SSAT format

The SSAT: Planning, Preparation, and Practice

If you're interested in attending an independent school, you may have heard the term SSAT and may now be wondering how to study for the test. In this article, we'll briefly cover the basics of what the SSAT is and does and offer key SSAT prep strategies and tips. 

What Is the SSAT?

The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, is a standardized test required by a number of independent schools worldwide as a part of any hopeful student's application.
It's offered at three levels:

  • Elementary, for students currently enrolled in Grades 3 or 4
  • Middle, for students currently enrolled in Grades 5 through 7
  • Upper, for students currently enrolled in Grades 8 through 11

What Does the SSAT Test?

The SSAT measures verbal, quantitative, and reading skills, all the while emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving.
The quantitative section tests things like basic operations, basic fractions, and ordering numbers (for the elementary-level students) and algebra, geometry, and data analysis (for the upper-level students). 

The verbal section consists of responding to synonym and analogy questions at an appropriate level for the student's age.

The reading section is focused on answering comprehension and analysis questions related to short passages from a variety of genres.

The test is almost entirely multiple-choice, with the exception of one 15-25 minute free-response writing exercise. Younger students will be asked to write a short story, while older students will have the choice of constructing an essay if they prefer.

The SSAT is designed to measures skills rather than achievement; in other words, it's not intended to rely on your mastery of specific material. This is supposed to help keep the test fair across all different backgrounds from which a student might originate.

How Is the SSAT Scored?

The SSAT is norm-referenced, meaning your final score is based on how well you do compared to other test takers. You will receive a scaled score and a percentile ranking. The scaled score's range will depend on the student's grade level:

  • For Elementary, the range is 300-600 per section, or 1200-1800.
  • For Middle, the range is 440-710 per section, or 1320-2130.
  • For Upper, the range is 500-800 per section, or 1500-2400.

The percentile ranking is always on a scale of 1-99, and it represents your performance as compared to students of the same grade who tested on the SSAT for the first time within the past three years in the US or Canada.

While the test is designed to be of "middle difficulty," this is a very competitive group of students against which you're being scored—these are the select students applying to the finest independent schools. 

SSAT Practice Tests

Use practice tests to familiarize yourself with the format, instructions, time constraints, and content. They're a great opportunity to practice as well as to ease the uncertainty you are likely to feel when facing a test of unknown characteristics.

Practice tests also provide the perfect opportunity to assess your own strengths and weaknesses. From there, you can ask a tutor, teacher, or parent for help on the specific areas where you struggle.

VHES offers a free in-home baseline practice test to help students familiarize themselves with the SSAT and prepare for the official exam. Click here for more information about our SSAT Prep service and diagnostic reports.  

How to Study for the SSAT: 5 Steps

#1: Take an Official Practice Test 

You should start prepping at least three months before you plan to take the SSAT. The first step is to take a practice test and then analyze your performance: what are your strengths and weaknesses, and what growth will you need to see in order to reach your goal? Quantify where you are and where you want to be. Note your performance in each of the three scored content areas. 

#2: Study Regularly

Having a regular study schedule is vital to raising your score, since you need to put in real time and effort to improve. 

Are you way behind your goal—say, more than 200 points? Think about scheduling at least an hour or two a week for Elementary students or up to three or four hours a week for Upper students. 

Are you looking to make a more moderate score increase of 100 - 200 points? You'll still want to study regularly, but can cut down to an hour or less per week for Elementary-level or roughly two hours per week for Upper-level.

Are you right about where you need to be in your score? You don't need to put in quite the same level of sustained SSAT prep, but we still recommend taking one or two more practice tests to keep your scores stable (or even improve them!).

#3: Focus on Your Weaknesses

In your prep, focus in on the topics that were hardest for you, but don't forget to dust the ones you've mastered off pretty routinely, too.

For the quantitative section, pay close attention in your math class; especially review/practice the topics that are slated to come up on the test, according to the Official Guide.

For the verbal section, make a game of playing with synonyms and analogies in everyday life. Get your friends and family in on it, too, if you can!

For the reading section, the best thing you can do is actively engage with reading on a daily basis. Draw from multiple genres, and force yourself to answer questions (your own or someone else's) about the text you've read.

For all sections, complete practice problems as often as you can. 

#4: Take Another Practice Test—In Fact, Take a Few

Take a practice test every four weeks or so—more often if you are uncomfortable with the test and want a greater improvement, less often if you feel at ease testing and are near your goal score.

Use these practice tests as a time to increase your familiarity with the format and feel of the test. Also perform a check-in to see how your trouble areas are progressing. Ask where your focus needs to be at this point in time.

#5: Slow Down About a Week Before the Test

Give yourself plenty of time to relax; cut down on your study time, and get plenty of rest. Stop studying altogether a day or two before the test. You need to start storing up sleep for the big day!


Please let us know if you have any questions about the SSAT.

Email us at for a free SSAT diagnostic report. 


SSAT Tips and Strategies

•    Guess if you can eliminate 2 answer choices on easy or medium questions. Guess on hard questions if you can eliminate 3 answer choices.
•    "Attractor" answers are most common towards the middle and end of a section. 
•    The student receives 1 minute per question on the reading section.
•    The student receives 30 seconds per question on the verbal section. 
•    The student receives 72 seconds per question on both math sections. 

•    Half of the math questions are arithmetic and about one-fifth Geometry based. 
•    If it doesn’t say “not drawn to scale” then estimate by looking at it.
•    Use numbers that are easy to work with when plugging in for variables. 
•    If you think a question will take more than 72 seconds, circle it and come back to it later.
•    Watch out for sudden measurement changes. For example, the chart lists yards and the answers are given in feet. 

•    Review the word and find the correct definition.
•    The answers may also use a secondary definition.
•    Examine the word for roots, prefixes, and suffixes. 
•    Does the word sound positive or negative.
•    For analogies, build a sentence with the word to understand the relationship. 
•    Eliminate answer choices with no relation and that seem weak in their relationship. 

•    Spend the first minute looking for “easy” passages to tackle. 
•    Reading is the only section that doesn’t progress from easy to difficult. 
•    Usually the very first sentence will be the main idea. 
•    Read at a strong pace, but do not re-read. 
•    Try not to worry about rushing through passages. 
•    Don’t move onto the next passage until you answer all the questions. 
•    If you’re running short on time, look for the questions that ask for a definition. 

Contact us if you're interested in learning more about SSAT prep