What Is the SSAT?

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s SSAT Guidebook

If you’ve got any interest in applying to private elementary, middle, or high schools, then you’re in the right place. Simply put, the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) is one of the factors evaluated by private school admissions officers. 

Maximizing your chances of admission to elite private schools means maximizing your SSAT score. But, unlike tests in school, this isn’t a test you can prepare for just by being a good student. 

SSAT prep requires knowing the test inside and out so that you can be ready for its tricks and traps. Fortunately, we’re here to demystify the SSAT. 

We’ve spent over two decades guiding students through SSAT prep, and our proven approach has helped these students earn remarkable results. Here, we’ll break down exactly what the SSAT is. 

Plus, we offer our free SSAT Guidebook below, with over 90 pages of information on everything from registration to SSAT practice resources to understanding your score report. 

Jump to section:
Who Needs to Take the SSAT?
SSAT Levels: Elementary, Middle, and Upper
SSAT Test Formats
SSAT Testing Options 
SSAT Scoring
Next steps


Many students applying to private schools will find that they’re required to submit SSAT scores as part of the application process. 

While not all independent schools require SSAT scores, you’ll find that the most selective ones–like Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter, or Lawrenceville–require standardized test scores*.

*Some schools accept either the SSAT or the ISEE. For more information on the difference, see our post here

This is generally true regardless of which grade you’re applying to: even those applying to private elementary school programs might be required to take a version of the SSAT . 

Of course, we don’t recommend taking the SSAT just for the sake of it. 

Before signing up for the SSAT, carefully research the private schools you or your child plan on applying to. If none of those schools care about the SSAT, you’ve saved yourself a lot of work. 

Realistically, however, most students will benefit from submitting a strong SSAT score with their application. 

If you want to read more about the SSAT’s role in private school admissions, check out our free SSAT Guidebook below. 

 


While we talk about “the” SSAT, there are really three similar but distinct tests. Which one a student takes depends on their grade level. 

Because the SSAT is taken by students ranging from 3d grade to 11th grade, it wouldn’t make sense to expect them all to take exactly the same test. 

  • The Elementary Level Test is taken by students in grades 3 and 4. 
  • The Middle Level Test is taken by students in grades 5-7.
  • The Upper Level Test is taken by students in grades 8-11. 

The test level corresponds to the student’s current grade–not the one they’re applying to. 

It’s crucial you know whether your child is taking the elementary level, middle level, or upper level SSAT early on. 

Not only does this affect things like test format and practice resources, but it can also affect what SSAT test dates and options you have


While the Upper SSAT is almost identical to the Middle-Level test, the Elementary SSAT has a very different format. Check out the timing and organization of each test below: 

Elementary Level SSAT 

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. 

You can learn more about the question types and content tested on each of these sections in our blog post here. 

Middle and Upper Level 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

With the exception of the writing prompt, all SSAT questions are multiple choice. Each question will give you 5 answer options, with one correct answer and four wrong answers. 

For more information on SSAT format, check out our post here. For expert guidance with the actual content of the test, contact us to work with an Ivy-League SSAT tutor!


In addition to the different levels, the SSAT offers students multiple testing options. We’ll outline those below:

Standard Paper Test

The most common option, and likely the one most students will take first. The paper SSAT is offered on six dates each school year, administered at standard testing centers (usually local schools). 

These standard test dates change slightly each year, but you can check out our frequently updated post on SSAT Test Dates here. 

SSAT Flex

The SSAT Flex is exactly the same test as the standard, paper SSAT. The only difference with Flex testing is that it allows students to take the test on a different date and at a different testing location. 

SSAT Flex is more expensive than the standard SSAT, but offers a lot more flexibility. Usually, the testing centers are private schools or independent educational consultants qualified to administer the test. 

SSAT Flex is a great option for those who can’t make the standard testing dates. 

Note: students are capped at 1 SSAT Flex test per year. 

SSAT at Home

The SSAT at home is a computer-administered version of the SSAT that students can take (as you might guess) at home. 

There are a few important notes about SSAT at Home. 

First, there are specific tech requirements you must meet, all of which are listed in detail on the SSAT website. 

Second, the SSAT at home is only offered on specific dates–it can’t be taken just anytime. You still have to go through the SSAT registration process and select a specific date on which you’ll be taking the test. 

Third, there is no SSAT at Home for the Elementary SSAT

And, finally, upper level and middle level test-takers are capped at 2 computer-based SSATs per year. 

Computer-based SSAT at a Prometric Test Center

Finally, students taking the Middle or Upper SSAT can also take the same computer-based SSAT at a Prometric Test Center. 

These testing dates tend to be a lot more flexible. But they depend on you having access to Prometric testing centers, which may or may not be in your area. 

This test is precisely the same as the SSAT at Home, with the same restrictions (meaning that you can only take it twice per year, and not at all if you’re doing the elementary level SSAT). 

You can learn more about the pros and cons of each of these options in our comprehensive SSAT Guidebook.

Regardless of which test you take, proper prep is the key to a good score. Check out our review of the 13 Best SSAT Prep Services–our experts review and update these rankings every year!


Understanding the SSAT scoring system is crucial to maximizing your performance on the test. 

We’ve got a detailed breakdown of SSAT scoring here. In this post, we’ll offer a broader overview. 

Scored Sections

Your SSAT score consists of 3 scored sections: 

  1. Verbal
  2. Quantitative
  3. Reading

There are 2 additional unscored sections: a Writing Sample and Experimental section. 

Wrong Answer Penalty

On the SSAT, test-takers receive 1 point for every correct answer. If you leave a question entirely blank, you neither lose nor gain points. 

However, if you choose one of the wrong answers, you lose ¼ of a point. This is only true on the middle and upper tests: there is no wrong-answer penalty on the elementary SSAT. 

You can learn more about how to use this feature of the SSAT to your advantage in our guidebook below! 

Score Report

On your SSAT score report, you’ll see a few pieces of information: how many questions you missed, raw score, and score percentile. 

Your raw score is the number of questions you get right on a section minus 1/4 point for each incorrect answer. This raw score is converted to a scaled score between 500 and 800. Then this scaled score becomes a percentile ranging from 1 to 99. 

This percentile compares performance to that of first-time test-takers of the same grade/gender who have taken an SSAT on a standard test date in the U.S. / Canada in the past three years (not including this year). 

Most schools have an average SSAT percentile that they consider in the admissions process. Many look at your percentile score when reviewing your application.

Score Recipients

When registering for the SSAT, you can designate which schools you want to designate as score recipients, which means they’ll receive copies of your score report. 

We recommend waiting to do this until after you get the score report back yourself: there’s no need to report your SSAT score to a school if you don’t think it’ll impress them. 

To learn more about which scores to report and whether to retake the SSAT, check out post here. 


That, in a nutshell, is the SSAT. Of course, this is just a basic overview: it doesn’t yet prepare you to ace the test and lock in a spot at your private school of choice. 

The next step to doing that is to schedule a free test-prep consultation with our team. They’ll be able to connect you with one of our SSAT experts–our tutors hail from the most selective universities and undergo training designed by our co-founder. 

In the meantime, you can take advantage of all the free information in our guidebook below. It’s got over 90 pages of information on the SSAT, including everything you need to know about: 

  • SSAT accommodations 
  • Practice resources 
  • Registration process and fee waivers
  • Content and strategy


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.