A Timeline For Applying to Schools (ISEE/SSAT/HSPT)

  • May 1, 2019

Taking an entrance exam is only part of applying to schools.  The entire venture is daunting and time-consuming and parents might often procrastinate applying or even starting research since the process can feel overwhelming. We talk with our students about breaking down tasks into sizable chunks and small goals and in the interest of simplifying the application process for our parents, we’ve broken down the tasks for application into a timeline with tasks outlined by month.


Start Searching and Thinking About Potential Schools

It’s best to start searching for schools at least a year in advance. Most parents and students have a good idea of their top three choices will be at this point. But if you are unsure, start a list of potential schools for the next school year.  Most schools have performances, competitions or events where you can buy a ticket and attend with other students and parents. It’s great to see what the culture of the school is like before the tour or open house.

Talk to other parents and, most importantly, talk to the counselors at your child’s school.  You are looking for a place that feels like home for your child and now is the time to consider some basic logistics.

  • Tuition costs and scholarships
  • After-school activities (What range of activities are available?  Clubs, sports, STEM?)
  • School culture (coed, religious background, academic intensity, homework load)
  • Sibling applicants (do siblings get priority when they apply)
  • Distance from your home (or is there a bus or carpool system)
  • College Matriculation (what kind of counseling do they offer, do they focus on school fit or financial aid or is their interest in boosting the school’s prestige, so they focus more on Ivy League applicants?)
  • Campus logistics (Is the school huge?  Is there room for different types of sports fields?  Is there a natural area with trees and greenery where students can go?  Is there a lot of construction that will be happening while your child is attending?)
  • Homework help (is the homework posted in an online portal so students can have more help staying organized, does the school offer peer tutoring or teacher tutoring? )


Take a practice ISEE and plan your tutoring schedule

We have free online diagnostic tests for our middle and upper level students with immediate feedback on the sub-categories for the test.  For more information, you can read this blog post. Our students, tutors, and parents all benefit from knowing how much our students need to cover and the timeframe we will need to make sure they have time to take everything in and cover all the essential material for a competitive score.  

Summer tutoring is one of the best ways to prep for the ISEE because most students can focus exclusively on test prep without any building anxiety of looming school work and other pressing issues that crop up during the school year.  It also helps students stay ahead academically and they generally can transition back into their Fall coursework with ease because they have avoided what is called “the summer slide.”


Practice Vocabulary, Read, Watch Documentaries, and Build Math skills

There is a lot of vocab on the ISEE and students who intentionally set out to build their lexicon tend to be more successful.  We have an app of ISEE vocabulary, which is a start, but don’t stop there. Make flashcards from quizlet, or use our vocab list, add words from books or documentaries.  Get a stack of flashcards and have it handy for long drives, waits at the airport of downtime at a siblings’ game. Flashcards are a great soft start to ISEE prep because they don’t require a lot of prior knowledge and can be easily incorporated into a student’s day-to-day life without being invasive.  

We have a few reading lists for the ISEE, but there is no set list that is a guarantee for ISEE success.  We encourage students to read different types of books (fiction and non) from different time periods that are at or slightly above their current reading level.  It is tempting to pick up a book below their reading level or a graphic novel because it is fun. However, students who are preparing for the ISEE need to be used to reading different writing styles from myriad authors and quickly decoding new words in their context.  This test favors readers.

Watch documentaries!  The reading section has a variety of topics, but the 6 passages generally have a broad range of science, technology, modern social themes, general knowledge, history and a public domain passage (hence the import of reading books from 50+ years ago).  The bigger the base of prior knowledge that a student has before taking this test, the easier it will be to contextualize a reading passage. If a student’s only source of information for the Notre Dame cathedral is a Disney movie about a Hunchback with no knowledge of Victor Hugo or the 800 year history of the cathedral and medieval construction, then they will have a much harder time answering questions about a news article on the recent fire.  Spend time watching the History Channel, National Geographic, the Nature Channel. Broaden their scope of information so they can put new information into a bigger context in a more informed way.

Work on math!  There is no doubt that the math on this test is challenging.  Students should be reviewing their past math coursework with their instructor and, based on their diagnostic test results, they should be improving their speed in their mental math.  


Register for the ISEE test

August is the month where you will be able to register for the ISEE and it is important to be on top of when registration opens as spaces fill up quickly. This is also a good time to being tutoring for the ISEE/SSAT/HSPT, depending on where your child’s baseline is (usually determined through that May diagnostic test).  Start working on the content of the test schedule a private tutor, and set reasonable expectations for score outcomes.


