The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) and SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test) are used by many private, boarding, and independent schools in their admissions processes. Some schools will accept either test, so it is important to understand the differences in order to make the best choice for your student.



Both tests offer a Writing (essay) section, a Verbal Reasoning section, a Reading Comprehension section, and two Mathematics sections. Both the SSAT and the ISEE are roughly the same length. Neither test scores the Writing section, but the essay is submitted to schools as a sample of the student’s writing ability.

Despite their general similarity, the SSAT and ISEE do have differences, and students are typically better at one than the other. Importantly, the SSAT imposes a penalty of 0.25 points for each wrong answer, meaning that if a student cannot eliminate at least one or two of the 5 answer choices, they should not guess. The ISEE has no such penalty, meaning that it is in the student’s best interest to answer every question, even if they are uncertain or need to make a complete guess.

On average, the ISEE is a better choice for students who are stronger in math. The SSAT combines both Math sections into a single score, weighting 2/3 of the overall score toward the verbal. The ISEE keeps the two Math section scores separate, giving ½ of the total weight to mathematics. Further, students must be able to complete math problems more quickly, as the ISEE gives, on average, 25% less time per question in the Math section.

And, as naturally follows, the SSAT may be the better choice for students who are stronger on the Verbal sections. As mentioned, 2/3 of the total score is weighted toward the verbal sections, but there are additional reasons to consider the SSAT if your student is a strong reader/writer. The ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section contains only nonfiction, whereas the SSAT includes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. An important distinction between the two tests’ Verbal sections is that the SSAT tests analogies, and the ISEE tests sentence completion. Both question-types require strong vocabulary exams, but analogies are harder than sentence completion – sentence completion questions offer context clues that analogies do not. Finally, the Writing section of the SSAT allows students to choose between a formal essay prompt and an open-ended creative prompt, offering strong creative writers a chance to shine. The SSAT Writing section is also shorter in length, meaning that students who write well (and quickly) will be in a better position to compose a strong essay in the reduced time frame.



Parents are often most confused about the scoring of the ISEE and SSAT. The SSAT uses different scales for different grade levels (900-1800 for Lower Level, 1320-2130 for Middle Level, and 1500-2400 for Upper Level). The ISEE uses a scaled score of 760-940 for each section of the test. Because of these differences, it seems difficult to compare performance on one test versus the other. The best method of comparison is to look at the percentiles provided.

Oftentimes, parents are dismayed to see that their student has scored in the 65th percentile despite being a straight-A student and scoring in significantly higher percentiles on statewide standardized tests. It is important to understand that ISEE/SSAT percentiles show how a test-taker’s score compares to the scores of other students who took the same test within the past three years. Students applying to private/boarding schools are, in general, a relatively high-performing group. ISEE percentiles tell a student how they performed relative to other students in the same grade. SSAT percentiles take things one step further, comparing students who are in the same grade and who are the same sex. Testing in the 65th percentile means that a student is performing better than 65% of the students applying to private school and is well into the range of accepted students for most schools.

In addition to percentiles, the ISEE assigns each test-taker to a ‘stanine’ between 1 and 9. These stanines group students into equivalent skill levels. Stanine 5, for instance, includes all students whose scores were between the 40th and 59th percentiles. The implication is that the difference between a 45th percentile and 52nd percentile score on the ISEE is statistically insignificant for ability. This is meant to help admissions directors determine when and how to weigh differences in applicants’ test scores. Using this model, all students in stanine 6 are at about the same level, so individual percentiles might only be meaningful when deciding between two very similar students. The ISEE’s stanine distribution does not change and is roughly a bell curve (see Fig 1 below). Every year, 54% of students will fall into the stanine range of 4-6 and less than 25% will fall into the 7-9 range.

Remember that a single test score is just one part of a multi-faceted application. Of equal (or even more) importance, is information about your child’s previous school performance, extracurriculars, recommendations, essays, and interviews.

Figure 1

PercentileStaninePercentage of Students
1 - 314
4 - 1027
11 - 22312
23 - 39417
40 - 59520
60 - 76617
77- 88712
89 - 9587
96 - 9994



Preparing for the SSAT and ISEE is a bit different than preparing for a math final or even for the SAT/ACT. The SSAT/ISEE are designed to quantify cumulative skills. According to the ERB (the group that administers the ISEE), the test is designed to “…measure a student’s capability for learning…”. Critical learning skills, such as reading fluency, are not skills that can be taught in a short “cram for the test” period.

What can be addressed are test-taking skills. The ISEE/SSAT are likely a young student’s first interaction with a 2+ hour test. Anxiety over such a test, combined with anxiety over the application process in general, can be difficult to deal with. Learning to manage that anxiety can make a big impact on performance. A reasonable course of preparation will include instruction on pacing and time management, learning how to narrow down answer choices, and gaining familiarity with the types of questions that appear on the tests. Often times, these tests will present material in an unfamiliar way, making it difficult for the student to correctly answer the question, even if they understand the concepts begin tested.