A Parent’s Guide to Private School Entrance Exams

A Parent’s Guide to Private School Entrance Exams
As you’ve been doing your boarding school research, you’ve likely seen ISEE/SSAT score submission requirements for your target schools, and understand how important scores are to the admissions process. Unfortunately, tremendous candidates can get bypassed because they were not able to demonstrate what they knew on test day.

There are many reasons why a private, independent, or boarding school could be the best option for your student. They typically offer thrilling academic challenges, extensive STEM or arts programs, or other remarkable resources. Their student-teacher ratios are excellent, and faculty may have advanced academic degrees and strong professional reputations. While only about 10 percent of students attend private schools nationwide, private school admissions is selective and competitive.

To help distinguish applicants, private schools use standardized testing. The admissions process, especially for those migrating from public to private, can be an eye-opening experience. The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) and Secondary School Admissions Exam (SSAT) are the most commonly used admissions tests for private, independent, and boarding schools. The High School Placement Test (HSPT) is often used by Catholic schools for entrance into grade 9.

The ISEE and SSAT are long multiple-choice tests lasting 2-3 hours and potentially covering above-grade-level content. For the 4th grader applying to private middle school, this might the first time they have undergone two hours of solid testing with only one or two short breaks. The best starting point is always to have your student take a full-length diagnostic test. It’s important to know where your child is starting from so that you can help them get to where they need to be.

ISEE & SSAT Similarities and Differences

Start by looking at the websites of your target schools or giving the admissions offices a quick call to determine which test(s) these schools accept. If the school accepts results from either exam, understanding the differences between the two will help you select the test most appropriate for their child.

The ISEE and SSAT test similar subject matter: they both have a verbal section, a reading section, two math sections, and a writing sample. The following are a few ways in which the two tests differ:

Subject Emphasis:

Both the SSAT and ISEE have 4 multiple-choice sections: 2 math, 1 verbal, and 1 reading. Score presentation differs between the two tests, however. The ISEE provides 4 section scores, 1 for each of the sections. The SSAT combines the 2 math scores into 1. Is math a strong suit for your child or a weak point? If it’s a strength, the ISEE may help to emphasize that. If it’s a weakness, the SSAT might be a good choice.


The SSAT (for Middle and Upper Levels) has a ¼ point wrong-answer penalty, but the ISEE does not. Is your child a confident test-taker? If they are prone to test anxiety, the ISEE may be a less stressful test.


Both the SSAT and the ISEE have an unscored writing sample. The ISEE offers a single, expository writing prompt, while the SSAT offers Middle Level students the choice between two creative writing prompts, and Upper Level students the choice between a creative writing prompt and an expository prompt. Does your student have a creative streak? The SSAT might help them shine.

Verbal Skills:

The SSAT features analogies on the verbal section, while the ISEE has sentence completions. Analogies may require more reasoning than the sentence completions of the ISEE. Which of these better matches your child’s skill set?

To determine which test will best highlight your child’s strengths, have your child take a practice test of each. Get started with practice tests for the ISEE or SSAT now.
You can also check out this blog post for more detailed information on the differences between the two tests.
The Importance of the ISEE and SSAT: Results Matter

Private and independent school admission officers often explain that they take a holistic approach to assessing how well a prospective student might fit into their school. Fit encompasses several aspects – academics, character, extracurricular activities, post-graduation plans and more. And while the ISEE or SSAT is only one aspect of the application, admissions teams will be evaluating each student’s test scores in the context of many other applicants. It is important that scores are high enough that they are consistent with the rest of the application and reflect the true capacity of the student.

Test-taking is Skill That Can Be Taught

Like any performance-based activity, test-taking is a skill that can be learned. These exams are challenging and intentionally expose test-takers to material and question types not covered in a standard curriculum. Research indicates that beyond content knowledge, test-taking behavior is important for optimum test performance. Exposure and consistent practice have proven to be the most efficient method to tame both tough questions and test-related stress.

Understanding Strengths and Weaknesses

The most expedient way to determine how much prior study will be required is to take a full-length practice test as early as possible. This serves as a diagnostic: it indicates how the student would score if taking the test today, and provides a practice roadmap, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. This gives the student realistic, data-driven feedback on where there may be knowledge gaps, and where to focus attention and effort.

Test Prep Solutions – What to Look For

As these exams have existed for decades, coaching and tools have sprung into existence to help students and their families prepare for the unknown. Out of the 100,000 students taking the SSAT and ISEE annually, some do little to prepare beyond perhaps purchasing a book, however students targeting a competitive school will be deploying all tools at their disposal. Certainly not every family can afford private tutoring – and not all academic tutors can competently assist with these specialized tests. When searching for test prep assistance, look for the following attributes:

  • Online service
    • Does the company specialize in ISEE and SSAT test prep?
    • How long has the company been in business and how many students have utilized the platform?
    • How frequently is the content updated?
    • Do the practice tests match existing exams?
    • Are the questions and solutions provided accurate to the test?
    • Are there additional services such as video courses or tutoring available?
    • Is this a platform used internally by private and independent schools to teach test prep?
  • Book
    • How current is the book?
    • What are the credentials of the author?
    • Can you purchase updated printed materials or add-on question banks?
    • Does it contain multiple full-length exams or just sample questions?
    • How many verified reviews of the book are there?

Ultimately, the most important factor of all is preparation. Invest the time to expose your student to what lies ahead. Parents can make this path smoother for their children by finding resources to help them prepare.

Test Innovators, Inc. offers an advanced online test prep solution that leverages aspects of machine learning, AI, and big data to improve test scores and help students gain acceptance into schools with selective admissions processes. Test Innovators proprietary practice tests are an accurate reflection of the official tests; practice exercises, scoring results, and related information are used to help students understand the gap between their existing scores and what they need to be accepted at their school of choice.   

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