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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Tannenbaum

The Similarities and Differences between The ISEE and SSAT Tests

Updated: Jun 26

Which test should your child prepare for?

Like the ACT and SAT, the ISEE and the SSAT have considerable similarities and considerable differences.

How are the ISEE and SSAT similar?

To a significant extent, these exams test students on the same academic content and skills - vocabulary, reading comprehension, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and data analysis/probability. The ISEE and SSAT are the same in terms of length. Both the ISEE and SSAT Lower Level exams are two hours long, and their Middle and Upper Level exams are three hours long. The ISEE and SSAT both include an unscored essay, and neither test allows the use of a calculator for math questions (except in rare instances in which a student gets accommodations that are very hard to get approval for).

The Most Notable Differences:

1.The ISEE can only be taken on paper, whereas the SSAT has paper and online options.

2. The SSAT has six standard test dates for taking a paper-based test and offers a “flex test,” which gives students one chance per testing year (August 1st to July 31st) to take the paper-based test on any day that they want. The ISEE is offered many more times than the paper-based SSAT throughout the year.

3. One of the most important differences is how often a student can take the SSAT and how often they can take the ISEE. U.S. students who take the Middle or Upper Level SSAT can take this test many times in a given testing year. They can take the computer-based SSAT twice per year, a paper-based SSAT on a standard test date as many times as they want, and a flex test. A student taking the SSAT Elementary Level test can take it as many as twice per testing year. In contrast, ISEE students can take the test only once per “testing season.” The “fall testing season” runs from August to November, the “winter testing season” runs from December to March, and the “spring testing season” runs from April to July. In practice, ISEE students usually have only two opportunities to take the test, because students are usually first ready to take the actual test not until the fall testing season leading up to the winter during which they send out their applications.

4. The ISEE is more difficult in terms of math, and the SSAT is more difficult in terms of the verbal and reading sections.

The ISEE tests some math content (trigonometry for example) that is more advanced than any math found on the SSAT, and the ISEE has a math section with quantitative comparison questions. Students often find the ISEE’s quantitative comparison questions to be the hardest aspect of the test, and QC questions are not found on the SSAT. Additionally, ISEE math questions, relative to ones on the SSAT, more often involve a rigorous amount of critical thinking.

As far as the verbal sections, the SSAT has analogy questions in its verbal section, whereas the ISEE does not. Students often find the SSAT analogy questions to be the most difficult part of the test, in no small part because most students have little, if any, experience with them in school. As far as the reading sections, the SSAT reading section contains poetry passages, whereas the ISEE reading section doesn’t. Students often find poetry to be the most challenging type of reading passage.

It should be noted that the scaled scoring for the SSAT verbal section is very generous, so SSAT students can get a number of analogy questions incorrect and still score in a very high percentile (95th or above) for the verbal section.

5. The SSAT has a ¼ point guessing penalty, but the ISEE doesn’t.

People tend to make a big deal out of this difference, believing that students with test-anxiety might be psyched out by the guessing penalty, but, really, a student who is thoroughly prepared won’t be thrown off by this aspect of the SSAT.

6. Traditionally, students applying to boarding schools take the SSAT, while students applying to non-boarding independent schools take the ISEE. While that has changed since most schools, at this point, are happy to accept scores from either test, you always need to be careful about whether a school has a preference or requirement for which test applicants take.

As is the case with the ACT and the SAT, it’s vital for your child to take an official practice test for both the ISEE and SSAT as part of deciding which test to prepare for. In our experience, it usually makes sense for a student to focus on the SSAT because they have more opportunities to take it and because the scaled scoring on the SSAT verbal section is generous, offsetting the difficulty of the analogy questions. While it’s not uncommon for students to prepare for and take the ISEE and SSAT, that’s generally not needed. Most schools, both boarding and non-boarding, are happy to accept a great score from either test, and with the right preparation, your child should be able to get a standout overall score on whichever test they’re more comfortable with.

Want to schedule an ISEE and/or SSAT diagnostic test? Contact us to set up diagnostic testing at your convenience.


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