Private school admissions are more competitive than ever.

The ISEE is required for entrance at many competitive private primary, middle, and high schools. In recent years, private schools across the board have reported their lowest-ever acceptance rates. Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut accepts 19% of applicants, Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire accepts 18% of applicants, and Philips Academy in Massachusetts accepts just 14% of applicants. Make sure your child is prepared for the ISEE.

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ISEE Basics

The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) is an assessment for students hoping to earn a seat in grades 2-12 at some of America’s most prestigious private schools. The ISEE has four different levels for which students sit depending on their current grade:

  • ISEE Primary
    • Primary 2 – For entrance in Grade 2
    • Primary 3 – For entrance in Grade 3
    • Primary 4 – For entrance in Grade 4
  • Lower Level – For entrance in grades 5–6
  • Middle Level – For entrance in grades 7–8
  • Upper Level – For entrance in grades 9–12

ISEE Primary

The ISEE Primary is available for private and independent school candidates to Grades 2, 3, and 4. The ISEE primary is an approximately hour-long test, consisting of an auditory comprehension section (Primary 2 only), a reading section, a math section, and a short writing sample. This test can only be taken at a testing center. Below are the structures for the three variations of the ISEE Primary exam. The ISEE does allow accommodations for extended time (time-and-a-half) with prior approval for all levels of the exam.

Primary 2 (1st Graders applying for admission in Grade 2):

  • Auditory Comprehension – 7 Minutes (6 Questions)
  • Reading – 20 Minutes (18 Questions)
  • Mathematics – 26 Minutes (28 Questions)
  • Writing Passage – Untimed (1 Picture Prompt)

Primary 3 (2nd Graders applying for admission in Grade 3):

  • Reading – 28 Minutes (24 Questions)
  • Mathematics – 26 Minutes (24 Questions)
  • Writing Passage – Untimed (1 Picture Prompt)

Primary 4 (3rd Graders applying for admission in Grade 4):

  • Reading – 30 Minutes (28 Questions)
  • Mathematics – 30 Minutes (28 Questions)
  • Writing Passage – Untimed (1 Prompt)

ISEE Lower Level, ISEE Middle Level, and ISEE Upper Level

Regardless of whether a student is sitting for the ISEE Lower Level, Middle Level, or Upper Level exam, the test will have five sections. The structure of these three ISEE levels is very similar, with the major difference being that the Middle and Upper Levels (2 hours 40 minutes) are 20 minutes longer than the Lower Level (2 hours 20 minutes):

  • Verbal Reasoning: 20 minutes for all levels
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 35 minutes for all levels
  • Break (5 Minutes)
  • Reading Comprehension: 25 minutes for Lower Level; 35 minutes for Middle and Upper levels
  • Mathematics Achievement: 30 minutes for Lower Level; 40 minutes for Middle and Upper levels
  • Break (5 Minutes)
  • Essay: 30 minutes for all levels

Apart from the unscored essay, all questions on all levels of the ISEE are multiple choice.

Who takes the ISEE?

Students hoping to secure a seat at some of America’s most competitive independent and private schools. In recent years, private schools across the board have reported their lowest-ever acceptance rates as students from across the world vie for acceptance. The ISEE (along with the SSAT) serves as a way for students to distinguish themselves when it comes to the application process. Most schools will accept either the ISEE or the SSAT exam.

What is tested on the ISEE?

There are several academic areas that are assessed on the ISEE.

The ISEE Verbal Reasoning section consists of synonym and sentence completion questions. The rigor of the vocabulary knowledge being examined varies depending upon the level of the ISEE being administered.

The ISEE Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement sections include content from the following areas: Numbers and Operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and problem solving. The rigor of the questions within these content areas varies by the test level being administered.

Quantitative comparison questions ask a student to compare two quantities and then determine which of the following statements describes the comparison:

  • Quantity A is greater
  • Quantity B is greater
  • The two quantities are equal
  • The relationship cannot be determined from the information given

The ISEE Reading Comprehension passages include topics related to history, science, literature, and contemporary life. The types of questions on ISEE Reading Comprehension focus on six categories: Main Idea, Supporting Ideas, Inference, Vocabulary, Organization/Logic and Tone/Style/Figurative Language.

The ISEE Essay is usually a single question that asks writers to describe a/an:

  • Person/animal
  • Place
  • Object
  • Experience/event
  • Idea
  • Ambition

The essay is not scored, but it is photocopied and sent to the school(s) to which a student is applying.

How do I register for the ISEE?

