Balancing Content and Strategy in Your SSAT/ISEE Prep

One of the most important things you can do in standardized test prep is learn the key strategies. This is because the structure of the test is part of the challenge of the test. Knowing all the material that can show up isn’t enough to get a perfect score; skills like pacing yourself optimally and using the multiple-choice format to your advantage are also essential.

This is as true for the SSAT and ISEE as it is for any other standardized test, but these tests are somewhat unique in that learning content is often as big of a focus as reviewing content that students have learned in the past. Unlike many other tests, each level of the SSAT and ISEE is intended for students of a variety of ages, but everyone gets the same test; this means that on test day, you may very well be asked about material you’ve never seen before in school.

The main reason for this is that different schools cover the same material at different times in a class curriculum, and sometimes even in different classes and therefore different years. This means that not every 4th grader will know how to multiply fractions, and not every 8th grader will know the slope-intercept form of a linear equation. However, the SSAT and ISEE don’t adjust their content based on what you’ve learned in school because admissions officers don’t adjust their expectations based on that, either.

So how do you balance your time between mastering techniques for the different sections and practicing concepts with which you’re unfamiliar? That’s a complex question with a slightly different answer for every student, but my two general rules are as follows:

1. Technique trumps all but the most fundamental content. There’s no amount of plugging in answers that can help you if you don’t know how to multiply, and there’s no magic wand you can wave in the Verbal section that will compensate for your not knowing basic vocabulary words. Beyond those extreme scenarios, however, learning a section-specific technique is almost always a better use of your time than trying to master a particular piece of content. Most techniques are applicable to a wide range of questions, whereas a given concept may appear once or even not at all, so you’ll get more reward by focusing on the “how” before putting in the time to learn the “what”.

2. When you do move on to learning content, prioritize it in order of importance. Questions covering concepts that look particularly intimidating tend to stick in students’ minds more than problems dealing with less visibly difficult material; however, that doesn’t mean you should focus on the former over the latter. You may see a question asking you to simplify a fraction composed of eight different variables, all raised to different exponents, on every practice test you take, and it may drive you nuts that you’re never able to answer it. If you’re also having trouble with one-variable algebraic equations, though, you should put time into reviewing and mastering that before moving on to variables with exponents. Core algebra skills come up significantly more often than do those crazy exponent-simplification questions, which means that they’re worth more points to you and therefore should be a higher priority.

No matter how you allocate your time during the prep process, you’ll have to be prepared to tackle concepts that you’ve never seen in math class in order to be on the same playing field as students from other schools. Because of that fact, it often takes more time to fully prepare for the SSAT or ISEE than students anticipate; it’s important to expect this possibility when you get started on your test prep journey.

On that note, it’s not too late to start preparing to take either the SSAT or the ISEE for this application cycle! If you want help studying or just want to discuss the test prep process and the optimal prep plan for you, we know some people who can help.

Inspirica’s structured one-on-one programs combine curated top-of-the-line curriculum and experienced tutors to get you the scores you need at a price you can afford; buy online and get started tomorrow, or talk through the process with a test prep expert first. If you’re looking for customized one-on-one prep that’s 100% tailored to your unique needs, Noodle Pros has dozens of expert SSAT/ISEE tutors with decades of combined experience; set up a consultation today. We can’t wait to get started.