Prep Effectively with a Mistakes Journal

If you’re preparing the SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT or any other standardized test, it’s essential that you don’t simply study hard, but study effectively. Two essential elements of effective studying are analyzing your mistakes in-depth, and then reviewing what you’ve learned from them. How can you make sure you’re systematically tracking, reflecting on, and learning from every mistake when you’re spending months studying for a sprawling exam? With a mistakes journal. 

A mistakes journal is a powerful tool for optimizing and organizing your studying. It is essentially a place where you systematically log every question you missed along with a record of where the question is located, why you missed the question, what type of question it was and how you could tell, and what lesson(s) you learned from reflecting on your mistake. You may have missed a question about triangles, for instance, because you didn’t know a certain rule in trigonometry, you didn’t pick up on the cue that this was a trigonometry question, or because you tried to solve the problem in your head without first labeling the diagram or writing out your work. Using a mistakes journal forces you to reflect on what exactly is making you miss questions and how you can avoid those mistakes in the future. The other great benefit of a mistakes journal is that it facilitates review by helping keep track of everything in one place—not always an easy task when you’re taking multiple practice tests from different books and websites. 

Learning science has revealed that we best learn new information through an iterative review process. This means that you must revisit your notes multiple times before they will move into your long-term memory. Specifically, you’re most likely to commit material to memory if you first review it within 24 hours after you first encounter it, while it’s still fresh. This means that you should review new entries in your mistakes journal the day after you write them, and then again every few days until the notes are in your long-term memory. Every so often, you should review the mistakes journal in its entirety to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

You should also attempt to resolve any missed problems a couple of days after you’ve entered them in your mistakes journal. To do this, first print a blank copy of the test so that you won’t see your old notes. Once you’ve successfully redone a problem, make of note of that in your mistakes journal. In another couple of days, use the mistake journal to identify the problems you haven’t been able to redo successfully, and attempt those again. Repeat the process as needed. Every so often, you should attempt to resolve all missed problems to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. 

Lastly, remember that a mistakes journal can be as effective an aid in academic classes as it can be in test prep. Many students, seeing the benefits it brings to their test prep, start using the journal in school as well.

ISEE Scoring

If you or your child is preparing for the ISEE exam, odds are you’re probably a bit confused by the scoring. Out of all the standardized tests, ISEE probably has the most complicated and obtuse scoring system. It’s difficult to both accurately assess where you’re scoring on any given practice test and make sense of what that score might mean. In this article I’ll clarify how the scoring system works and what you can do to best estimate your ISEE scores on practice tests.

How ISEE Scores Work

First, it’s important to understand that the ISEE doesn’t provide a single, cumulative score like most tests. Instead, four scores are provided, one for each section of the exam: Verbal, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension and Mathematics Achievement. Although these scores are distinct, most schools will consider each score on its own and the average of the four scores. A low score on one section, then, can partially be made up for by a high score on another.

ISEE Scoring

Like most standardized tests, the ISEE considers the number of questions you answered correctly to be your raw score, and then converts that raw score into the official scaled score. Because there is no guessing penalty on the ISEE, the number of questions answered correctly will always equal the raw score. The same raw score may yield slightly different scaled scores, however, depending on the difficulty of that particular test. If the ISEE determines that a particular test they wrote is more difficult than usual, the curve will be slightly easier, and vice-versa.

Scaled scores for each section range, rather oddly, from 760-940. Accompanying these scores are percentile ranks—this tells you how the student performed relative to other students in her grade taking the ISEE within the past three years. An “80th Percentile” score means that the student did as well as or better than 80% of her peers. These percentiles largely stay the same over time, although they vary slightly.

Here’s where things start to get weird. The scaled scores and the percentile ranks do not really matter for admissions. Each percentile rank is converted into what the ISEE calls “stanines,” or scores ranging from 1-9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. The middle 50% of students will score 5 on any section—above 5 is above average, below 5 is below average. These stanine scores are what matter to admissions committees, and these are the scores you should be focusing on.

Whereas raw to scaled score conversions and percentiles can vary slightly depending on when the ISEE is taken, percentile to stanine conversions always stay the same. Here’s the official breakdown:

Percentile              Stanine

1-3                         1

4-10                       2

11-22                     3

23-39                     4

40-59                     5

60-76                     6

77-88                     7

89-95                     8

96-99                     9

If you score in the 98th Percentile, for instance, you’d receive a 9 stanine score.

What’s A Good ISEE Score?

What is considered a “good” ISEE score depends on the schools to which you’re applying. For many good private schools, a score of 5 or above is sufficient for entry. Some of the most competitive private schools, however, generally like to see scores of 7 or above. This is generally true of elite private schools in New York City, such as Dalton, Collegiate, Trinity and Horace Mann. A few of the most selective schools look for scores of 8 and 9, although 7’s won’t necessarily put a student out of the running.

