What is the ISEE?  What you need to know

Bonus Material: Download our FREE set of ISEE practice questions

Your Introduction to the ISEE test

The ISEE is an important part of the admissions process for independent schools admissions. 

However, many students and families either aren’t familiar with the ISEE, or aren’t sure if it’s the right test for them. 

PrepMaven has over 20 years of experience helping students maxime their ISEE scores and gain admittance into their top choice private schools.  We help students understand the test inside and out and learn the most effective ISEE test-taking strategies.

Read on to learn more about the test, with examples of questions from each section of the ISEE. Below, you can download a set of free ISEE sample questions to help you decide if your academic strengths align with the ISEE. 

Jump to section:

What is the ISEE and why do I need it?
What are the different levels of the ISEE?
What are the different sections of the ISEE?
Verbal Reasoning
Quantitative Reasoning
Reading Comprehension
Mathematics Achievement
The Advantages of the ISEE
Are there any disadvantages to taking the ISEE?
Should I take the ISEE?

What is the ISEE and why do I need it? 

The ISEE is the Independent School Entrance Examination, a standardized test some private middle and high schools use as an entrance exam for admissions. 

Students applying for admissions to private schools– boarding schools, prep schools, or other types of elite independent schools– will need to take either the ISEE or SSAT, depending on the school’s preference. Check out your target school’s website or speak to an admissions representative to confirm what test their admissions department prefers. 

While the ISEE won’t make or break a student’s admissions application, a strong score can boost a student’s chances for admission to the school of their choice. 

Being familiar with the ISEE’s structure and knowing how to maximize your score can mean a stronger admissions application. Get to know the ISEE and how your own academic strengths can help you ace the different sections of the test. 

And because the test is so competitive, we usually recommend working with an expert tutor who can help your child maximize their ISEE score – Reach out today!

What are the different levels of the ISEE test? 

Students will take the ISEE that corresponds with whatever grade level they’re seeking admission to in the coming year. The different testing levels are: 

ISEE Levels

Primary Level. The Primary ISEE tests for independent school entry for grades 2-4 and includes 18 reading questions, 24 math questions, six questions based on a listening comprehension section, and a writing prompt with a picture. All questions besides the writing prompt are multiple choice questions, with students being offered four answer choices. 

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. The Lower ISEE tests for independent school entry for grades 5 and 6 and includes 34 verbal reasoning questions, 38 quantitative reasoning questions, 30 math achievement questions, five reading passages with five questions per reading passage, and an essay prompt.  

All questions besides the writing prompt are multiple choice questions, with students being offered four answer choices. 

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

Middle Level and Upper Level. The Middle and Upper ISEE tests for independent school entry for grades 7 to 12 and includes 40 verbal reasoning questions, 47 quantitative reasoning questions, 37 math achievement questions, six reading passages with six corresponding questions per reading passage, and an essay prompt.  

All questions besides the writing prompt are multiple choice questions, with students being offered four answer choices. 

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

Ready to get started right away with practicing for the ISEE? Download our FREE set of practice questions here.

What are the different sections of the ISEE? 

Verbal Reasoning 

Aspects of students’ verbal reasoning ability will be tested through synonym questions and sentence completion questions. For Middle and Upper levels, this section is 20 minutes long.  

Synonyms. Students will be expected to successfully identify words by answering synonym questions. This section will test students’ knowledge of vocabulary. 

Sample question


  1. Legal
  2. Striking
  3. Confusing
  4. Terrifying


Sentence Completions. Students will be asked to complete sentences with the correct vocabulary word and will be tested on their knowledge of vocabulary in context. These “fill-in-the-blank” questions will have one or two blanks to complete.   

Sample Question

The ____________ to assess the success of the study was flawed. 

  1. Scientist
  2. Achievement
  3. Mechanism
  4. Acquisition


Quantitative Reasoning 

In this section, students will use logic and implement mathematical principles to answer questions accurately. For Middle and Upper Levels, this section is 35 minutes long. Some examples of questions students might see are: 

Word Problems:

If Janet needs 3 dozen brownies for 36 students, how many dozen brownies will she need for 60 students? 

  1. 12
  2. 5
  3. 24
  4. 2
  5. 8


Quantitative Comparison Problems: 

Column AColumn B
The surface area of a cube with a side of 4The area of a square with a side of 8
  1. if the quantity in Column A is greater
  2. if the quantity in Column B is greater
  3. if the quantities are equal
  4. if the relationship cannot be determined from the information given


Reading Comprehension

In this section, students will be expected to read passages and accurately answer corresponding questions about each passage. There are six reading passages, with accompanying questions for each passage. For Upper and Middle Levels, this section is 35 minutes long. 

Sample Question

The word “mark” as used in the sentence “It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! — do you mark me well?” most likely means

  1. Understand
  2. Aim 
  3. Symbol
  4. Draw


Mathematics Achievement

The Mathematics Achievement section includes more complex mathematics topics than the Quantitative Reasoning section and touches on concepts such as geometry, equations, data analysis, probability, algebraic concepts, and more.

