How to Determine Which Private School Entrance Exam Is Right for Your Child

At Greenwich Education Group, we often field questions from prospective parents who want to know if their kids should take the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), or the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT). As with the more widely known SAT and ACT college entrance exams, it’s not immediately clear what differentiates one test from the other. In this article, we’ll provide some advice about how to determine which test best suits your child. In a future article, we will offer tips that your child can use to master each section of the exam.

First, assemble a list of the schools that your child is considering. Then find out if any schools prefer one entrance exam to the other. Often, schools will accept either, though boarding schools typically only accept the SSAT. Figuring out if a school requires a particular test will be the most important distinction in this process.

If you have reviewed the entrance requirements for your child’s select schools and you are still unsure about which test your child should take, have no fear! There are several important factors that will help you to determine which test your child has the best shot of acing.

Differentiating Between the ISEE and SSAT

The ISEE and SSAT each include five sections: two verbal, two mathematical, and one essay.

Generally, the ISEE is regarded as the better test for math whizzes, while the SSAT is thought to be the better test for bookworms. That said, those are oversimplified summaries, so I’ll go through some concrete examples from each test to give you a feel for what your child will face on test day.

To begin with, let’s compare the math sections on each test.


Both tests contain straightforward questions that students will be familiar with from their math classes, such as:

            Heather has ⅓ of a pizza and Maria has ¼ of the pizza. Between the two of them, how much of      the pizza do they have?

Or a simple algebraic expression that students must solve:

            The expression 5(x+7) is equivalent to…

Of the two exams, the SSAT places a greater emphasis on “Quantitative Reasoning.” In this section, students will encounter word problems, diagrams, and scenarios with which they are unfamiliar and be asked to figure them out.

When not written as an explicit mathematical expression like: Solve for x when x+5=17, Quantitative Reasoning problems usually take a form similar to this:

            Michelle asked 500 students at her school which of them had at least one sibling. If 150      students said they had at least one brother, and 370 students said they had at least one sister,            how many students have at least one sister and at least one brother?

Such Quantitative Reasoning questions require students to extract an algebraic equation from text. These questions seek to evaluate a student’s underlying comprehension of math, versus his/her ability to compute explicit math problems, such as the above algebra question.

While the ISEE has its own Quantitative Reasoning section, only a portion of the section is comprised of such word problems. The other part of this section consists of “quantitative comparisons,” in which students are asked to choose the larger of two mathematical expressions.


For example: Which is larger?


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While the average math problem on the ISEE may be more straightforward than one found on the SSAT, the second ISEE math section, Math Achievement, often proves to be especially challenging for students. The Math Achievement section of the ISEE is explicitly designed to test students on content that they may not have seen before. This section is meant to provide an objective measure of a student’s math competency level, however it can be understandably terrifying for a sixth grader to encounter “new” math, like a SoH Cah ToA question, on an already stressful test.


Therefore, the ISEE Math Achievement section is where preparation can yield the greatest rewards. Not only will a basic awareness of the difficulty of the section allow your child to be ready for it, they’ll also learn when to skip problems they can’t solve. The goal is to teach students what they should be proficient in, rather than teaching a unit of math they have never been introduced to.

Students are evaluated based on percentiles rather than absolute scores, so they’re competing against other test takers, not the test itself. Thus guided preparation for the test can yield a tremendous advantage as compared to less prepared test takers.

Due to the challenge presented by the Math Achievement section, the ISEE is typically considered to have the harder math component. Conversely, the SSAT has a trickier Verbal Section.

Verbal & Reading

What makes the SSAT’s language sections more difficult? While both tests have reading comprehension sections, the SSAT features passages that are more advanced, such as excerpts from 19th century novels, poetry, and scientific articles. The ISEE typically uses more contemporary prose. Compare the two passages, one from each test, below:

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Notice a difference in tone, vocabulary, and style? I hope so! Other reading passages on the SSAT include a paleozoological examination of koalas, a writer musing on the esoterica dividing “wit” from “humor,” and an excerpt from a pamphlet on US energy policy. The SSAT will  ask the student to infer an author’s tone and purpose through questions such as:

            What does Anthony mean by…
            The purpose of Anthony’s speech was to…

Meanwhile, the ISEE is somewhat more transparent. A test taker will encounter questions such as:

            According to the passage, Cochran used her flying skills to do what before the war?

           Which statement best describes how the passage is organized?

Both exams also test vocabulary. The first vocab section on either exam presents single words that students must choose the correct synonym for:


  1. amoral
  2. imperfect
  3. indifferent
  4. unequal

The exams then test vocabulary in context through sentence completion. Here’s an example:

In the _____ decision Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court established the false doctrine of “separate but equal,” which legalized racial segregation for many decades until the Court finally corrected this grave injustice.

  1. complicated
  2. ignoble
  3. isolated
  4. opaque

In addition, the SSAT has an analogy section that reflects its basis in the old SAT. This is often one of the trickier portions of the test, as few students have encountered this type of question. Not only do these analogies test a student’s vocabulary, they also evaluate a student’s logical reasoning skills. Luckily, with a bit of practice, this section will become far easier than it may appear at first glance.

Here are two sample analogy questions:

Sovereign is to monarchy as principal is to

  1. school
  2. administrators
  3. workers
  4. crew
  5. town

Laughter is to joke as

  1. read is to story
  2. question is to answer
  3. wince is to pain
  4. talk is to conversation
  5. cramp is to swim

The mental gymnastics required to solve analogies can easily trip up students. The best way to succeed is to practice, practice, practice! Fortunately, given the proclivity of analogies to show up on every level of exams from the SSAT to the LSAT, there are tons of resources out there.


Lastly, there’s the essay.

On the Elementary and Middle Level SSAT, the essay prompts ask the student to write a narrative. Upper Level students are asked to write both a narrative and a persuasive piece. The narrative prompt might resemble “The darkness overwhelmed my vision...” and give students total freedom to run with that as they please. The persuasive essay will ask students to defend a point of view.

Similar to the SSAT’s persuasive option, the ISEE asks students for their opinion about something within their lives to which they must respond argumentatively.

For both types of essay, and especially for the persuasive one, it’s crucial that students organize their essays logically. While an argumentative essay must have a central thesis supported by each paragraph, students often think that a narrative composition provides the opportunity to just jumble a bunch of action words onto a page with no regard for paragraph breaks, structure, or seriousness. Indeed, because students generally are not drilled in fiction writing like they are with five-paragraph essays, a narrative prompt can actually prove deceptively challenging for students who think that it will be a walk in the park. However, that is not the case. Student narratives are graded just as sternly as their thesis-driven counterparts!

To recap: While the ISEE and SSAT are relatively similar in the types of questions they ask, there are some significant differences between the two tests:

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Up Next: How to prepare for, practice and ace your school entrance exam!