The Importance of Test Preparation for the ISEE and SSAT Exams for Private and Independent School Admission

The Importance of Test Preparation for the ISEE and SSAT Exams for Private and Independent School Admission

When preparing students for the ISEE or SSAT exams, there is more pressure than ever. Most private and independent schools require that students take one of these exams, which are similar to college entrance exams in that they play a key role in admission and are highly challenging.

Admissions officers say that they prefer students not to prepare for these tests, because they want students to accurately portray their skill set when they apply to schools. But since the schools are getting more and more competitive, in order to gain admission, parents feel like they have no other choice. Moreover, the same admissions officers who say that they do not want students to prep admit that there is a test score cut-off required for admission. As such, preparing students for these private school admission tests is incredibly important and should not be put off.

I recommend starting test prep as early as possible, because there is so much material to cover and so many test-taking strategies to acquire. For one, there are thousands of vocabulary words that the student ought to learn, because the verbal section of the tests is incredibly demanding. Without advanced vocabulary, students typically receive scores only within the 10th to 25th percentile. There are prefixes and roots to learn as well, and this takes time. When students cram last-minute, they are not able to acquire very much new vocabulary at all, and it’s hard to see much score improvement.

Besides vocabulary, the math is incredibly challenging. When I work with young students in fifth and sixth grade, this is the place where they struggle the most, because they are being asked to learn completely new content in order to perform well on this test. I’ve had to introduce, from scratch, the concepts of algebra, statistics, probability, and high-level problems on percentages, ratios, and geometry. The content on this test is not the content that students are used to learning in school. It is often many grades above their current level, and it takes time to acquire so much new material.

Fortunately, my students learn so many new skills that they often end up far ahead of their math class in school, and a lot of students have ended up being moved into advanced levels because they are so far ahead now. I always tell them that they don’t have to worry about learning algebra again many years later, because they are already experts.

Most importantly, it takes time to learn the test-taking strategies. The ISEE does not take off points for wrong answers, so you never want to leave a problem blank. However, you don’t want to actually spend time focusing your energy on every single problem, because unlike tests at school, this test is not designed so that you can actually finish it in time. You are expected to perform the best you can, knowing that you have less than one minute to answer each question.

Test preparation allows students to learn which problems they should focus the most energy on and which ones to just glance at, because it’s not possible to actually attempt to solve every problem on the test.

The SSAT does take a quarter of a point off for every wrong answer, so the strategy in this case is to know which problems to leave blank, so that you don’t lose many points by attempting problems you shouldn’t. This also gives you more time to focus on the problems that you should be solving. I always say that is much better to answer less problems, and get all those problems correct, than rushing through and trying to answer every single problem, making careless mistakes along the way and inevitably getting a much lower score as a result.

In my experience, students are able to perform very well on this test once they have enough preparation. They can learn vocabulary, prefixes and roots, reading comprehension skills, essay writing skills, and a massive amount of new mathematical knowledge. They can acquire test-taking strategies that will give them the confidence to plow through the test with focus. It all takes time, and work, but in the end, not only does it gain you entrance to the top private and independent schools, but it teaches you skills and knowledge that you will be able to use for the rest of your education.