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Should My Student Take the ISEE or SSAT?

Private and secondary grade schools require the ISEE and SSAT exams, which can be a challenge to many younger students. Fortunately, this can easily be managed with both preparation and appropriate selection of which test to take. 


While the tests share many similarities, the differences between the tests have many parents and students confused each year. In the Seattle/Bellevue area, most private schools prefer one test over the other, although many schools will take either test. Your first step will be to call the school you’d like to apply to and ask for their preference.  



Differences and Similarities:  An Overview


Basically, both tests have five sections with multiple choice questions in Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Mathematical Achievement, and an optional Essay. The main difference is that the ISEE has synonym recognition and sentence completion questions in its Verbal Reasoning Section, and the SSAT has synonym recognition and analogy questions instead of sentence completion.

Here is a more detailed breakdown:

ISEE, or, Independent School Entrance Examination


Levels: The ISEE is offered at three different levels: Lower Level (applicants to grades 4-6); Middle Level (applicants to grades 7-8); and Upper Level (applicants to grades 9-12).


Verbal: The Verbal Section of the test includes synonyms and sentence completion exercises. 


Math: This test tends to be fairly challenging in the Math Sections and is generally preferred by those students who enjoy, or at least feel competent at, doing math. 


Scoring: There's no penalty for incorrect answers, four choices to choose from, and the ISEE can only be taken once every six months.



SSAT, or Secondary School Admissions Test


Levels:  Available at three different levels, the SSAT tests students for admission at the Elementary Level (applicants to grades 4-5); Middle Level (applicants to grades 6-8); or Upper Level (applicants to grades 9-12).

Verbal: The Verbal Section of the exam includes 60 questions on synonyms and analogies, and this test tends to be preferred by those students who have stronger vocabularies and overall verbal skills.


Scoring: The SSAT deducts one-quarter of a point for incorrect answers for the middle and upper level versions, but since it may be taken multiple times during each application cycle, it may be a more attractive option for students who are nervous about their performance.


Differences in Essay Sections on the Tests


Each test also has an Essay that is not scored but it is sent to the applicant’s schools and used as part of the comprehensive evaluation process.


The style of essay questions are quite different.


An essay topic for an ISEE might look something like the following two examples:


“What makes a good friend?  Why do you like the friends that you have?

“Who is your biggest hero?  Why is he/she your hero?”


These are very straightforward topics and don’t require much training to write about.  They will expect proper grammar and use of Standard English conventions. 



 SSAT essay topics will look more like this:


I looked into its eyes and suddenly...

The classroom was empty...


Your student’s response to such prompts must be creative and must use vivid explanations. The grammar and vocabulary that they use must be in accordance with the conventions of Standard English.  These essay topics aren’t technically difficult, but they are definitely more complicated than the ISEE essay topics.



Evaluation of Essays:  Grades aren’t given to essays by either examination board, but essays are sent to the schools that you apply to along with test scores.





Keep in mind that students’ tests are scored only in comparison to their own grade level peers, not those in higher or lower grades.  Preparation can easily help alleviate anxiety about the format and options.  With our extensive experience helping students prepare for testing, we’ll be able to coach your student to confidence throughout the test.



First Steps


The first question to answer is whether the school to which you are applying accepts either or both of the tests. If you aren’t certain, call the school’s admissions office. Don’t end up studying for the wrong test!  


Then you're ready to prep for your test!  Firefly Tutoring offers 1to1 Test Prep Tutoring, or, if you still have questions, please contact us for a Free Consultation - we’re happy to help.  Let’s set your student up for success!

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