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SSAT v. ISEE: Which Test is Best for Your Child?

Factors to consider when choosing between the SSAT and ISEE

SSAT vs ISEE: This is one of the first decisions you have to make if your child has decided to apply for an independent school. Most independent schools will accept either test (although you should always confirm this fact with the school). So what are some factors to consider as you decide which test is best for your child? Understanding the tests and how they differ can help you with your decision.

SSAT vs ISEE: Similarities

Both tests include an essay (which is submitted directly to the schools to which a student is applying and not included in the overall test score), a verbal section that primarily tests vocabulary, a reading comprehension section and two math/ quantitative reasoning sections. The content overlaps in many ways. Nevertheless, there are some key differences, outlined below.

Verbal Sections:

The SSAT and ISEE differ in how they test students on vocabulary.

The SSAT verbal section is divided into two parts: 1) synonyms and 2) analogies. Each part has 30 questions. The SSAT synonyms section gives students a vocabulary word, and they must select a synonym for that word out of 5 possible answer choices. All vocabulary is out of context, and while students may be able to eliminate some answer choices using strategies such as looking for root words, they perform best if they have a robust vocabulary. Some of the harder words on released tests have included “fallacy” and “listlessness.” The SSAT analogies section tests whether students can find a relationship between words but also requires an advanced vocabulary. A sample analogy question, for example, reads “aspirant is to incumbent” and then provides five answer choices with one showing a similar relationship.

The ISEE verbal section contains a synonyms section (19 questions) similar to that of the SSAT, but the second part of the verbal section consists of sentence completions (21 questions) on which students can use context clues to find a missing word or words in a sentence. Vocabulary for half the ISEE verbal section is, therefore, tested in context on the ISEE, unlike on the SSAT.

Math Sections:

Math on the SSAT consists of two multiple-choice sections with a total of 50 questions. These questions test students on algebra, geometry and measurement, coordinate geometry, and data analysis and probability.

The ISEE also has two multiple-choice sections with a total of 87 questions. One of the math sections contains a quantitative comparisons component on which students have to compare quantities in two columns. The math section on the Upper Level ISEE has a few questions that are at a more advanced level than that on the SSAT including problems drawn from Algebra 2 and pre-calculus. A sample test provided by the ERB, for example, contains a trigonometry problem, a matrices problem and some quadratic equations. In addition to having more math problems, the ISEE provides students with less time per problem. Whereas on the SSAT, students have 72 seconds per question, on the ISEE they have 57 seconds per question on one math section and 51 seconds per question on the other section. 

Reading Sections:

While both The SSAT and ISEE have reading sections, the SSAT contains literary fiction, humanities, poetry, science and social studies passages, while the ISEE contains only non-fiction passages “related to science, literature, history and contemporary life” according to the maker of the test. Both tests contain questions about inferences, main ideas, attitude, tone and vocabulary.


On the SSAT, students lose ¼ point for each incorrect answer. Therefore, students need to be more strategic about guessing. Generally, if a student can eliminate one answer choice, it makes sense to guess. An answer left blank will neither gain nor lose a point. On the ISEE, there is no wrong answer penalty. Wrong answers and omitted answers are weighted the same, so guessing makes sense.

Frequency of Testing:

The SSAT is offered once per month during the academic year, and there are flex option dates. Students can take the test up to 9 times. It is common for students to take the SSAT 2 to 3 times.

By contrast, students can take the ISEE only once in each “testing season.”  The testing seasons are Fall (August–November), Winter (December–March), and Spring/Summer (April–July). Therefore, a student would probably be able to take the test twice before applying to a school -once in the fall and once in the winter.

SSAT vs ISEE: Which test should my child take?

  • Check to see if the school to which your child is applying has a preference. If not consider the differences in the tests.
  • The SSAT may be better for students with strong language skills, as the SSAT requires students to know words with no context provided. Preparation for the SSAT must include daily vocabulary practice and memorizing many new words. Additionally, the reading and verbal sections of the test comprise 2/3 of the overall score, whereas the reading and verbal sections of the ISEE comprise ½ of the overall score.
  • Students stronger in math may be better taking the ISEE. More math topics are tested on the ISEE, and math accounts for 50% of the score.
  • If your child experiences significant testing anxiety, and you feel he or she might benefit from taking a test more than twice, then consider the SSAT over the ISEE.

Still unsure about which test would be best for your child? Consider having your child take a practice ISEE and a practice SSAT before making your decision.  Marks Education offers free proctoring of practice tests every week of the year.  Contact Marks Education  to schedule a time to take a baseline test, and then take advantage of a free 30-minute consultation with an experienced tutor to discuss your child’s scores and consider which test might be a better fit.

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