How to pass the ISEE Upper Level Test in 2022

How to pass the ISEE Upper Level Test in 2022

Updated May 4, 2022

By Fi Phillips
Fi Phillips

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination) test is an admission assessment used by independent and magnet schools both in the US and overseas.

Created and administered by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB), the ISEE test is suitable for school children from years 2 to 12.

The ISEE Upper-Level test covers years 9 to 12 and assesses the following areas of learning:

  • Mathematics achievement
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Reading comprehension
  • Quantitative reasoning

The test also includes an essay question, although this element is not scored.

The ISEE Test may be taken at various times throughout the school year but most commonly takes place in the fall and early winter. The test can only be taken once within a period of six months.

What Does the ISEE Upper Level Contain?

Offered in both an online version and a paper and pen version, the ISEE Upper Level test features 160 multiple-choice questions plus an essay question, and has a total time limit of two hours and 20 minutes.

The Upper-Level test is taken by children in years 9 to 12 but is of a level suitable for years 8 to 11.

Mathematics Achievement

This section of the ISEE test assesses what the child has learned about mathematics in school so far.

This section includes 47 questions and has a time limit of 40 minutes. It assesses math skills in subjects like algebra, geometry and measurement, using a series of calculation and equation based questions.

Some questions may require that the child converts measurements; however, details on how to do this will be included, there is no need to memorise conversion calculations.

Sample Questions

1. How many times does 7 appear in the prime factorisation of 147?

a) 1
b) 2
c) 3
d) 0

The correct answer is: b) 2.

The prime factorisation of 147 = 3 x 7 x 7.

2. A shopkeeper raises the price of two items – meat pies and apple pies. Meat pies rise from 3.10to3.10 to 3.72. Apple pies rise from 2.70to2.70 to 3.51. What is the percentage rise for each pie?

a) meat pie 20% + apple pie 20%
b) meat pie 30% + apple pie 30%
c) meat pie 30% + apple pie 20%
d) meat pie 20% + apple pie 30%

The correct answer is: d). The price of the meat pie rises by 62c which is an increase of 20%. The price of the apple pie rises by 81c, an increase of 30%.

Verbal Reasoning

This section of the test assesses the child’s vocabulary and reasoning through a series of sentence completion and synonym questions.

There are 40 questions in this section and a time limit of 20 minutes.

Sample Questions

1. What is the synonym of the following word: FEIGN?

a) rule
b) pretend
c) copy
d) persuade

The correct answer is: b) pretend. 'Feign' means 'to pretend'. For example, 'He feigned an injured leg by limping across the classroom'.

2. Complete the following sentence by choosing the correct word. Helen decided to keep the peace and ______ any nastiness by simply not attending the event.

a) embrace
b) avoid
c) ensure
d) guarantee

The correct answer is: b) avoid. Helen avoids any nastiness by making the decision to not attend the event.

Reading Comprehension

This section assesses how well a child can read, interpret and draw information from a passage of text.

There are six reading passages, each with six multiple-choice questions, making a total of 36 questions, and a time limit of 35 minutes.

The questions for each passage will generally ask about:

  • The main idea or theme of the passage and any ideas that support that idea or theme
  • What is suggested in the passage but not overt
  • Vocabulary
  • Logic and structure
  • Figurative language
  • Tone and style

Sample Questions

Women have worked in journalism since around the 18th Century; however, women were not widely working in the profession in the US until around the late 19th Century.

It was a hard profession for women at the time, with writing topics restricted to fashion or 'society reporting'. However, some women broke boundaries at that time. In 1908, Ina Eloise Young began reporting on topics relating to sports, becoming the first woman in the US to do so.

Unfortunately a recent report indicates that not much has yet changed, with over 90% of sports editor positions being held by White males.

1. What is the main theme of the passage?

a) The current role of female journalists in the US
b) The role of female journalists at the turn of the twentieth century
c) How much female hournalists were paid in the 18th Century
d) The value of female journalism in the US

2. From reading the passage, it can be inferred that its author:

a) Is proud of female journalists in the US
b) Is neutral
c) Feels that women are underrepresented in the profession
d) Is dismissive of female journalism in the US

The correct answers are:

1. b)
2. c)

Quantitative reasoning

This section of the ISEE Test assesses mathematical reasoning skills using worded questions instead of calculations or equations.

