Frequently Asked Questions -- ISEE & SSAT

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The ISEE and SSAT exams are admissions exams for selective independent high schools.

Please note that ISEE and SSAT test-takers are not a random sampling of students, but a self-selecting and generally academically strong group of individuals. For this reason students' percentile ranks and stanines are often lower than their parents anticipated or expected. Please also note that your child’s previous standardized test scores (e.g. the ERBs, CTP4s, STAR Testing, etc.) have little predictive power when it comes to the ISEE and SSAT. For instance, it is not uncommon for a child to score in the 95th percentile on the Math Achievement section of the CTP4 and then score below the 50th percentile on the ISEE or SSAT. 

It should also be noted that students who attend middle-schools with less intensive math programs tend to score lower than their peers on Quantitative Reasoning and Math Achievement; however, these same students often see the biggest increases after preparing with a private instructor.

Please note that admission directors are looking to build balanced classes of students. For many schools, this means accepting a wide range of applicants, not just those who show a penchant for academics and standardized tests. Other components of the application – especially the parent interview – may outweigh performance on the ISEE or SSAT.


The ISEE doesn’t provide a single, cumulative score like most standardized exams. Instead, four scores are provided, one for each section: Verbal, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension and Mathematics Achievement.

The ISEE provides scaled scores for each section that range from 760-940. It also provides a percentile rank that shows how each student compares to others who have taken the exam in the last three years. However, most families would be wise to ignore the scaled scores and percentiles -- instead they should focus all of their attention on the stanines.

What is a Stanine? Each score on the ISEE is converted into a “stanine,” or a score ranging from 1-9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. Stanines are often unfamiliar, but stanines are what matter to admissions committees when they make their admissions decisions, so it what families should focus on as well.  There is little need to concern yourself with the scaled score or the percentile rank because these numbers are built into the stanines.   



Traditionally, boarding schools prefer the SSAT to the ISEE.  The SSAT has three sections: Verbal, Quantitative, and Reading. The SSAT comes in two flavors depending on the grade of the test-taker: lower level and upper level

On the lower level SSAT, each section is scored on a scale of 440-710, with a total scaled score range of 1320-2130.

On the upper level SSAT, each section is scored on a scale of 500-800, with a total scaled score range of 1500-2400.

SSAT Percentiles: SSAT percentile rankings range from 1%-99%. They show how a particular student performed against all students who have taken the SSAT during the past three years. For instance, a student in the 63rd percentile, scored higher than 63% of students in the same grade over the past three years.

When looking at an SSAT report, families should focus on the student's percentile rankings. (This is in contrast to how an ISEE score report should be interpreted, where the family should focus on the stanines, not the percentile rankings).

Is My Score Good?

As we say at Test Prep Gurus, there are no good or bad scores, simply ones that will help you reach your future goals.

To determine whether your scores are "good enough" at a particular school it may help to inquire with their admissions office about their students' typical scores.

ISEE: Selective independent schools generally expect to see 5's across all four sections of the ISEE. At a school like Sage Hill in Newport Beach CA, most admits are scoring 5's and 6's. At the most selective schools, such as Horace Mann in NY, students are expected to score at least 6's and 7's, if not 7's and 8s. 

SSAT: Selective independent schools generally expect to see scores above the 50th percentile. Highly selective schools often prefer scores above the 85th percentile. 


Can I Improve My Score?

Absolutely. We regularly see students improve 1-3 stanines on the ISEE or 20-30 percentile points on the SSAT after a full prep program.

A recent independent statewide study confirmed Test Prep Gurus as California's most effective test preparation firm (call us for more details).


The Secret Sauce:

Our one-of-a-kind approach to test preparation is what has made Test Prep Gurus the most effective test preparation firm in California. The cornerstones of our approach are as follows:

  • A uniquely designed training program that makes our exclusive pool of instructors the best in the country.
  • Dedicated directors who take the time to understand each family's specific goals, and then work tirelessly to make sure each family is on track to achieve their goals.
  • The Test Prep Gurus D.I.G. teaching methodology:
  1. Deliberate Practice - building skill-sets and achieving superior performance through expert instruction.
  2. Intrinsic Motivation - cultivating self-driven desire to achieve a goal.
  3. Growth Mindset - the belief that one can acquire a given ability by investing enough effort and study.
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The Process:

Diagnostic Exams: We begin each program by administering a free ISEE or SSAT diagnostic exam. 


Personal Consultation: After diagnostic testing, we'll schedule a complimentary consultation to meet with you and your student. This can be done in-person or over the phone. During this meeting we will review the results of the diagnostic exam and discuss how much the student's score might need to improve to be competitive at the specific schools your family is considering. With this information we can begin building a customized test preparation program that will give your student the best possible chance of achieving the score they will need to be competitive at their target schools.


Instruction: Our programs are designed to achieve results. Individual 1-on-1 instruction is by far the most effective way to improve students' ISEE and SSAT scores. Contrary to popular myth, improving scores on standardized exams is not simply a matter of learning a few "test-taking tricks." While it is important to teach students test-taking strategies, massive score improvements are rooted in mastering the complex content and concepts that are assessed on these exams. For this reason, our programs focus on teaching the content assessed on the ISEE and SSAT exams.


Duration: Teaching all of the content and concepts assessed on the ISEE and SSAT takes time. Boot camps and other quick fixes rarely achieve significant score improvements.

We recommend different packages depending on each student's specific goals. But to get a sense of how a typical program unfolds, let's look at our most popular program, the comprehensive 1-on-1 24-hour program (in red below). In this program, a student typically meets with his/her instructors once per week, for 12 weeks. Each lesson lasts 2 hours, and the student will receive an additional 2-3 hours of homework for each lesson.

All of our programs include full-length practice exams. The results of these practice exams help us to adjust lesson plans as needed based on the student's progression. 


Customization: 1-on-1 programs allow us to build a schedule that is customized to the student's availability. We offer 1-on-1 sessions during the week and on weekends. Our students typically meet our instructors at one of our eight locations, but it is also possible to arrange in-home lessons (may be subject to additional fees depending on the location) or virtual instruction.

Discounts are available for programs that are conducted virtually.

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Do you prep students for other subjects?  

Of course. If there is a test involved, we can help your student prepare for it. We offer expert instruction for academic subjects ranging from Chemistry to AP US History, as well as all other standardized exams such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, GRE, and LSAT.


Referral Credits and Coffee-Talks:

Are you worried about the initial investment of a test prep package? We offer a credit of 2 free instruction hours for every referred family who enrolls in one of the packages listed above.

Parents can also host a "coffee-talk" at their home. A host family invites parents who have questions about college admissions and how SAT/ACT scores are used by admissions officers. Test Prep Gurus sends a representative to the host's home to answer the group's questions and provide expertise about their specific situations. It's all free. There is absolutely no sales pitch. We just want to spread good information. As an incentive, the hosting family receives 2 free hours of instruction for hosting the event (as long as they bring a minimum of five other parents). The host receives an additional 2 free hours for every referred family who enrolls in one of the packages listed above (or they can split the referral hours with their friends). After hosting a coffee-talk, families often qualify for between 20-40% off an instruction package (several mothers have even earned entirely free programs), so it's really a win-win for all involved.


The Next Step:

Contact us to discuss your student's specific situation and create a plan of action to help him or her reach their goals for the future.