Tackling Testing Timing

As I’m gearing up to run my next marathon, I have a lot of compassion for the student preparing for the truly momentous task of taking the ISEE.  After all, this exam is certainly the marathon of tests for elementary and middle school students! I’ve broken down how to deal with the timing of the ISEE by comparing it to an athletic event that requires speed, stamina, fuel, and preparation…just like a three-hour aptitude exam!

1. Building speed

When I first began my marathon training, I would run at one constant speed (SLOW) for every single run.  As I began speaking with more experienced distance runners, they educated me about ways to build speed and strength.  For example, during an interval run, a runner will change up the pace for short periods of time, ranging anywhere from walking to sprinting all out.  Even though I would never plan to sprint during the actual marathon (with the exception of the case of the sudden onset of the zombie apocalypse), these drills would actually make my overall pace faster because it changed both my mental and physical habits of running at a constant slow pace for hours.  I’m happy to report that I have taken almost an hour and a half off my original marathon time in the past 5 years by employing techniques such as these.

Applying these principles to test prep, practice drills can be used in similar ways to help students get faster and stronger when approaching the ISEE.   Most preparation books have practice drills that quiz specific verbal or math skills.  When these drills are completed according to the timing of the actual test (see timing chart at the end of this article), they will give students a chance to deal with the reality of the timing in a way that is more digestible than one massive 3-hour test.  Regular timed practice drills will increase speed and accuracy, making the real test much easier to tackle.

Embedded within our curriculum at Unlocking Potential are timed drills designed to prepare students for the constraints of time limits.  Just as runners incorporate intervals and sprints in their training, we actually gradually shorten the time limit during drills so that students get accustomed to moving quickly through problems, leaving them with a greater experience of ease on exam day.   We also do regular timed quizzes in our workshops to serve as a check-in for both the student and the instructor.

2. Going the distance

Sprints and interval runs are incredibly helpful to build strength and speed, but there is no match for stamina.  Just as I am fading at mile 22 of a marathon, by the time many students get to the Math Achievement of the ISEE, they can be pretty spent.  How can you train to get beyond “hitting the wall”?  A marathon runner will do long-distance runs (often as long as 20-23 miles) leading up to race day in order to build physical and mental stamina.  An ISEE student’s solution is a series of full-length practice tests.  Having a few of these under their belts will have students able to deal with the mental and emotional strain of what is likely the longest test they have ever taken.  The kind of stamina they need to combat the ISEE will not just magically appear—it will come from exposure to the testing environment.  Whether it is an athletic or an academic undertaking, replicating the conditions of an event (ESPECIALLY the length of the event) is a vital part of preparation.

Because we would never want a student to show up on exam day without a test run (pun totally intended), Unlocking Potential offers full-length proctored practice tests leading up to exam season. These tests are administered with many of the same conditions as the real exam and are intended to give students the experience of the real exam before the big day comes.  At least one practice test is included as part of every workshop or tutoring package, and they can also be purchased individually without enrolling in our preparation services.  Contact us to inquire about upcoming practice tests in your area.

3. Feed that brain!

Nobody would argue that nutrition is key when it comes to performance.  Carbo-loading the night before a race may help performance, just like studying the week before the ISEE could be helpful to familiarize a student with the concepts on the test.  However, to a runner, the benefits of one meal are no match for a consistent, long-term nutritional plan.  Just as the body has to access calories and nutrients during athletic performance, the brain will need to access formulas, vocabulary, and concepts on exam day.  The more facile a student is with the test content, the more efficiently he or she will be able to complete the test.  A long-term study plan that includes complete coverage of each test section will create familiarity with test content, allowing a student to move more quickly through the test.  In my experience with several students at varying levels of academic performance, students with sufficient exposure to testing content rarely come close to running out of time on the ISEE.

At Unlocking Potential, we know that speed, stamina, and attitude will only go so far without the building blocks of preparation…the material.  That’s why we pack every class and tutoring session with vital concepts, practice problems, and exercises to expose our students to as much test material as possible.  While not every type of problem on an aptitude test can be replicated, we have found that fueling our students with the right verbal and math content and then guiding them on how to approach different question types equips them to handle whatever the ISEE throws their way on test day.

4. Be prepared!

I would never think of running without the proper equipment or without researching the course ahead of time for things like elevation, weather, and location of water stops.  In the same way, the more your student knows about the logistics of test timing, the better equipped he or she will be able to handle it.  That being said, here are the key pieces of information about ISEE timing:

Lower Level

Middle and Upper Levels


# of questions

Total time

Time per question

# of questions

Total time

Time per question

Verbal Reasoning


20 min

35 sec


20 min

30 sec

Quantitative Reasoning


35 min

55 sec


35 min

56 sec

Reading Comprehension


25 min

60 sec


35 min

58 sec

Mathematics Achievement


30 min

60 sec


40 min

51 sec



30 min

30 min


30 min

30 min

Use this chart for practice drills and any practice tests you may administer at home.  With this information, your child can adjust to the amount of time needed for each question type and feel more educated and comfortable about the timing of each section.  The mere knowledge of logistics won’t propel a runner up that killer hill at mile 8 or answer a quantitative reasoning question for an ISEE student, but it WILL help in feeling more confident and prepared on the big day.

It is also useful to know that if your child has a documented learning disability or special needs, you can apply for accommodations that allow extra time on the test.  For information about accommodations offered by the ERB, you can visit the following link: http://erblearn.org/parents/admission/isee/accommodations

There is a ton of logistical information about the ISEE that we will not be covering in this newsletter (given it has already become much longer than expected!).  UP workshops cover all relevant logistics with the students and provide them with test-taking tips, score conversion charts, and other vital strategies to effectively prepare for every aspect of the exam. We are always researching and learning about available strategies, latest research, and helpful resources, so stay tuned for more tips and information in upcoming newsletters.

Now that you’ve got some timing tips under your belt, it’s TIME to put these techniques into practice!  I thought about running a marathon for many years, but it wasn’t until I committed to my first race and registered for a training group that I began the actual process that earned me that medal.  If we can be of assistance in any way, do not hesitate to click on the red “Sign Up Today” button on the top right hand side of your screen, or just click here to schedule your free consultation.  We’ll be waiting to coach you and your child all the way to the finish line.

Your champions,

Jenni and Erin

P.S. Does the ISEE scoring have your head spinning?  Next time we will discuss translating and converting scores into something intelligible.

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