The ISEE–An Introduction
ISEE stands for Independent School Entrance Exam, and it’s created by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB for short). The ISEE is used for admission to private schools and for some boarding schools. Your ISEE scores are extremely important for admission, but they are not the only factor. A student’s grades, sports and the family’s personal connections also factor heavily.
There are four different levels of ISEE exams determined by your grade. This blog will focus on the Upper Level ISEE, which is for current 8th, 9th and 10th graders.
What’s on it?
The ISEE has five sections:
A verbal section with synonyms and sentence completions
Two different math sections
A reading comprehension section
An optional, unscored essay
All questions except the essay are multiple choice.
The test is roughly three hours long.
Can I take it at home?
Yes. You can find information on how to do that here.
At the time of this writing, the process of taking a home exam is rough, and some students reported waiting a long time for a proctor.
Are calculators allowed?
How is it scored?
There are three scores for each section except the essay on an ISEE report: scaled score, percentile rank and stanine score. Don’t worry about the scaled score. The percentile rank shows how your child did compared to other students in their grade. An 85 percent means a student scored better than 84 percent of the other students in their grade who have taken the test over the last three years. This percentile rank is translated into a stanine score from 1-9. Schools care about the stanine scores.
The essay is not scored. Schools may look at it, however, so make sure your child tries their best.
Within each section are five or six experimental questions that aren’t counted towards a student’s score. The ERB is testing these questions for future exams. It’s impossible to tell which questions are experimental, so students should try their hardest on each question.
How many times can someone take it?
Students can take the ISEE once per cycle. The cycles are August-November, December-March, and April-July.
Because most school applications are due in early January, students should take the ISEE once in November and once in December.
Are past tests available?
One actual ISEE exam is available from the ERB website, which you can find here. The test starts on page 71.
The Upper Level ISEE is for 8th to 10th-graders, so if your child is in 8th grade, do not expect them to answer every math question correctly. The second math section has some very difficult problems, including a trigonometry question. Don’t judge their percentage like you would a math exam from school; look instead at which questions they missed and why.
When should my child start studying?
Have your child take a mock exam in March of seventh grade. The feedback from the mock exam will help you determine when to start the prep process.
A common mistake families make is waiting until September to start their child’s ISEE prep. Vocabulary and reading, which are both difficult to improve quickly, account for 50 percent of a student’s overall score. Before summer vacation begins, find out how much time your child needs to prepare.
Most students are surprised by the difficulty of the ISEE the first time they see it. Through middle school and junior high, private day school students take year-end exams created by the ERB. Because the ISEE is made by the same company, many expect the ISEE to be similar in difficulty to an ERB. It is not. The ISEE is much more difficult. Here’s a breakdown by section.
The verbal section of the ISEE is a vocabulary test. Sentence completion questions require basic construction skills, but the hard ones are hard because the words are hard. Do not underestimate the difficulty of the vocabulary. Make sure your child starts studying for this section early, and make sure they are consistently learning new words.
Do not assume that your child will do well on the reading section of the ISEE merely because they do well in English class at school. ISEE reading requires greater understanding than school exams. Also, though the test is for 8th, 9th and 10th graders, students in 8th grade must do very well to get a good score.
The best way for students to prepare is to read. Make sure your child is reading at home, and make sure they’re reading both fiction and non-fiction.
For most 8th graders, ISEE math is very difficult. Unlike school exams, the ISEE forces students to apply their knowledge to new types of questions. An example is below:
If (a + b)(a – b) = 0, which of the following could be true?
I. a = 0
II. a = b
III. a < b
(B) II only
(C) II and III only
(D) I, II and III
This question isn’t that difficult, but many students have no idea how to approach it (the answer is D). In addition, the ISEE has a lot of algebra questions, and many 8th graders’ grasp of algebra is weak. In addition to that, the ISEE covers topics many students haven’t covered, such as combinations, probability, and logic.
In addition to word problems, the first ISEE math section contains quantitative comparisons, in which students must compare the values of two quantities. You can find an example here. These questions are not overly difficult, but they require some getting used to.
In short, students need to prep a lot for the math section.
In conclusion, the ISEE is difficult. It’s more difficult than most schoolwork, and it’s way more difficult than the end-of-the-year ERBs that students take through middle and junior high school. Start your child’s prep early. Have them take a Biometric Edge mock exam in March of 7th grade. Use the results to see how much prep time you need.
One of the huge benefits of a Biometric Edge exam is that you can see how long a student spent on each question, and how long they spent reading each reading comprehension passage. This is always valuable, but never more so than when a student first takes a difficult exam. It’s important to know if a student tried to push through difficulty or if they gave up at the first sign of trouble. Only a Biometric Edge mock exam can tell you this information with certainty. Your child can excel on this exam, but you must know what they need to work on to structure their time efficiently. Sing up for Biometric Edge mock exam here.
To your child’s success!