Testing the Waters: ISEE/SSAT/SHSAT

For many families who are preparing for the transition to a new middle or high school, a fresh challenge looms large in the fall months: standardized testing. Admissions tests such as the ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam), the SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) or the SSAT (Secondary Schools Admissions Test) are often the first tests of their kind that students will encounter in their academic careers. Given their weight in the admissions process, it is important to help students create an individualized plan of study that will help them to feel as confident and prepared as possible when the big test day arrives.

The stated aim of these admissions tests—along with later gatekeepers like the SAT and ACT—is to measure students’ aptitude with certain essential academic skills in reading, writing, and math. In theory, the best way to prepare for such a general, skills-based exam is gradually, over years, with regular reading at an appropriate level, math practice to reinforce new concepts, and varied writing exercises. Still, there are several steps that students can take in the months before the exam that go beyond what they’ve learned in the classroom. 

At Smarten Up, we believe in teaching these skills in a way that will help students thrive on test day and beyond. We focus on active reading strategies and reasoning skills that will help students in any classroom, vocabulary building, and developing a rich understanding of math concepts that are central to the school curriculum. In addition, we also teach students pragmatic test-taking tips to help with pacing and accuracy. 

It’s also important to try and reduce stress that can often accompany these longer, consequence-laden tests; most of us perform better when we can stay calm and rely on automatic skills developed through practice. In fact, and not surprisingly, studies have shown that the pressure of higher stakes situations can hurt performance in athletes and musicians. Students and parents should let the stakes of the exam motivate them to plan ahead and prepare with commitment, but then try and leave the pressure behind as much as possible on the day of testing, relying on the hard work that has been put in already. In the end, this is the most dependable strategy for a student to do his or her best! 

Every student’s experience of these exams is different, but if we can focus on refining and practicing skills that will be applicable beyond the test, then every student will gain something worthwhile along the way. Smarten Up’s approach to test prep is individualized and holistic - we adapt our instruction to meet the needs of each student we work with in order to create academic and learning gains on the day of the test and beyond.