Breathe in, breathe out, fill in the oval.

Dear Applicant,

Independent school admissions offices work hard to get to know each applicant as well as they can. By reviewing transcripts they get a sense of your academic ability, while reading teacher recommendations gives insight into your character and drive. Interviews provide an opportunity for the admissions office to assess how well you can connect with adults and advocate for yourself, while the application essays reveal how you see the world and your place in it. But the last bit of the admissions puzzle, your SSAT or ISEE scores, is the piece that tends to cause the most stress and anxiety for students, which makes it all the more important that we work to maintain a healthy perspective.

There are valid reasons why these entrance exams tend to create feelings of anxiety. Some students may have never taken a standardized test of this length before, few have taken a standardized test outside of the comforting familiarity of their classroom, and even fewer have taken tests of such possible consequence. As such, it’s important to keep this test-taking in context, remembering that your scores, while important, are never the single most important factor in any admissions decision. More importantly, you must remember that your test scores will never measure those things that make you so special - your creativity, empathy, drive, humor, or resiliency -- all qualities that are essential for your success in school and in life.

But standardized testing does have some value and, given that most traditional schools are unlikely to drop this application requirement, it is important that you prepare. You should take practice tests, understand the problems you miss, work on what is most challenging for you, and develop your vocabulary. You should also prepare psychologically for the experience of testing. It is not uncommon for students to find themselves feeling symptoms of anxiety as they go to take the test. While some anxiety is inevitable -- and perhaps even beneficial -- having strategies to reduce your anxiety both as you prepare for as well as when you are taking the test is an important component of preparation. We hope you’ll find the strategies we’ve offered below to help you to manage any stress you may experience while testing:


If you feel yourself becoming anxious or frustrated, take a moment to pause and reset.

1. Put your pencil down, put both feet flat on the floor, put your hands on your knees, and close your eyes.

2. Feel your feet firmly on the floor.

3. Breath in for a count of 5.

4. Breath out for a count of 5.

5. Open your eyes, and get back to work.

This technique helps us to recenter ourselves, breaking a chain of increasing anxiety. It may also be helpful for you to move on to the next question, then circle back to the one you found frustrating after doing a few problems you feel confident about.

Positive Self-Talk

We all need reminders that we are doing a good job. When we are taking a standardized test, it is important that our inner dialogue is positive and supportive. This can take the form of little bits of encouragement along the way. Whisper to yourself ‘good job’ or ‘you got this’ each time you answer a question. In between sections, think about what is coming up next rather than dwelling on the section you have just finished. Remind yourself that you are prepared: ‘I am ready for this’, ‘I just have to stay focused for 30 more minutes’, ‘I know I can do this because I have done it before’. When we remind ourselves that we have worked hard to prepare, we calm our nerves, increase our confidence, and stick to our strategies.


Your scores are only one small part of your application. High scores can help, but schools know that many students have limited experience taking standardized testing of any sort and that these tests only give a limited slice of information about the student. Do your best, but do not focus so much on testing that it comes at the expense of time that could be spent on the activities you are truly passionate about.


The SSAT and ISEE do not have to be a one-shot deal. You can take either test multiple times and, if you are not happy with your score on a particular day, you are not obligated to send that score report to schools. The ISEE allows students to take the test once during each testing season, while the SSAT offers monthly administration dates. The SSAT also allows students to take one Flex Test, which is administered in a smaller, less formal environment. Taking a Flex Test is an excellent option for students who experience significant test anxiety.

Applying to a new school is a brave thing to do at any age. You are opening yourself up to the possibility of being rejected, which is scary, and you are tremendously courageous for doing so. You may never know why you received the admissions decision you did but your job, as an applicant, is to control what you can and to do you best as a student, artist, athlete, leader, citizen, and test taker.

Be patient and kind to yourself through this process and go into your SSAT or ISEE with courage and confidence that you will do your best. These tests don’t define you or your potential, and whichever school you attend next fall will be exceedingly lucky to have you.

Enthusiastically Yours,

Travis Minor
Open Door Education