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Upper Level ISEE: What to Expect

Upper Level ISEE: What to Expect

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is the exam used by most private schools to evaluate candidates for admission. Here's what you need to know...

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
High School Admissions

What Is the Upper Level ISEE Test?

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is the exam used by most private schools to evaluate candidates for admission. There are three ISEE levels, but the Upper Level Test is the one taken by middle school students applying to high school.

Traditionally, the ISEE was required for independent day school, while the SSAT was required for private boarding schools. Nowadays, most schools accept either test, but one should always check the requirements of individual schools before deciding whether to take just one or both.

Upper Level ISEE Test Dates

It is important to note that students may only take the ISEE up to 3 times per year, or once every testing season.

There are 3 ISEE testing seasons:

  • Fall – August, September, October, and November
  • Winter – December, January, February, and March
  • Spring/Summer – April, May, June, and July
Upper Level ISEE Testings Seasons

How Long is the Upper Level ISEE Test?

The Upper Level ISEE is 3 hours long, including breaks.

Upper Level ISEE Test Structure

There are 4 multiple choice sections on the Upper Level ISEE: Verbal Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematics Achievement, as well as an ungraded essay section.

Upper Level ISEE Test Structure

Verbal Reasoning

The Verbal Reasoning section of the ISEE is primarily vocab based. There are both synonym and sentence completion questions. For the synonym question, students are given a word and then must choose the synonym for it out of 4 other word choices. For sentence completion questions, students must fill in one or two blanks in a sentence with the best word(3) among the answer choices.

Students are given 20 minutes for 40 questions, so this section goes fast.

Quantitative Reasoning

There are two types of problems on the Quantitative Reasoning section of the Upper Level ISEE: word problems and quantitative comparisons. For quantitative comparison, students must determine which of the quantities in column A or B is greater, if they are equal, or if this cannot be determined from the information given.

This section is 35 minutes long and there are 37 questions.

Reading Comprehension

The Reading Comprehension section of the Upper Level ISEE is 35 minutes long and consists of 6 passages, for a total of 36 questions.

For each passage, students must answer a series of multiple choice questions, which will ask them to identify main and supporting ideas, draw inferences, and analyze the vocabulary, organization, tone, and figurative language used in the passage

Mathematics Achievement

The Mathematics Achievement section of the Upper Level ISEE is 40 minutes long with 47 questions.

This section is less about reasoning and more about testing students on specific math concepts. Here are the broad content areas covered:

  • Numbers and Operations Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Measurement
  • Data Analysis and Probability Problem Solving

Students are NOT allowed to use a calculator. So it’s important they memorize essential formulas needed to solve problems.


This 30 min essay provides students with a prompt for which they need to write a coherent, (ideally) 5-paragraph essay with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. The essay is NOT graded. Instead, it functions as a writing sample that is sent out to all the schools a student applies to with the ISEE.

Is the Upper Level ISEE hard?

The Upper Level ISEE contains content that most students taking it should be familiar with from their normal coursework in school. If students are keeping up with their schoolwork and doing well in their classes, the ISEE should not be too difficult. However, some students may be behind in school due to a variety of factors, or may not be comfortable with taking timed tests, which can make the ISEE a lot harder for them. This is why it is paramount to start studying for the ISEE early, in order to fill in content gaps and practice test taking strategy.

What is the hardest section of the Upper Level ISEE ?

This will vary depending on the student. Many students find the Verbal Reasoning section difficult because of the amount of vocabulary, especially if they are not consistently reading and acquiring new words. Others may find the Mathematics Achievement section more challenging because it contains a few more advanced math topics that students may not have covered yet in school.

Upper Level ISEE Test Scoring

For each section of the ISEE, students receive a “Stanine” Score ranging from 1 to 9. Students receive a Raw Score based on the number of questions answered correctly. There is no guessing penalty (this is one of the important differences from the SSAT, which does take off points for wrong answers). This is then converted to a Scaled Score between 760 and 940, which is then used to generate the Percentile Rank and Stanine Score. The Percentile Rank shows how well you did compared to all students of the same grade level who took the ISEE in the last three years. Finally, the Stanine Score (1-9) indicates if you fall into an average, below average, or above average percentile for a given section.

