ISEE Tutoring In-Depth

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For many students the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) or the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test) is the first test they have encountered that will have significant consequences for their future — and anxiety can be a key factor in the outcome. It is not uncommon for students in this age range to feel tremendous pressure as they make their best effort to do well, and sometimes that desire can generate a degree of anxiety that impacts performance.

On occasion, students who have never previously suffered from anxiety succumb to the pressure of the ISEE. Next Level’s professional ISEE instructors are mindful of the ways in which pressure adversely affects performance, which is why our ISEE tutoring is designed to diminish anxiety as well as improve test-taking skills. Next Level’s personalized, one-on-one tutoring enables our instructors to directly engage students and teach them how to strategically navigate the ISEE and ensure they achieve their greatest potential.

At the conclusion of each session, our instructors generate a Session Report that provides a summary of the session including successes, challenges, expectations going forward, and homework. If the parent or student has comments or questions, they can simply reply to the Session Report and our director will follow up with the instructor. The Session Reports are a valuable communication tool that allows parents to stay informed without necessarily having to question their child following each session, which can sometimes exacerbate anxiety.

Parents are Concerned About Their Children

In addition to children feeling significant pressure to do well on the ISEE, of course parents also feel concern, and sometimes a parent’s keen focus on the exam and their child’s preparation can inadvertently generate additional pressure. Our best advice to parents is to let Next Level Learning’s professional ISEE instructors work with their child on the exam while they take a step back. That approach generally leads to both parents and children feeling less pressure, which can have a positive impact on performance and results. Of course Next Level can’t guarantee outcomes, but we can promise that we will put your child in position to perform to the best of his or her ability.

Should My Child Take the ISEE or the SSAT?

While the ISEE and SSAT differ somewhat in structure and organization, both are designed to measure a student’s verbal and analytical skills against those of other students in the same grade. So how do you determine whether your child should take the ISEE or the SSAT? The answer is pretty straightforward: find out what the admission requirement is for the school(s) to which he or she is applying.

There is no hard and fast rule but, in general, the ISEE is typically required by New York’s independent day schools and the SSAT is required by boarding schools throughout the United States and Canada. However, most independent day schools in New York City also accept the SSAT for admissions, and Next Level educational consultants can assist parents in carefully considering the pros and cons of each exam. Every school is different and many accept either test. If you are applying to a school that accepts either, students should choose the test that better complements their strengths, a decision Next Level instructors can help the student make. In some instances, students applying to a variety of schools will opt to take both.

What Are the Differences Between the ISEE and the SSAT?

There are many similarities between the two tests in terms of structure and content, but there are a few significant differences to consider:

  • The ISEE has no scoring penalty for wrong answers, allowing students the freedom to take their best guess and move on. The SSAT, on the other hand, deducts a quarter point for each wrong question.
  • The ISEE tends to have questions that are more straightforward and less conceptual than on the SSAT.
  • The verbal section of the ISEE contains a “sentence completion” section while the SSAT has an “analogies” section that tests vocabulary and reasoning skills in a much different way. A student’s confidence and ability in either of these sections will play a part in the decision.
  • The ISEE offers one essay topic, while the SSAT gives students a choice of two.
  • The way scores are presented is important (see below for details). The ISEE reports scores for two language sections (Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comprehension) and two math sections (Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement). The SSAT report scores for three sections: Verbal, Quantitative, and Reading. As a result, students who are stronger in math may tend to favor the ISEE, since math makes up half of the reported scores as compared to one third on the SSAT. Students stronger in Verbal/Reading may tend to favor the SSAT, since this makes up two thirds of the score, compared to half on the ISEE.

Another factor that may play a role in deciding which exam is better is the number of times a student can take the test. The SSAT can be taken three times in the fall and once in the early winter of a student’s 8th grade, whereas the ISEE can only be taken twice in the same period. Some parents see these extra test dates as an opportunity to improve scores or make up for a poor test day performance.

Next Level Learning Can Help You Decide

If the schools to which your child is applying accept both exams, our directors can help you determine the better choice. Once you have determined whether the ISEE or the SSAT is ideal for your child, the next step is developing an effective strategy to prepare for the test. We can evaluate your child’s aptitude, skills, strengths, and weaknesses, and then devise a learning plan that ensures your child is in the best position to take the exam. As with all tests, better ISEE preparation translates into better results. For some students that means getting started sooner rather than later so they can build their skills over time.

Next Level Learning has been helping students gain admission into independent day schools and boarding schools for almost two decades, and we can help parents decide which schools to target. Brainstorming the plethora of options for schools can be frustrating and time-consuming; Next Level experts can provide consulting support that will help make the process less daunting. Start by contacting Next Level Learning for a complimentary consultation.

When Should Preparation Begin?

One of the most frequent questions we are asked about the ISEE is when students should start preparing, and the answer varies depending upon the following factors:

  • Is the student working at grade level?
  • Are there concepts or material on the ISEE that require significant review?
  • Does the student typically perform well on standardized exams or important tests?
  • Is anxiety a factor in performance?
  • Is motivation an issue?
  • Is the student able to commit fully to preparation?
  • Does the student have a learning disability that requires remediation?
  • Does the student have time to complete homework assignments as part of preparation?
  • Is the student applying to highly competitive schools for which a high score is more imperative?

