Should You Take the ISEE or the SSAT or both Exams? How to Decide

Aug 5th, 2015 | News Archives, Test Prep Classes, Test Preparation

Required for admission to private and secondary grade schools, the ISEE and SSAT exams can be a challenge to many younger students. While the tests share many similarities, the differences between the ISEE and the SSAT have many parents and students confused each year. In the Seattle/Bellevue area, most private schools prefer one test over the other, although many schools will take either test.  Let’s take a look at each test and we’ll explain some of the key differences so you will have much of the information you need when choosing which test to focus your attention on this summer or fall.


The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) is offered at four different levels: Primary Level (entering grades 2-4, Lower Level (applicants to grades 4, 5 and 6), Middle Level (applicants to grades 7-8), and Upper Level (applicants to grades 9-12).

The Verbal Section of the test includes synonyms and sentence completion exercises.  This test tends to be fairly challenging in the math sections and is generally preferred by those students who enjoy, or at least feel competent at, doing math.  There’s no penalty for incorrect answers, four choices to choose from, and the ISEE can only be taken once every six months.


Available at three different levels, the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) tests students for admission at the Elementary Level (applicants to grades 4-5), Middle Level (applicants to grades 6-8), or Upper Level (applicants to grades 9-12).  The Verbal Section of the exam includes 60 questions of synonyms and analogies, and this test tends to be preferred by those students who have stronger vocabularies and overall verbal skills.  The SSAT deducts one-quarter of a point for incorrect answers for the middle and upper level versions, but since it may be taken multiple times during each application cycle, it may be a more attractive option for students who are nervous about their performance.

Each test also has an essay that is not scored but it is sent to the applicant’s schools and used as part of the comprehensive evaluation process.  Also keep in mind that students’ tests are scored only in comparison to their own grade level peers, not those in higher or lower grades.

When Should You Take These Exams

Both tests are offered on multiple dates throughout the fall:  The SSAT is offered once per month between October and February. The ISEE is offered multiple times per month during this same time period, so if students are considering taking both tests, they should plan to take the SSAT first, with the option to come back to it a second or even third time after taking the ISEE.

Be sure to carve out at least a couple of months to prepare, and keep your application deadlines in mind when scheduling your official test date(s).  Test results are usually available within a few days (ISEE) to a week or two (SSAT), so make sure your test date is scheduled with enough time for your chosen schools to receive the scores in time.  Some schools do accept test scores after the application deadlines have passed, as long as all the other application materials have been submitted.

Commonalities Between the SSAT and ISEE

While the ISEE and SSAT are different tests, they have a lot in common. Both exams are similar in length and duration and include five comparable sections: verbal skills, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, writing, and math achievement.

Both exams test include a series of out-of-context vocabulary questions. The ISEE includes in-context vocabulary testing, while the SSAT tests on analogies. While both tests include a writing section, neither of the tests will score the writing sample unless you purchase the optional writing scoring. Instead, these writing samples will be sent directly to the school you apply to for them to review.

Both exams provide different versions depending upon the student’s grade level. The SSAT splits the tests, the easier of the two being used for everyone up to seventh grade and the more difficult for those in eighth grade or higher. The ISEE does something similar with a three-way split. This is discussed in more depth below.

Preparing for the SSAT and ISEE

Both exams offer some practice materials to prepare for the test. The ISEE has a guide titled “What to Expect on the ISEE,” which is available for download from the Educational Records Bureau’s website. Similarly, the SSAT offers downloadable guides for each level of test taker. 

If you’re interested in taking admissions exams for private schools but are struggling with the preparation process, it might be a good idea to register for an ISEE/SSAT diagnostic test, group course, or private tutoring program with Sandweiss Test Prep. Our experienced instructors can help guide you through the testing process and help you prepare for standardized tests throughout every level of your academic career. Call (206-417-5050) or email ( us at your convenience to learn more about our ISEE/SSAT programs or use the online tool to sign up for a diagnostic test or class today.

Image source, labelled for reuse