Do-it-yourself guide to online ISEE prep

If you're including private and magnet schools in your search for the perfect middle or high school, chances are you'll come across the Independent School Entrance Examination. Many independent schools rely on the ISEE to evaluate applicants' potential to succeed in their programs. Preparing for this important exam can help students achieve a score that reflects their scholastic aptitude.


To practice test-taking skills, you can sign on with a test prep service or create your own custom exam prep program by accessing free and paid online resources. Plan to spend at least a few months on ISEE-specific drills. As for general skills such as vocabulary and reading comprehension, it's never too early to begin studying.

ISEE 101: The Independent School Entrance Exam

The ISEE is a K-12 admissions test that is designed to gauge the academic ability of prospective students at these three levels:

  1. Lower Level, for grades 5 and 6
  2. Middle Level, for grades 7 and 8
  3. Upper Level, for grades 9 through 12

The test evaluates both learning capability and knowledge in specific areas, including verbal and reading skills, quantitative reasoning, and mathematics. The Educational Records Bureau or ERB--the publisher of the ISEE--developed the questions that appear on the test with the help of faculty and administrators at independent schools nationwide. The questions are aligned with the standards of the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Total test-taking time for the ISEE is about two and a half hours, and the exam is made up of three sections:

  1. Verbal and quantitative reasoning: 80 multiple-choice questions in 60 minutes, depending on the exam level
  2. Reading comprehension and mathematics achievement: 80 questions in 60 to 65 minutes, depending on the exam level
  3. Essay,:30 minutes, which is submitted to schools unscored

Students may take the ISEE exam once per admission season--there is no second chance to make a first impression. With no practice runs or retakes, students have only one opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

7 tips for how to prepare for ISEE

Build your own ISEE prep course with these strategies and online resources:

1. Understand the exam. Students should know what to expect when they sit down to the test. The ERB offers an authoritative guide to the exam, "What to Expect on the ISEE." You can download a free PDF version of the book from the ERB website or order a copy of the book for a reasonable price. This guide discusses the exam's structure, directions for completing the test and sample questions for each section.

2. Take a timed practice test. While ERB does not release past versions of the exam, the website offers one practice test. Time this test, with five-minute breaks between sections, to simulate the test-taking experience. The ERB explains that the practice test is slightly shorter than the actual test. Also, the time needed to read the directions for each section is not included in the testing time.

3. Identify strengths and weaknesses. ERB publishes a scoring key, allowing you to diagnose your own student's performance. Pinpoint problem areas and focus on these. Encourage student self-confidence by keeping the diagnostic assessment positive, pointing out both strengths and opportunities for improvement.

4. Review answers and explanations. ERB provides an answer key and explanations for practice test questions. Students can utilize this key to understand how to arrive at the correct answer.

5. Practice specific skills. In addition to exam prep books, prep for ISEE online could include digital vocabulary flashcards, reading comprehension passages and sample math questions. Resources are available from test prep services such as Kaplan, The Princeton Review, Testmasters Educational Services and many others. Look for vocabulary prep online or via mobile apps such as Davidson Tutoring's ISEE/SSAT Top 500 Vocab for the iPhone. In addition to ISEE-specific resources, you may also use vocabulary and reading comprehension practice tools for the SSAT or SAT.

6. Develop test-taking strategies. Online ISEE prep courses and tutors help students develop strategies for acing the ISEE. DIYers can also consult ISEE test prep books such as The Princeton Review's "Cracking the SSAT & ISEE." (The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, is an aptitude test targeting private schools, aimed at 5th graders to 11th graders.)

7. Read. Verbal proficiency--reading comprehension, vocabulary and writing--is an important facet of the ISEE. Boost literacy through age-appropriate reading. Rather than encouraging students to read specifically for the exam, the ERB suggests making reading a part of a student's daily routine.

An organized plan of attack for the ISEE can help students achieve a result that reflects their abilities. With online ISEE prep resources at your fingertips, you can create a do-it-yourself strategy to prepare for the ISEE.

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