ISEE vs. SSAT: Which is Right for You?

If you’re planning to attend private school, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the ISEE and the SSAT, the two primary entrance exams used for admission into private school. Keep reading as we compare the ISEE vs. SSAT. 

 

What is the ISEE?

 

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is administered by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) to evaluate the academic skills of elementary, middle, and high school students. Because the exam covers a broad range of students—from grade two through 12—it is divided into four levels:

 

  • Primary: grades two through four 
  • Lower: grades five and six 
  • Middle: grades seven and eight
  • Upper: grades nine through 12

 

No matter which exam is being administered, the same four core competencies are tested—Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement—although the difficulty and formatting will vary. Also, the Lower, Middle, and Upper exams each include an essay question. The essay is ungraded but is sent to the schools a student applies to as a writing sample. 

 

Because the exams contain students from a number of grades, the ISEE only compares students’ scores against those of test-takers in the same grade, who have taken the test within the past three years. For example, a ninth-grader who took the Upper-level exam is only compared against other ninth-graders, rather than to all of the ninth-, tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders who took the test. 

 

What is the SSAT?

 

The Secondary Schools Admissions Test (SSAT) is administered by the Enrollment Management Association to assess three core competencies—Quantitive Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Verbal Reasoning—in students ranging from grade three to 11. Because the SSAT is administered to such a wide range of student ages, it is offered at three levels: 

 

  • Elementary Level: grades three through four 
  • Middle Level: grades five through seven 
  • Upper Level: grades eight through 11

 

All three levels of the exam cover the same three competencies and include an unscored essay/writing section that is sent to schools to serve as a writing sample, but the difficulty and formatting of the exams vary by level. 

 

Like the ISEE, the levels of the SSAT exam contain students in different grades, but test-takers are only compared to students in the same grade who have taken the exam in the past three years. For example, a tenth grader is only compared against other tenth graders, even though students from grades below and above took the same exam. 

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ISEE vs. SSAT

 

Although there are a number of similarities between the ISEE and the SSAT, there are also some differences between the two exams. Here’s what you need to keep in mind as you decide on a test to take.

 

Format

 

Both the ISEE and SSAT are designed to assess a student’s academic ability, therefore there is a lot of commonality between the two exams—for example, they’re approximately the same length and contain roughly the same number of questions. 

 

The format of the Upper- and Middle-level ISEE is: 

 

Section 

# of Questions

Allotted Time

Verbal Reasoning

40

20

Quantitative Reasoning

37

35

Reading Comprehension

36

35

Mathematics Achievement

47

40

Essay

1

30

Total

161

2 hours 40 minutes

 

The format of the Upper and Middle SSAT is: 

 

Section 

Number of Questions 

Time Allotted 

Writing Sample 

1

25 minutes

Quantitative Reasoning I

25

30 minutes

Reading 

40

40 minutes

Verbal 

60

30 minutes

Quantitative Reasoning II

25

30 minutes

Experimental 

16

15 minutes

Total 

167

2 hours and 50 minutes

 

Quantitative Reasoning 

 

The primary difference that becomes apparent when comparing the ISEE vs. SSAT format is that the ISEE has just one quantitative reasoning section while the SSAT has two. Conversely, the SSAT does not have a mathematics section, while the ISEE does. The ISEE’s quantitative reasoning section is designed to test a student’s ability to apply math skills to problem solve and think critically—particular math skills are evaluated in the math section. The questions in the quantitative reasoning sections of the SSAT feature a blend of knowledge-based questions that test mathematical skills—like algebra, geometry, and statistics—along with critical-thinking questions. 

 

Verbal Section 

 

The ISEE and SSAT both have verbal sections featuring two types of questions. Both exams contain synonym questions that focus on vocabulary, but diverge on the second type of questions asked. The ISEE asks sentence-completion questions that assess the ability to understand words and their function. In contrast, the SSAT asks analogy questions that test the ability to relate ideas and think logically. 

 

Writing/Essay Section

 

Both the ISEE and the SSAT feature an unscored writing sample that is sent to the admissions committees of the schools a student applies to. The ISEE requires that the test-taker write an expository essay, while takers of the SSAT are given a choice between expository and creative writing prompts.  

 

Experimental Section 

 

Another difference between the ISEE and SSAT is that the SSAT contains an “experimental section” that they use to try out questions for future exams. The experimental section is unscored, but it does add questions and time to test day. 


Guessing 

 

The test-taking strategy for the ISEE is extremely straightforward: answer every question. This is because the ISEE does not penalize for wrong answers. Alternatively, the SSAT awards students with a point for correct answers, penalizes them a quarter of a point for wrong answers, and awards zero points for questions left blank, which makes for a more complex game plan. 

 

Score Report 

 

The ISEE tests four competencies (Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement) while the SSAT tests just three (Quantitive Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Verbal Reasoning); consequently, the ISEE score has a dedicated math score, while the SSAT score rolls math into quantitative reasoning.

 

Stanine 

 

Another difference when comparing the ISEE vs. SSAT scoring is how the scores are presented. The SSAT uses traditional percentiles, showing how a student compares against other test-takers who are the same age and have taken the exam within the last three years. The ISEE converts percentiles into stanines (a nine-point scaled score).

 

Below are the ISEE percentiles transferred into stanines. 

 

Percentile Score

Stanine 

1%-3%

1

4%-10%

2

11%-22%

3

23%-39%

4

40%-59%

5

60%-76%

6

77%-88%

7

89%-95%

8

96%-99%

9

 

Dates and Availability 

 

The ISEE has three testing periods a year—Fall, Winter, and Spring/Summer—and students can only take the exam one time per period. The SSAT is administered monthly between October and April (and has a June date as well) and unlike the ISEE, students can sit for the test as many times as they like. 

 

Which Test is Best for You?

 

Because the ISEE produces a dedicated math score, it’s a good choice for students who excel at math and want to highlight it on their applications. The ISEE’s non-penalty for guessing also makes it a good fit for students with strong standardized test-taking skills who are comfortable making educated guesses on questions they are unsure about. 

 

Since students can take the SSAT as many times as they like, it’s a favorite among nervous test-takers. The option to submit a creative writing sample and the absence of a definitive math score also makes the SSAT popular among more creatively minded students. 

 

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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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