5 Key Differences Between the ISEE and SSAT

Most private schools in the United States require applicants to take an entrance examination as part of the admissions process. If you’re preparing to go to private school, you’re likely wondering what exam you’ll need to take.

There are two standardized exams used by admissions committees at private elementary, middle, and high schools: the ISEE and the SSAT. What is the difference between ISEE and SSAT exams? In this ISEE vs SSAT guide, we will explain the difference between the two and offer tips to help you decide whether to take the ISEE or SSAT.

What Is the ISEE?

The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) is a standardized test whose purpose is to help admissions committees at private primary, middle, and high schools evaluate the potential performance of applicants. More than 1,200 independent schools around the world accept ISEE scores as part of their admissions processes.

There are four levels of the ISEE:

  • Primary (entrance to grades 2-4)
  • Lower (entrance to grades 5-6)
  • Middle (entrance to grades 7-8)
  • Upper (entrance to grades 9-12)

What Is the SSAT?

The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) is a standardized exam used to assess the abilities of students who want to attend private school. It is not an IQ test; rather, it measures your verbal, math, and reading skills. The purpose of the SSAT is to determine whether you will be successful at an independent school.

There are three levels of the SSAT:

  • Elementary (entrance to grades 4-5)
  • Middle (entrance to grades 6-8)
  • Upper (entrance to grades 9-postgraduate)

Should You Take the ISEE or SSAT? Do Schools Prefer One?

Most independent schools don’t have a strong preference for the ISEE or SSAT. The two exams are fairly interchangeable: both show your preparedness for independent school.

That said, there are some factors you should consider when deciding between the ISEE and SSAT.

First, ask the school(s) you’re applying to whether they have a preference for one of the two. Make a list of the private schools you want to apply to and call each admissions office to ask which test—the ISEE or SSAT—they’d prefer applicants to take.

Even though many schools’ websites claim that they accept both tests, they might actually prefer one over the other. Many New England boarding schools, for instance, prefer the SSAT, whereas lots of New York City prep schools prefer the ISEE.

Secondly, you’ll need to consider how old you are and what grade you’re seeking entry into. The ISEE exam begins at the primary level with an exam for students entering the 2nd grade. The SSAT, on the other hand, begins with an exam for entrance into the 4th grade. If you or your child is very young, you’ll have no choice but to take the ISEE.

Finally, take into account your test preparedness and anxiety level. The ISEE and SSAT have different rules regarding how often applicants may retake them.

The ISEE can only be taken up to three times a year (i.e., once during each of the three testing sessions). Practically speaking, this means you can only take the test once per admissions cycle. If you don’t do well on it, you’ll need to wait an entire year to take the exam again.

Conversely, you can take the SSAT as many times as you want. That doesn’t mean you need to take the SSAT a dozen times (in fact, that would be extremely stressful), but it does give you some flexibility, particularly if you’re a nervous test taker. Being able to retake the test can help you feel at ease if your score isn’t what you’d hoped it would be on a first attempt.

ISEE vs SSAT Exam Format

For both the ISEE and SSAT, the test length can vary depending on which version you’re taking.

With the ISEE, the Primary tests differ slightly in number of sections and total time from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level tests. Similarly, with the SSAT, the Elementary test differs in test time and number of sections from the Middle and Upper Level exams.

Let’s take a closer look at the structures for the ISEE vs SSAT.

ISEE Structure
The Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE exams are each broken down into five sections:

SectionLower LevelMiddle LevelUpper Level
1. Verbal Reasoning34 questions, 20 minutes40 questions, 20 minutes40 questions, 20 minutes
2. Quantitative Reasoning38 questions, 35 minutes37 questions, 35 minutes37 questions, 35 minutes
3. Reading Comprehension25 questions, 25 minutes36 questions, 35 minutes36 questions, 35 minutes
4. Mathematics Achievement30 questions, 30 minutes47 questions, 40 minutes47 questions, 40 minutes
5. Essay*1 prompt, 30 minutes1 prompt, 30 minutes1 prompt, 30 minutes
Total Time2 hrs 20 minutes2 hrs 40 minutes2 hrs 40 minutes

The Primary Level ISEE tests, meanwhile, are structured a bit differently:

SectionPrimary 2 (for current 1st grade students)Primary 3 (for current 2nd grade students)Primary 4 (for current 3rd grade students)
1. Auditory Comprehension6 questions, 7 minutes
2. Reading18 questions, 20 minutes24 questions, 28 minutes24 questions, 28 minutes
3. Mathematics24 questions, 26 minutes24 questions, 26 minutes28 questions, 30 minutes
4. Writing Sample*1 prompt with picture, untimed1 prompt with picture, untimed1 prompt, untimed
Total Time53 minutes + writing time1 hr + writing time1 hr + writing time

