ISEE vs SSAT: Independent School Testing Showdown

If you’re thinking of sending your child to an independent or private school, chances are you’ve heard mention of the SSAT and the ISEE tests. Both are standardized tests that are often required as part of the overall admissions package, but many parents can be left confused when considering ISEE vs SSAT tests, especially when they have to start preparing.

Understanding how the tests are alike and where they differ can be a first step on the road to success

ISEE vs. SSAT: Which do I need to take?

Depending on your school(s) of choice, you might be asked that your child take the SSAT, the ISEE, or you might have the option to choose one or the other. Typically the school requirements are listed on the schools admissions application page.

If you do have a choice, you need to assess where your students strengths are currently in order to play off these skills to maximize their results and stand the best chance of admission to their school of choice.

So, Is the ISEE or SSAT Harder?

Generally speaking, the SSAT is known as being a better option for students who are stronger in reading comprehension and verbal skills.

For one thing, two thirds of the SSAT score is devoted to verbal ability sections, with only one quantitative section to two reading and verbal sections.

The overall level of vocabulary is usually a bit more advanced than the ISEE, particularly in the Analogies, which require more reasoning and are considered by many to b e more difficult than the ISEE sentence completion question format.

If your student is more at ease with math and quantitative questions, they may find the ISEE to be easier for them. The math problems presented in the ISEE test are often more complex and need more critical reasoning math skills than the SSAT.

The ISEE also gives students significantly less time to solve each math question than the SSAT, at around 51-57 seconds compared to the 72 seconds provided by the SSAT.

Another factor to consider is that the ISEE tests math that is sometimes more advanced than what your child would be exposed to in a typical classroom, especially at the high school level. It may include more advanced questions in Algebra II, pre-calculus and trigonometry.

One interesting thing to note is that the SSAT offers 5 multiple choice answers (A,B,C,D,E), compared to the ISEE’s 4 answers (A,B,C,D). Some students have a harder time with multiple choice if there are more choices, others may take more time reading through the answers and still others may get stressed or confused.

How often do they test?

The SSAT and ISEE run at different times of the year and at different frequencies.

In general, the SSAT is tested more frequently and allows for a greater number of retests.

Below we’ve created a chart to help you understand their respective testing frequencies (correct as of writing):

When is the testing seasonOctober through JuneAugust through July
Fall (Aug-Nov)
Winter (Dec-Mar)
Summer (Apr- Jul)
How many times a year is the test offered83
How many times can the test be taken per year8 (only one flex date, a test date outside the normal dates)3 – once per testing period (used to be 1 per year)

Testing and Grade Levels

Both the ISEE and SSAT tests have different levels, or tests designed to be appropriate to the grade in which the student wants to enroll.

The ISEE tests a little younger, with the ISEE Primary Level 2 testing students entering into grade 2, while the SSAT begins with the Elementary Level, which tests students going into grade 4.

SSAT Testing LevelsISEE Testing Levels
Primary Level: for students applying to grades 2-4
Elementary Level: for students applying to grades 4-5Lower Level: for students applying to grades 5-6
Middle Level: for students applying to grades 6-8Middle Level: for students applying to grades 7-8
Upper Level: for students applying to grades 9-12Upper Level: for students applying to grades 9-12

At Home Testing Options

Recently, some parents have asked if the ISEE or the SSAT offer at home/online testing options.


The SSAT is offering an at home testing option testing every Saturday and the first Sunday of each month.


The ISEE offers an at home testing solution through a remote testing system run by their partners, Prometric. This is currently only available for grades 5-12 and in the US/Canada.

Before considering SSAT or ISEE testing at home, parents should be aware of a few factors that they have to be aware of:

  • Typing Comfort – students taking these tests at home will have to type out their essays, although they can obviously still outline by hand. Depending on their age and experience, some kids are better at using a keyboard than others, and remember – it is a timed exam.
  • Reliable internet – Unreliable issues or computer issues can cause lag or interrupted service, which is not a pleasant experience. The ISEE recommends 0.5 MB/S internet speed. If your computer is connected to the internet via wifi, make sure it has a strong connection.
  • Computer requirement– students will need a desktop or laptop with speakers and microphone (for interacting with the proctor) and only one screen plugged in. If your family relies on smartphones and tablets, be aware these are not supported currently.
  • Photo verification – Both exams require a webcam and to take a picture of your child just before the test begins for student verification. Some parents are uncomfortable photographing and uploading pictures of their child.