The ISEE is offered on various test dates and at various locations across the United States throughout the year, and the test is available both in paper and digital versions (except for the Primary ISEE, which is only available digitally at a testing center). The ISEE Online tests the same content as the paper ISEE:

  • Registration Information:
  • The ISEE offered at testing centers is known as the “ISEE Online”
  • A student can take the ISEE only once every six months

What is the cost to take the ISEE?

The regular registration fee for the ISEE (registering online or by mail) for the paper-and-pen ISEE is $100. Registration by phone is $120.

The regular registration fee for the Online ISEE is $185.

How should I prepare for the ISEE?

Properly preparing to excel on the ISEE can have a significant impact on a student’s success in getting into the school of his or her choice and excelling once they get there. It is important to remember that the students sitting for the ISEE (and the SSAT) are some of the best and brightest from around the world, so the level of competition will be unlike any exam a student has taken before.

There are many resources at a student’s disposal. Whether it’s reaching out to the teacher for extra support, joining a study group, or finding a tutor to help them prepare to pass the test, any additional effort invested now is going to pay off in the long run.

At the very minimum, buying a study guide with practice tests can help get your student get familiar with the content and structure of the exams.

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ISEE Sample Question
  • Sean has a map where 3.5 centimeters represents 4 city blocks. If her apartment is 15 centimeters away from the grocery store, what is this distance in city blocks?
  • A 8
  • B 10
  • C 14
  • D 16
  • Answer: D

Is the ISEE easier than SSAT?

No. One test is not easier than the other. An important thing to understand about the ISEE and the SSAT is that both exams test for the same material. They are offered by different organizations, but students who take the ISEE and the SSAT will have to demonstrate mastery in:

  1. Mathematics
  2. Grammar skills
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Reading comprehension
  5. Logical reasoning
  6. Essay writing

If you want proof of this, go online or to a local store and try to find a book that only covers the ISEE or the SSAT – you will not, because publishers have found that creating separate books is inefficient.

If the ISEE and SSAT are of similar difficulty, does it matter which exam a student takes?

Yes, it does matter. If the content is basically the same, you may be wondering “Why does it matter which test a student takes?” The reason is that although the underlying content is similar, the exams are unique in the cognitive abilities that they are assessing, their structures, and their scoring. These differences will align with the unique strengths of particular students.

For example, a student may be stronger on the ISEE if:

  • The student has a mastery of the material, but has issues with timing and with strangely worded questions
  • The student is stronger on math than verbal/reading – ISEE weighs math heavier than the SSAT (1/2 math on ISEE vs. 1/3 math on SSAT)

A student may be stronger on the SSAT if:

  • The student is good at solving puzzles and dealing with complex wording and concepts
  • The student is stronger on verbal/reading than math (2/3 verbal/reading weight on SSAT vs. 1/2 verbal/reading on ISEE)

These are still just guidelines – Not concrete rules. The best way for a student to decide is to complete a practice exam for each test and see if they have a “test preference” – an exam on which they naturally perform better.

Can students use a calculator on the ISEE?

No. Students cannot use a calculator on the ISEE.

Which schools receive my ISEE scores?

The ISEE will send official score reports only to those schools that students designate.

Can students “Super Score” the ISEE?

The ISEE does not “Super Score” – Which means that students cannot combine the highest section scores from different test administrations.

Can schools view the ISEE essay?

Yes. Schools can view student ISEE essays.

How is the ISEE scored?

At all levels, students receive the following information for the four scored sections:

  • Scale score (760 to 940)
  • Percentile (1 to 99)
  • Stanine (1 to 9)

Scores on the ISEE are in comparison only to students in the same grade who have taken the test during the past three years.

Is there a “good” ISEE score?

There is no one “good” ISEE score. The quality of a score depends on the school(s) to which a student is applying.

The most-competitive schools generally seek scores above the 80th percentile on each of the scored sections.

  • Primary: Auditory Comprehension (Grade 2 Only)/Reading, and Mathematics
  • Lower, Upper, and Middle: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement

To send scores, you may indicate a school’s ISEE code at the time of test registration, or you may wait to receive your child’s results before designating score recipients through your child’s ISEE account.

Should students choose “C” if they do not know the answer?

There is no guessing penalty on the multiple choice questions on the ISEE. Thus, students should answer all of the questions they know, then the questions they can eliminate and guess, and then they should guess randomly on the remaining questions in a section.

Are some test dates easier than others?

There is no statistical advantage in selecting one test date over another. Students should choose test dates that make the most sense for their schedule and their preparation.

Still have questions about the ISEE?

Call an Academic Advisor. Our advisors are test prep experts, and they can answer your questions, offer advice, or help you create a test prep plan.

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