Why is the new ISEE exam so difficult?

The ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam) is the test used by most private middle schools for students applying for entry into grades 5-8.

The test is comprised of 5 parts:


Sentence Completions

Reading Comprehension



The verbal reasoning section (comprised of both synonym and sentence completion questions) consists of 40 multiple-choice questions, which must be completed in 20 minutes.

The reading comprehension section is comprised of six passages each containing six multiple-choice questions.  Students are given 35 minutes to complete this section.

The math section is comprised of two different tests, one called math achievement and one called quantitative reasoning.  The math achievement test contains 47 multiple-choice questions, which must be completed in 40 minutes.  The quantitative reasoning test contains 37 questions, which must be completed in 35 minutes.

Students are asked to write an essay for 30 minutes on a topic they are given on the test.  The essay is not scored; it is photocopied and sent to the schools the student is applying to for admission.

The timing and number of questions for the lower level ISEE test (for student applying to grades 5 and 6) is slightly different than for the middle and upper level ISEE test (for students applying to grades 6-8).  The timing and number of questions noted above apply to the middle and upper level tests.

The test is fast-paced.  Students have less than a minute to answer most questions, and on some sections they only have half a minute to answer each question.

The vocabulary is advanced for most students, and the test may contain words such as: plume, torrid, keen, or ravine.  These words appear on practice tests released by the ERB (Educational Records Bureau), the makers of the test. 

The math sections contain problems involving algebra, geometry, probability, metric conversions, fractions, decimals, percents, negative numbers, order of operations, mean, median, mode, averages and square roots.  There are a lot of word problems that can be presented in very tricky ways.  The test also contains a section of quantitative comparison problems that ask students to solve some tricky analytical math problems.

The reading section is very fast-paced; students are given six minutes in total to read a passage (usually about 60 lines in length) and answer six questions related to the passage.  The answers are not always easy to find in the passage; there are many inference questions, which require that students “read between the lines”.

The essay portion of the test can be challenging for many students, as they ideally should write a 4-5 paragraph essay with a clear thesis statement (related to the topic), an introduction that includes several examples that support their thesis statement, two to three well developed paragraphs that elaborate on their examples and tie back to the thesis statement and the topic, and a conclusion that nicely summarizes their thoughts (without simply being repetitious).  In addition, students need to be careful with grammar, spelling, sentence structure and transitions between paragraphs.  This is all very challenging to do in 30 minutes with a topic they have just been given.

Many students benefit greatly from test prep for the ISEE.

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