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Specialized High Schools Admissions Test

The Specialized High School Test (SHSAT) is the exam students take in 8th or 9th grade when they apply to specialized high schools in New York City (the exception is LaGuardia High School, the one NYC performing arts specialized high school, which has other requirements for admission). The test is very high stakes, because specialized high schools often have an ROI that is second to none. As public schools, they’re free of charge but, at the same time, they often offer an education and track record of students getting accepted to top colleges that one would expect from a highly prestigious private school. For many NYC families of humble backgrounds wanting their children to advance economically and professionally, acing the SHSAT is an amazing catapult, and it’s not uncommon for families to have their child start studying for the SHSAT a year-and-a-half in advance, or more. How students do on this test is the one and only criteria for whether or not they get accepted to one or more of the specialized high schools. In a given year, students only get one opportunity to take the SHSAT. 

That in mind, for families serious about the SHSAT, it makes sense to study hard and to start early. The test is three hours long, no break included. However, it’s also important that your child prepare strategically, because the scaled scoring on the SHSAT is very weird. The test is made up of an English Language Arts section and a math section; if a student gets an almost perfect score on one section and only does decently on the other, that student will almost definitely score high enough to go to whatever specialized high school they want. However, if a student does very well, but not exceptionally well, on both sections, that student will almost definitely not get into the most selective specialized high schools.

In terms of preparation, it sometimes makes sense for a student to prepare for the SHSAT and either the ISEE or SSAT (most likely the ISEE). This might seem surprising, but one of the reasons is that by a student taking a test for private schools, it alleviates some of the pressure that comes with preparing for the SHSAT. Additionally, the ISEE, in particular, lends itself to helping a student get ready for the SHSAT because the two tests are similar in terms of math, but, overall, the ISEE math is harder and, thus, can make the SHSAT math feel easier. As far as the price tag of a private school vs. the free tuition of a specialized high school, private schools often offer very generous scholarships to students who do very well on the ISEE or SSAT and whose families don’t have the resources to cover the typical cost, so taking both the SHSAT and ISEE should be a consideration not only for affluent families.     


The SHSAT itself presents students with 114 questions, 57 for the ELA and 57 for the math. All of the questions are multiple choice, with the exception of five grid-in questions on the math section. Students can allocate the three hours however they choose and are allowed to do the questions in whatever order that they want. That in mind, it’s hugely important that a student understands which questions they should do right away and which ones they should save for later. Each question is worth only one point, but some questions are much more time-consuming than others, especially on the math section, which doesn’t allow the use of a calculator.   

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