ISEE Verbal Reasoning

  • Posted By: Nora Martin
  • August 7, 2014

The Verbal Reasoning (VR) section of the ISEE test is intended to assess a student’s vocabulary, ability to identify synonyms, and ability to solve the verbal puzzles known as sentence completions. The questions in VR are all multiple-choice. The first half consists of synonyms, and the second half consists of sentence completions, which are each a sentence with one or two blanks followed by four answer choices.

Challenges in the VR section include vocabulary, pacing, and not knowing sentence completion-solving strategies. In both VR and Reading Comprehension sections, students benefit from avoiding looking at answer choices until they have thought of their own answer. This helps students avoid tricky wrong answers and provides the best chance at earning their highest VR score.

Breakdown of number of questions, time allotted, and average time per question.

ISEE Level # of questions Minutes to complete section Average Time per question
Lower Level ISEE 34 20 35 seconds
Middle Level ISEE 40 20 30 seconds
Upper Level ISEE 40 20 30 seconds


  • This is the first and shortest section of the ISEE.
  • Students can prepare for this section by beginning to study vocabulary well in advance.

Question types: VR has two main question types: synonyms and sentence completions. Below are examples with the correct answer in bold.

  • Synonyms - SUCCINCT: (A) successful (B) brief (C) doubtful (D) haphazard

Sentence Completions (3 types)

  • One-blank (found on every level) The textbooks were so well written, organized, and illustrated that the students found them quite -------. (A) agreeable (B) confusing (C) humorous (D) daunting
  • Two-blank (found only on Upper Level) Despite the exceedingly early hour of the class, the students were as ------- and ------- as in the afternoon. (A) fair . . . presumptuous (B) mundane . . . vivacious (C) loud . . . rambunctious (D) muscled . . . concerned
  • Phrase-blank (found only on Lower Level) While many of Mr. Walter’s neighbors found him to be gruff and inconsiderate, -------. (A) he was adored by the neighborhood children. (B) he often refused to speak to them. (C) he rarely left his home. (D) he never volunteered to host the neighborhood block party.

VR strategies: For the synonyms, students should first read the capitalized word, think whether they know what it means, then read answer choices and eliminate worse choices. If students do not know a word at all, they should guess (as there are no points deducted for wrong answers on the ISEE). It is important that students do not spend too much time on the synonyms as the sentence completions may take more time (and can be easier because they offer more context). Synonyms can be done quickly but are challenging when the vocabulary is unfamiliar. For sentence completions, we encourage students to come up with their own answer BEFORE reading answer choices. After identifying context clues and direction words and making their best prediction, students then read answer choices, eliminating worse answers. Test-takers do best when they read the provided answer choices only AFTER determining what type of word(s) or phrase they are seeking.

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