07/11/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

How to Prep Your Child for the ISEE


If you're looking to help your child get into an independent school, you're probably trying to learn about the Independent School Entrance Exam, or ISEE.The test can seem intimidating to any young student -- nearly three hours long with five sections, it's full of questions that are nothing like what they may have seen in school.

But with a clear plan and a good head start, any student can walk into the test room feeling confident and prepared.

Help Your Child Feel At Ease
Most students who take the ISEE are in middle school and therefore not familiar with standardized tests, or any of the demands of the high-school admission process for that matter. So, the best place to start in preparing is to make sure your child isn't too anxious about the test.

If they have taken the ERBs in school (a test used internally by many institutions), let them know that the ISEE is administered by that same company and with similar questions. Explain that there will be no penalty for guessing on the test: The ISEE doesn't deduct points for incorrect answers. The essay is a common source of stress for students, but it's not even scored -- a scan of the student's response is simply sent to their chosen schools along with their scores.

Most of all, remind them that with some practice, the ISEE can be easily mastered.

Start Practicing Early
Though your child may feel more comfortable with reading or math, they should be practicing every section of the test months ahead of time. Rather than cramming in the weeks before the exam, it's more effective for a student to run through a few sections per week starting in the months prior to the test date.

While some questions may be similar to what students see on ordinary school tests, most will at first seem strange. Some sections, like the Quantitative Comparison segment (which is unique to the ISEE), will seem totally bizarre. However, these sections aren't truly that difficult -- your child just needs to go through a few of them so they can understand the given formats, and so they won't have to waste time on test day trying to figure out the instructions.

Speaking of time...

Get Your Child a Watch
Once your child has bought a practice book and done a few questions, they might start to think the test is really easy. And most of the questions are! The hard part is that there are 160 questions on the Upper and Middle tests and 127 on the Lower that have to be finished within a time limit of around two hours. Each of the five sections is strictly timed, which turns the test into something very new for most who take it.

Your child might have difficulty completing each section within the designated time limit - maybe they get hung up on questions they're unsure about. On the other hand, many students get to test day and become so nervous about the time limit that they go too fast! They might start skipping the passages they're supposed to read closely, leading them to miss key details and make silly mistakes. Students should practice whole sections "in time" with a watch counting down next to their test booklet. This way, they can learn what rhythm and pace works best for them.

But just doing individual sections in the time limit isn't enough. This isn't a 30-minute test, it's a 160 minute test (or 140 for the ISEE Lower)! And that doesn't even include the time between sections. It's not too difficult to stay focused when they first sit down, but can your child write a good essay after two hours of bubbling answer sheets? Ideally, by the time test day rolls around, students should have taken a few tests in single timed sittings, so that the stress of a nearly three-hour test doesn't surprise them. Set aside a few Saturday mornings when someone can time each of the ISEE's five sections, staying strict even with the two five-minute breaks that the test allows as well. It won't be fun, but it will make the real test much less scary.

It's Not Studying -- It's Practice
With these tips, you can easily help your child prepare and master the ISEE. Just keep reminding them that this isn't like a normal test and that they shouldn't be cramming the night before! When they sit down to work through practice sections and workbooks, don't call it 'studying' - that can stress students out. Instead, make them think they should be 'memorizing' answers, and encourage them to get bogged down on specific, difficult questions.

Call it 'practice.' Compare it to sports practice, to learning to play an instrument, or to rehearsing for a play. The more time they spend with the ISEE -- calmly, early, and with a watch -- the more confident they'll be when the big day arrives. Nothing gets you to a perfect score more than knowing you're prepared enough to get one.