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All about the ISEE

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is a series of admissions exams created by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). ISEE exams are used by private schools around the world to evaluate the academic readiness of their applicants. Students currently enrolled in first through eleventh grade may need to take an ISEE exam when applying for entrance into a private school for the following year. For more information, take a look at our article, what is the ISEE test?

ISEE levels

The ISEE offers four testing levels: primary, lower, middle, and upper. The primary level covers grades two through four, offering a unique exam for each grade. In contrast, the lower, middle, and upper levels each consist of a single exam that covers multiple grades.

Students should take the exam that corresponds to the grade that they are entering, not the grade in which they are currently enrolled. The table below shows which grades are contained in each level.

ISEE Level Used for Entrance to
Primary Grades 2, 3, or 4
Lower Grades 5 & 6
Middle Grades 7 & 8
Upper Grades 9 through 12

ISEE testing format

The ISEE can be taken in either an online format or a paper format. The online format is offered for all ISEE levels, while the paper format is only available for lower, middle, and upper level exams. Primary ISEE tests do not have a paper format option. Format availability may be further restricted by testing location.

Whether students take the online or paper version of the exam, they will see the same questions and receive the same amount of time to complete them. However, the testing experience does differ between the formats.

During the ISEE computer test, students read and interact with questions onscreen, and they must type their response to the essay prompt. If students need to work out problems offscreen, the testing site provides scratch paper and pencils.

Students taking the ISEE paper test will see the same test as those taking the exam online, but questions will be presented in a physical testing booklet. On the paper exam, answers must be marked on a separate answer document using a #2 or HB pencil, and the essay response must be written using blue or black pen. Scratch work can be done in the blank space in the testing booklet.


Like the ISEE, the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) is an admissions assessment used by private schools to evaluate applicants. Both exams cover applicants applying for grades three through twelve, though only the ISEE provides an exam for students seeking entrance to second grade. While some schools accept only the ISEE or only the SSAT, some private schools do allow students to choose which exam to take.

When deciding between the ISEE and SSAT, it is important to consider the differences between the exams. For the most part, the ISEE and SSAT are similar in terms of content and structure. Both exams have elementary, middle, and high school levels, and both exams cover reading, writing, verbal skills, and math. However, the tests do have some differing question types, with the ISEE including synonym and quantitative reasoning questions and the SSAT including analogy questions. The SSAT's verbal section also contains passages from nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, whereas the ISEE only uses non-fiction passages. Students should practice each of the question types to determine which test better suits their strengths.

The two exams also are scored differently. On the ISEE, incorrect answers are not penalized, whereas the SSAT subtracts a quarter of a point from your score for every wrong answer. Also, for lower, middle, and upper ISEE levels, the ISEE includes both of its math sections as separate scores on the score report, while the SSAT combines its math sections into a single score. As a result, ISEE scores focus more on mathematical knowledge, while SSAT scores emphasize verbal skills.

So, given these differences, is the ISEE or SSAT harder? Difficulty differs based on students' aptitude for certain question types. For instance, some students may find the SSAT's verbal section harder due to the analogy questions or the passages of fiction or poetry. However, due to the scoring breakdown of the tests, students who are stronger in mathematics than writing may score better on the ISEE, while students who have stronger writing and reading skills may score better on the SSAT.

What is on the ISEE?

While the four ISEE levels vary in terms of test length and difficulty, they all contain at least a reading section, a math section, and a writing prompt. The tables below outline the sections of each exam, as well as their question count and timing.