Note: Students taking the SSAT who do not have a desktop/laptop or reliable internet can fill out a waiver and request (for no fee or shipping cost) a SSAT Equity Tech Kit, which contains what they need.

Test Scoring

Both tests have a raw score (number of correct vs incorrect answers) that is converted into a standardized score. Both then take that standardized score and convert it into a percentile rank. This is to help compare your student to students of the same grade and gender who have taken that test in the last 3 years (their cohort).

The ISEE takes it a step further and converts that percentile into a normal distribution/bell curve that is subdivided into nine sections – a result called a stanine. This makes it easier for administrators to group students together based on abilities compared to percentiles, however it does make it harder to intuitively understand results and really isn’t used in other tests all that often.

SSAT vs ISEE: Guessing Strategies and Wrong Answers

On the ISEE there is no penalty for wrong answers.

The SSAT, however, has a penalty for wrong answers on the middle and upper level tests. Every incorrect answer will mean a student loses ¼ of a point, so a strategy of answering every question even if it’s a guess can backfire on these SSAT levels.

This extra penalty can create extra anxiety in test takers and is something to consider for students with test anxiety.


In terms of math, the scope of material is similar. Both tests focus on arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

However, as noted previously, the ISEE (especially the upper level test) includes more advanced subjects. Generally, both have abstract questions that focus on critical thinking, but part of the ISEE (Mathematics Achievement section) is more straightforward


The reading section of the ISEE is slightly longer (300-600 words) compared to the SSAT (250-300 words) and both may touch on various topics: history, science, literature, life. The SSAT, however, sometimes has more abstract sections, such as poetry.


Each test examines Verbal ability in different ways.

The SSAT includes analogies and are more focused on critical thinking and reasoning, whereas the ISEE is more centered around sentence completion, which focuses more on vocabulary.

Both tests also have synonym questions.

Some students have an easier time with analogies, some with completions, and knowing which is preferable to your child can make taking their test prep more effective.

Essay section

It’s important to note that both the ISEE and SSAT have unscored writing sections that will be forwarded to schools. So even if they’re not scored per se they can have an effect on your admissions package.

Overall, the SSAT has more choice and students who have a talent in writing may have an easier time in this regard. At the middle level, students taking the SSAT are given a choice between two short story prompts, while the upper levels are given a choice between a short story or an expository essay.

The ISEE, in contrast, offers only one option – an expository essay.

Need a little help preparing for the SSAT at home? Read our guide to the best self-paced SSAT prep courses!

How much does it cost to take each test?

In general, the fees for the ISEE are a little more difficult to understand than the SSAT, but they are both subject to late registration fees, international vs. domestic student fees and more. 

A complete comparison is found in the table below (correct as of writing)

Domestic Middle/Upper levels testing fee$144Large Group (in office)- $125

Small Group (in office) – $195

Individual (in office) -$225

Remote location testing – $240

Individual Prometric (online)- $200
International Middle/Upper Levels testing fee$279$265
Domestic Lower levels testing fee$85Large Group (in office)- $125

Small Group (in office) – $195

Individual (in office) -$225

Remote location testing – $240

Individual Prometric (online)- $200
International Lower Levels testing fee$197$265
Late registration fee+$45+$30
Rush Registration fee+$85
Date Change fee+$35+$35
Phone Registration Fee—-+$45

Last Thoughts Regarding Assessing the ISEE vs SSAT

When taking tests like the SSAT or the ISEE, an important part of developing a proper lesson and prep plan is understanding ahead of time the makeup and structure of the test and how your child’s current skills relate to them. If you are planning to apply to schools that give you a choice between the ISEE and the SSAT, this knowledge can help you select a test that gives your child the best chances for success.

But even if you don’t have much in the way of choosing which test to take, such as if your target school only accepts one or the other, knowing the above goes a long way in helping you and your child figure out how to better prepare for either test based on their comfort and strengths.