how to prepare for the isee essay

Whether you’re just getting started or you’re well in the middle of preparing to take the ISEE, one of the things you will want to learn is how to prepare for the ISEE Essay. Let’s cover the basics of the ISEE essay, including some strategies for writing a successful essay and additional resources that’ll take your ISEE Essay prep to the next level!

What is the ISEE Essay?

The fifth and final section of the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) involves writing a personal essay responding to a provided prompt. After a long and exhausting exam, the last thing you may feel like doing is writing an essay, but don’t lose heart. Remember:

  1. The ISEE Essay only takes 30 minutes. Most essay sections of standardized exams are usually way longer and expect you to write way more. With the ISEE, the exam only asks for thirty minutes of your time. You might be worried that this isn’t enough time, but if you use it efficiently, you should have no problem turning in a great (short) essay.
  2. The ISEE Essay is a maximum of two pages. Two handwritten pages is usually somewhere between 300 and 400 words. You will need to show some thoughtful engagement with the prompt, but you’re not expected to produce a graduate thesis!
  3. The ISEE Essay is NOT scored. You won’t be receiving a number grade or an exact score; instead, a copy of your essay is sent to every school you designate to receive your ISEE results. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, but make sure you address the prompt.

The admissions office from any school can only know so much about you from test scores and application listings. Hearing what you have to say through personal response questions gives them a chance to learn about your experiences, interests, habits, hobbies and aspirations. They want to see how you make meaningful connections among different subjects, what you prioritize in your life, and how you learn lessons from even the most common everyday experiences.

In addition to showing who you are as a person, personal response essays give you the chance to prove that you can communicate your ideas with proper use of language and compelling writing skills in a timed setting. Admissions officers will see how you can overcome the challenge of expressing yourself with the obstacle of time.

ISEE Essay Directions

One useful strategy for learning how to prepare for the ISEE Essay is to become familiar with the essay directions. Although each ISEE essay prompt is different, it will always begin with the following box of instructions:

ISEE essay instructions

With only 30 minutes to write the ISEE Essay, you’ll want to use every minute wisely. (Read on for our step-by-step writing guide!) Remember that while you don’t have to fill up the entire two pages, you also don’t want to only submit a short paragraph. So, how long should an ISEE essay be? Generally, successful ISEE essays are between three and five paragraphs in total. You want to make sure to write enough for the readers to actually get to know you and your writing!

How to write an ISEE Essay

Before the Test: Brainstorming

You only have thirty minutes on test day to craft a great essay. To save time, engage in some helpful brainstorming before you take the exam. You never know what the topic will be going into the test, so brainstorming a variety of topics in advance will prepare you to quickly come up with relevant specific details and examples on test day in no time!

Ultimately, these ideas should pull from your experiences, interests, habits, hobbies, and aspirations as a student and as a person:

  • Anything that you’ve learned in school (historical figures, social concepts, etc.)
  • Favorite school subject (don’t pick lunch or recess)
  • Books that you’ve read for school
  • Books that you’ve read for fun
  • Vacations or trips you’ve taken
  • Community service that you’ve performed
  • Relationships that you’ve made (family, friends, etc.)
  • Interesting people that you’ve met (famous or not)
  • Anything from movies, television shows, and the internet that you’ve seen
  • Someone to whom you look up (famous or not)
  • Hobbies or interests (cars, video games, books, sports, etc.)
  • Life aspirations (career, education, family, etc.)

After you’ve brainstormed your ideas, spend some time answering the following questions for each idea:

  1. Why did you pick this idea?
  2. How does this idea influence you?
  3. Why is this influence important?

The answers to these questions will provide supporting evidence to back up whatever claim(s) you make in response to any ISEE essay prompt.

Want more guidance? Download a PDF of our Essay Brainstorming and Outlining Worksheet.

Outline Your Essay

Okay, it’s test time! First, of course, you should carefully read the prompt. You will probably begin to have ideas immediately. But before you begin writing your essay, spend 2-3 minutes planning it. One of the best ways to plan an essay is by creating an outline which includes your main idea (thesis) and two or three pieces of supporting evidence (i.e. examples). Remember that this is only an outline, so there is no need to waste time writing out complete sentences.

While there are definitely many ways to write a successful essay, the recommended, standard structure for a successful ISEE essay is 5-paragraphs:

  1. Introduction with thesis
  2. 1st Body Paragraph
  3. 2nd Body Paragraph
  4. 3rd Body Paragraph
  5. Conclusion

Always include an introduction (with thesis) and conclusion—if you need to use fewer (or more) body paragraphs, that’s okay.