Decide Definitively Which School(s) You Will Be Applying To.

The most important questions to answer when deciding which schools to apply to are: “What am I looking for? Will this school be the right fit for my child?” Do your research and gather as much information as possible. Schools offer a significant amount of information through their websites, but don’t be shy in contacting an admissions counselor if you have specific questions.  


Take A School Tour and schedule interviews

When October comes around, you should have narrowed down your list of prospective schools. If you are wondering how many schools to apply to, a safe number is three to five. That should leave you with plenty of choices when the acceptance letters come in.  Unless your child’s school is a K-12, we recommend that you do not apply to only one school.

Now that you have your short list, you’ll want to start looking into specific school admissions requirements.

Most schools require:

  1. an electronic application form  
  2. student and parent questionnaires
  3. an admissions test (ISEE, SSAT, or HSPT) to be completed by mid-January.
  4. math and English teacher recommendations
  5. academic transcripts
  6. an interview

This is not an exhaustive list as schools vary slightly in their application requirements. So it is important to visit each school’s website to obtain complete application checklists.

This is also a good time to check with each school to find out specific dates for open houses and tours. Visiting a school is the best way to get a better grasp on whether or not this is the best environment for your child. Take advantage of this and take your child.  You are looking for “a home away from home” for them and it is important than when their feet hit the concrete at a new school, that they feel comfortable there and can envision themselves attending. We offer interview coaching for students who are feeling nervous about their interview.


Testing Time and Letters of Recommendation!

November is usually the month wherein students applying for 5th grade or higher will take the ISEE or SSAT. For students taking the ISEE specifically, it is recommended that they take their admissions test in November (end testing window 1), so that if there is a need, they can also take the test in December (start of testing window 2). If you are wondering how many times your child can take the ISEE, this is a direct statement from the ERB:

Starting in August of 2016, students may register to take the ISEE up to three times in a 12-month admission cycle, once in any or all of three testing seasons. The seasons are Fall (August–November), Winter (December–March), and Spring/Summer (April–July). ISEE does not encourage multiple testing, but we do offer students and families that option.”

It is also important to check on the application deadline for the specific school you are applying to as this may also help you decide the best date to take the admissions test. Some schools accept testing dates as late as January 31st, other schools need students to test in December.  

For students who are taking the HSPT, test dates are usually in January or the first week of February.

Early November is when you want to ask teachers for recommendations. You’ll want to request one recommendation from an English teacher and one from a math teacher. They should be teachers who your child have a good rapport with. These recommendations need to be very strong as they can carry a lot of weight. Choose teachers whose classes your child did very well in. Request these letters at least two weeks prior to when they must be completed, in order to give teachers the proper amount of time to write good recommendations, without being stressed for time.  They will be writing quite a few of these letters.


Complete applications

By the end of December or early January, you’ll have completed your applications. But remember, deadlines range from October (early application deadlines) to late February (e.g. Catholic school application deadlines). You’ll want to create your own calendar to keep track of what’s due and when.


Last-Minute Tests and Final Application Submissions

ISEE and SSAT test-takers may be taking the test in early January (depending on the application deadline of the school they are applying to). This will also be the month in which many students will be taking their HSPT if they are applying to Catholic schools that require it.

Most school application deadlines for ISEE and SSAT test-takers will also be in early to mid-January so you should have all of your applications completed by the start of the new year.


The Interview Process and Catholic High School Application Deadlines

February is the time when Catholic high school applications are due. Virtually all schools will now schedule an interview with your child. Many schools like to interview parents as well. Some students may need to prepare more than others if they have trouble expressing themselves or tend to be more on the shy side. In these cases, interview coaching can go a long way. If you would like to know more about interview coaching with Davidson Tutoring, click here.


The Waiting Period

This is the part where you sit back and “relax.” At this time, admissions counselors are making the hard decisions and around mid-March, you should expect to receive a reply.


The Final Decision

If your child is accepted to more than one school, now is the time to arrange formal campus visits.  The best is a whole day in which your child can visit a school, sit in on classes and meet other students. This is also a good time to listen to your child about which schools feel most comfortable.


You’re Almost Done

The final step after your child is admitted is: you have to say yes—usually in the form of a check.


Breathe, You Did It!

Celebrate all of the hard work you and your child have put into this process. The success is well-deserved!

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