Carolyn Rahaman, a professional ISEE tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, sent Abacus Mom this informative article about ISEE prep.  Carolyn  holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physics from The University of Chicago and a Master’s degree in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University.

Many private schools and public magnet or charter schools require taking the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) as part of their admission process. A solid score on this exam can drastically improve your chances of admittance and a low score can limit your options. Preparing can be stressful as the stakes are high and the pressure is on, but there are ways you can prepare with minimal hair-pulling and come out on the other side feeling proud of your score. 

1. Start early

Cramming on the night or even week before is not helpful. You end up trying to cram as much information into your brain in the shortest amount of time, which also crams all that stress into that short amount of time instead of spreading it out and diluting it over a few months. Cramming also won’t help you learn the concepts in-depth or help you recall them when you need them during the test.  Think of your brain like a suitcase; if you stuff it so full and pack it so haphazardly, it will just explode and you’ll end up losing things – don’t do it.

One of the main components of the ISEE is understanding synonyms. This means you’ll need to work on vocabulary, which is just memorization, but takes time. Learning 100 words the night before is impossible, but 10 words per week for 10 weeks is doable. Another one of the components is reading comprehension, and the main way to improve is to – you guessed it, read! Read a lot. Read all the time. In the weeks leading up to the test, read novels, the newspaper, magazines, short stories – anything. It gets you practicing, helps your comprehension, and helps your speed. You might need to brush up on your math, but you might also have to learn new concepts that you’ve yet to encounter in school, so give yourself some time for that as well. 

2. Take a practice exam

Practice exams are available in several professional prep books. Practice tests are important because they (A) familiarize you with the test, its instructions, and its expectations; (B) help you identify where your weak areas are and therefore what to study; and (C) get you used to the time limits. You not only have to answer the questions correctly, but answer them correctly in the given time limit. Be warned that there are limited practice tests out there; take one to see where you should start, and then take a second one only after you’ve studied enough that you feel you can score better. This second test will tell you what still needs work, where you improved, and what you didn’t study effectively. Don’t take two practice tests back to back or you won’t grasp any new information; the second one will have been a waste. 

3. Make a plan

After you’ve taken your first practice test, you’ll need to ask yourself some questions. How much time do you have before test day? How many vocabulary words are you going to learn each week until then? How are you going to learn them (writing them repeatedly, flash cards, using them in sentences)? Do you need to practice reading comprehension or essay-writing? What math concepts are rusty or downright mind-boggling?

For the math portion, work on concepts – not just answers to questions on the practice exam. Identify the concepts on which you need to focus and then thoroughly learn and practice them. Give yourself a set time every day or a few times per week for intense studying. Make a study plan that personally works for you and your weak points. No two people will have the same study plan. 

4. Review as you go

Don’t let any of the new skills and concepts you learn get rusty by the time you take the test. Review what you’ve studied frequently, even after you feel completely confident in your knowledge of the subjects. Continue to look at vocabulary words you learned early on and keep math concepts fresh. 

5. Be persuasive in your essay

The instructions for the essay don’t ask you to write a persuasive manner, but in a way, you need to do it. The essay is not graded, but is instead photocopied and sent to the school(s) as a sample of your writing abilities. These are the people you need to persuade and you need to convince them that they want to hear more from you.

First, use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Show off those vocabulary words that you’ve been studying! Prove that you know and can utilize the nuts and bolts of writing. Secondly, use this time to display who you are, what you have to offer, and why they should accept you. Talk about your strengths and what you hope to gain by attending this school, as well as your aspirations for the future. It can be tricky to brag about yourself while staying on topic and being sure to appropriately answer the question, so practice with some sample essays and then have an adult read it and give feedback.

Thanks, Carolyn of Varsity Tutors, for these very helpful tips!