What Is a Good Score on the Upper Level ISEE?

Ideally, we like to see all our students scoring above a 7 in each of the four sections. A 7, 8, or 9 are all “good” scores.

ISEE Test Pre-Test Day Checklist

  • DO remember all the effort and progress you have made on this test prep journey - you’ve come a long way!
  • DO visualize calm, successful feelings about traveling to, arriving and taking the test.
  • DO eat nutritious, healthy meals.
  • DO print your emailed Verification Letter and double check your scheduled starting time and test location.
  • DO contact the ISEE Office at (919) 956-8524 if the Verification Letter is lost or you find incorrect info in it.
  • DO pack your bag and make sure you have: the Verification Letter, an approved form of ID, a bottle of water, a snack, tissues; and for the paper test: 4 sharp pencils with good erasers, and 2 blue or black pens.
  • DO set an alarm and plan your route to the test center. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get ready, have a big breakfast, and get to the test site 30 minutes early.
  • DO calculate when you’ll be done with the test (Primary 53-60 mins., Lower 140 mins., Middle/Upper 160 mins.) and make a plan to do something fun (or take a nap) to reward yourself afterwards!
  • DO go to sleep early, try to relax and get a good night’s rest.
  • DO call or email us with any questions. Don’t worry if it’s late. We’re here!
  • DO NOT study. Let yourself truly rest the day before the big test.

ISEE Test Day Checklist

  • DO wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Dress in layers so you can adjust to the room’s temperature.
  • DO plan to arrive 30 mins early.
  • DO take deep, slow breaths to keep yourself from getting anxious, especially right before the test begins.
  • DO plan your time. Remember: you can skip questions and then return to them.
  • DO place all answers on the answer sheet and not in the test booklet or scrap paper.
  • DO mark your answers carefully. This is a machine-scored test, and you will not receive credit if you mark the wrong answer or two bubbles per question. If you change your answer, make sure to erase well.
  • DO use your test booklet or scrap paper to work through each question as much as you like.
  • DO guess. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so make sure you eliminate any obvious wrong answers and then fill in any blanks 5-10 minutes before time’s up in each section.
  • DO check your work, if there is time. You can’t leave before the allotted time is up anyway!
  • DO NOT bring papers, books, rulers, any kind of phone or electronic device, or calculator into the classroom.

How to Prepare for the Upper Level ISEE

We recommend that students start studying for the ISEE at least three months before the first intended test date. Students should start by taking a diagnostic exam. This will allow you to see what areas need improvement and help to establish a study plan. Ivy Tutors can administer this exam for students and provide a detailed diagnostic report to function as a road map for future study.

From there, students should work with a prep book, or an experienced tutor, to begin filling in content gaps. Vocabulary study is VERY important. The Verbal Reasoning section is essentially a vocabulary test, and many students make the mistake of not starting to drill their words early enough. There are many ISEE vocabulary lists in books or online. Students should make flashcards, either physically or virtually, and work through their words consistently (every day leading up to the test, ideally).

Consistent independent reading is also essential for helping students improve on the Reading Comprehension section. Reading a novel, short story, or newspaper or magazine article and then writing down the main ideas can be a great way to exercise your ability to absorb and synthesize textual information.

Finally, frequent practice tests are the best way to reinforce content, track progress, and practice test-taking strategies. At Ivy Tutors Network, we provide our students with a 3-pronged test prep approach: Content, Strategy, and Practice. After the initial diagnostic, students work with a seasoned tutor to learn all the content they need to know on the test and reinforce it with homework and exercises. Tutors also provide students with invaluable strategy tips for pacing, guessing, and answering questions more quickly. The right strategy is essential for standardized tests, and can really make a difference in helping students earn more points. Last but not least, Ivy offers all our students unlimited mock testing included with tutoring, so students can practice as much as possible to improve their score.

We hope this overview was helpful. Please reach out to us to find a tutor, book a free consultation, or schedule a diagnostic exam. Wherever you are in the testing process, Ivy’s ISEE exam tutors are here to support and guide you every step of the way!

Bonus: If you have your ISEE in the next few days, feel free to check out our ISEE Pre-Test checklist. Good Luck!


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