Do You See What I See? Sensible Study Tips for ISEE!


Last week, I gave an overview of the two entrance exams that private and independent schools use for admissions. Today, I will go into more detail about one of those tests--the ISEE, or the Independent School Entrance Exam.

Many parents and students are anxious about the ISEE because often this test is their first experience with a high-stakes entrance exam. After all, a score can make or break an acceptance to a highly desired private school. It makes sense, especially, that parents want to do whatever they can to ensure success and show that their student is up to the challenge of rigorous curriculum (and whatever else their target schools offer).

While it is appropriate to have some concerns, it is also important to remember that ISEE (as well as its SSAT counterpart) is not the golden ticket to acceptance. Just as college admissions officers select students based on holistic review, so too do private school administrators look at many different facets to determine acceptances.

So, don’t overstress about the test. Prepare for it appropriately, but don’t stretch yourself into someone you are not. In other words, recognize your strengths and weaknesses and prep accordingly and reasonably; for example, if you haven’t been keeping up on out-of-class reading, don’t cram a bunch of vocab in hopes of absorbing higher-level words.

What is the complexity of each ISEE level?

Last week I talked about the stanine numbers, which are one of several representations of a student’s scores. As a reminder, all of the students’ section scores are divided into nine groups (1-9), with 9 being the highest score and 1 being the lowest. Students who are considered exceptional in a given section score 7-9; most students score 4-6 per section.

Now what does this mean? Or more importantly, what scores do you need to get into your target school?

Obviously higher is better, so the real question is, how low can you go and still expect to be competitive? There is no sure science, as is often the case with admissions.

However, unlike college admissions, for which perfect or nearly perfect SAT and ACT scores are necessary if you want to get accepted to Ivy League schools, private schools are not simply seeking students who hit the 7-9 range on all of their sections.

So, don’t think that a stanine score of 4, for example, is guaranteed rejection. Thankfully, you are more than your ISEE scores, and private schools recognize this.

What is the expectation for the ISEE score?

Private schools recognize that ISEE is purposely constructed to be a difficult test. Just think: for the Upper Level test, an 8th grader applying to 9th takes the exact same exam as an 11th grader applying 12th. The 8th grader would not be expected to answer every question correctly!

In fact, students are only measured against their grade-level peers. This is so important to remember, especially when prepping, because if you think that you need to master all of the questions, especially if you are applying for the lower grade of a test level, then you’re wrong.

Remember: the tests are meant to be challenging to all grade levels. (Of course, if you can do well on all the questions, more power to you!)

What is the ISEE format and how do you prepare for the actual content?

Any good test-prep regimen requires that you understand the format of the test. As basic as that sounds, once you get down the technicalities and mechanics of the test, you’ve done yourself a great service.

As I said last week, there are three different levels to ISEE (technically there are four, but the other one, for Grades 2-4, is a much different format). Here’s what's in store for each of those levels:

VERBAL REASONING: You need to know vocabulary. Understanding context clues will be useful too.

QUANTITATIVE REASONING: You need to understand complicated math-based word problems.

READING COMPREHENSION: You need to read passages and answer questions--common standardized test stuff.

MATHEMATICS ACHIEVEMENT: You need to solve straightforward math problems. Hurray!

ESSAY: You need to write a 30-minute essay on a given topic. Remember that this is unscored.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to ISEE, the best approach is to understand that the exam is not the gatekeeper to private schools. While the test (or the SSAT) is required and does help private schools determine the academic background of a student, fortunately students are more than stanine scores.

Of course, you can still strategize ways to improve scores, reduce test-day anxiety, and build confidence. It is important to set appropriate goals, practice early and consistently, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

If you are looking for an extra kick in the butt for ISEE prep, then we at B2A are happy to help. Indeed, we can make administrators see what we see: a capable, intelligent student ready for private school.

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