Given the current educational climate, many parents are choosing private education for their children. Applying to New York City and surrounding area private schools (secular or parochial) requires that your students sit for one of many private school entrance exams. The HSPT (High School Placement Test) and the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test) are two common entrance exams you will encounter as you explore private school choices for your child.

Unfortunately, your child will likely sit for multiple entrance exams, depending on which schools your child applies to in the NYC area. The good news, though, is many of these exams require similar preparation efforts.

Let’s break down the details, format, and material tested on the HSPT and SSAT exams so you can make an informed decision on your child’s test preparation.

HSPT vs SSAT Quick Facts:

Secondary School Admissions Test or SSAT:

Students looking to get into private middle and high schools often sit for the SSAT exam. Like the ISEE, the SSAT tests both lower grade levels as well as upper-grade levels. The SSAT exam is similar to the ISEE in terms of material covered and types of test questions. The most significant difference between the SSAT and ISEE is the essay question. The essay question on the SSAT is the first thing students take on the exam. Students also have a choice of two essay prompts on the SSAT. There is no essay choice on the ISEE.

Another significant different between the ISEE and SSAT is the way they ask the vocabulary and math questions. On the SSAT, the questions seem to be more straightforward. On the ISEE, there are twenty questions in which the student needs to determine what the best word(s) fit best in the sentence. The ISEE also has a unique columns choice section on the math; the SSAT does not have either of these formats. The questions are similar to the way the HSPT asks questions.

The SSAT is a 3 hour and 10 minute exam that challenges students in math, verbal skills, reading, and writing. One unique aspect of the SSAT exam is the last section. The final section is an experiential section that tests students in all three content areas, reading, verbal, and math skills. 

The SSAT starts with a 30-minute writing section. Students must first respond to a writing prompt before moving into the other sections of the SSAT exam. Typically the writing section is last for different entrance exams such as the ISEE, but not for the SSAT.

SSAT Grade Levels:

  • Elementary: Grades 3-4
  • Middle: Grades 5-7
  • Upper: Grades 8-11

 We will discuss the upper exam taken by middle school students seeking entrance to private high schools in the NYC area for this post. 

NYC Area Schools that Use the SSAT:

When Should My Child Take the SSAT:

Students often see improvement each time they take the SSAT exam. The SSAT exam is offered once per month from October through April and again once in June. Registration for the SSAT

Normally, students can take the SSAT up to 8 times per admissions season. 

Due to Covid-19, the SSAT exam is offered only five times per student (online at home)  this admissions season. The paper SSAT exam can only be taken once this admissions season due to limited availability and COVID-19 Concerns. Students can take the computer-based SSAT at Prometric testing centers up to two times this year. We expect these changes to revert back once COVID-19 is no longer a concern. 

The SSAT tests students in the following areas: 

  • Writing
  • Quantitative Math
  • Reading
  • Verbal
  • Quantitative Math
  • Experiential

*The SSAT includes two separate quantitative math sections.*

Both 30-minute math sections cover:

  • Number concepts
  • Operations
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Measurement
  • Data Analysis
  • Probability

Unlike the HSPT, the SSAT offers students more time per question. Each math section gives your student one full minute per question. The reading section gives students 1 minute per question.

Challenges to the SSAT:

The SSAT has a penalty for wrong answers of about 1/4 point per incorrect answer. Students see improvement with scores as they become familiar with the test format and set up the questions.

Students often sit for the SSAT more than once per admissions cycle.

The High School Placement Test or HSPT:

The HSPT is the entrance exam for several NYC area Jesuit and Catholic high schools. Regis is a prominent NYC area Jesuit school that requires students to sit for the HSPT during the admissions process.

Schools that require (or recommend) the HSPT Exam: 

*With so many educational changes due to Covid-19, we keep a close eye on the private school admissions process and changes to entrance exam requirements. The 2020-2021 admissions season is shaping up a bit different as a result of the pandemic. We will update these articles as things change or revert to normal.*

When Should My Child Take the HSPT:

Students sit for the HSPT during early November of their 8th-grade year. This year, students take the HSPT online. The online format is identical to previous years’ in-person exam with scheduled breaks in between individual sections.