ISEE Primary Levels

ISEE Primary Level 2 (Entrance to Grade 2)

Section Number of Questions Timing
Auditory Comprehension 6 7 Minutes
Reading 18 20 Minutes
Mathematics 24 26 Minutes
Writing Sample 1 picture prompt Untimed

ISEE Primary Level 3 (Entrance to Grade 3)

Section Number of Questions Timing
Reading 24 28 Minutes
Mathematics 24 26 Minutes
Writing Sample 1 picture prompt Untimed

ISEE Primary Level 4 (Entrance to Grade 4)

Section Number of Questions Timing
Reading 28 30 Minutes
Mathematics 28 30 Minutes
Writing Sample 1 picture prompt Untimed

ISEE Lower Level

Section Number of Questions Timing
Verbal Reasoning 34 20 Minutes
Quantitative Reasoning 38 35 Minutes
Reading Comprehension 25 25 Minutes
Mathematics Achievement 30 30 Minutes
Essay 1 prompt 30 Minutes

ISEE Middle Level

Section Number of Questions Timing
Verbal Reasoning 40 20 Minutes
Quantitative Reasoning 37 35 Minutes
Reading Comprehension 36 35 Minutes
Mathematics Achievement 47 40 Minutes
Essay 1 prompt 30 Minutes
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Sections of the ISEE

Verbal Reasoning

The ISEE Verbal Reasoning section appears on the lower, middle, and upper level exams. The section evaluates vocabulary and logical reasoning using two question types: synonyms and sentence completions.

Synonym questions

Synonym questions present the test taker with a single, upper-case word. The test taker must then choose the answer option that contains the word whose meaning is most similar to the upper-case word.

Sentence completion questions

Sentence completion questions consist of a sentence with one or more words removed. Students must select the answer option that best completes the sentence.

Quantitative Reasoning

The ISEE Quantitative Reasoning section is the first of two math sections on the lower, middle, and upper levels of the exam. This section is designed to evaluate students' ability to think and reason mathematically, not to test their mathematical knowledge or ability to perform calculations.

The questions in this section pull from a core basis of mathematical knowledge. With an understanding of the fundamentals of these topics, students should be able to reason out the correct answers:

  • Numbers and Operations
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Measurement
  • Data Analysis and Probability
  • Problem Solving

Quantitative reasoning questions may ask students to estimate values, compare quantities, analyze data and graphs, calculate relative probabilities, understand measurements, and problem-solve, among other skills. While the lower level Quantitative Reasoning section asks standard multiple-choice questions on these topics, the middle level and upper level Quantitative Reasoning sections consist of two question types: word problems and quantitative comparisons.

Word problems

Word problems set up mathematical questions through verbal description. Often, the questions contain some information that is relevant to the problem and some irrelevant information that is intended to distract the test taker. To solve these questions, students must first interpret the question correctly and then find the solution mathematically.

Quantitative comparison questions

Sentence completion questions consist of a sentence with one or more words removed. Students must select the answer option that best completes the sentence.

Reading Comprehension

The ISEE Reading Comprehension section also appears on the lower, middle, and upper ISEE exams. In this section, students are presented with a series of passages, each followed by some number of questions. Students must solve the questions by reading and analyzing the passage.

While the number of passages and their difficulty varies across ISEE levels, the format of this section does not change. All passages will discuss history, science, literature, or contemporary life. Questions will ask students to:

  • Summarize the main idea of the passage
  • Analyze supporting claims and ideas
  • Draw conclusions and make inferences
  • Define vocabulary and explain sentences/phrases
  • Identify structural elements & patterns within the text
  • Interpret tone, style, point of view, and figurative language

Math Achievement

The ISEE Math Achievement section is the second math section on the lower, middle, and upper ISEE exams. Unlike the Quantitative Reasoning section, the Math Achievement section evaluates the test taker's ability to perform calculations and understand mathematical terminology.

While the specific concepts addressed on this section vary by ISEE level, all levels of the section focus on the same six mathematical domains as the Quantitative Reasoning section. See our description of the Quantitative Reasoning section above for a list of these core mathematical topics.


The ISEE essay section is the final section of the lower, middle, and upper ISEE exams. Though the essay section is not graded, the essay will be sent to your prospective private school(s) alongside your scores during the admissions process. As a result, the essay is not only an opportunity for students to demonstrate their writing skills, but also a platform for students to tell admissions staff something about themselves.

A random ISEE essay prompt will be provided during this section, and students will have thirty minutes to organize their thoughts and write an expository essay to respond. Essay topics vary by grade level and are designed to be interesting and broadly relevant to students taking the exam.