Especially with students in this age range, it’s vital for them not to be in the position of cramming a few weeks or months before the exam. Rushing to prepare immediately before the ISEE generates added pressure and can sometimes cause anxiety in students who have never previously exhibited symptoms of being anxious. Even high-performing students often begin preparation a year or more before the exam. We recommend coming in for an initial session and assessment as early as possible. In some instances it will be apparent the student is well-positioned and doesn’t need to begin preparation right away; in other instances we may identify significant areas that need to be addressed over an extended period. If you have doubts or questions about the ideal time to begin, contact Next Level now and we can help you make an informed decision.

When Should My Child Take the ISEE?

The ISEE may be taken up to three times in a 12-month admission cycle, once every four months. Students typically take it two or three times, often beginning in summer or fall of their 8th grade. You can register online here.

What’s on the ISEE?

There are four different versions or “levels” of the ISEE, depending on which grade a student is applying to:

  • Primary – for entrance to grades 2 – 4
  • Lower – for entrance to grades 5 – 6
  • Middle – for entrance to grades 7 – 8
  • Upper – for entrance to grades 9 – 12

The test consists of four separate sections and an essay. The breakdown is shown below. A full description can be accessed here.

Upper Level and Middle Level ISEE

Questions Topic Length
40 Verbal Reasoning 20 min.
37 Quantitative Reasoning 35 min.
BREAK 5 min.
36 Reading Comprehension 35 min.
47 Mathematics Achievement 40 min.
BREAK 5 min.
Essay 30 min.


Lower Level ISEE

Questions Topic Length
34 Verbal Reasoning 20 min.
38 Quantitative Reasoning 35 min.
BREAK 5 min.
25 Reading Comprehension 25 min.
30 Mathematics Achievement 30 min.
BREAK 5 min.
Essay 30 min.

The Verbal Reasoning section contains two sub-sections: synonyms and sentence fill-ins. For the synonyms, students are required to select the word that is most nearly the same in meaning, without any context clues. For sentence fill-ins, students are tasked to select the missing word, or pair of words, that best completes a sentence.

The Quantitative Reasoning section also contains two sub-sections: word problems and quantitative comparisons. (Note: the Lower Level ISEE contains only word problems.) Word problems will require little calculation and will assess a students’ ability to reason mathematically, using skills such as comparing, estimating, and interpreting data. Quantitative Comparisons will ask students to compare two quantities and determine which is greater, if they are the same, or if the relationship cannot be determined.

The Reading Comprehension section will tests students’ ability to interpret ideas, make inferences, define vocabulary, and describe the organization or style and tone of six different passages.

The Mathematics Achievement section is more similar to a traditional math test and will cover areas such as number sense, algebra, geometry, data analysis and probability, and measurement.

The Essay prompt is designed to be wide in scope and of interest to students. It is not scored; instead, it is sent to schools to provide an insight into the student’s personality, values, and writing ability.

How Is the ISEE Scored?

The ISEE is scored using a percentile and stanine system for each of the four sections. Students’ scores are ranked compared to every student applying for the same grade from the last three years. A student’s place in this list determines their percentile. Percentiles are then ranked according to a bell curve and placed into nine groups called stanines. Each stanine is an important admissions criterion. For more information see What to Expect on the ISEE.

The nature of scoring and purpose of the ISEE make it a difficult test. It is set up to rank each test taker based on all scores in a “norm group” consisting of competitive, intelligent, and often highly-prepared students who are applying to some of the most sought after schools in the country. Scoring 75 percent in a section may only be enough to put a student in the 65th percentile (i.e., having a higher score than 65% of other students) and being awarded a stanine of 6. Only the top 3% of students will receive a stanine of 9.

When Are the ISEE Scores Released?

ISEE scores are typically available within a week of the exam date.

What Is a Good ISEE Score?

Given the purpose of the ISEE, a “good” score is somewhat arbitrary and depends solely upon the schools to which a student applies. An important first step in the admissions process is to identify the target schools and consider the scores required for admission. It should also be noted that the ISEE is only one part in the process; there are many other factors a school considers when accepting students, such as grades, application essays, school interviews, recommendations, etc. It is also important to remember that what looks like an “average” score – a 4, 5, or 6 – is “average” when compared to the independent school group, which tends to be a well-educated, well-prepared group. For example, the same number of correct questions that produces a 5 in the independent school group will typically produce a 7 in the national school group.

Private ISEE Testing

For an additional fee private testing can be arranged for students. This can sometimes be a useful option for students who suffer from significant test anxiety. Contact Next Level to obtain more information about private testing.

Get Started

No matter where you are in deciding next steps for your child to take the ISEE, it is never too early to speak to an ISEE expert at Next Level Learning and beginning the planning process. As stated, the ISEE is a challenging exam for the vast majority of students, and it is therefore important to ensure you put your child in the best position to excel and perform to his or her greatest potential. Please contact Next Level Learning to obtain the best ISEE tutoring in New York.

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