There are two types of question:

  • Word problems
  • Quantitative comparisons

Word problem questions provide relevant information in a text format and four possible answers to choose from.

A quantitative comparison asks that you compare the quantities in two columns and choose the correct answer from the following:

a) The quantity in column A is greater
b) The quantity in column B is greater
c) The two quantities are equal
d) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given

This section of the ISEE Test includes 37 questions and the time limit is 35 minutes.

Sample Questions

1. What is the value of the expression 2 + 8 x (4 – 2)2 – 6 ÷ 2?

a) 17
b) 31
c) 37
d) 27

The correct answer is: b).

Calculate the bracketed section first, then square it. Multiply this by 8.

Next, calculate 6 divided by 2. You now have 2 + 32 – 3 = 31.

2. x = 72 – 3 x 8 – 20

Column A Column B
x √25

a) The quantity in column A is greater
b) The quantity in column B is greater
c) The two quantities are equal
d) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given

The correct answer is: c). The two quantities are equal, in this case, 5.


The ISEE Upper Level Test also includes an essay question on a given subject, to be completed in a 30 minute time limit.

The topics are chosen at random but are relevant and of interest to the child’s age group.

Unlike the other sections of the test, the essay is not marked. Instead, its purpose is for the school to learn about the child’s personality and who they are as a person.

Sample Questions

  • Who is your favourite historical figure and why?
  • Where in the world would you like to visit and why?
  • Which book that you have read in the last 12 months made the biggest impression on you? Tell us about the reasons.

How Is the ISEE Test Scored?

Each section of the ISEE Test, with the exception of the essay question, is scored individually, although an overall average test score is also used by some schools.

For each section, the score is broken down into:

  • Raw score – This is the number of questions answered correctly.
  • Scaled score – Based on the raw score but taking into account when a child has taken different versions of the ISEE Test over the school year.
  • Percentile ranking – The child’s performance in comparison to the scoring norm and other children in their school year and age group.
  • Stanine score – The child’s score as a single number on a scale of 1 to 9.

Most schools use the stanine score to decide whether a child is granted admission.

The concepts of 'pass' and 'fail' are not clear-cut because of the need to not only pass the minimum raw score set by each school but also outperform other children in the same school year.

The school are of course interested in the ISEE Test score but that is not the only factor they will consider. They will also be interested in the child’s ISEE Test essay which does not play a part in the test score.

The essay provides the child with an opportunity to express who they are as and demonstrate their writing skills.

The school will also learn more about the child from their interview and school reports and records.

How to Pass the ISEE Upper Level

As with any educational exam, the key to a best performance is to prepare before the day of the ISEE Test. Both children and parents can play a part in that preparation.

Advice for Children

One of the best ways you can prepare for the ISEE Test is to take practice papers under the time limit you know you will face on the day.

Your school may supply practice resources but there are also plenty of online providers of practice ISEE test papers and sample questions.

Taking plenty of practice papers will build your familiarity with the type of questions you will face, improve your time management skills when answering questions, and demonstrate where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

If there is one section of the test that you struggle with, spend more time on that. Ask for help with it from your teacher and your parents.

On the day of the ISEE Test:

  • Read the questions carefully so that you understand exactly what has been asked.
  • Answer the questions you find the easiest first and return to the more difficult questions.
  • Try to solve the question from your own knowledge, instead of simply relying on the answers provided.
  • If you do not know the answer to a question, make your best guess. You might be right.

Advice for Parents

Your child’s school may provide ISEE Test practice materials, but you can also source practice papers from:

Some of the above are free, while others are paid for.

Using practice papers will build your child’s confidence by allowing them to find out exactly what they will face in the ISEE Test. Taking these papers within exam condition time limits will improve their time management skills too.

As they begin to use practice papers, it should become clear which areas they need more help with, both from their teachers and from you.

Speak to your child’s teacher to find out if they have any concerns. You may be able to work with them in guiding your child’s studies.

Support their studies and performance on the day by helping with their preparation. Check on their progress and ask what they need. Provide a calm environment for them to sit practice papers in.

Help their brain to perform well by making sure that your child is healthy. Exercise, sufficient sleep, nutritionally balanced food and plenty of water are all needed to support your child’s performance on test day and education in general.

Final Thoughts

The ISEE Test is only one factor of admission to a new school, but it is an important one. Preparing for the test through practice can make all the difference and greatly improve the chance of a winning performance and result.