Keep in mind that the group of ISEE test takers against which you’re being compared is not a random sampling of students at your grade level, but a self-selecting and generally academically strong group of individuals. For this reason, ISEE percentiles tend to be lower than percentiles on other types of national testing. An “average” score of 5, then, does not indicate an “average quality” student.

The best way to find out a realistic score to target is to contact the schools to which you’re applying and ask for the typical scores of admitted students. Some schools publish this information on their websites. Just remember to focus on the stanines.

How Can You Determine Your ISEE Score?

If you’re preparing for the ISEE, you’ll want to make sure that you take a number of timed, practice tests. Unfortunately, however, ISEE practice tests—both official and unofficial—generally lack concrete scoring information. Usually only an extremely broad range of scores is provided, so it’s impossible to have a good sense of what stanine you’re scoring in.

In order to get a better sense of your scores, a simple rule of thumb is to calculate the percentage of questions you answered correctly on any given section. To do this, take the number of questions answered correctly, divide it by the total number of questions, and then multiply that result by 100. Once you have the percentage, use the number in the tens place to determine your stanine: 90% correct or greater is a 9, 80%-89% is an 8, 70%-79% is a 7, and so on. The result won’t be perfect, but it should be relatively close to the actual stanine.


When considering ISEE scores, always look to the “stanine” score. You can roughly approximate this score by taking the percentage of questions answered correctly on any section and then converting the number in the tens place of the percentage to the stanine score. The “average” score is a 5, although this does not indicate only “average” academic ability. Check with the schools to which you’re applying to find out what scores you should be aiming for.

The Best Books and Practice Tests For The ISEE Upper Level

If you’re studying for the ISEE Upper Level exam, timed practice tests should be at the core of your preparation. Use these tests to learn what ISEE questions are like, how to best approach them, how to manage your time, and what your weaknesses are. If you identify a weakness in a learnable skill, such as a mathematics formula, brush up on that skill with targeted lessons, review and practice problems. By targeting your weaknesses and working with actual ISEE questions, you should begin to improve your scores.

Unfortunately, the ISEE has only released one official Upper Level practice test. Unlike some other standardized tests out there, the ISEE is very guarded with their questions. That said, there is enough quality material available to work with if you know where to look.

Here are the very best practice tests for the ISEE Upper Level.

The Very Best: Official Tests

Start with the official ISEE Upper Level practice test, available for free online here. Note that this test is slightly abbreviated (it leaves out the “experimental” questions you’ll see on test day that don’t count toward your score), so it will be a little shorter than the actual exam. That said, this is the best ISEE test out there—the questions are authentic ones, written by the test makers themselves.

Once you’ve worked through the Upper Level test and completely understood why you missed the questions you did, there is one other official ISEE test you can take: the Middle Level official test. Even though this is “Middle Level” (for students entering grades 7 and 8), it is remarkably similar to the Upper Level exam. Some of the advanced math topics that appear on the Upper Level exam are missing, but otherwise the test is extremely close to the Upper Level in terms of difficulty and question types.

After finishing these two official tests, you still have more official ISEE questions you can study. They can be found in the “Sample Test Questions” sections of the What To Expect On the ISEE Middle Level and Upper Level booklets that I link to above (these booklets contain both the official tests and the practice questions). Make sure to work through and understand these problems before moving on to additional practice tests.

The Best Unofficial Practice Tests

When it comes to unofficial practice tests, there are a number of high quality tests out there that match the question types and difficulty level of the real exam very well. That said, there are more bad practice tests than good ones, so it’s important to choose your tests wisely.

As a general rule, practice tests written by experienced individuals who tutor and understand the ISEE well tend to be of higher quality than tests written by the large prep companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.). They can also be more expensive, however. While some of these books might cost $20 or $30, I believe they’re worth their price. There are individuals and companies selling ISEE books for hundreds of dollars apiece, but I have chosen to leave these books off this list. It’s not that their tests aren’t high quality—it’s just that you can find just as high quality tests for significantly less money elsewhere.

The following three books all offer extremely well written, high quality practice tests that match the question types and difficulty level of the real thing:

Five Practice Tests For the Upper Level ISEE, by Chad Mills – This is my absolute favorite of these three books. While all three are fantastic, these tests are the closest to the real thing that I’ve seen. The author acknowledges that he’s studied both the released ISEE questions and the official National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards off of which the ISEE is based, and it shows in the variety and quality of his questions. This book also has five tests, which is three more than the other two books.

ISEE Prep Tests 1

The Best Unofficial Practice Tests For the Upper Level ISEE, by Christa B. Abbott – Two high quality tests written by another experience ISEE tutor.