SSAT Structure

Here’s the SSAT structure for the Middle and Upper Levels. Like the ISEE, these tests are divided into five sections (excluding the Experimental section at the end):

Section# of Questions (Middle)# of Questions (Upper)Time
1. Essay*1 prompt1 prompt25 minutes
2. Math I25 questions25 questions30 minutes
3. Reading40 questions40 questions40 minutes
4. Verbal60 questions60 questions30 minutes
5. Math II25 questions25 questions30 minutes
6. Experimental*16 questions16 questions15 minutes
Total167 questions167 questions2 hrs 50 minutes

And here’s the SSAT Elementary Level exam structure, which, as you can see, is much shorter:

Section# of Questions (Elementary)Time
1. Math I30 questions30 minutes
2. Verbal30 questions20 minutes
3. Reading28 questions30 minutes
4. Essay*1 prompt15 minutes
5. Experimental*15-17 questions15 minutes
Total89 questions1 hr 50 minutes

ISEE vs SSAT: 5 Key Differences

In many ways, the ISEE and SSAT are very similar tests. After all, the ISEE and SSAT have a similar purpose: to help your student gain admission to a private school. They also test similar content.

That said, there are five key differences between the ISEE and SSAT. Let’s take a look at them.

1: Score Report

Although the ISEE and SSAT both have four multiple-choice sections, the score reports for each are pretty different.

For the ISEE, you’ll get scores for each of the four sections individually. For the SSAT, though, you’ll only get three scores, as your two math section scores are combined into a single number on the score report. So if you’re looking to highlight your math ability, you should take the ISEE.

2: Writing Sample

The ISEE and SSAT each have an unscored writing sample, or essay. For both exams, the sample is sent to admissions committees to be used as a factor in their admissions decision; however, it’s not factored into your overall score on either the ISEE or SSAT.

The difference in the writing samples lies in topics. On the ISEE, students are required to write an expository essay, whereas students taking the SSAT must choose between creative writing prompts at the Middle Level, and creative and expository prompts at the Upper Level.

3: Verbal Section

The ISEE and SSAT have slightly different approaches to their verbal sections. Although both exams have synonym questions, the ISEE asks sentence completion questions, whereas the SSAT asks analogy questions.

It’s a good idea to try out both sentence completion questions and analogy questions to see which type comes more naturally to you.

4: Guessing Strategy

Students taking the SSAT have to contend with a guessing penalty: they get 1 point for each correct answer, get no points for questions left blank, and lose 1/4 point for each wrong answer.

The ISEE, on the other hand, has no such penalty and doesn’t take away points for incorrect answers.

5: Available Test Dates

The SSAT offers test dates every month throughout the year, and you can take the SSAT as many times as you want. By contrast, you can only take the ISEE once during each of its three annual testing sessions.

Conclusion: The Difference Between ISEE and SSAT

The ISEE and SSAT are admissions exams used by private elementary, middle, and high schools in the US and abroad. While the two tests are similar, they do have some major differences in terms of scoring, content, guessing strategy, and test dates.

Whether you should take the ISEE or SSAT depends on a number of factors, such as which is accepted by the school you’re applying to, what your strengths are (e.g., students who do well on math might want to prioritize the ISEE), and how often you want to be able to take the test.

Ultimately, deciding to take the ISEE or SSAT is a very personal decision, much like the decision of which independent school to apply to.

What Is a Good ISEE Score?

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is a standardized test for students in grades 2 through 12 take to apply to many private schools. ISEE score reports are known for containing a lot of information, most of it not very intuitive. So what do these scores mean? Which are the ones schools care about? And what is a good ISEE score? Read on for the answers to all these questions!

How Does ISEE Scoring Work?

There are four scored sections on the ISEE:

  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Mathematics Achievement

There is also an essay section, but it isn’t scored by the ISEE. Instead, it’s forwarded to the schools the student applied to so that the schools themselves can review it. The ISEE score report students receive will have several scores for each section of the test. Most students receive their ISEE test scores between seven to ten business days after they complete the test, and ISEE test scores are automatically sent to the schools you’ve selected.

