Private High School Entrance Exams: SSAT, ISEE, and HSTP

All you need to know about the SSAT, HSPT, and ISEE entrance exams. Understand how they differ with this handy chart of their timing, question count, and more.

Spring is an exciting time for admissions teams all over the country. Students are anxiously waiting for letters and e-mail notifications from colleges, private schools, and selective academic summer programs.

Getting into selective programs requires serious commitment from students. Applicants must show their strengths through essays, extracurriculars, service projects, and the dreaded standardized tests. Most people are well aware of the important role the SAT and ACT play in the college admissions process. What many people do not realize, however, is that to gain entry to select elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as to some Catholic and boarding schools, there is another set of rigorous and competitive assessment tests that are a crucial part of a student’s application to these institutions.

The three most common tests are the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), the High School Placement Test (HSPT), and the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE). Most boarding schools require the SSAT, while some independent schools are willing to accept either the SSAT or the ISEE. Catholic schools often have a set assessment day where they administer the HSPT when students are required to take the test “on site.” In addition, some Catholic schools in New York City require students to take the Test for Admission to Catholic High School (TACHS) exam. Because each school has its own admissions criteria, it’s wise to contact each one to identify which tests are required and at what point the test results should be submitted.

Importance of the Tests

Parents are often concerned about how the assessments will be used in the admissions process. Kristin Ryder, Admissions Director of Graland Country Day School in Denver, Colorado, shares, “By viewing the scores, we are able to see every child in a snippet. These scores do not rule kids in or out; however, we are using them to gauge their strengths and weaknesses.” Kristin went on to say, “We are looking for these scores to align with the other elements of the application, including the teacher recommendations, parent interviews, and essays.”

Preparation for the Tests

In general, admissions directors are not huge fans of excessive test preparation. Admissions teams want to see students in their current academic state of performance, and are looking for applications that look consistent across achievement measures. At e.Merging Educational Consulting, we advise families on how to assess their individual situation and look carefully at their child’s learning profile before diving into rigorous test preparation. Although some of the assessments can be taken twice, it is not “best practice” to sign middle or high school students up for multiple assessments. That said, test preparation can play an important role in helping students feel more confident about their knowledge of the content and test taking skills.

When considering test preparation of any kind, it is important to understand the “scoop” on each test. Ryan Krug, co-owner of MindFish Test Prep in Denver, bases his prep strategies on which test is being taken, how much time students have to prepare, and each student’s unique learning style.

Krug states, “The difference between the tests varies in regards to the kinds of questions. The SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT are similar in the verbal and reading sections of the tests, but vary broadly in their quantitative sections. The ISEE covers more advanced algebra and geometry than the SSAT. It also includes a Quantitative Comparison section that is not present in the SSAT. This Quantitative Comparison section has been reported to be one of the ISEE’s most challenging portions. Students claim that the HSPT is easier than the ISEE and the SSAT; however, it places a greater emphasis on percentages and sequence in the quantitative section and includes an additional Language Skills portion that is not present in the other exams.”

Krug agrees that most students will benefit from some level of test preparation since there are “tricks of the trade” that help students gain an edge. These strategies help students feel more confident while taking the test and more satisfied with their final results.

Debates persist about how and why we assess students in America. The reality for those applying to private schools is that these rigorous tests are here to stay and are an important factor in getting past the “gatekeepers.”

Taking one of these tests? Here is an idea of what to expect for each exam.

Overview of the SSAT, ISEE, and HSTP

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