ISEE Prep Tests 2

Ivy Global ISEE Upper Level Tests, by Ivy Global – This book also features two excellent practice tests.

ISEE Prep Tests 3

Can Be Helpful But Not Always Great Practice Tests

This section is reserved for practice tests written by the giant prep companies. Some are better than others, but none are anywhere near as faithful to the actual ISEE Upper Level as the exams mentioned above.

These tests might still be a good option if you’ve already exhausted all the above practice tests and don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for the exorbitantly priced tests that are out there. Here they are, in order of best to worst:

The Princeton Review: Cracking the SSAT & ISEE – This book features one Upper Level ISEE test, and it’s actually pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as the tests I’ve already mentioned, but it’s still pretty on target and worth taking.

ISEE Prep Tests 4

Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – This book features two ISEE practice tests. They’re not classified as “Upper Level,” but they generally match the Upper Level test in difficulty. While the Barron’s features some challenging questions, which is a plus (given the ISEE does as well), some of the questions require calculations that are nearly impossible to do in a timely fashion without a calculator. This is different than on the actual ISEE, where any arithmetic can usually be simplified so that lengthy calculations are unnecessary.

ISEE Prep Tests 5

Peterson’s Master The SSAT & ISEE – This book has two Upper Level tests. The tests are a little uneven: some of the questions approximate ISEE difficulty well, whereas others don’t. Some of the math sections are almost entirely made up of word problems, unlike on the actual ISEE where there are a number of geometric figures and visual presentations of data.

ISEE Prep Tests 6

Kaplan SSAT & ISEE – Please avoid these practice tests. There are two, both of which are written as hybrids of the Middle and Upper Level versions. The questions fall far below actual ISEE difficulty level and do not reflect the range and variety of ISEE question types.

ISEE Prep Tests 7


Make sure that ISEE practice tests form the core of your prep plan. There are a lot of ISEE Upper Level practice tests out there, but it’s important that you work with the best of them. Always work through the official tests and questions first. Once you’ve finished those and learned from your wrong answers, use this guide to help select the best unofficial practice tests. Remember, practice makes perfect!

Should My Child Take the ISEE or the SSAT?

If your child is applying to private schools, odds are she’ll be required to take either the ISEE (which stands for the Independent School Entrance Exam) or the SSAT (which stands for the Secondary School Admission Test). While these exams are similar in many respects, they are still different enough that the choice of which exam to take should be carefully considered.

School Preference

The first step in deciding which test your child should take is to check which exam the schools your child is applying to require or prefer. Many schools will happily consider either the SSAT or ISEE without any preference for one over the other. Others will explicitly require or prefer that you submit only one of the exams. Traditionally, New England boarding schools have required or preferred the SSAT, whereas New York City prep schools have required or preferred the ISEE. In recent years, however, a growing number of New York City private schools have begun accepting the SSAT as well as the ISEE, with no preference for either test.


Once you have a list of schools to apply to, call each school’s admissions office to find out their policies and preferences. While a school’s website might say they accept both exams, you might find when you call that they really prefer only one.

If a particular exam is required by a school, then the decision as to which test to take is already made for you. If a school prefers one exam to the other, it’s generally a good idea to stick with the exam that the school prefers. Not only do you look more interested and committed to that particular school when you submit their preferred test, but you also allow your child to be more easily evaluated in relation to the school’s other applicants, most of whom will have also taken the preferred exam.

While it’s generally best to follow a school’s exam preferences, there are circumstances in which it might be better to submit a different exam. If a school prefers the ISEE to the SSAT, but your child performs significantly higher on the SSAT than on the ISEE, then taking and submitting the SSAT would generally be wise as it would result in a stronger application. If your child is applying to nine schools that prefer the SSAT but only one that prefers the ISEE, you might also decide to forego the ISEE in favor of the SSAT, unless of course the ISEE school is a top choice.

If the schools to which you’re applying accept both exams, read on to learn the critical differences between them.

Critical Differences

When it comes to choosing which test to take, there are two major issues to consider. The first is whether your child tends to perform better in verbal or quantitative work, and the second is her level of testing anxiety.

If your child usually performs better in English and reading than in math, the SSAT might be a better choice. If math is your child’s strong point, on the other hand, then the ISEE might be better for her. The verbal section of the SSAT is more difficult than that of the ISEE, whereas the math section of the ISEE is more difficult than that of the SSAT.

What’s more difficult about SSAT verbal? The vocabulary tested tends to be more advanced, for one. The vocabulary is also tested partly through the use of analogies, which are much more reasoning intensive and difficult than the sentence completion question format the ISEE uses to test vocabulary. On the reading comprehension section, passages on the SSAT include both nonfiction and fiction, whereas the ISEE tests only nonfiction. This can make the SSAT more difficult for students who aren’t strong fiction readers.

