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Upper Level Strategies

Techniques and Tricks for Mastering the SSAT

#1: Fend off discouragement!

The SSAT is not similar to a test you take in school. On an in-class exam, you are expected to know most or all of the information on the test because it has been taught. The SSAT is different. It is not a test of taught information in the same way. The Upper Level SSAT is made for students in grades 8 - 11 applying to private schools. So, if you are a 8th, 9th or 10th grader taking this test, understand it is made to also challenge students older than you. So please adjust your expectations. Do not think of the SSAT as similar to a test in school where you can work to get an ‘A.’ On the SSAT, you can get many questions wrong and still do well; you are compared to other students at your grade level. So tip #2 is: do not get discouraged because the SSAT is “too hard.” It is “too hard” for all students! Learn the strategies, apply them as well as you can, practice, practice, practice, and relax on test day knowing you have done what you can to succeed.

#2: THINK of the answer before READING answer choices.

On the verbal sections of the SSAT, when possible, it is important that you do not read answer choices before coming up with your own answer to each question. There are certainly exceptions; for example, there are questions in Reading Comprehension that say, “Which of the following…,” which require you to read answer choices first. But whenever possible, predict the answer before reading choices A, B, C, D, or E. There is more advice under each section type for how best to do this for synonyms, analogies, etc. Note: many wrong answer choices on the SSAT represent common mistakes and misconceptions, so many wrong answer choices may look tempting. Even if you misunderstand a question, you may find the answer choice you are thinking of among the answer choices. This is an important reason to avoid reading answer choices until absolutely necessary; they can mislead you!

#3: Learn SSAT strategies!

Whether it is with a tutor, with a family member, or with fellow students, learn SSAT strategies. Whether from this website or an SSAT prep book, learn the tips for how best to do each section of this test.

#4: Learn when to guess.

There is a penalty for wrong answers on the Upper (and Middle) Level SSAT. You earn 1 point for every correct answer, you lose ¼ of a point for every wrong answer, and no points are gained or lost for questions you don’t answer. Despite this wrong answer penalty, there is no mathematical benefit to skipping questions -- you should feel free to guess on any question that you get to. But, if you're running out of time and haven't gotten to questions at that end of the section, there is no reason to hurry up and bubble answers for those unreached questions. If you'd like to see the full logic behind this, check out our article about the SSAT's wrong answer penalty.

#5: Practice!

In addition to learning test-taking strategies, the best thing you can do is PRACTICE by completing timed practice test sections that reflect the structure and content of the official exam you will take. In addition to the practice tests we provide, we recommend purchasing the guide, Preparing and Applying, sold by the SSAT board. This guide has 2 Middle Level and 2 Upper Level exams. These practice tests are your most accurate representations of the real SSAT.

#6: Don't cram!

Make sure you sleep well; not only the night before the exam but the night before that as well (so if the SSAT is on Saturday, go to bed early both Thursday and Friday nights).

Eat a good breakfast that includes some protein.

Do not drink caffeine the day of the test (unless you usually practiced for the SSAT on caffeine). We do not recommend that young people drink caffeine at all; however, the point is that you don’t want to be in a different state of mind on test day than you were while you were preparing for the SSAT. So don’t over-stimulate yourself with caffeine, sugar, or anything else to be alert on test day.

Do not practice for the SSAT the day before the exam. The SSAT is a long test and requires a lot of stamina! Do not overwork your mind the day before the test so that you are as fresh and energetic as possible. Don’t do too much homework that day; consider doing a reasonable (but not exhausting) amount of exercise or just relaxing.


Synonym Section Strategy:

There will be words you know well, words you sort of know, and words you don’t know at all. Your strategy is to first answer questions with words you know (and as you come across them, guess an answer for questions with words you don’t know at all). Then come back to the words you sort of know. Even if you find there are no words you know well, and you focus your time on making best guesses for words you sort of know, make sure you are able to spend the last few minutes of the section entering an answer for every question.

Note: you will also complete the Analogies within the Verbal section time.

Synonym Question Strategy:

Cover the answer choices and read the capitalized word. Can you think of a synonym (a word that means the same thing) for that word? If you can, then compare the word you came up with to the answer choices. Eliminate worst matches and pick the answer that best matches your synonym.

If you are not able to come up with specific word or synonym for the capitalized word, can you come up with a feeling or phrase to describe it? Is it positive or negative? Are any of its roots familiar to you? Can you think of a context in which you have heard the word? You will use anything you can come up with to help you pick the best answer choice.


For most analogy questions with two words such as, “puppy is to dog as," you will make a sentence describing the relationship between the two main words, such as, “a puppy is a baby dog.” You then want to find this same relationship between two words in the answer choices, such as, “kitten is to cat;” “a kitten is a baby cat.”

Note: Order is important here. If an answer choice for “puppy is to dog as" were “pig is to piglet,” you should cross it off because the word order is wrong. Apply your relationship sentence: “a pig is a baby piglet.” That is false. Be careful of word order!

Some analogy questions have three main words, for example, “Broccoli is to vegetable as banana is to.” Here you again make a sentence expressing the relationship between the first two words: Broccoli is a kind of vegetable. So, banana is a kind of what? Find “fruit” in the answer choices!