ISEE Scores

How is the ISEE scored?

Students will receive their ISEE results in the form of an Individual Student Report, along with a brochure explaining the information it contains. There are two sections in the report: Test Profile (which relates overall performance) and analysis (which breaks down scores by section in more detail). Results are reported in terms of "scaled scores", "percentiles" and "stanines", explained below. You can also read more about them in our article on ISEE Score Information.

Test profile and analysis

The first section on the Individual Student Report is the Test Profile, which gives the following information:

  • Scaled score
  • Percentile rank
  • Stanine
  • Stanine analysis

Underneath that information is the Analysis section, which shows a more detailed breakdown of the student's performance and mastery in different knowledge areas. The Analysis shows the number of questions in each section, the number of those questions answered correctly, and the results for each question. Question results are displayed using the following symbols:

Correct Answer
Incorrect Answer
Question was skipped
Question was not reached

Scaled score

A scaled score is reached by converting a student's raw score, which is the score received for correctly answered questions. Raw scores need to be scaled because ERB produces different versions of the test, and each version may have a slightly different composition and difficulty level. Scaled scores take these differences into account, meaning that scaled scores can be compared accurately across different versions of the test.

Percentile rank

The percentile rank indicates how well the student did in comparison to other members of their age group in the last three years, on a percentage scale. So, a percentile rank of 75 would mean the student scored as well or better than 75% of all students who took the test.

Stanine Score

The stanine is similar to the percentile rank in that it places student scores on a scale for easy comparison, but this time from 1-9. The higher the stanine score, the better a student has performed. The stanine scores at either end of the scale contain fewer students, while those in the middle contain more, representing the norms across the population.

Stanine Analysis

The stanine analysis allows for comparison between related "ability" and "achievement" sections of the test. The Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections are also known as ability tests, while the Reading Comprehension and Mathematical Achievement sections are known as achievement tests. The range displayed by the shaded area in the stanine analysis section of the Test Profile shows whether there is overlap between ability and achievement, which is to be expected. If those shaded areas don't overlap, it indicates underachievement in that knowledge area compared to the potential suggested by the ability test.

When will I receive my ISEE scores?

Test takers and their families can expect to receive their ISEE scores within 14 days.

Paper tests are scored every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so they are usually scored either the same week as the test was taken, or the following week. Once scores are awarded, the student report is posted to the family's online account, and an email notification is sent to the family.

Online tests may be scored even more quickly, and again the report is posted to the family's online account as soon as scoring is complete.

Reports are also sent electronically to any schools that the family has listed as recipients in the registration process, once the test has been scored.

What is a good ISEE score?

There is no standard cutoff for what is considered a "good" score — it all depends on what the school(s) you're applying for will accept, so be sure to research this in advance. Many independent or private schools will accept a stanine score of 5 or more. Some will accept 4, and some may require a score as high as 7. Remember, the stanine score itself is a good measure of comparison against the general population of test takers over the last three years.

It is also important to note that while a student's ISEE scores are a factor in applying to independent schools, they are not the only one. Schools take into account a range of other issues as well, such as a student's readiness to take a full part in the various programs they offer, whether the student would be a cultural fit, the student's level of maturity, how they do in the interview process (if there is one), and any supplementary material included in the application.

How to prepare for the ISEE

ISEE scores are not the only factor considered by private schools during the admissions process, but they are an important part of any application. As a result, it is important for students to begin studying for the ISEE early and to follow a study plan that works well for their schedule and learning style.

Students should schedule their ISEE sitting far in advance and take the time to research the contents of their ISEE level and how to study for the ISEE.

ISEE study plan

Studying for the ISEE does not have to be difficult. By creating and following a study plan, students can ensure that they are prepared and confident come test day.

1. Take a diagnostic assessment for one of our ISEE online courses. Your score report will highlight your strengths and weaknesses, helping you focus on the topics that require the most attention.