SSAT verbal isn’t only more difficult than ISEE verbal—it also makes up much more of the total exam score. Even though the SSAT features two math sections and two verbal sections, two-thirds of the cumulative SSAT score is devoted to the sections testing verbal ability: there is a “reading,” “verbal” and “quantitative” score. The ISEE, on the other hand, breaks scores down evenly into two verbal (“verbal reasoning” and “reading comprehension”) and two quantitative scores (“quantitative reasoning” and “mathematics achievement”).

Mathematics doesn’t only feature more prominently in the ISEE score, but it’s also more difficult than on the SSAT. It’s important to note that this is a fairly recent change—the ISEE math section was revamped a few years ago, before which time it was much easier.


Whereas topics on SSAT math are usually pretty basic and stay within the grade levels of the test taker, the ISEE now tests some math that is often a few years more advanced than what a typical high school applicant will have been exposed to. This includes some 10th and 11th grade Algebra II and pre-calculus, such as matrices and vectors, as well as Trigonometry. These topics aren’t tested in a very challenging way and they can be learned, but they do pose an added hurdle for a student preparing for the ISEE.

ISEE math questions are more difficult than SSAT math questions not only because they can involve higher level math, but also because the problems themselves are often more complex and require more extensive critical reasoning. There is also significantly less time provided to solve each of these questions: either 57 or 51 seconds, depending on the section, whereas the SSAT provides 72 seconds per math question. This is the only area where the two exams differ significantly with respect to timing.

Testing Anxiety and Retakes

The second major difference you should consider when choosing between the ISEE and SSAT is your child’s level of testing anxiety. Students can only take the ISEE once every six months, whereas there is no limit on the number of times they can take the SSAT. Because the ISEE can only be taken once an application to a school has been formally initiated, this essentially means that that there is only one opportunity for the student to take the exam, generally in either December or January of the application year.

Some students will have no problem (and will probably welcome!) sitting for the test only once. For other students, however, the one-shot, make-or-break nature of the ISEE can create a burdensome amount of anxiety that can hinder performance on the actual exam. This can happen even among students who aren’t generally prone to testing anxiety. While this anxiety can be mitigated through taking multiple timed practice tests and by techniques aimed at relieving anxiety, it is something that must be considered before electing to take the ISEE.

The ability to retake the SSAT offers other benefits beyond simply mitigating test day anxiety. A student can take the test more than once and then choose which scores to send to schools, opting to report only their highest scores. Many schools will even “superscore” SSAT results, combining the highest individual section scores from across testing dates. Because students have more chances to take the exam, and because scores tend to fall within a range on any given sitting, taking the test more than once can help students earn higher scores than they might otherwise achieve sitting for the exam only once.

Other Differences

The ISEE and SSAT vary in a few other minor respects. The SSAT has a guessing penalty, whereas the ISEE does not. Both feature similar essay prompts (neither of the essays are scored, they are merely sent to the schools), but the ISEE provides an extra five minutes for the essay assignment. These types of differences, however, are very minor when compared to the relative difficulty levels of the verbal and math portions of each test and the difference in retake options. They are highly unlikely to cause any significant difference in a student’s scores on one test versus the other.

Still Not Sure Which To Take?

If you’re still not sure which test would be best for your child, ask them to take an official practice test for each. This will allow you to both compare their scores on two exams and find out which exam your child feels more comfortable taking. While most students usually do comparably well on both tests, some do perform stronger on one test in particular. Also, if you find that your child has a preference for one exam, this might help motivate them to put the necessary time into preparing.

What About Taking Both?

While the ISEE and SSAT are separate tests with a few critical differences, they are also very similar in many ways. Both test vocabulary, reading comprehension and general mathematics and feature many similar question types. The work done to prepare for one test will absolutely help a student on the other test. It is generally best to focus on one exam, but because the tests are so similar there is little harm in letting your child sit for both tests. If the schools to which your child is applying will accept either exam and your child is motivated to sit for both, she could do so and then submit the higher of the two scores. It’s important, however, to make sure your child is thoroughly prepared for at least one of the two exams. If your child doesn’t need to take both exams in order to fulfill school requirements, then there is no generally need to sit for both unless your child is motivated to do so.


For many students, the decision of which test to take will already be made for them by the schools to which they are applying. If that is not the case, then you should carefully consider how these critical differences between the ISEE and SSAT might play to your child’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s always a good idea to take an official practice exam for each test to see if your child does better on and/or prefers one of the two tests. Officially sitting for both tests is an option, but it’s generally not necessary unless required by the schools your child is applying to or unless your child is especially motivated to do so.