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A breakdown of the ISEE


As your child begins to face down the many challenges of gaining admission to a private school, one challenge inevitably looms above the rest: the standardized test – often, the ISEE. Students will typically take the ISEE or the SSAT; occasionally they must take both.

Of course, plenty of preparation is necessary for these exams, from taking timed practice tests to completing homework drills to building a personalized test-taking strategy with a tutor. All of these tactics attempt to give students the confidence and knowledge of the test necessary, above all else. Fundamentally, students need to understand the structure of the ISEE in order to succeed.

First, remember that there are three levels of the ISEE for three different age groups.

Lower Level – Admission into Grades 5-6
Middle Level – Admission into Grades 7-8
Upper Level – Admission into Grades 9-12

Each of these levels face similar tests with similar rules. The primary difference between the levels is question-difficulty; the formats are nearly identical. Each test has five sections. The first four are scored, multiple-choice tests, while the final section is an unscored essay.

Let's break these down:

The Verbal Reasoning section, in the Middle and Upper Levels, gives 40 questions in 20 minutes. The Lower Level gives students 34 questions in the same time frame. While this works out to be the smallest time-per-question ratio throughout the entire test, timing on the Verbal Reasoning section is rarely a concern for students. This section tests vocabulary through sentence completions. There are no analogies, like on the SSAT.

The Quantitative Reasoning section runs through 37 questions in 35 minutes in the Middle and Upper Levels of the test; the Lower Level goes through 38 questions in the same amount of time. This is meant to be more conceptual than the Mathematics Achievement section, which is deemed to be more knowledge-based. In practice, the primary difference between the two math sections is that Q.R. features the Quantitative Comparison segment – a set of questions where students must decide which of two quantities is greater than the other. This, for many students, requires more practice, test prep, and strategizing than any other portion of the test.

The Reading Comprehension section, with 36 questions in 35 minutes in the Middle and Upper Levels (Lower level – 25 questions, 25 minutes), will be familiar to anyone who has seen a standardized test before. Of course, your child may not have seen a standardized test before, but they'll understand the pattern of this section soon. Short passages are followed by a handful of questions that focus on that passage. This can be a very tough section for many, but it's easy enough to predict and understand.

The Mathematics Achievement section, with 47 questions in 40 minutes in the Middle and Upper Levels (Lower level – 30 questions, 30 minutes), is a more traditional, math-based multiple-choice section. There is a strong emphasis on arithmetic, straightforward questions, and basic math knowledge. Geometry formulas, fractions, percentages, and simple algebra are all at the center of this section.

Finally, the Essay takes 30 minutes at each level. This is actually an unscored section; a photocopy of the student’s essay is sent directly to their designated schools. The ISEE essays tend to be fairly mundane questions about school life – but don't write the Essay section off! It gives schools the chance to see what students can do under pressure and by themselves with the schools' own sets of criteria.

And then, your child emerges out of the test and back into the light of day! It's a long slog, but if the student knows what's coming, they can face it with great confidence and skill.

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