Quick Guide to the SSAT


A few weeks ago, I gave an overview of the ISEE. Today, I will go into more detail about another test that private and independent schools use for admissions--the SSAT, or the Secondary School Admission Test. (There’s no relation between the SAT and the SSAT.)

Many parents and students are anxious about the SSAT 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 anything else their target schools offer).

While it is appropriate to have some concerns, it is also important to remember that the SSAT (as well as its ISEE counterpart) is not the golden ticket to admission. 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 level of the SSAT?

Private schools recognize that the SSAT 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 to 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 format of the SSAT and how should 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.

There are three different levels to the SSAT. These include:

1. The Elementary Level - for students entering Grades 4 and 5

2. The Middle Level - for students entering Grades 6, 7, and 8

3. The Upper Level - for students entering Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12

VERBAL SECTION: You need to know synonyms of vocab and how to complete analogies. If you are not familiar with high-level words and how words can relate to each other, then this section will be challenging.

QUANTITATIVE SECTION: You need to solve a mixture of straightforward math problems and word problems. The highest level of math tested is geometry.

READING COMPREHENSION SECTION: You need to read a variety of passage types, including literature, poetry, science, and history. If you do not read widely, then this section will be challenging.

WRITING SAMPLE: All levels have prompts for creative writing except the highest level SSAT, in which the student can choose to respond to a creative writing prompt or a traditional essay prompt. Remember that the Writing Sample is unscored.

EXPERIMENTAL SECTION: Every test will have one section that is unscored and is included to ensure the quality of future tests.

Note: For the SSAT, wrong answers incur a ¼-point penalty. Omitted questions are not penalized. Also, there is no stanine number, as you would see for ISEE. There are, however, raw scores, scaled scores, and a percentile ranking.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to the SSAT, the best approach is to understand that the exam is not the gatekeeper to private schools. While the test (or the ISEE) is required and does help private schools determine the academic background of a student, fortunately students are more than test 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 extra help with preparing for the SSAT, then we are happy to help students make this necessary step towards transitioning into private school. The SSAT doesn’t have to be the awkward, distant, long-lost step child of the private school application. It can be the thing you conquer now, making a new year perfect for a new you.

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