Although schools consider various factors when reviewing applications, none seem to cause parents more undue stress than the ISEE. Parents always want to deflect attention away from ISEE scores and ask me: Don’t the child’s grades and extracurricular activities count? What about the interview? How about legacy and sibling status? Schools do look at each applicant as a whole, but ISEE scores are the best indicator if a student will be able to succeed academically at their school and they are often the first measure considered when evaluating candidates. This doesn’t mean that students with lower scores will not be accepted to an academically rigorous school, it just means that they will have more hurdles to overcome. ISEE scores cause parents anxiety because they are hard, cold numbers and the rest of the application is subjective.
Thankfully, in preparing for the ISEE, slow and steady wins the race and there is plenty of time to put together plan of action for success. These are the basic steps I advise parents who are readying themselves for ISEE preparation process:
Sign up for two test dates: Students are able to take the ISEE twice, once before November 30th and once after. I recommend that students should prepare with the goal of only taking one exam in November. However, if they are sick or have a bad day, they have a second date planned as a back-up. This helps take the pressure off since they get a second chance if necessary.
Get a sense of your child’s starting point. I recommend that all students take a diagnostic exam the Spring before they are applying. This will give you an idea of how much they need to improve—if at all—in relation to the range of scores at your child’s target schools. You can sign up for a diagnostic test, or administer one yourself from a test prep book. Do not rely on your student’s previous ERB or other standardized test scores because those exams are not as difficult as the ISEE and are not an accurate comparison.
Prepare your child for the test. It is likely that your child has never taken a 3-hour exam in one sitting so it is important they prepare so they are familiar with the structure (and rigor) of the exam. You can buy a workbook for do-it-yourself prep or sign-up for group classes or private instruction. Here’s what to keep in mind about the test as you decide on the best prep for your child.
Success on the ISEE fundamentally depends on two things: 1) a strong foundation in language and math, and 2) strong reasoning ability. Like nearly all standardized tests, this is primarily a reasoning test—not a subject test. This is why some children are good students but still do poorly on standardized tests. They cannot study for the ISEE the way they can for a quiz in Social Studies or Pre-Algebra. In fact, the test will be full of problems designed to be unlike what they face in class. These are essentially logic problems, testing a student’s true command of language or math by having them reason their way to a solution.
Prep should involve developing and conditioning your child’s reasoning ability. That’s probably the toughest part. Strategies are important, but there’s only so much strategy—tips, reminders, ways to tackle certain above-grade level problems—to be learned. And many of these tips are dependent on having a strong foundation and reasoning ability. Guided practice, like a coach working on their players’ habits and monitoring any slips in form, is the best way to hone these skills.
Remember, the ISEE is only one component of the entire application. Your child’s grades, activities, personality, and overall fit matter too. When you begin the process of secondary school admissions, keep the ISEE in perspective. It is one piece of your child’s overall profile. Choose the preparation that best suits your child’s learning style and I recommend starting over the summer so they have ample time to prepare for an exam in November.