2. Set up a study schedule. Enter your exam date into our goals tool, and we will help you create a personalized study plan that will ensure you put enough time into preparing for you ISEE test.

3. Study when and where you want using our bite-sized video lessons, lesson transcripts, and quizzes. Access study materials anytime using your computer or on-the-go with our app.

4. Practice your test-taking skills and test your content knowledge with our ISEE practice tests. Completing these practice tests will give you the experience you need to feel comfortable and confident during the ISEE.

ISEE prep courses's ISEE study guides are designed to prepare students for every topic they may encounter on the ISEE. Our expert instructors bring concepts to life through bite-sized, engaging video and text lessons that make learning easy and fun. Every lesson is followed by a quiz, and each chapter includes a chapter test that helps students retain information and pinpoint areas for further study. Finally, each course ends with a comprehensive practice exam, a perfect way for students to test their knowledge, practice test-taking strategies, and ensure they are ready to ace the ISEE!

How to register for the ISEE

  • Families can register online, by phone, or by mail. It is important to register for your preferred date as early as possible because tests are popular, and spaces fill up quickly. Registration closes two weeks before the test date, but it is possible to complete a late registration online for one week after the official registration period closes. Late registration costs an extra $30.
  • The easiest way to register is through the ISEE website. Parents can create an account online, register multiple students, choose their preferred testing location, and select the type of test (paper and pencil or online). During the registration process, parents can also select the schools they would like the results to be sent to, if any. Once registration is complete, parents will receive a verification letter with all the details.
  • If parents wish to request any accommodations, this must be done before registering a test date. So, it is important to start the process several weeks in advance of your preferred test date.
  • To register by phone, call 1-800-446-0320.
  • To register by mail, you should obtain a paper copy of the registration form from the independent schools that administer the test.
  • Finally, some ISEE test schools offer walk-in registration for those who have missed the late registration deadline. Students must be pre-registered online, they must contact the Admissions Office of the ISEE test school in question, and payment can only be made by credit card (Visa or MasterCard). Walk-in registrations cost an additional $40.
  • For more information, see this article on ISEE Registration Information.

When to take the ISEE test

Admissions for independent schools usually close before the spring, so the earlier an application is made, the better. As a result, families should consider their preferred ISEE test date carefully. If it is taken too early in the school year, students may not be fully prepared because concepts could be on the test that the student has yet to study in school. If it is taken too late, there may not be time for a retake, if needed.

The most popular test dates are in November, but every child is different, different schools have different levels of competition for places, and some schools have rolling admissions throughout the spring and summer. Therefore, families should find out as much as they can about their chosen school's admission process and consider the child's needs and current academic progress.

ISEE Study Guides are a great way for students to check their understanding and learn any new concepts they will need to know to prepare for the test.

How often can you take the ISEE?

Students can take the ISEE test once per testing season, to a maximum of three times per year. ISEE describes testing seasons as follows:

ISEE Test Season Months
Fall August-November
Winter December-March
Spring/Summer April-July

To find out more, see this article on the ISEE test retake policy.

Where to take the ISEE test

ISEE tests are administered at approved school sites, Prometric test centers (grades 5-12 only), and at ERB's New York offices.

Students can register to take the test as part of a large group, a small group, or in an individual setting. Higher fees apply to small group and individual registrations.

ISEE costs

ISEE registration costs are as follows:

Online By phone
Large group $125 $150
Small group $195 $220
Individual $225 N/A
Late registration $155 $180

In addition to registration costs, it is important to consider the costs of additional preparation materials. Study guides and practice books cost anywhere from $20-$40, and some parents may wish to pay for additional tutoring outside of school at cost of roughly $100-$200 per hour. Various organizations also offer online and in-person prep classes, which can run up to hundreds of dollars.

Alternatively, membership can be a cost effective option, as it provides the benefits of all the above options — lessons taught by subject-matter experts, study guides, and practice tests designed to prepare students for the exam.

To learn more about ISEE and preparation costs, check out our ISEE test costs article as well as our ISEE prep product comparison.

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