Raw and Scaled Scores

For each section, students will receive a scaled score from 760 to 940. How are these scores calculated? For raw scoring, each correct answer on the ISEE is worth one point, and no points are gained or lost for skipping a question or answering it incorrectly. The raw score is the sum of correctly-answered questions.

That raw score is then scaled. Scaling is done to account for differences in difficulty between different test dates. So if an ISEE exam in December is more difficult than one given in October, the students taking the December exam won’t be penalized for taking the harder test because the scaling will even out the differences in difficulty. The scaled scores are those that are between 760 and 940.

Percentile Rankings

You’ll also receive a percentile rank for each of your section scores. Percentile ranking ranges from 1 to 99, and it is determined by how your scaled ISEE scores compare to the scores of other students in the same grade who have taken the ISEE in the past three years. The higher the percentile ranking, the better you did compared to other test takers. If you received a percentile score of 58, then you scored as well as or higher than 58 percent (and lower than 42 percent) of the other students in the group.

Stanine Scores

Stanine scores are based on percentile rankings, and they separate test takers into nine groups. As with percentile rankings, the higher a student’s stanine score (from 1 to 9), the better the student did on the ISEE. It provides a simple way for parents and schools to see how a student’s ISEE scores compared to other test-takers’ scores. As you can see in the chart below, most students score in the middle range, 4 to 6.

PercentileStanine Score
96-999
89-958
77-887
60-766
40-595
23-394
11-223
4-102
1-31

What Is the Average ISEE Score?

There isn’t data on what an average score is for the scaled scores of 760 to 940, but the percentile ranking and stanine scores for the ISEE are calculated so that the average score on the ISEE corresponds to the average value of each of these rankings. So the average ISEE test-taker has a percentile ranking of 50 percent and a stanine score of 5. Scores/percentiles higher than this are above average, and scores lower are below average.

Slightly over half (54%) of students who take the ISEE receive one of the middle scores of 4-6. It’s rarer to receive a score on either end of the spectrum. Only 23% of students receive a score of 1-3, and another 23% receive a score of 7-9. Only 4% of students receive a stanine score of 9, and 7% receive a score of 8.

How Do Schools Use ISEE Scores? What Is a Good ISEE Score?

It’s important to remember that ISEE scores are only one component of a student’s application, and they are rarely the most important piece. Schools also consider an applicant’s school grades, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, essays, etc. Low ISEE scores can be made up for in other parts of the application, and even outstanding ISEE scores likely won’t be enough to get a student admitted into a competitive school if the rest of the application is weak.

Another important factor to be aware of is that many students score lower on the ISEE than they and their parents might expect. There are two reasons for this. First, the ISEE is likely one of the most difficult tests the student has taken, and some of the information will simply be beyond their current knowledge. Second, the cohort that takes the ISEE tends to be academically stronger than the average student body, so that skews the averages. It’s not uncommon for a student who is used to scoring in, say, the 80th percentile on statewide exams to get closer to a 50th percentile score on the ISEE. Therefore, receiving an average score on the ISEE doesn’t mean the test-taker is an average student.

But how does this impact how schools look at ISEE scores, and what is a good score on the ISEE? The data schools are most interested in are the stanine scores. The scaled scores are not particularly useful information, and percentile scores can be too specific and cause admissions teams to split hairs over minutia (Is a percentile score of 77 really that much better than a percentile score of 75?).

Stanine scores separate students into nine groups, which makes it easy for them to be compared to other test-takers as well as average ISEE scores.

So what is a good ISEE score, one that will get a student accepted into a private school? That highly depends on the school. For many schools, ISEE test scores of 4 or higher are seen as acceptable. Other, more competitive schools, prefer scores of 7 or higher. In general, a score of 3 or lower will be seen as a weak area of a student’s application, and a score of 7 or higher will be seen as a strong score for nearly all schools (some elite institutions prefer scores of 8 or 9 but will accept students who score lower than that).

For most schools, ISEE scores of 5 or higher are high enough for the applicant to be considered for admission, although remember that the other parts of the student’s application must be strong as well for them to be admitted.

Summary: What Is a Good Score on the ISEE?

What is a good ISEE score? The ISEE is a standardized test many private schools require applicants to take. Students who take the test are scored in four areas, and they’ll receive several different types of ISEE test scores: scaled scores, percentile rank, and stanine scores.

Stanine scores (which range from 1 to 9) are the most important and are the scores schools pay the most attention to. But what is a good score on the ISEE? A score of 5 or higher will be enough to put students in the running for most schools, although some elite private schools want applicants to have ISEE test results of 7 or higher.