Timothy Peck 5 min read Standardized Tests

What is the SSAT? A Complete Overview

What is the SSAT? It’s one of the two standardized tests commonly used for entrance at private middle and high schools (the other is the ISEE). These tests are used to evaluate and compare candidates, similar to how colleges and universities use the SAT and ACT. 


Keep reading to learn more about the SSAT, including format and scoring, and how it differs from the ISEE.


What is the SSAT?


The SSAT—or Secondary Schools Admissions Test—is an entrance exam used by independent private middle and high schools throughout the U.S., created and administered by the Secondary School Admission Test Board. 


Because the SSAT is used for students across a broad spectrum of grades, it’s offered at three different levels depending on where a student is in their education:


  • Upper Level: for students currently in grades 8–11
  • Middle Level: for students currently in grades 5–7
  • Elementary Level: for students currently in grades 3–4


Regardless of what level SSAT test a student is taking, the same three core competencies are assessed: Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Verbal Reasoning. However, the upper and middle versions of the test contain two Quantitative Reasoning sections, while the elementary level has just one. 


  • Quantitative Reasoning questions on the upper- and middle-level exams test mathematical concepts including algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability, while the elementary exam tests skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
  • Reading Comprehension questions evaluate a student’s ability to identify main ideas, themes, tone, and to understand the author’s purpose. 
  • Verbal Reasoning tests vocabulary and the ability to relate ideas through identifying synonyms and interpreting analogies. 


All three levels of the SSAT feature an essay/writing section, which is unscored but sent to the schools you’re applying to as a writing sample. Lastly, SSAT test-takers are also given an unscored “experimental section” where the SSAT tries out questions for future exams (much like the actual SAT). 


How Long is the SSAT? What is Tested?


The length of the SSAT varies depending on what level is tested. The elementary version of the exam features 104-106 questions and is two hours and five minutes long. The upper and middle versions of the test each contain 167 questions and are three hours and five minutes long. 


The Elementary SSAT format is:  



Number of Questions 

Time Allotted 



30 minutes 



20 minutes


15 minutes 



30 minutes


15 minutes 

Experimental Section 


15 minutes



2 hours and 5 minutes 


The format of the upper and middle SSAT format is: 



Number of Questions 

Time Allotted 

Writing Sample 


25 minutes


5 minutes 

Quantitative I


30 minutes



40 minutes


10 minutes



30 minutes

Quantitative II


30 minutes



15 minutes



3 hours and 5 minutes


How is the SSAT Scored?


With the exception of the unscored essay/writing and “experimental” sections, every question on the SSAT is of an equal value. For upper- and middle-level test-takers, correct answers are worth one point, incorrect answers deduct a quarter of a point, and no points are awarded or subtracted for questions left blank—the points are tallied into a raw score. On the elementary level exam, there is no penalty for wrong answers, the raw score is calculated simply by adding the number of correct answers. Raw scores are then scaled. 


SSAT Scaled Scores by Level:


  • Upper Level: Section scores between 500-800 and quantitative scores between 1500-2400.
  • Middle Level: Section scores between 440-710 and quantitative scores between 1320-2130.
  • Elementary Level: Section scores between 300-600 and quantitative scores between 900-1800.


Scaled scores are then transformed into a percentile rank that compares a student’s score to other test-takers in the same grade who have taken the exam in the past three years. For example, a ninth grader’s SSAT score is only compared against other ninth graders, even though students between eight and eleventh grade all take the same exam. 


What is a good SSAT score? This question is tough to answer—unlike many colleges, which post the range of SAT/ACT scores of accepted students, most private schools don’t publish the SSAT score range of accepted applicants. A good rule of thumb is, the higher percentile you rank in, the better your odds are of getting accepted into a school.   

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SSAT vs. ISEE: What’s the Difference?


The SSAT and ISEE are both used for admissions into private middle and high schools, most of which will accept either test for admission. There are some differences between the two tests though, and choosing the exam that better suits you can mean the difference between an attention-grabbing and average score. 




The most notable difference between the SSAT and ISEE is that the SSAT penalizes for wrong answers. The SSAT also has five possible answers compared to four on the ISEE, making guessing on the SSAT a higher risk/reward provision. 


Verbal Section 


Both the SSAT and ISEE feature verbal sections, but the questions within the sections differ. The SSAT uses questions asking students to identify synonyms and interpret analogies, while the ISEE consists of questions about synonym identification and sentence completion. 


Writing Section 


An unscored writing sample is also a feature of both the SSAT and the ISEE, however, the prompts differ between the two exams. Students taking the upper-level SSAT can choose between two different writing prompts, one creative and one expository. Students taking the ISEE are required to write an expository essay. 


How to Register for the SSAT


The SSAT is given monthly from October through April (with a June date as well), and there is no limit to how many times a student can sit for the SSAT. In addition to the standard test dates, the SSAT also offers flex dates to accommodate busy schedules. 


Step 1:  To register for the SSAT, you’ll need to create a parent/guardian account on the SSAT website, which will require submitting basic details like name, address, and contact information. 


Step 2: With a parent/guardian account created, the next step is to create a profile for the student taking the SSAT, which requires information like name, address, grade, and gender. 


Step 3: Review and set your account preferences—including terms and conditions, privacy policy, and marketing communications. 


Step 4: Begin the registration process by answering a series of questions such as:


  • Do you require special accommodations?
  • What is your current grade level?
  • Do you want to take the test in-home* or at a test center?
  • Do you want to take a computer- or paper-based exam?


*It is possible to take the SSAT at home. Check out the SSAT website to learn more about this option.


Step 5: After answering the registration questions, students are provided with available test dates and centers to choose from. 


Step 6: With registration complete, you can opt for a handful of add-on services such as getting your scores sent to you via email or text message for an additional $15, getting your scores overnighted by FedEx for $35 (domestic) and $65 (international), or getting a copy of your writing sample for $20. 


Step 7: The final step is to finalize your registration with payment.  


Deadlines for registration vary depending on the exact type of SSAT you register for. In general, the late registration period—you can register for an additional fee of $45—lasts for a week following the close of regular registration. Following the late registration period is the rush registration period—you can register for an additional fee of $85—which runs until three days before the exam. 


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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
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.