Sample Question

If Jamie is v years old and Isabelle is 9 years younger than Jamie, which of the following gives Isabelle’s age, in years?

  1. 2v+1
  2. v+9
  3. 9-v
  4. v-9



The ISEE also includes an essay portion. Students will be given a prompt and are expected to write an essay that showcases their writing abilities as well as their ability to think analytically and write persuasively. 

While the essay isn’t graded, schools will see your essay, so it is best to use this opportunity to showcase your personality while still using proper spelling and grammar. Students are given 30 minutes of writing time to write their essay on the ISEE. 

Sample Question

Who do you most admire and why do they inspire you?

Want more practice? Download our FREE set of ISEE practice questions here. 

The Advantages of the ISEE

There are some definite advantages to taking the ISEE compared to other independent school standardized tests, such as the SSAT: 

It’s the only test available for certain primary level admissions. The ISEE is the only testing option for schools that require admission for grade 2; therefore, students seeking admission for independent schools for grade 2 that require standardized testing will have to seek out the ISEE.

Some schools prefer the ISEE. Some schools prefer students to take the ISEE instead of the SSAT. It’s best to check with your target schools to see what test they prefer from their applicants. 

The ISEE offers more testing dates than the SSAT. Students with a packed schedule and limited time to squeeze in a test date might find the ISEE works better with their hectic schedule. 

There’s no guessing penalty on the ISEE. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ISEE, whereas on the SSAT there is a ¼ point penalty for each wrong answer. That means students can guess on questions and possibly pick up more points on the exam without facing any negative repercussions. 

The ISEE favors students who love to read. Reading passages are longer on the ISEE. Therefore, if a student is used to taking on lengthier reading challenges, the ISEE might be a great fit. 

Students who love analytical thinking excel with ISEE essay prompts. The ISEE essay is an expository essay; if a student prefers a more logical and factual approach to writing, they may prefer the ISEE.

There are no analogies on the ISEE. Many students find the analogy section of the SSAT baffling and daunting. If this is a major challenge for a student, the ISEE fortunately does not require students to answer analogy questions. 

The ISEE highlights math student rockstars. Some students find the mathematics sections on the ISEE more challenging, but conversely, the language arts section less challenging. If a student wants to highlight their mathematics abilities, the ISEE could be a great option for independent school testing. On the other hand, if a student feels less confident in their language arts abilities, the ISEE might be a good alternative to the SSAT, which can be more challenging in the verbal and reading sections.  

Are there any disadvantages to taking the ISEE? 

Many students and parents struggle with the question of whether the ISEE or SSAT is a better standardized test for them. While there are many advantages to the ISEE exam, there might be some disadvantages that lead students to select the SSAT instead: 

Some students might get easily distracted during the Reading Comprehension portion of the exam. The passages are longer than on the SSAT and less varied; the SSAT includes poetry in addition to fiction and nonfiction. 

The mathematics portions of the ISEE are considered more difficult than the SSAT.  Conversely, the SSAT tends to be more challenging in testing students’ verbal abilities. 

If a student feels stronger in their language arts abilities compared to their mathematics abilities, the ISEE may not be the best choice compared to the SSAT, which tends to be more challenging in the verbal/reading sections and slightly less challenging in the mathematics sections.

Students can only take the ISEE a limited number of times. You can only take the ISEE up to three times. Therefore, students should feel confident they will score well before taking their exam. Taking practice exams or seeking help with test prep is a great way to make sure students make the most of their testing opportunity.

Creative students might not prefer the essay on the ISEE. Because the ISEE essay prompt is expository, students who prefer creative writing may not prefer the ISEE essay section.

To compare the ISEE to other standardized tests for independent schools like the SSAT, check out our post ISEE vs SSAT: Comparing the Private School Admissions Tests. 

Should I take the ISEE? 

There are many factors to consider when choosing an exam for independent school admissions. Students should consider their own academic strengths and weaknesses, any anxieties they have around testing, and what styles of mathematics, reading, and writing they like best. 

The ISEE can be a great option for students seeking independent school admission, but there are many options to weigh when choosing a standardized testing option with your admissions application. 

Setting yourself up for success on the big day might include taking ISEE practice tests, trying out practice questions, or seeking out professional test prep services. With students being limited to 3 test dates with the ISEE, it’s important students have taken multiple practice tests before the day of the exam and feel ready to perform at their best, preferably during the first or second testing session. 

PrepMaven can match you with a highly qualified tutor to make sure you’re at your best on test day and know exactly what to expect. 

Reach out today to prepare yourself to rock the ISEE and make your admissions package the most competitive it can be. 

Want to get more familiar with the types of questions you’ll see on the ISEE? PrepMaven offers practice questions that you can download FREE by clicking 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.