Everything You Need To Know About The Independence School Entrance Exam


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Overview of The Test

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is a three-level entrance exam administered by the Educational Records Bureau and used by many independent schools as a measurement during the application process. The main purpose of the exam is to measure the verbal and quantitative reasoning and achievement of students in grades 4-11 seeking admission to grades 5-12. The ISEE takes approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete and will be spread over a 3 hour period to include two breaks.

The three levels of the exam are:

Lower LevelStudents to enter 5th & 6th grades
Middle LevelStudents to enter 7th & 8th grades
Upper LevelStudents to enter 9th & 12th grades

The exam consists of 5 sections:

  • Verbal Reasoning: A 20-minute verbal reasoning section.
    • The ISEE’s verbal reasoning section focuses on testing two skills: your ability to identify synonyms and your ability to identify words in context. A number of the questions include “complete the sentence” and “choose the best definition questions.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: A 35-minute quantitative reasoning section.
    • This section is based on numerical patterns and interpreting relationships.
  • Reading Comprehension: A 25-minute reading comprehension section for lower level and 35- minute reading comprehension section for middle and upper level.
    • The reading comprehension portion of the ISEE tests your ability to read detailed humanities passages quickly. When addressing these types of passages, be aware of the author’s main idea, tone, and purpose.
  • Mathematics Achievement: A 30-minute mathematics section for lower level and 40-minute mathematics section for middle and upper level.
    • The mathematics achievement section will assess your ability to solve math equations involving mixed numbers, fractions, decimals, percents, and integers.
  • 30-minute essay section in response to a given prompt.
    • You will be asked to compose an essay response to a controversial topic. The directions will ask you to write legibly and use only blue or black ink.

SectionUpper LevelMiddle LevelLower Level
Verbal Reasoning40 questions/ 20 minutes40 questions/ 20 minutes34 questions/ 20 minutes
Quantitative Reasoning37 questions/ 35 minutes37 questions/ 35 minutes38 questions/ 35 minutes
Break5 minutes5 minutes5 minutes
Reading Comprehension36 questions/ 35 minutes36 questions/ 35 minutes25 questions/ 25 minutes
Math Achievement47 questions/ 40 minutes47 questions/ 40 minutes30 questions/ 30 minutes
Break5 minutes5 minutes5 minutes
Essay1 question/ 30 minutes1 question/ 30 minutes1 question/ 30 minutes

All students must know that scrap paper, calculators, calculator watches, rulers, protractors, compasses, dictionaries, thesauruses, cell phones and any other electronic devices are NOT permitted during the actual test.

Remember: the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is an equivalent to the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test).

The test for all levels is available in online and paper/pencil form and is based on the standards of leading educational organizations:

  • The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
  • The International Reading Association (IRA)
  • The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)


Importance of The Test

It’s important for you to understand that although the ISEE test results are a part of the admission process to the independent and magnet schools, the ISEE results alone do not necessarily dictate a student’s acceptance into a secondary school. Schools will do their best to evaluate the student holistically (GPA, ISEE, involvement, sense of leadership, character, etc.) when applying. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which secondary school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ISEE. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most schools look for a minimum score as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the school of your choice.

Receiving Your Score

Scores from paper administrations take a little longer to post and are usually shared the following weeks. Schools, however, may receive electronic reports from online administrations as soon as two days after a test.

In the case of paper administrations, reports are available online for families who registered for “Expedited Scores with Online Access” and paid a $35 convenience fee. If you do not enroll in the expedited score release, families will be mailed their score reports within 7-10 business days. For online ISEE testing, score reports are available as soon as the test has been scored but no hard copy of the test is sent to the home address.

Understanding Your ISEE Score

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ISEE. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the ISEE Test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for omitted or incorrect answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.

Pages 109 – 118 of this document provide a great breakdown of how to calculate your ISEE score.

The Stanine System

Percentile: if a student receives a percentile rank of ‘85’ on Verbal Reasoning, it means that he/she has performed equal to or better than 85% of test-takers in his/her cohort. This cohort, also referred to as the norm group, is comprised of the most recent three years of test-takers for the same exam level. The norm group is further refined to applicants applying to the same grade.

Percentile ranks are divided into 9 percentile groups/ranges known as stanines. The ERB came up with the 9-point stanine system to help admission directors analyzing the differences in students’ scores. By collapsing percentile ranks into a single stanine, the ERB is stating that students within the same stanine have roughly equal math or verbal ability. For example, admission directors consider students who receive a stanine of 5 – regardless of where they fall in the stanine/percentile continuum of 40 – 59 – are equally capable test-takers and evaluated similarly. Without the stanine system, admission directors would be forced to make judgment calls about minute differences in percentile ranks, 1 through 99, which are not as meaningful.

