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Once summer vacations have ended and the school year has begun, families begin thinking about standardized testing and the independent school application process. Many families considering independent schools often wonder which test to take. Depending on where you are applying, you may or may not have a choice. Upper schools often have a preference for the SSAT, and middle schools often prefer the ISEE, but many schools have no preference and will accept either test.

Neither test is easier or harder than the other. Most students score comparably on both tests. However, some students perform significantly better on one test or have a strong personal preference.

When choosing between the SSAT and ISEE, consider the tests’ content as well as your confidence and comfort with the format and material. If you have the time, take a practice test for each test to see if you scored better on one or have a personal preference. Do not try to prepare for both of the tests at the same time; by overstretching yourself, you will prevent yourself from performing up to your potential on either test.

Format and Length

Test Sections — The SSAT and ISEE have similar structures. Both tests feature math, reading, and verbal sections. Additionally, both tests feature an unscored writing sample, which is sent directly to schools. While the ISEE is a bit longer, both tests are about 3 hours long.

Pacing — The average time per question is almost identical on either test. The major exception is for the math sections, where the SSAT offers slightly more time per question.

Experimental Questions — The SSAT may include an experimental section at the end of the exam. This section includes unscored questions that are being tested for future SSAT forms. The ISEE also includes experimental questions but spreads them throughout the test.


Guessing Penalty — The SSAT penalizes students ¼ raw point for incorrect answers. Therefore, students must be more careful about guessing on questions. The ISEE has no penalty for incorrect answers, so students should guess aggressively and never leave an answer blank.

Scores — Both tests convert raw scores to scaled scores, which are then given percentile ranks based on the student’s ranking among other test-takers. In addition to percentiles, the ISEE also gives a stanine score. For more details about SSAT score, you can check out an earlier blog post here.

Relative Weight — The SSAT and ISEE place different relative weight on the math and English scores. The SSAT reports two English scores (Verbal and Reading Comprehension) and one math score. The ISEE reports two English scores (Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comprehension) and two math scores (Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement). Students who feel anxious about their math skills may prefer the SSAT, which has only one of its three section scores based on math. In comparison, half of the ISEE’s section scores are based on math.

Your SSAT or ISEE percentile ranks may be lower than expected. Rest assured that schools understand the competitive nature of the SSAT and ISEE. Your test preparation can help improve your standing among this group of test-takers.


Scope — The SSAT and ISEE have similar scopes of math concepts that are tested. Both tests focus primarily on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. The Upper Level ISEE may include more advanced concepts, such as trigonometry.

Straightforward vs Abstract — Many of the math questions on the SSAT are different from what students see in standard math courses. SSAT math questions can be abstract and complex, requiring problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The ISEE’s Quantitative Reasoning section also has abstract and complex questions, while the ISEE’s Mathematics Achievement section has more straightforward, curriculum-based questions.


Length — SSAT reading passages are typically 250-350 words long. ISEE passages are typically longer, about 300-600 words long.

Prose and Poetry — The ISEE Reading Comprehension passages cover topics related to history, science, literature, and contemporary life. The SSAT covers similar topics, but the SSAT may also include poetry passages.


Analogies vs Sentence Completions — The SSAT Verbal section includes analogies, which require you to determine the relationship between words. These questions are a test of vocabulary and critical thinking. The ISEE Verbal Reasoning section includes sentence completions, which require you to determine which word fits best within a given sentence. These questions generally require a stronger vocabulary than the SSAT’s analogies, but also require less critical thinking.


Creative vs Formal — For the Upper Level SSAT, you have a choice between a formal prompt and a creative prompt. For lower levels of the SSAT, you have a choice between two creative prompts. For all levels of the ISEE, you are given a single formal prompt.

For more information about the admissions process and standardized testing, please download our Independent School Admission Testing Guide.  Also, Summit offers free proctored practice SSAT and ISEE tests in our offices. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or reach out to us directly. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

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