious about helping students like you beat the SSAT, we’re also including our free SSAT guidebook as a pdf download, which you can grab by clicking the orange button below. 

Ready to learn more about SSAT format? Here’s what our post will cover: 

Jump to section:
The Three Levels of the SSAT: Elementary, Middle, Upper
Elementary SSAT Format
Elementary SSAT Section Breakdown
Middle and Upper SSAT Format Overview
Middle and Upper SSAT Section Breakdown
Next steps


The first thing to understand about the SSAT is that it changes based on your grade level! The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) administers the SSAT at three levels:

  • Elementary Level for students in grades 3 and 4
  • Middle Level for students in grades 5-7
  • Upper Level for students in grades 8-11 

It’s important to note that the middle and upper SSAT format is the same. The only difference between these two SSAT levels is the difficulty of the material they cover! 


Below is the big-picture format for the elementary level SSAT, which is taken by students currently in third or fourth grade. 

SectionNumber of QuestionsDuration
Math3030
Verbal3020
Break15
Reading2830
Writing115
Experimental (unscored15-1715

The total length of the elementary SSAT is 2 hours and 5 minutes, counting the 15-minute break. 

Aside from the Writing question, all questions are multiple choice with 5 answer choices. 


Curious about what’s tested on each section of the elementary level SSAT? We’ll break it down here: 

Math 

The 30 questions on the Math section of the elementary SSAT test the following concepts according to SSAT.org:

  • Basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Place value
  • Ordering of numbers (greater than, less than)
  • Fractions
  • Basic concepts of geometry (shapes and their attributes)
  • Basic concepts of measurement
  • Interpretation of graphs

Verbal

The verbal section is often cited by students as the most difficult one! Why? Because it tests concepts rarely seen on any other tests. 

Specifically, this SSAT section tests two core concepts: 

  • Analogies 
  • Synonyms

Because this post is dedicated to exploring SSAT format, we won’t go in depth into these question types. But we do have comprehensive overviews of these concepts elsewhere on our blog: SSAT Analogies Practice and SSAT Synonyms Practice.

Reading

The reading section will be more familiar to most test-takers. It tests students’ ability to read short passages and answer questions about them. 

These questions test the following skills: 

  • Key ideas and details
  • Literal comprehension
  • Inferences
  • Main ideas
  • Word meaning

Writing

The elementary SSAT writing section contains one open-ended question. 

Students are asked to look at a picture prompt and tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. 

This writing sample is not graded but is shown to any schools your child applies to. Interestingly, the makers of the SSAT do not include the writing sample in the score report available to families.

Experimental

Many students and parents are confused by the experimental section–what exactly are they experimenting with? 

In reality, the SSAT’s experimental section is simply a way for the test-designers to “quality test” future SSAT questions. 

This section can contain a mix of all kinds of questions–math, verbal, and reading. 

The most important thing about the experimental section? It’s not scored!

Looking for even more information on the elementary SSAT? Our free guide below contains over 90 pages of content on: 

  • Registration Process (fee waivers, testing accommodations, testing locations)
  • Score reports ( raw scores, scaled scores, and score ranges)
  • Different test versions (computer-based versions, paper-based testing, SSAT Flex)
  • Question types (analogy questions, synonym questions, and math questions)


While the content varies, the format of these two tests is identical. Below is the breakdown of the question number, section order, and timing for the middle and upper SSAT: 

SectionNumber of QuestionsDuration
Writing Sample (unscored)125 minutes
Break5 minutes
Quantitative 12530 minutes
Reading4040 minutes
Break10 minutes
Verbal6030 minutes
Quantitative 22530 minutes
Experimental (unscored)1615 minutes

The total length of the Middle Level and Upper Level SSAT is 3 hours and 10 minutes


Wondering what’s on each section of the SSAT? Below, we’ll offer a basic breakdown. Remember: while the types of questions may be different, everything else about the middle and upper level SSAT is the same.

