ISEE (commonly pronounced I-See) is an acronym that stands for the Independent School Entrance Exam and is taken by students applying to private schools in the United States. This peer-normed, standardized test is commonly taken for students applying to middle school (grades 5/6-8) and high school (grades 9-12). Students can also take the test to get into earlier grades, but it is less common.

As an educator or parent, you might be anxious about teaching or tutoring the ISEE if you’ve never been asked to do it before. But if you can tutor Algebra I and To Kill a Mockingbird, you can tutor all levels of the ISEE. We will show you how.

ISEE Overview

The ISEE comes in four levels depending on the grade the student is applying to:

  1. Primary Level for entrance to grades 2-4
  2. Lower Level for entrance to grades 5 & 6
  3. Middle Level for entrance to grades 7&8
  4. Upper Level for entrance to grades 9-12

The Upper Level is the most popular followed by the Lower Level.

There are five sections to the ISEE:

  1. Verbal Reasoning – synonyms and sentence completions
  2. Quantitative Reasoning – quantitative comparisons and word problems
  3. Reading Comprehension – reading passages with questions
  4. Mathematics Achievement – word problems
  5. Essay – 1 prompt, 2-pages, unscored

Depending on the level of the test, each section is between 25 and 47 questions and students subject to normal timing will have between 2.5 and 3-hours to complete the entire test, including two, 5-minute breaks.

Similar to the ACT or SAT, the ISEE is both an achievement test and a reasoning test. Students will have to apply what they have learned in school (achievement) to questions which present the learned material in new and novel ways (reasoning).

To this extent, most students find the novel Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning tests to be the most difficult. Conversely, the more traditional Reading Comprehension test is generally easier for students but also more competitive–meaning that students cannot miss many questions in this section and still score highly.

The ISEE is a peer-normed test, and students receive a score “stanine” from 1 to 9, where 1 represents the bottom 3% of test takers, and a 9 represents the top 4% of test takers. You can visualize these stanines by taking a bell-curve and simply dividing it into nine sections. The peer group is composed of students from the previous 3 years; students in the current year are not scored against each other.

Learn much more about the basics of the ISEE:

Get Comfortable with the ISEE by taking a Test

You probably remember agonizing over and taking the ACT or SAT to get into college. But you probably never took or don’t remember taking the ISEE. Here are some steps to familiarize yourself.

  1. Take the ERB’s only official test for the level you need to tutor (note that this test isn’t full-length, as it’s missing the “experimental questions” which all standardized tests require students to answer but neither call-out nor score)
  2. Score it and ensure that you understand:
    1. How to assign your score a stanine value
    2. Why you got any questions wrong

Get Even More Comfortable by Writing Questions

While working through a full length test will probably be enough to get you started with your first student, you can do just a little more preparation to become a really good tutor.

Write your own practice content. The best way to teach a student to ace a question is to understand exactly what that question is testing and how it’s doing it.

The fastest way to get to this level of familiarity with the test is to attempt to write your own problems. Use the official ERB test as your template and try to replicate its content and style with:

  1. 10 Verbal Reasoning synonyms
  2. 5 Verbal Reasoning sentence completions
  3. 5 Quantitative Reasoning word problems
  4. 5 Quantitative Reasoning quantitative comparisons
  5. 2 Reading Comprehension passages with 6 questions each
  6. 10 Mathematics Achievement questions
  7. 1 Essay

Now ask a friend to compare your questions with the actual test. Hopefully they won’t be able to tell a difference!

If you can write reasonable facsimile questions, you can definitely tutor the ISEE very well!

Getting Started with Your First ISEE Student

So you’ve taken a test and hopefully written some great questions. You’re confident about your skills and ready for your first student, so what do you do?

Give them a diagnostic test. You should start every student by having them take the ERB’s official practice test—cold—without any introduction or tutoring. This test serves three main purposes:

  1. Provide a baseline score from which to measure improvement
  2. Quickly point out a student’s relative strengths and weaknesses
  3. Give you something to go over during your first meeting with the student

During your first 1-hour lesson:

  1. Ask the student what they thought about the diagnostic test. What did they find easiest or hardest and why?
  2. Walk them through a general overview of the ISEE, including:
    1. Sections
    2. Types of questions
    3. Timing including seconds per question
    4. Scoring including what it means to be “peer normed”
  3. Start doing test corrections on the diagnostic test. As you go through each question:
    1. What basic concept is being tested? Has the student learned this topic in school yet? Have they forgotten it? Will you need to teach it to them? Is it worth teaching to them in the time until the actual exam?
    2. If you were teaching the underlying concept in school or had an infinite amount of time, how would you have them work the problem?
    3. Once you’ve ensured the student grasps the fundamental idea, are there some steps that could have been skipped to work the problem faster in or under the time allowed?
  4. Build a rapport by asking them what schools they want to apply to and why. Give them some of your insight from your experience with those schools.
  5. Assign homework for your next lesson:
    1. 30-minutes worth or about 10-20 questions in the next test section you want to cover

In Ongoing Lessons:

  1. Start the lesson by going over the homework
  2. Ensure an understanding of fundamental concepts
  3. Repeat test taking strategies for the relevant section
  4. Assign homework before the next lesson

With Piqosity

  1. Assign practice with due dates in your Tutor account
  2. Or work through sections of a Full-Length test with students, as sections can be scored individually
  3. Review the tested material and testing strategies in our “ISEE Prep Guide

Take Practice Tests

  1. Encourage students to regularly take a full-length, timed practice test:
    1. At least twice before taking the actual ISEE
    2. One test for every 20-hours of tutoring and assigned homework
    3. But not more frequently than once a month

Making an ISEE Prep Schedule

How much effort a student needs to exert to prepare for the ISEE depends on the competitiveness of the schools to which they’re applying and where they’re starting. For example, it takes a lot more effort to improve from a stanine of 3 to a 7 than a 6 to an 8.

Most students will have the opportunity to take the ISEE twice before their school applications are due:

  1. Once between August and November
  2. Once between December and March

In Houston where Piqosity is based, the most popular times to take the ISEE are first in mid-November and second in early January.

Since students have two opportunities, you should encourage your students to:

  1. Treat the first test as a trial run (while still striving to get good scores)
  2. Not submit scores to schools until after the second testing

Encouraging students to treat the first test as a trial run will help reduce their anxiety.

Addressing Anxiety and Careless Mistakes

The most common issues that parents will tell you about are “testing anxiety” and “careless mistakes.”

Some students have genuine anxiety issues that only a medical professional can diagnose and treat.

But the majority of students just need more assurances and to do more practice. The opposite of anxiety and mistakes (and your goal) are “confidence” and “precision.”

To this extent, most anxiety is simply a result of “anticipated misfortune or trouble” or just a fear of the unknown. You will conquer this fear with your student by showing them how predictable the ISEE (and any standardized test) can be. The more problems they see and work through, the more they will start to see the patterns and understand what is being asked of them.

To the same extent, frequent, reviewed practice will increase the level of ease at which they tackle problems. At first students will be unsure of what’s being asked, what steps to take, and what strategies to implement.

But as they work more practice, they’ll get the hang of it, and become quicker and more confident, which will replace their “careless mistakes” with “confident precision.”

Guided and reviewed practice will ease test-taking anxiety, but students will also have anxiety with the whole private school applications process in general.

To help relax students about this process:

  1. Explain that the ISEE is just one part of a holistic application
  2. Explore which schools they want to attend, including:
    1. Private “safety” schools
    2. Public school options
  3. Emphasize that they have at least two chances to do well (if applicable)

Ensure that students realize that the “super prestigious school XYZ” is not the only choice in town where they will be happy and succeed in life.

What about the ISEE Essay

The essay is the fifth and final section of the ISEE. However, because the essay is not scored, it can be lower on your priority list but still worth addressing if time allows.

Students receive up to two pages (about 300 words), in which they’re asked to respond to a personal prompt. Their response is scanned and included with the score report that schools receive.

The main point of the essay is primarily so that:

  1. Schools can examine an unadulterated (literally) student work product;
  2. Students have a chance to make themselves look interesting.

If time allows, you will want to make sure that your student can craft a decent essay for their grade level, meaning:

  1. Their essay has a main idea with clearly supporting elements;
  2. They use personal-experience examples to support their thesis;
  3. Their writing is legible, and grammar and spelling mistakes are minimal.

In practicality as a tutor, you should expect to spend at least a couple of sessions (or hours) reviewing your student’s practice essays:

  1. Discuss the purpose of the ISEE essay with the student.
  2. Walk through how to brainstorm and outline a basic, 5-paragraph essay.
  3. Assign them a practice prompt.
  4. Repeat as necessary or time allows.

Click here to learn more about the essay and our recommendations.