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Getting into private school: standardized tests and entrance exams

Expert advice and insights into the role of standardized tests in private school admission

We provide all the information you need on the application and admissions process on OurKids.net. Here we focus on standardized tests (such as the SSAT) and entrance exams. We asked school officials and education consultants to weigh in on their importance in the application process. What follows are valuable insights.

For expert advice on a wide range of questions related to “getting in,” read our comprehensive guide. For valuable insights on the more general question of choosing the right school, read our in-depth education expert and parent interviews and our choosing guide.

On standardized tests, SSATS, and entrance exams

“The reliance on the SSAT or other entrance tests will vary from school to school. At UTS, where we receive 350-400 applications for 96 spots in Grade 7, we use the SSAT as our first measure in order to reduce our pool to about 200 students who will write a second UTS test and be part of a multiple mini interview. As a result, the SSAT is important for the first round. In terms of preparation for SSAT, I encourage families to get a preparation book with practice tests, administer the practice tests with real-life test conditions, and have their child work through practice questions in areas that may need improvement. SSAT itself has launched a new online portal that includes a diagnostic pre-test, two practice tests, and practice questions. Because it is new, I cannot say how effective it is, but it sounds like a great tool to help families prepare and the best part is that it is not very expensive ($50 US, I think), especially when compared to prep courses or tutors.”
—Garth Chalmers, Vice-principal, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario


“The entrance exam is a very important part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. Students should prepare most immediately by having a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep the night before. In terms of preparing for the content, they should be well versed in the curriculum as they have completed it in school. If they are good students who work well, they shouldn’t worry about extra preparation. Having students take extra preparation classes and putting a great deal of emphasis on this exam sometimes proves to give students a great deal of anxiety, which may adversely affect their results.”
—Antonia Zannis, Deputy Head of School, The Study, Montreal, Quebec


“Private schools use various standardized tests, including the SSAT, ISEE, Otis-Lennon, or Pearson, just to name a few. Each school differs in how it weighs the exam—some schools weigh it heavier than others. We find that schools that place a greater emphasis on academics as part of their curriculum will also place more weight on the entrance exam/standardized test. Other schools take a more holistic approach, so the SSAT or other entrance exam is considered to be only one component that is balanced against other criteria, including a student’s academic achievement, extracurricular activities, spark factor, and social-emotional skills.

Our first piece of advice to students is, don’t panic. It’s entirely understandable that standardized tests and entrance exams can be daunting. And, plus, we have yet to meet anybody who actually enjoys studying for tests like the SSAT! We appreciate that preparing for the test is one of the drier parts of the application process.

Generally, private schools are assessing English-language proficiency and mathematics. We advise families to start thinking well ahead, given that for tests like the SSAT or ISEE there are set test dates throughout the calendar year. So our tips for families are:

  1. Plan ahead: make sure you know precisely what testing requirements are for each private school to which your family is applying. Not all schools use the same test, so one easy way to keep track of things is to keep a list of your schools along with corresponding testing requirements.
  2. Get help: just as a personal trainer helps you in the gym, as opposed to you working out alone, a qualified test prep teacher or company can help your child be teaching testing strategies and strengthening vocabulary and reading comprehension. Also, they can potentially help keep your child’s interest through this drier part of the application. Beware, not all tutors or companies are created equal, so be sure to ask detailed questions on their approach, including how they target areas of weakness for your child.
  3. Read: encourage your child to love reading, as this will help to build his or her vocabulary.”
    Bryan Ide, Educational Director, KEY Education

“At TCS, we will accept many different forms of aptitude or English language acquisition tests including SSAT, SAT, and TOEFL. TCS also uses the Otis Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT). OLSAT is a diagnostic, multiple-choice test which is similar in nature to the SSAT, but only takes 40 minutes to complete. We administer the test either in person (at TCS or on the road) or online to applicants after they have submitted all forms required for their application. The test score is broken down into a percentile, which we use to compare with report card marks (from the last two reports received by the student), teacher recommendation forms, and every other piece of the application with equal weight. We understand that some students do not excel in test-taking, and we take this into account when reviewing the application as a whole. The test is helpful in determining ELL levels in international students, gaps in learning related to verbal and non-verbal abilities, and students’ overall cognitive abilities. The test is not a make or break factor in the application process, but it is an important piece which we hope students will put their best effort towards.”
Kathy LaBranche, Director of Admissions, Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario


“The good news about taking the SSATs (for Appleby College applications) is that they are waived for those students who apply before October 31st! For those who apply after October 31st, the weighting is dependent upon the individual student. For example, a student who has a strong report card, but whose SSAT results are not as strong—their report card results will be more heavily weighted and vice versa. In terms of preparing for the SSAT—we suggest taking a look at the practice questions, but don’t over prepare. When taking the test, it is important to remember that if you don’t know the answer to a question—leave it blank. You won’t get penalized for skipping a question, but you will if you answer it incorrectly.”
Luke Seamone, Executive Director of Admissions, Appleby College, Oakville, Ontario


“Working hard in school and reading for pleasure is a student's best preparation for the SSAT. I strongly discourage tutoring for the SSAT as we know from experience that over-prepping creates added anxiety. Parents have a central role to play by keeping the SSAT in perspective. I recommend students familiarize themselves with the test format and what to expect on test day, which can easily be done by ordering The Official Guide to the SSAT available through ssat.org.”
—Chantel Kenney, Executive Director of Admissions, Upper Canada College, Toronto, Ontario


“The SSAT is only a small piece of the overall picture. We look for correlation with the report card and if there are any discrepancies, then we may do more investigation. If a student hasn’t written a multiple-choice exam prior, we do recommend practising in that format. However, we do not recommend any tutoring.”
Maggie Houston-White, Executive Director of Enrolment Management, Havergal College, Toronto, Ontario


“Ashbury College primarily uses the Canadian Achievement Test and it is worth 40% of the overall mark. We accept SSAT results and they are weighted in the same manner. The entrance test is a very important part of the overall assessment, as it is the single common feature for all applicants.  We garner a very good sense of language and math skills at the appropriate grade level.”
—Louise Paoli di Prisco, Assistant Director, Boarding Admissions, Ashbury College, Ottawa, Ontario


“We require an admissions assessment at each grade level. The assessment varies based on age-level, but includes reading, writing, and math competencies. We require the SSAT for Grade 9 to 11. Our Junior School assessment mirrors the assessments we do with our current students around reading, writing, math, and social development. The assessment is one of the components of the admissions process. Where openings are limited, the assessment may be weighed more heavily.”
Kimberly Carter, Director of Enrolment Management, Branksome Hall, Toronto, Ontario


“We have our own aptitude assessment (though we do accept the SSAT). It, coupled with the interview, help determine potential. We are more concerned about potential than test scores, transcripts, and past academic successes. We believe if students have the ability, we have a great track record of getting them to fulfill it.”
Clayton Johnston, Director of Admissions, Brentwood College School, Mill Bay, British Columbia


“Standardized test results can be a useful guide, but more emphasis is placed on academic results that are earned over a full school year rather than in a one-hour sitting.”
—Chris Strickey, Director of Admissions, King’s-Edgehill School, Windsor, Nova Scotia

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