For more detailed instructions on outlining, check out Piqosity’s spotlight on The ISEE Essay.

ISEE Essay Writing Strategies: DOs

Now, turn your carefully structured outline and notes into full sentences to create a winning ISEE Essay! Because you’re writing under a time constraint, the people who read your essay will understand if it’s not flawless—small errors in spelling or grammar should not be held against you. But make every effort to write as coherently and legibly as possible. The more polished your essay is, the more impressive it will read!

While there are no strict rules on exactly how to write your essay, you still want to go about writing it in an intelligent manner. With that in mind, here are six ISEE Essay strategies:

  1. Use specific examples. The more specific your evidence is, the more convincing your stories will be and more captivating the essay will be to read. It also will help individualize your response and hopefully help you to stand out!
  2. Employ a variety of sentence structures. Most good writers employ a wide variety of sentence structures. This helps the response sound less robotic or monotonous and will definitely help engage any reader throughout a longer reading passage.
  3. Display a diverse vocabulary. You have probably spent SO much time studying vocabulary for the Verbal Reasoning portion of the exam… might as well put some of those words to good use and put them into action! (Make sure the words you’re using make sense, though.)
  4. Write clearly and legibly. Nobody wants to spend excessive time trying to decipher your terrible handwriting… The only thing worse than a bad essay is one that can’t even be read. Do the essay reader a favor and make sure it’s readable!
  5. Offer generous details. The reader has no idea who you are to begin with. Write enough for a stranger to actually be able to learn something about you! Specificity is always more interesting than vagueness.
  6. Be authentic! Don’t worry so much about seeming too weird or like an oddball. The quirky parts of you are what make you stand out! The essay readers are reading countless essays all at once…the more unique your experiences are, the more they will be interested and inclined to remember you as an individual.

ISEE Essay Writing Strategies: DON’Ts

Similarly, although there are no specific rules about how not to write your essay, here are five things to avoid:

  1. Try not to be vague. Elaborate and touch upon your ideas in a way that leaves the reader with a deeper understanding. The goal is specificity! For example, a sentence like “Reading this book taught me a lot” doesn’t actually tell the reader very much. What did it teach you about, and how did you learn it?
  2. No run-on sentences. Trying to cram too much information into one sentence or too many ideas at once can be confusing. Always aim for clarity of thought and expression. More often than not, you can communicate the same idea with less elaboration than you think!
  3. No slang or internet terminology. This one hopefully doesn’t need too much explanation. Writing in slang or internet terminology is not only unprofessional in an academic setting but will also probably leave readers of older generations confused and unable to understand what you’re trying to say. Imagine you were writing a letter to your grandparents—would you expect them to understand when you say somthing is “slay” or “rizz”? Probably not.
  4. Avoid writing in an unnatural way. If you don’t normally use the words “sanguine” or “flabbergasted” in your everyday language, don’t use them here! You always want to sound natural and authentic. Though your word choice should be precise, remember to still make it sound like you are personally speaking.
  5. Don’t make a mess. If you make a mistake (it happens, it’s okay!) and need to correct it, draw a single line through any mistakes you want to cover up. Don’t make a mess and scribble all over the place.

Practice for the ISEE Essay

One last piece of advice for how to prepare for the ISEE Essay: Practice! You don’t want the first time you try this process to be on test day. Ideally, in fact, you should have written so many practice essays by then that the real thing seems easy—make writing practice essays a part of your ISEE test prep plan. If you need more resources or guidance when it comes to your ISEE prep, Piqosity has the tools for you!

Our recently-expanded collection of ISEE Sample Essay Prompts and Responses includes 10 different prompts with example outlines and full responses that you can study and emulate. Further, Piqosity offers full-length ISEE prep courses and a wide range of ISEE prep materials, perfect for both tutored and self-guided ISEE practice:

  • 12 full-length practice tests each (including essay prompts) for the ISEE Upper Level, ISEE Middle Level, and ISEE Lower Level—available in both online and print-at-home formats
  • Over 3,000 practice questions (equivalent to 20 tests’ worth), with detailed answer explanations
  • Over 50 concept lessons, including tutorial videos
  • Real-time Stanine Score predictions. Adaptive Practice, and Piqosity Virtual Tutor
  • Interactive interface allowing teachers, tutors, or parents to assign and track student work
  • …And much more!

Ready to get started? You can try out all of Piqosity’s features with our free community account. When you’re ready to upgrade, Piqosity’s year-long accounts start at only $89. Plus, get a 10% off coupon just by signing up for our mailing list!