SSAT Sections in Detail

This summary has detailed information about each SSAT section and will help you prepare.

Writing Sample Section

This section is not scored, but schools use it as an indicator of what a student can write independently.

Elementary Level Writing Sample

The Elementary students are given a picture prompt, and are asked to write a story about what happened in the picture, including a beginning, middle, and end. Students should practice this activity so they are comfortable with the task and the time frame given, and should review editing for capitals, spelling, and punctuation.

Middle Level Writing Sample

The Middle Level students have the choice of two creative prompt story starters.

Samples:

I opened the door and couldn’t believe what I saw.

Nothing could have prepared her for this moment.

 

The prompts are intentionally open-ended, and students can get creative with their stories! It’s only 25 minutes, however, so it’s important to keep an eye on the time. Spending a few minutes jotting down the main plot points can help writers plan a complete story arc and keep them on task. Students should also leave time to review their work, checking for spelling, punctuation, and clarity of ideas.

 

Upper Level Writing Sample

The Upper Level students have the choice of two prompts: a creative short story, or an opinion essay.

Creative prompt sample:

It was completely dark.

Essay Prompt Sample:

What qualities make a good leader?

 

Students generally have a preference for writing creative stories or essays, so they might want to focus preparation on one style or the other. Practising for the creative prompts will include working on story arc, character development, literary devices, and editing skills. Practising for the essay prompts will include planning and organizing ideas, developing examples, essay structure, and editing skills.

 

Tips for improving:

  • Read creative short stories by others. Inspiration goes a long way! Identify what authors did well, the main plot points, why the author’s writing spoke to you, etc.
  • Practise! At first, learn about the parts of story writing or essay writing from a teacher, tutor, or even a guide book. Then use prompts and practice under timed conditions. Use a plan each time so you know where your writing is going.
  • Get feedback. Have a teacher/tutor/parent look over your writing, identify what they liked and where you could improve, and point out any errors in grammar or punctuation that you may need help editing.
  • Write again! Take the suggestions of others to heart, and try again! Go to the same person and see if you hit the nail on their suggestions.

 

Tips for during the test:

  • Make a plan. Knowing where your writing is going will keep it focused and directed. But don’t spend too much time on this–2-4 minutes is plenty.
  • Watch the clock. You only have 25 minutes, so make sure you leave time to finish your writing and read what you’ve written.
  • Think about past ideas. If you’re writing the creative prompt, you might have elements of a story you did for practice that weave nicely into this prompt. Don’t force it though–it’s obvious when a student tries to make an unrelated story prompt fit with a story they’ve already written.
  • Use juicy vocabulary. Add those scintillating adjectives that hook readers and vividly describe your story or topic.
  • Edit. As mentioned earlier, leave a few minutes at the end to look back over your work and make minor edits. Be aware of what you might need to watch out for based on your practice writing samples. Capitals? Periods? Quotation marks? Demonstrate what you know about editing in those final minutes.

Math Section

Referred to as the ‘Quantitative’ Section, both the Middle and Upper Level math sections test a wide range of math concepts, including number sense, geometry, algebraic reasoning, visual/spatial awareness, and problem-solving. According to the SSAT official website, both the Middle and Upper tests could test any of the following concepts:

 

Information from ssat.org:

Topics covered:

Number Concepts and Operations

  • Arithmetic word problems (including percent, ratio)
  • Basic concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Estimation
  • Rational numbers
  • Sequences and series
  • Frequencies

Algebra (elementary concepts of algebra)

  • Properties of exponents
  • Algebraic word problems
  • Equations of lines
  • Patterns
  • Absolute value

Geometry/Measurement

  • Area and circumference of a circle
  • Area and perimeter of a polygon
  • Volume of a cube, cylinder, box
  • Pythagorean theorem and properties of right, isosceles, equilateral triangles
  • Properties of parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Coordinate geometry
  • Slope

Data analysis/probability

  • Interpretation (tables, graphs)
  • Trends and inferences
  • Probability

 

What you’re probably wondering, is why would the Middle Level and Upper Level test cover all the same topics? Well, they both put emphasis in different areas, and the level of difficulty varies. This list of topics is helpful, but certainly overwhelming. To help narrow down your study, here’s the same list with reference to each test level:

 

Topic Middle Level Upper Level
• Arithmetic word problems (including percent, ratio) Very common Very common
• Basic concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division Necessary for most other questions Frequent
• Estimation Can be used instead of complex calculations for some questions Frequent
• Rational numbers Common Very common
• Sequences and series Common Common
Frequencies Somewhat common Common
• Properties of exponents Infrequent Common
• Algebraic word problems Common Very common
• Equations of lines Very infrequent Common
• Patterns Common Infrequent
• Absolute value Infrequent Infrequent
• Area and circumference of a circle Infrequent Infrequent
• Area and perimeter of a polygon Common Frequent
• Volume of a cube, cylinder, box Less common Frequent
• Pythagorean theorem and properties of right, isosceles, equilateral triangles Somewhat common Frequent
• Properties of parallel and perpendicular lines Infrequent Frequent
• Coordinate geometry Less common Common
• Slope Infrequent Frequent
• Interpretation (tables, graphs) Common Common
• Trends and inferences Common Common

 

Tips for Improving:

 

Tips for During the Test:

 


Reading Comprehension Section

Both the Middle Level and Upper Level sections follow the same format: students read a short passage, and answer comprehension questions about them. The types of passages range in style and genre, but there are generally 8-9 passages chosen from history, science, sociology, art, biography, novels, poetry, medicine, etc.

On the SSAT score report, answers will be grouped into two categories: main idea and higher order. In reality, there are many more detailed question types, and it’s important to recognize them when you see them.

Main idea: Asks about the author’s central idea

Detail: Asks for specific information from the passage

Inference: Asks the reader to use clues from the passage to determine new information

Tone/attitude: Asks how the author feels about the subject (or how the character in a story feels)

Author’s purpose/intent: Asks why the author chose to include a specific phrase or word

Vocabulary: Asks reader to determine the meaning of a word in the context of the text–usually a word with more than one meaning

Text type: Asks the reader where the text might appear (e.g., newspaper, biography, textbook, etc.)

 

For all questions, referring back to the text to double-check your gut answer is the most helpful in improving accuracy. Many times there are “trap answers” that reuse words from the text, but don’t actually answer the question being asked, or have changed in meaning slightly to make an answer choice wrong. It doesn’t take long; just look back and check for proof for your answer!


Verbal Section

This section includes 30 synonym and 30 analogy questions.

The synonym questions ask students to read a word and determine which of the five answer option words is a synonym of the question word. The vocabulary for these ranges from words found in the top 3000 spoken words of the language (rank, debate, solve) to more obscure words that would leave many adults scratching their heads (bellicose, vetted, callow). Students who are voracious readers have a natural advantage in this section, as the more frequently you see or hear a word, the more likely you are to infer and retain its meaning. That being said, those who want to improve their vocabulary can start to read more challenging books/journals/newspapers on a regular basis, and learn about the roots of words to help figure out the meaning of those they haven’t seen before.

The analogies ask students to determine the relationship between a pair of words, and find another pair of words with the most similar relationship. There are many common types of relationships that will appear, such as “synonyms” (joyful is to elated) and “worker/tool” (painter is to brush), but there are many other obscure relationships that might be mistaken for more common relationships (e.g., June is to July shows not just category, but sequence). Learning to recognize these relationships is very helpful in this section, as well as using the process of elimination.