Key ISEE Strategies

Techniques and Tricks for Mastering the ISEE

#1: Answer every question.

There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ISEE, so be sure to answer every question, and guess when necessary. On each section, keep track of the time and use the last few minutes to mark an answer for every single question.

#2: Predict the answer before reading answer choices.

Whenever possible, don’t read the answer choices until you’ve come up with your own answer to each question. This helps you avoid any misleading choices, which might look tempting if you read them first.

#3: Practice.

Start as early as you can, ideally six to eight months before the test. The best first step is to take a full-length practice test; our tests provide immediate scoring and actionable insights so you’ll know exactly what to work on. Use our question banks for extra practice problems, and talk to one of our ISEE expert tutors if you need additional support.

#4: Stay focused.

The ISEE is an extremely difficult test, and each level—Lower, Middle, and Upper—is designed to challenge multiple grade levels. Because of this, there is material on the test that you are not expected to know. Remember you will only be compared to other students at your grade level.

Part 1: Synonyms

For every question, cover the answer choices and see if you can think of a synonym for the word. Then find the word in the answer choices that most closely matches your synonym. If you can’t come up with a synonym for the capitalized word, can you come up with a feeling or phrase to describe it? Are any of its roots familiar to you? Can you think of a context in which you have heard the word? Do you know any other words that sound similar or have similar parts? Use anything you come up with to help you pick the best answer choice.

Part 2: Sentence Completions

For sentence completion questions, follow this strategy: cover the answer choices, read the question, predict the answer, compare your prediction with the answer choices, eliminate the worst answers, and pick the answer that best matches your prediction. You can remember this strategy with this mnemonic: "Cinnamon rice please!" Claire exclaimed piercingly.

In-depth Sentence Completion Strategies

Cover: Don’t look at the answer choices immediately—they can distract or mislead you.

Read: First read the question and look for the direction words and context clues that help you make a prediction. Direction words either keep the sentence going in the same direction (“so,” “therefore,” “and,” commas, semicolons, etc.) or change the direction of a sentence (“however,” “although,” “while,” “but,” etc.). In addition to direction words, every sentence has context clues that point to what should go in each blank.

For example, if a sentence read, “Taylor was ------ from too much homework, lack of sleep, and the loss of their beloved family dog,” then too much homework, lack of sleep, and the loss of their beloved family dog are the context clues that point to what goes in the blank; a prediction like “stressed” is supported by these clues. “Tired” would make sense but the loss of the family pet implies something more upsetting or distressing than just sleepy.

Don’t worry if you don’t come up with a perfect word as your prediction. The strategy works even if all you can think of is a feeling or phrase for what goes in the blank. Even if all you determine is whether the word in the blank should be positive or negative, that is often enough. Whatever you come up with is what you compare to the answer choices.

Compare and Eliminate: Find the answer choices that are least similar to your predicted word, phrase, feeling, or sense of positive/negative, and cross them off. Don’t cross off words you don’t know! Only eliminate answers that you know don’t match your prediction.

Pick: Choose the answer most similar to your prediction. If none of the answers look like your prediction, go back to the sentence and make a new prediction. Find any context clues you might have missed. There is always a best answer, though it may be a word you don’t know.

Sometimes you’ll have to choose between answers that seem half-right or possibly correct and answers with words you don’t know. If an answer you understand only feels 50-60% right, pick an answer choice you don’t understand. A word needs to feel more like 80-90% right to be chosen.

Let’s look at an example (follow sentence completion strategy and predict before you read answers!):

The day was so ------- that all we wanted to do was eat popsicles, jump in a cold lake, and hide from the strong rays of the sun.

(A) fun

(B) mild

(C) scorching

(D) short

If you follow sentence completion strategy, then you might predict the word “hot” for this blank.. So you compare the prediction “hot” to the answer choices. If you follow the strategy then you will cross off “fun” and “short,” and if you know the word “mild” you will cross it off too.

But you might also think, mild can mean a little bit hot. What about “scorching”? If you don’t know this word and cross it off, then you will have eliminated the correct answer. What you need to do is think, “is ‘mild’ only 50 or 60% like hot or is it 80 or 90% like hot?” If you would say 60% similar or less, then choose the word that you may not know at all, “scorching.”