Unlike other entrance exams, students sit for the HSPT one time with no opportunity for retakes. Our specialized preparation process includes students taking several HSPT practice exams to prepare students for their November HSPT exam. Most students begin preparing for the HSPT in January of the 7th-grade year, but we have students preparing as early as 5th and 6th grade.

Even without formal preparation, students should attempt to learn the material so well that they never forget it. Many students simply study the night before their exams and forget it a week later. They should practice a little every day and weeks/months after they learn the material to reinforce it as best they can. Eventually, they will master it and have a strong foundation to build many complex skills throughout their lives.

What are the Content Areas Tested on the HSPT? 

The HSPT is a challenging 2 hour and 10-minute entrance exam that tests students’ ability to pace themselves during the exam. The HSPT offers less time per section that other entrance exams with more questions per section. Students need to be able to answer the questions quickly and move on to make sure they finish the exam.

HSPT Sections Include: 

  • Verbal Skills
  • Quantitative Skills
  • Reading
  • Mathematics
  • Language Arts

The questions on the HSPT are standard 4-choice multiple-choice questions.

The HSPT has no essay section. 

Challenges to the HSPT

Timing is one of the more significant challenges to the HSPT exam. Students face difficult questions with often less than a minute to complete each question and move on to the next question. Time-management is a skill we work on during test preparation to master the HSPT exam.

For example, students have 42 seconds per question during the HSPT mathematics section. Students have only 18 seconds per question during the verbal skills section!

The Format and Test Sections of the HSPT and SSAT Exams:

Both the SSAT and HSPT are timed exams with short scheduled breaks between sections. The breaks given during the SSAT are slightly longer than the breaks provided during the HSPT. The upper-level SSAT exam is a 3 hour and 10-minute exam. The HSPT is a 2 hour and 30-minute exam.

Format, Types of Questions, and Timing of the SSAT and HSPT

The HSPT requires time-management skills that students must practice during their test prep. Students have less than a minute to answer each question on the exam.

Practicing pacing yourself and finishing the entire exam are part of our test-prep services.

Are Students Penalized for Guessing or Wrong Answers?

The HSPT does not have a penalty for wrong answers and encourages educated guessing on unfamiliar material.

The SSAT does have a guessing penalty of about 1/4 point per incorrect answer.


Both exams test students in similar areas. The HSPT is required for many NYC area Catholic and Jesuit schools, whereas the SSAT is required for many NYC area secular schools.

Both exams are challenging in terms of the material tested. Test-taking skills are a significant focus for prepping for both exams.

Both exams have similar vocabulary sections. The vocabulary questions show words out of context (not within sentences), and students must use their background knowledge of word stems to answer the vocabulary questions. The only difference between the SSAT and the HSPT on the vocabulary sections is the HSPT exam divides the vocab into two different sections.

The math sections (2) on the SSAT are more straightforward than the math section on the HSPT. Students have less time to answer more complicated math questions on the HSPT.

The SSAT gives students more time per question, but the penalty for wrong answers poses unique challenges to students.

The HSPT has no guessing penalty but offers far less time per question.

Where to Start Your Child’s Test Prep for SSAT and/or HSPT:

Preparing for the private high school entrance exam process begins with taking practice tests. Students take practice tests to get a baseline to compare with future practice tests. Practice tests help us to see where your child’s strengths are and where they need help. We also use practice tests to group students together in tutoring groups. Most students begin test prep during the winter of their 7th-grade year. We do have students and families who choose to start test prep in 5th or 6th grade.

Students of John Zaborskis have earned over $7 million in scholarships through a combination of HSPT and SSAT prep.

Throughout the exam preparation process, your child will take multiple practice exams to evaluate their progress. If you have any questions or want to get started with a practice test, contact me for more information. You can view availability for groups and tutoring at Book Me.

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