Taking the ISEE? Strategies for Success

by Dr. Emily Levy
(Originally published in Big Apple Parent Magazine, January 2006)

taking the iseeThe process of applying to independent schools often creates a whirlwind of emotions for prospective students.  Will I like my new school environment?  Will I meet new friends?  Will I be able to manage my new homework and test demands?  And, most importantly, Will I even get in?

Before applying to an independent school, students entering grades 5 through 12 must take the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE).  They need to earn a stellar score on this three-hour SAT-like aptitude test in order to compete with their fellow applicants and earn a slot in one of the ultra-competitive New York City independent schools.

With all the hype centered on this anxiety-ridden entrance exam, is there some way for students to prepare adequately for the test?  The answer isyes.  The ISEE is actually structured in a format that resembles the new SAT test.  It mixes verbal and math questions in multiple choice and quantity comparison formats and ends with a thirty-minute expository writing sample.  Students should take note: the essay portion of the ISEE is actually not graded!  This writing section is included on the exam so that schools can gain a sense of how students present arguments and express themselves on paper.  With this in mind, although the writing portion is not graded, it’s still a good idea for students to learn some strategies for how best to build their written expression skills.  In fact, learning strategies for all sections of the test is a sure-fire way to improve one’s overall score.  Practice with these strategies builds automaticity, comfort, and confidence – all keys to exam-day success!

The Test Overview

There are actually three different ISEE tests, depending on the student’s grade level:  the Lower Level (for students entering grades 5 and 6), the Middle Level (for students entering grades 7 and 8), and the Upper Level (for students entering grades 9-12).  The questions, of course, vary in complexity depending on the level of the test.  Each exam is composed of the following sections:  Math I, Verbal (containing synonyms and sentence completions but not analogies!), Reading, Math II, and the essay.  It is important for students to note that there is no penalty for incorrect answers, so unlike the SAT, there is no harm in guessing!

Strategies for the Verbal Section

The Verbal section of the ISEE contains 40 total questions, including sentence completions and synonyms.  For the Lower Level, students are given 40 minutes to complete the questions and for the Middle and Upper Levels, they are given 20 minutes to complete the same number of questions.

Sentence Completions

Within the 40-question Verbal section, 20 of the questions are sentence completions.  The sentence completions are arguably the easiest types of questions on the exam, but they can certainly be confusing without the right strategies.  For these questions, students must select the best word (or words) from the multiple choice selections to fill in the blank (or blanks) and complete the sentence.  Building a strong vocabulary base is of course key for best answering the sentence completion questions, but beyond that, students should use the following practice-makes-perfect strategy:   predicting and plugging.  For starters, the student should read the question without looking at the answer choices.  He should then fill in the blank with a word in this head– anyword, not necessarily a complex vocabulary word – which would make the sentence complete.  For example:

On the day of his grandfather’s funeral, James had a _______ look on his face.

  1. Happy
  2. Gloomy
  3. Irate
  4. Ugly

Before even looking at the answer choices, the student should try to complete the sentence with his own word selection.  For instance, he might choose the word sad (before looking at the answer choices) so that the sentence reads:  On the day of this grandfather’s funeral, James had a sad look on his face.

Next is the plugging step.  Once the student has selected what he feels would be a good fill-in-the blank word (or words), he should look at the multiple choice selections and try to find an answer that best resembles his own.  In the case of this example, gloomy is a synonym for sad, so the answer would be (B).


The other 20 questions on the Verbal section are synonyms.  Synonyms are two words that bear the same meaning, like car and automobile, seat and chair, or old and ancient.  Again, for this section, building a strong vocabulary (with lots of reading and learning the prefixes, suffixes, and roots of words), is critical.  However, a great tool for solving synonyms questions is the define and select technique.

Basically, when a stem word (the word in capital letters at the top of the question) is given, the student should come up with his own definition of the word (the define step).  Then he should read each of the multiple choice selections and decide which word best fits his definition.  For example:


  1. fake
  2. similar
  3. real
  4. common

After reading the word GENUINE, the student should first define the word.  Real or authentic should immediately come to mind as possible definitions.  Next, he should select the choice that best fits his definition.  In this case, real happens to be one of the choices, so (C) would be the correct answer.

Strategies for the Critical Reading Section

The critical reading section contains about seven or eight passages (articles, stories, and poems) with multiple choices questions that follow.  Some of these questions can be tricky, and often ask students to identify the topic and main idea of the selection, find facts and figures, and make inferences.   A great tool for this section is the read, summarize, and predict strategy.  It works as follows:

The student should read the passage first, before looking at the questions.  He should try to read at the right pace – not too fast or too slow (the read step).  Practice will help him figure out the right pace.  After reading, he should ask himself what he feels the topic and main idea of the passage are, then create a one-to-two line summary in his mind of what he read (thesummarize step).  Finally, as he answers each question, he should always read the question first, predict what he thinks the best answer would be, and then look at the choices to find the selection that best matches his prediction (the predict strategy).

Strategies for the Essay Section

As mentioned earlier, the essay section is not graded but it is an important way for schools to gain a feel for how students express themselves on paper.  In 30 minutes, students must read the essay prompt (for example:  Living in the country is better than living in the city), think about their ideas, and organize their thoughts on no more than two pages of paper.  Many students lose valuable sleep just thinking about the essay-writing process.  The following tips are sure to help:

The three most important steps involved in the essay writing process are as follows:  brainstorm, write (in an organized fashion),and self-check.  First, brainstorm.  Students should create either an outline or a visual web diagram containing all information that they wish to include in their essay.  They should write out their thesis statement (whether they agree or disagree with the prompt and two or three reasons why) and also list those reasons with specific examples and facts as back-up.  Next, they should write the essay in a structured, organized, and well-thought-out manner.  Finally, they should self-check their work using the acronym COPS, which stands for Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, and Spelling.  The acronym should be aligned vertically on the page underneath the essay with a single check-box next to each letter.  Students should self-check for eachelement on the list and place a check in the appropriate box after self-checking that aspect of the essay.

Strategies for the Math Section

The math portion of the exam contains two sections:  Math I, which has 35 questions and allots 35 minutes, and Math II, which contains 35 questions and allots 40 minutes.  The best advice for scoring well on the math section is to learn and re-learn (and practice!) all topics that may be covered on the test.  To answer the questions most efficiently, students must have enough practice with each type of question and the way it may be presented to feel fully comfortable and at-ease with the different types of questions that may be presented.

Remember that if your child is feeling at all nervous about this exam, he or she is certainly not alone!  The ISEE elicits a nerve-wrecking experience for many students.  Yet learning and implementing these tools well before the test date is a promising way to create a successful outcome.  You can also purchase ISEE study guides at local book stores.  One-on-one and small group test preparation is another option for students who need some guidance along the way.  Remember that with enough practice and the right tools, your child is well on his way to independent school admissions success!

Emily Levy is the founder of EBL Coaching, which offers one-on-one and small group academic instruction.  Read more about EBL Coaching’s programs at www.eblcoaching.com.

Dear Dr. Levy, My son received an excellent report card. I can’t say enough good things about his EBL tutor. She has done a tremendous job helping him improve his reading and writing skills. Most importantly, she is wise and kind. She is always patient with him. Because of his tutor, my son writes with much more ease.
– Parent