The other type of analogy question to know about use relationships between sounds, spelling, or the rhyming of words (rather than the meaning of the words). Here are some examples written by Test Innovators:

1. Sound is to round

(A) circle is to square

(B) hat is to sombrero

(C) pound is to kilogram

(D) noise is to poise

(E) pen is to pencil

2. Board is to bored as

(A) coarse is to course

(B) ocean is to sea

(C) melt is to malt

(D) disk is to desk

(E) wand is to wound

3. Snooze is to ooze as

(A) bold is to mold

(B) stork is to bird

(C) own is to clone

(D) dark is to arc

(E) smirk is to irk

Look at the correct answers to these questions (in bold). In question 1, in both the question and correct answer, the words are spelled the same except for one letter difference (and both sets rhyme, though not with each other). In question 2, board and bored are spelled differently but pronounced the same, just as coarse and course are spelled differently but pronounced the same. In question 3, snooze is spelled like the word ooze but with 2 more letters on the front, just as smirk is spelled like irk but with 2 extra letters on the front. You can see and practice easier versions of this type of analogy on our Upper Level practice tests.


The Upper-Level Reading Comprehension section comprises forty questions. This may be more than many students will have time to complete. While you do not want to spend too much time on any one passage or question, you also do not want to move too quickly. While a tutor or parent may be the best person to help you determine your best pace, keep in mind that you don’t want to hurry so quickly that you make lots of careless errors. While some students may need to quicken their pace, many students will actually perform better by spending more time on fewer questions. And remember, if you can eliminate at least one incorrect answer choice but are stumped by the others, it's best to guess an answer and move on.

Questions Strategy:

Read each question; whenever possible, predict what you think the answer will be BEFORE reading answer choices. Then compare your guess to the answer choices; eliminate worst answers.

When you are asked what a word means in the context of the passage, go back to that place in the passage, reread, cover the word if necessary, and decide what it means in context. Use direction words and context clues to guide you.

When a question asks you to “infer,” it is asking you to make a guess or conclusion about something that may not have been stated clearly. If questions include the capitalized word EXCEPT, solve by determining whether each answer choice is true or false. Four choices should be T; the one F is your correct answer.


Calculators are not allowed; students may (and should!) write in the test booklet or on scratch paper.

Know that there may be math on this exam that you have not yet learned in school (after all, the Upper Level SSAT is taken by 8th through 11th graders). If you do not understand a question and can't eliminate any answer options, skip the question and move on. If you sort of understand a question, don’t get stuck; make a note and come back to it if you have time. Otherwise, in the last few minutes of the section, make a guess for all questions for which you've eliminated at least one choice.

Word Problems Strategy:

Read the question and paraphrase to yourself what it is you need to find: what is the question asking? Underline the information most relevant (and/or cross out irrelevant information). Ask yourself, “can I do this problem by estimating?” Very often in this section, you will not need to actually calculate and can eliminate wrong answers by making good estimations. Make your best estimation of the correct answer, see if it is one of the answer choices, and cross off unreasonable answer choices. Since there is no penalty for wrong answers, remember to pick an answer choice even if you must blindly guess.

The above strategy is for quantitative word problems that you can understand. There may be many questions you do not understand well. For these, remember, your strategy is to pick your favorite letter and move on! DO NOT get stuck and waste too much time on questions you do not understand.

Beware: as in other sections of the SSAT, many wrong answer choices represent common mistakes. Be sure to read each question carefully, more than once. Even if you make a mistake in reading the question, know that you may find the (wrong) answer that you miscalculated among the answer choices.


Upper Level SSAT test-takers are given 25 minutes to respond to one of two prompts: a personal prompt or a general prompt.

Your official SSAT writing sample will not be graded but is sent to the admissions offices of the schools to which you apply.

Read each prompt carefully and decide which you prefer and think will be easier to answer. You can then organize what you plan to say before you begin writing.

Paper for outlining your writing sample will be provided at the official exam.

We recommend that you decide your main point (your thesis) and then outline your essay (we have provided some lines under “Notes.”) Your essay should have an introduction with your main point, 2-3 body paragraphs of evidence supporting your main point, and a summarizing conclusion. Decide what your supporting evidence paragraphs will be before you begin writing.

Remember to make sure your penmanship is readable. Stay within the margins of the answer sheets. If you wish to change something you have written, you may neatly strike through the words you want to “delete.” You are given two lined pages; however, you do not need to fill both pages.

If you have time, we recommend that you read over what you have written. Often when students write quickly, they make careless mistakes. Here are some helpful Test Innovators reminders:

  1. Check to make sure you have not left out any words.
  2. Look over your spelling. Are there any words that don’t look right to you?
  3. Have you capitalized words in odd places or forgot to capitalize proper nouns?
  4. Does your comma use look okay?
  5. Have you used complete sentences? Remember not to connect two full sentences with a comma.
  6. If you include dialogue, have you used quotation marks properly?
  7. Did you use the correct spelling of homophones such as there/their/they’re, your/you’re, and two/to/too?

Be your own editor, and good luck!