The application process to get into a private K-12 school often begins with one of the most commonly accepted entrance exams, the Secondary School Admission Test, known simply as the SSAT.
The SSAT is a series of elementary, middle and upper-level tests that are administered to more than 70,000 students each year, according to the Enrollment Management Association, which creates the test.
While there are other admissions tests in K-12, such as the High School Placement Test or the Independent School Entrance Exam, education experts say the SSAT is competitive and that preparation can be daunting.
“The importance of a test like the SSAT is driven by the competitiveness of … private schools,” says Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, which offers help with test preparation. “Ultimately one of the biggest values is essentially paying for your peer group. Admissions tests like the SSAT are competitive as a way to get into that group.”
The best way for students to study for the SSAT is to become comfortable with the exam before they take it, says Anna Moss, founder of Mind the Test, a company that specializes in tutoring and test preparation strategies.
“Studying for the SSAT is challenging,” she says. “And the verbal analogies can be particularly tricky, even for parents. The best thing to do is to get an SSAT prep book and then have a tutor to help with the most challenging areas.”
What is the SSAT?
The elementary level SSAT for students in grades three and four is paper-based, contains 104 to 106 questions and takes more than two hours to complete, according to the Enrollment Management Association. The middle and upper-level versions contain as many as 166 questions, take more than three hours to complete and are available in multiple formats, including a computer-based test, either at home or at a test center, and a paper-based test.
All tests consist of a verbal, quantitative and reading score. In the upper-level test, for example, each score ranges from 500 to 800. A total SSAT score combining the three is also given, which ranges from 1,500 to 2,400 on the upper-level test. Students also earn a percentile ranking for their SSAT performance in each section, as well as a ranking for their total SSAT score.
[READ: How to Get Into a Magnet School.]
The percentile compares a student’s total scaled score to that of all students who have taken the SSAT in their grade that year. It indicates the percentage of students who scored below or the same as your child. For example, a score in the 67th percentile indicates your student scored equal to or higher than 67% of the other students in his or her grade.
There are two additional sections on the SSAT: a writing sample and an experimental section. The writing sample is the first section of the SSAT and, though not scored, is often read by admissions professionals. The experimental section, also unscored, is the last section of the exam, and it allows the testing company to field-test questions for future exams. The experimental section of the upper-level SSAT consists of 16 verbal, quantitative and reading questions.
Fees for the SSAT range from $95 to $299, according to the Enrollment Management Association, though there are fee waivers available to families who qualify.
How to Prepare for the SSAT
Education experts say that preparing for the SSAT is much like preparing for other standardized tests. Study books, practice exams and other resources are plentiful.
Starting with a practice exam, parents and students can gauge the subjects where students most need work. They can then engage a tutor or enroll in a test preparation program to work on those subjects. This test-and-learn procedure can be repeated over a series of weeks and months to help improve scores.
Education experts say that, difficult as it may be, students should not worry too much about their scores. The SSAT is only one part of the admissions process at most schools, with grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations and sometimes an interview also weighing heavily on the decision. Most schools are transparent about the role that standardized testing plays in admissions.
Resources for the SSAT
An increasing number of colleges have leaned away from standardized tests like the SAT and ACT as a primary ingredient in admissions decisions. One reason is that many, though not all, studies show that standardized tests put low-income and minority high school students, who may not have access to test preparation classes or materials, at a disadvantage for college admission.
The SSAT has not come under the same level of scrutiny, perhaps because it is taken by far fewer students than the SAT, which drew more than 2 million students in 2020, according to the College Board, which creates the test.
Dave Evangelisti, founder of Test-Guide.com, an online test preparation company, says the SSAT does not disadvantage students the way that other tests might.
“I believe the SSAT has continued to be used by private and other independent schools because it is an unbiased way of assessing potential candidates,” he wrote in an email. “One may argue that private schools can look at a candidate’s resume instead of … the SSAT. But if you want a truly standardized way of comparing applicants, the SSAT is your best bet.”
For parents and students who want help preparing for the SSAT, here are some resources:
— The Enrollment Management Association, the creator of the test, has information that can answer most common questions.
— Kaplan, a worldwide education company, offers self-paced preparation classes, tutoring and books on the SSAT.
— Prep Maven offers SSAT tutoring, as well as information on the test and testing strategies.
— Test Innovators offers practice tests, diagnostics and analytics, as well as tips and strategies to improve scores.
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