A male student takes the paper-based SSAT for a second time to improve his score.

How to Get Your Best Score on the SSAT

October 1, 2021

Yes, you want your child to get their best score on the SSAT, but it's essential to know that standardized tests are only one of several criteria considered by private school admission committees. Don't think of the SSAT as the the be-all and end-all of getting in — because it's not — and that type of thinking can work against students on test day by supercharging their nerves.   

So, tip number one: take a deep breath. Various intangible factors — from first-time jitters to health and getting a good night’s sleep — can affect standardized test scores, and in another article, we cover tips for approaching the SSAT. Here, we’re going to look at SSAT prep and studying best practices.

Please note that this article pertains specifically to the Middle and Upper Level (high school) versions of the SSAT. Okay, let’s sharpen those number two pencils and get right down to it!

1. Create an SSAT study plan. 

The SSAT is a comprehensive standardized test that measures students’ verbal, quantitative math, reading, and writing abilities. The idea of studying for everything that could appear on this three-hour test is mind-boggling! Instead, focus your child on the areas where they could use improvement. 

Start by taking the free 30-minute online SSAT practice test. This mini version of the full-length practice test, developed by the creator of the actual SSAT, covers essential aspects of the test and returns an instant report, showing what to study. 

Once you’ve identified study areas, use the official SSAT study materials, which help students learn and sharpen their skills through printed guide books filled with tips, practice questions, and exercises, as well as online quizzes and tests

2. Practice taking the SSAT. 

Standardized test performance is a skill students can get better at. Honing test-taking abilities will help improve your child's SSAT score now, as well as give them a leg up when it comes time to take the SAT for college admissions. 

The official full-length online SSAT practice tests provide the best simulation for the computer-based SSAT at Home or testing via a Prometric test center. The online tests show when answers are incorrect and provide an explanation as to why, helping students improve. For the paper-based SSAT, online practice tests are still helpful from a knowledge-building standpoint, but our full-length paper practice tests available in the official guide books are best at replicating this testing experience. It’s also worth noting that the same four full-length practice tests are available online and in the guide books. 

3. Understand SSAT scoring. 

On the Middle and Upper Level versions of the SSAT, each correct response earns a point, and students lose a quarter of a point for incorrect choices. There's no penalty for skipping a question altogether.  

Understanding the scoring system helps students formulate a guessing strategy. For example, if students cannot eliminate incorrect choices from the five options, they are wise to skip the question instead of guessing when the odds of getting it right are only 20%. On the other hand, if students can confidently eliminate three possible answers, taking an educated guess at a 60% success rate is more favorable.

Ultimately, guessing comes down to confidence, and taking the practice tests helps students recognize when to trust their gut and when to avoid overreaching.

It’s also worth noting that the written portion of the SSAT doesn’t receive scoring. We’ll get into that more below. 

4. Retake the SSAT.

The best practice for the SSAT is taking the actual test. Our data shows that students who retake the test improve their scores by an average of 9–10 points per section for a possible total of 30 points on the Middle Level test and 12–14 points per section for a possible total of 42 points on the Upper Level test. However, the vast majority of test takers only take the SSAT once, giving those who retake the test a distinct advantage. 

It's also important to note that first-time test takers who score in the upper 75th percentile are less likely to see a marked improvement. Alternatively, those in the lower 25th percentile have a greater opportunity to improve their scores beyond the averages referenced above.

Various factors beyond knowledge can affect SSAT scores. Nerves, health, and unexpected distractions all play a part. Retaking the SSAT helps mitigate these variables. 

Of course, a lot of work goes into studying and preparing to take the SSAT, and the idea of repeating the process may not be a popular one. If your family has time on its side, we recommend taking the SSAT once in the spring or summer and then again in the fall to approach it with a fresh perspective.

5. Don’t forget about the SSAT’s writing prompt.

While the writing portion of the SSAT doesn't receive a score, private school admission committees review it and compare it to the student's admission application essay. Therefore, it's a good idea to have students practice essay writing before the test, paying close attention to proper essay structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion. 

Students have 25 minutes to complete the SSAT's writing portion, so it's also helpful to practice typing if taking a computerized test or handwriting for the paper-based test.

Paint a Full Picture with The Character Skills Snapshot

The SSAT alone is not a full measure of potential. Showcase your child’s work ethic, resilience, teamwork, and other character strengths to admission officers with The Character Skills Snapshot, available free to all SSAT registrants.

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