How to Achieve Success on the SSAT

The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) is the required entrance exam at some of the best independent schools in the world.

The SSAT is not an achievement test. Its purpose is to yield a reliable common measure of student ability — and a basis for evaluating students with diverse experiences. The SSAT provides information about students’ individual strengths, and it offers insights for admissions officers and parents alike about the prospective fit with different programs.

The SSAT is an integral part of the application package for many independent schools. For this reason, students should be as prepared as possible. Here’s everything that you and your family need to know to get started.

What are the components of the SSAT?

The SSAT is a standardized test that consists of a writing sample — which is not scored but is sent along with each score report — as well as a series of multiple-choice questions. There are three different sections on the SSAT: Quantitative (Math), Reading, and Verbal.

There are also three different versions of the SSAT. The Upper Level test is taken by students applying to ninth grade or above. The Middle Level test is taken by students applying to the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades. The Elementary Level test is taken by students applying to the fourth or fifth grade.

Middle and Upper Level Tests

For the Middle and Upper Level Tests, the exam lasts about 155 minutes, with five different sections that are structured as follows:

Writing Sample (ungraded): 25 minutes

Students are given the choice between two prompts — Middle Level student select between two creative-story prompts, and Upper Level students select between a creative-story prompt and an essay prompt.

First Quantitative: 25 questions, 30 minutes

These multiple-choice questions cover basic algebra, arithmetic, and geometry, among other math concepts.

Reading: 40 questions, 40 minutes

Students read different short passages and answer questions about each text’s main idea, supporting details, tone, and vocabulary.

Verbal: 60 questions, 30 minutes

This section is comprised of two types of questions: synonyms and analogies. Both require students to have a strong grasp on vocabulary.

Second Quantitative: 25 questions, 30 minutes

Like the first section, this portion of the test covers basic algebra, arithmetic, and geometry, among other math concepts.

Students also answer a 15-minute, ungraded experimental section.

Elementary Level Test

The Elementary Level test is about 110 minutes, with four different sections administered in the following order:

Quantitative: 30 questions, 30 minutes

This section covers a basic understanding of math operations and functions.

Verbal: 30 questions, 20 minutes

Like the Middle and Upper Level tests, this section asks students to apply their vocabulary skills through questions about synonyms and analogies.

Reading: 28 questions, 30 minutes

Students must read short passages and answer comprehension questions about vocabulary and the meaning of each text.

Writing Sample (ungraded): 15 minutes

Students are given a picture and asked to tell a story about it. The story must include a beginning, middle, and end.

It is important to note that because the Middle Level SSAT tests fifth through seventh grade, and the Upper Level SSAT tests eighth through eleventh grade, there is content on the Middle and Upper Level Tests that students testing at the lower end of each of those ranges will have difficulty answering. Younger students’ scaled scores and percentiles will not be harmed by this fact.

How is the SSAT scored?

SSAT raw scores are determined based on the number of correct and incorrect answers. On the Middle and Upper Levels, students receive one point for every correct answer, and they lose one-quarter point for each wrong answer for questions with five possible responses. No points are lost for skipping a question. (For this reason, it only makes sense to guess if one or more answers can be eliminated.) There is no penalty for incorrect answers on the Elementary Level. (In this case, guessing is advised.)

A student’s raw score is then converted to a scaled score for Verbal, Reading, and Quantitative sections. In addition, the score report will show an overall score, which is a combination of Verbal, Reading, and Quantitative scores. The Middle Level scaled score range is 440–710; the Upper Level scaled score range is 500–800. The Elementary Level SSAT has a scaled score from 300–600.

A student will also receive a percentile score that compares her own test scores with those of other test-takers of the same grade and gender from the previous three years.

What qualifies as a “good” score?

Upon receiving the score report, most parents are eager to know if their children’s scores are “good” or “bad.” With an admission test like the SSAT, this is not always easy to ascertain. For one thing, the test-taker’s scores are being compared only to those of other students applying to college-preparatory private/independent schools. Additionally, if all students performed well on an admission test, it would lose its value in helping differentiate among candidates.

From the perspective of the test-makers, a “good” admission test question is only answered correctly fifty percent of the time. The overall difficulty level of the SSAT is designed to be “at fifty percent.” In other words, the SSAT is supposed to be difficult.

The good news is that admission test scores are only one piece of the application puzzle. The emphasis placed on scores in a school’s admission process depends on that school’s criteria, along with other factors in each student’s academic profile, such as a transcript and teacher recommendations.

In the application process, admissions officers typically focus on the SSAT scaled score and the SSAT percentile figures. The SSAT scaled score is the most precise measure of a student’s performance and tends to be consistent over time. The SSAT percentile is helpful in comparing one student’s performance to that of others in the testing year. Each school weights test scores differently according to its own standards and requirements, so parents should speak to the admissions staff to determine if a student’s score is considered within the school's acceptable test score range.

Are there effective strategies for excelling on the SSAT?