Writing

Both the Middle level and Upper level tests start with a 25-minute open-ended writing question. 

For the Middle level SSAT, students will be able to choose between writing a creative story or responding to a personal question. 

For the Upper SSAT, students will be asked to write a personal essay or respond to a general essay prompt. 

Remember: the SSAT writing section is not scored. But it is sent to the schools you’re applying to, and these schools will use it to assess your writing abilities. So, it’s still important to make sure you’re prepared! 

Not sure if your writing skills are strong enough to impress admissions officers at private schools? Fortunately, many of our Ivy-League tutors are writing experts passionate about helping students master the art of writing! You can learn about working with one here. 

Quantitative 

The SSAT quantitative section is really just its math section, and it’ll test a wide range of math concepts, potentially in unusual ways. 

On both the middle and upper level tests, you will be tested on arithmetic, elementary algebra, geometry, and more. Of course, the upper level test will test more advanced concepts and will generally be more difficult than the middle level SSAT. 

Want to know all the details? We’ve got a strategy post that covers all the major content areas on SSAT Math in more nitty-gritty detail. 

Reading

The reading section on these tests is likely something many students are familiar with: you’ll be presented with short passages and asked to answer a series of multiple-choice questions on each one. 

Here’s what the SSAT Reading section will look like:

  • Format: 40 minutes, 40 multiple choice questions
  • Content: 7 passages of about 250-350 words each
  • Genres: Literary fiction, humanities (including poetry), science, philosophy, and/or social studies

It’s important to remember that the SSAT is testing specific skills with these questions. These skills include: 

  • Recognize the main idea
  • Locate details
  • Make inferences
  • Derive the meaning of a word or phrase from its context
  • Determine the author’s purpose
  • Determine the author’s attitude and tone
  • Understand and evaluate opinions and arguments
  • Make predictions based on information in the passage

In fact, we’ve seen many strong readers do poorly on the SSAT Reading. Why? Because it’s not just about being a good reader–it’s about making sure you understand exactly what the test-makers want from you. 

That’s why we always recommend going into the SSAT reading section fully prepared. That means having access to the best resources (we’ve organized those here), reading up on SSAT Reading strategies (which we have a free post on here), and working with a top-tier SSAT tutor (the best ones are our Ivy-League test-prep experts). 

Verbal

Ah, the SSAT Verbal section: in over 20 years of working with countless students, we’ve heard just about every single one of them complain about SSAT Verbal. 

Why? Because it’s hard, it’s long, and it’s just plain weird. Here’s how it breaks down:

In 30 minutes, you’ll have to answer 60 questions. 30 of those will be Analogy questions, and 30 will be Synonym questions. 

If you go into the SSAT without preparing specifically for these question types, you’re going to find yourself in a difficult position. The fact is, most students have never done anything like the SSAT Verbal section in school! 

If you want to give yourself a head start, you can check out our free post of proven SSAT strategies and practice problems for Analogies and Synonyms

But our real recommendation is to give yourself at least 3 months to study for this portion of the SSAT–success on SSAT Verbal is one of the best ways to separate yourself from other students on competitive private school applications. 

Start by checking out our free SSAT Guidebook below. Then, when you’re ready for expert guidance, schedule a free SSAT consultation to get paired with an expert tutor. 

 


Understanding the SSAT Format is the first step to success in the private school admissions process–but it’s only one step of many. 

Determined to get a top SSAT score? Have your sights set on elite private schools like Lawrenceville, Choate Rosemary Hall, or Phillips Exeter? The next step is to download our free comprehensive SSAT guidebook [CU LINK], which includes: 

  • 90+ pages of SSAT guidance
  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s SSAT strategies for all 5 sections of the test
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools
  • and much more!

Or, if you’re ready to work with a test-prep expert who can offer you personalized guidance on SSAT test prep, contact us today


Top SSAT/ISEE Posts


Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.