Exam Enlightenment: SSAT, ISEE & HSPT

When parents consider sending their child to private elementary or high school, a legitimate concern is the testing required. It’s important to remember that testing is only one portion of the admissions process, since transcripts and other factors are used to best determine eligibility. The purpose of exams, however, is to ensure the student is ready for the next grade and/or college preparatory classes. Scores can also be used to determine course placement and occasionally scholarship eligibility. Continue reading to discover everything you need to know about the top three private school admissions exams. picjumbo.com_IMG_6014


The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) is by far the most widely used admissions exam for private schools. The exam indicates strengths and weaknesses in all academic topics through multiple choice questions and a short essay. Similar to the SAT many of us have taken, the SSAT tests quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension and language use. While essays are a required portion of the exam, they are not graded. Instead, they are sent along with results to the applicant’s school for review by admissions staff. The SSAT is offered in three levels for 3rd – 11th graders. The test is longer than what most students are used to, approximately two hours and forty five minutes. Elementary students take a shorter exam, around an hour and a half. While rigorous preparation is not necessary, students should at least have practice testing for extended periods. Another preparation tip to remember is each correct answer is worth a point, and a wrong answer will cost you a quarter of a point. This style of scoring deters guessing, so students should be aware of when guessing or skipping questions is ideal. Testing dates are typically eight times a year, and students may test multiple times, but generally you wouldn’t want to attempt more than twice per grade level.


The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is very similar to the SSAT. It’s frequently a second choice to the SSAT in the admissions process for private, non-Catholic religious schools. The similar focus here is math, reading comprehension and language use. As before, essays are not graded but forwarded to the applicant’s school. The ISEE is offered in three levels for admission to 2nd – 12th grade. The exam averages two and a half hours (roughly one hour for elementary school students) and is offered at schools and/or testing centers. As opposed to the SSAT scoring method, ISEE doesn’t penalize students for wrong answers, so guessing is appropriate and suggested. Students may take the exam once every six months, so keep that in mind when preparing.


Concerning religious high schools, the High School Placement Test (HSPT) seems to be the favorite. Especially with Roman Catholic high schools, the HSPT is another standardized admissions test similar to the SSAT and ISEE. Students get excited at the lack of an essay portion, though individual schools can decide to include one. Students are also given much less time to complete individual sections; for example, the Verbal section includes 60 questions that must be answered in 16 minutes. Additionally, the HSPT includes more grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, synonyms, logic and geometric questions than other tests. slidebird1Keep in mind, this test is only offered to eighth graders. The exam takes approximately two and a half hours to complete, and incorrect answers are not subtracted from point totals. Since the test is administered at the applicant’s school, contact them to inquire about testing dates. Students should take the exam only once. If attempted again, the lower of the two scores will be used. Don’t be overwhelmed, Orange County! TutorNerds is here to help. Visit our ‘Test Preparation‘ page to read more about our services in regards to the ISEE, HSPT and other important tests. Once we match you up with the perfect private tutor based on your preferences and needs, you’ll be well on your way to success.

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