The best way to ensure that a student will perform as well as she possibly can on the SSAT is to become familiar with the format of the test and to review practice questions. Additionally, a student needs to assimilate general and specific strategies that can make the test taking experience easier and boost scores.

Pacing Strategies

Pacing is a key strategy for all levels of the SSAT. Each group of questions (except for reading comprehension questions) starts out with relatively easy problems and progressively moves to more difficult problems. Knowing whether a question is easy, medium, or difficult will help to determine how long to spend.

Students can map out a pacing strategy beforehand for each section. For example, on the Quantitative Math sections, the level of difficulty increases throughout the section. Upper Level and Middle Level test-takers should try to do the first 15 questions in 15 minutes. This leaves 15 minutes to do the last ten harder questions. On the Verbal section (30 synonyms and 30 analogies in 30 minutes for Upper and Middle Level), a student should aim to complete the first 30 synonyms in 12 minutes, and then do the next 30 analogies in 15 minutes. This will allow three minutes to go back to any skipped questions.

The Elementary Level SSAT test is designed so that the majority of test-takers can complete each section in the allotted time. Parent support is key in helping young students become familiar with test format and practice test-taking strategies. For example, parents should explain to their kids that they should answer easy questions first and not spend too long on any one question.

Guessing and Skipping Strategies

Strategic guessing and skipping are very powerful score-boosters on the SSAT. All students should focus the majority of their attention on the easiest and medium problems and address the hard ones last, if there is time.

On the Upper and Middle Level tests, skipped questions gain you zero points, whereas incorrect answers each reduce your raw score by a quarter-point. Because the raw score will decrease only if a student answers a question incorrectly, skipping is the best strategy for a problem that has the student stymied. It does pay, however, to spend time eliminating answers that are definitely wrong (students should aim for two or three) and to guess aggressively. This increases the odds of selecting the correct answer choice.

On the Elementary Level SSAT, students should try to answer every question and make best guesses for answers they’re uncertain about. There are no penalties for wrong answers on the Elementary Level SSAT.

Specific Writing-Section Strategies

Although the essay is not scored, a copy is sent to each of the schools that receive the score report. Do not underestimate the power of the writing sample. Schools use the writing sample as an indication of how a student writes under controlled conditions. This enables admissions officers to estimate a student’s academic capability to perform in an independent school setting, and to compare the student’s performance with that of other applicants. Note that the essay is often used as the final judgment.

A good tip (especially for the creative essay on the Upper and Middle Level test) is to practice (in advance) writing a creative essay that could be adapted to a variety of prompts. A student should think of a story that she has been keen to write or an accomplishment that she wants admissions officers to know. Prior research on a favorite subject can be helpful when a student is faced with the writing sample prompt during the SSAT.

Specific Quantitative-Section Strategies

To prepare for the Quantitative section, students should practice math problems without using a calculator, so they can become accustomed to doing arithmetic on their own. Completing many practice questions is another way to get students ready for the SSAT. Students should be smart about the questions they focus on as they prepare. If a student struggles with a certain area, like sequences, then she should drill that skill. If, by contrast, she finds percent problems challenging, she should devote additional time to sharpening her skills solving that type of problem.

Specific Reading-Section Strategies

Students should follow these four steps when tackling the Reading section:

  1. Skim the questions first to know the information that you will need to find in the passage.
  2. Read the passages quickly, and get the big picture. Read actively by underlining important sentences.
  3. Read the questions and answer choices. Do not spend more time on the passages than on the questions! Go back to the passage to find answers. Remember that all answers can be found in or inferred from the passage. Cross out answers that you can eliminate.
  4. Guess if you can eliminate one or more answer choices.

Specific Verbal-Section Strategies

One trick for the synonyms questions is to anticipate the correct answer. If the stem word, or the word that is included in the question, is familiar, students should try to come up with a definition before reading through the options. Then, with that word in mind, they should choose the option that most closely resembles their own definition. For example, if the stem word is obnoxious, before looking at the answers, a student should try to define obnoxious. A student may say that obnoxious means “rude.” If the answer choices are clear, slick, offensive, odorous, athletic, then “offensive” is the choice that most closely matches “rude.”

Analogies test both reasoning and vocabulary skills. For most analogies, the relationship should be a short definitional sentence that contains both of the stem words (the words that are included in the prompt) and defines one of the words in terms of the other. Then, the student can apply the stem relationship to the answer choices to select the best one.

Take this example:

Helmet is to head as…

A. Hat is to hair
B. Bow is to present
C. Stem is to flower
D. Thimble is to finger
E. Car is to road

Since a helmet is worn to protect the head, the correct answer would be E, thimble is to finger, because a thimble is worn to protect a finger.

Should a student retake the SSAT multiple times?

There is usually limited benefit to retaking the SSAT; typically scores on multiple SSAT sittings will fall within the range listed on the student’s score report. If a student is adamant about trying to get a better score, she should work with an experienced tutor and then consider taking the test again.

You can use Noodle's powerful search to find SSAT tutors near you.