Now, if a student does not make a prediction ahead of time, he or she might choose, “fun.”. However,you need to use the clues in the question, and in this case all three clues in the question lead you to predict “hot.”


This section is designed to test how well you think mathematically. You’ll want to be comfortable estimating quantities, using logic to decide what a problem is asking, comparing and contrasting quantities, interpreting data and graphs, calculating probability, understanding measurements, and coming up with statistical solutions.

Word Problems Strategy

Read the question and think about what it is you need to find: what is the question asking? Underline the information most relevant (and/or cross out irrelevant information). Ask yourself, “can I do this problem by estimating?” Very often in this section, you won’t need to actually calculate—on some questions you can eliminate wrong answers by making good estimations. Make your best estimation of the correct answer, see if it is one of the answer choices, and cross off unreasonable answer choices. There is no penalty for wrong answers so remember to answer every question.

There may be questions you do not understand well. Don’t get stuck and waste too much time on these questions. Pick an answer and move on.

Beware: many wrong answer choices represent common mistakes. Be sure to read the question carefully, more than once. Even if you make a mistake in reading the question, you will likely find the (wrong) answer you are thinking of among the answer choices. This is because many students tend to make the same mistakes; the test writers have put that answer among the wrong choices.


Don’t rush yourself. The Upper Level Reading Comprehension section has six passages with six questions each, which is much more than most students will have time to complete. While you don’t want to spend too much time on any one passage or question, you also don’t want to move too quickly. Don’t rush yourself; avoid careless errors! While some students may need to quicken their pace, many students will actually perform better by spending more time on fewer questions. (Just make sure to save the last few minutes to bubble in a letter for every question.)

Passage Strategy

Make notes and/or underline as you read the passage. Jot down the main idea of each paragraph as you read. At the end of the passage note, “What is the passage about?,” and “So what?,” or “what is the passage’s main purpose?” These answers will help you tackle the questions.

Questions Strategy

Read each question; whenever possible, predict the answer before reading answer choices. Then compare your guess to the answer choices; eliminate worst answers.

For questions that ask about the main purpose, idea, or concern of the passage, use your “so what?” answer that you noted after reading the passage to direct your answer.

Tackle vocabulary questions like sentence completions. When you are asked what a word means in the context of the passage, go back to that place in the passage, reread, cover the word if necessary, and decide what it means in context. Use direction words and context clues to guide you.

For mood and attitude questions, go back to the passage and come up with your best guess before reading answer choices.

When a question asks you to “infer,” it is asking you to make a guess or conclusion about something that may not have been stated clearly.

For questions that include the capitalized word EXCEPT, solve by determining whether each answer choice is true or false. Three choices should be T; the one F is your correct answer.

For more specific Reading Comprehension strategies, see our question-by-question explanations after completing a practice test online.


Although estimation is often a good strategy on both ISEE math sections, at times you will also need to do actual calculations to solve problems. Calculators are not allowed; students may (and probably should) write in the test booklet. If you’re taking the test online, make sure you have scratch paper to work on.

Know that there may be math on this exam that you have not yet learned in school. If you don’t understand a question, pick an answer and move on. If you partially understand a question, don’t get stuck; make a note and come back to it if you have time. Otherwise, in the last few minutes of the section, fill in an answer for every unanswered question.


The ISEE essay always gets a lot of questions as the only ungraded section of the test. The essay will be sent to schools along with your scores on the other four sections and will be considered as part of the whole application.


The following are some general strategies and tips for tackling the essay:

#1: Always be sure to answer the question. It's important to demonstrate that you can stay focused and on topic.

#2: Decide on your main point, and then have at least a few ideas or details that support that point.

#3: Outline your ideas before writing the essay to clarify and structure your thoughts. For expository writing prompts, it’s a good idea to have an introduction that presents your main point, a few body paragraphs with your supporting ideas or details, and then a conclusion.

#4: Be careful with mechanics, and use correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. Leave some time at the end of the essay section to proofread your writing.

#5: Make sure you follow the essay directions, and always write the prompt at the top of the page.

#6: Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, express yourself! Schools are trying to learn more about you and what you care about, so let them get to know you.