The test results reflect how much students are benefiting from their education.

Test Structure and Format

The test consists of four multiple-answer sections; the first two of the multiple-answer sections assess verbal reasoning and reading skills, while the other two sections test the student’s ability to answer curriculum-based questions correctly that are appropriate at that grade level according to curriculum standards adopted by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Verbal Reasoning

The exam includes two sections that assess the student’s vocabulary and reasoning level. The two sections are: synonyms and sentence completions. In the synonyms section, the students choose a word of a similar meaning to the one in the question.

Quick Tip: Since the answer choices are listed in alphabetical order, first develop a possible answer choice that follows the context of the sentence, then look for it (or a word like it) in the list.

ISEE Synonyms

While in the sentence completion section, students complete different sentences logically by picking the correct word.

Quick Tip: Read each sentence carefully and understand the overall meaning. Once again, look for context clues to first develop a possible answer choice before evaluating the answers. We’ve provided an example below of a Upper Level Verbal Reasoning question. Keep in mind that questions vary in difficulty according to the level of the test.

ISEE Sentence Completion

Quantitative Reasoning

This section is based on numerical patterns and interpreting relationships. The quantitative section is categorized into Word Problems and Quantitative Comparisons. All questions in the two math sections in the ISEE are based on:

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

Word Problems

ISEE Math Word Problems

Quantitative Comparisons

ISEE Math Quantitative Comparisons

Reading Comprehension

The passages level of difficulty and length depend on the level of the exam. They include information of high interests for each level and a variety of topics that include history, science, literature and contemporary life.

Types of questions usually are:

  • Main Idea
  • Supporting Ideas
  • Inference
  • Vocabulary
  • Organization/Logic
  • Tone/Style/Figurative Language.

Quick Tip: Read the passage first for an overall view. Ask yourself, while reading the passage, “What is the main idea? What facts and details are given?” As you answer the questions following the passage, use the line numbers to help you find the section or lines you may need to look at again.

ISEE Reading Comprehension

Mathematics Achievement

Questions in the Mathematics Achievement conform to national mathematics standards. The students are asked to identify the problem then find a solution. The problems usually require one or more steps in calculating the answer.

ISEE Mathematics Achievement


The essay is a chance for all students to prove their ability in organizing their thoughts as well as explaining them clearly. Students will write an essay about a random topic that’s determined on the test day and is grade-age appropriate. The essay is not scored but photocopied then sent to all the schools the student is applying to. Each prompt is a controversial topic to the students, their community or even the world in general.

On the test day, administers will tell you that writing must be done either in cursive or print using a ballpoint pen. The writing should be directly on the lines printed in the answer document, using blue or black ink.

ERB has shared the following checklist on their website which should help the students in writing the essay:

  • Did I put the topic in the box at the top of the first page, as instructed?
  • Did I plan my essay before putting it on the lined sheets?
  • Did I allow enough time to write my final copy on the lined sheets?
  • Did I write about the topic that was given?
  • Did I include details to add interest?
  • Did I follow rules for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization?
  • Can others read my handwriting?
  • Did I review my writing upon finishing?

ISEE Sample Essay Topic

You won’t have the above checklist on the test day, but if you use it in writing your sample essay, you’ll be able to remember the items on the test day to make sure you are writing an excellent essay.

There are two five-minute breaks during the exam; the first is after the Quantitative Comprehension and the second is after the Mathematics Achievement section. Students can talk, use the restrooms, walk in the room but they are not allowed to discuss the test with each other.

Check out the ERB website for a whole guide on what to expect on the test day.

Overall Master Tips

Master Tips:

  • Read the entire question and study any related graphics for every question before looking at the answer choices.
  • Remember all four answer choices are logical answers—there are no answer choices such as “all of the above” or “none of the above.”
  • Next determine your answer and look for it in the answer choices provided.
  • Often, the answer choices include common mathematical mistakes or procedural misconceptions, so remember to check your answer.
  • Some questions may be unfamiliar to you because you may not have yet covered that particular math concept at your current school. If you do not know the answer to the question, or if the answer you have determined is not listed as an answer choice, you may choose to make a mark in your test booklet then skip that question. If you have time before the end of this test section, you may be able to come back to it later.


Practice and Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Practice deeply! This is not just taking random practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified. Start by taking several authentic ISEE diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, we would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question 2) what you believed the question was asking and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.




Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best personal and online tutoring services to help you achieve to the best of your ability.