How to prep for the SSAT over the holiday

Last Lap to the SSAT Finish Line

With the January SSAT right around the corner, parents have been asking what–if anything–they can do to help their students stay up to speed and even improve their skills over the holiday break. By now, most students are well on their way to feeling ready. However, extra practice never hurts.

With long afternoons free, maybe a full, timed practice test won’t feel burdensome. Another option is completing one or two timed sections in one sitting–the quality of time invested is more important than the quantity. It definitely helps build stamina for the long test.

Free practice tests for all different levels are available online. These are great for timed work. Print them out, as the actual SSAT is in printed format; also print a bubble sheet so your child can practice filling one out. The best approach is to circle the right answer on the test and then fill out three to five bubbles at a time. That prevents “mis-bubbling,” as your child is unlikely to fill in a bubble for a skipped problem or question, and also increases speed. You can also dissect a test for daily practice, rotating from one subject to the other.

A simple reward planned for after its completion, such as a trip to the skating rink, a movie, or a favorite dinner, can also lighten the mood and add to future motivation. We recommend a fun post-test adventure on the actual test day, itself–something your child will look forward to–so you might as well introduce that notion now!

Below are suggestions for using the tests, and for online and family activities that hone skills in all subjects the test covered on the test.  



  • Mark five to ten problems that require a variety of skills: basic number skills, percentages, ratios, word problems, geometry, and algebra. Having children do problems they’re comfortable with builds confidence for exam day. Challenging problems should be done with a tutor or prior to a tutor session, when the child knows someone will explain.
  • Check out the Spiked Educational Games website. They offer an entire selection of math games that are age appropriate, including logic-building games.
  • Work together with your child on a more sophisticated number game. The New York Times Kenken is challenging and enjoyable for parent and student, as are Sudokus at all levels.
  • Play board games that use number skills. Because the SSAT does not allow calculators, any kind of games using math facts are helpful: Yahtzee, for example, or Monopoly (make your child the banker, have them calculate rent or percentages owed to the bank for mortgaged properties).



  • Work through synonyms and analogies together.
  • Make a Quizlet. Help your child create word lists on Quizlet.
  • Try out, where you’ll find vocabulary practice that starts easy and quickly accelerates. As a bonus, every right answer leads to a donation to the World Food Programme: how perfect for the holiday season.
  • Play more board games! Try Scattergories, Scrabble, and Balderdash. If you don’t have the board game versions, try apps (Words with Friends), or games that require purchasing nothing, like Fictionary (the “Dictionary parlor game” that preceded and led to Balderdash, and teaches poker-face skills, too).
  • Introduce your child to the pleasure of crosswords. The New York Times publishes Crossword Puzzles for Students on a variety of subjects; these puzzles not only improve vocabulary, but are educational in additional ways. Also, building a love for word puzzles now will last life long.
  • Interject vocabulary words into everyday conversations. Converse using your child’s vocabulary flashcards–this practice can be hysterically funny. Act out scenes playing characters who speak in “$5 words.”



  • Read with your student! Go for just a passage or two at a time. The passages are often more entertaining than you’d expect.
  • Read from newspapers and magazines. If possible, read items that are in print as that’s the format of the SSAT. Discuss what you’ve read. Analyze what is and isn’t reliable news.
  • Encourage reading an actual print book. Choose one that is a level or two above your child’s typical choice. Modeling reading for fun, curled up near the fireplace, makes the experience more pleasurable for all.


Overall strategies

  • Indulge in down time. To relieve students’ increasing anxiety about the looming test, allow them to play video games that require focus and speed under stress.
  • Get your child outside, and go along. Parents get stressed at this point, too!


Finally, if you are staying home for the holidays, Open Door SSAT tutors will be available over the break. Sessions during that week can be very productive, as the students are relaxed and can focus well on the tasks at hand. We even get a little festive and find that students connect well with holiday treats or a few minutes of a board game built in at the end of the session!


For students applying to private school, Open Door teaches ISEE and SSAT test prep and helps students complete their application writing.

A SAT Score report lays next to a copy of the PSAT.

PSAT Scores Are Out: Now What?

At long last, PSAT scores are out!

Once you gain the courage to open the envelope or log onto the website, you will see a confusing page of numbers, graphs, and fine print otherwise known as the PSAT Score Report.

“If this user-unfriendly page of information seems like a second test of your analytical skills, you are not alone,” says Travis Minor, Founder of Open Door.

Read on for help decoding the report.


Section and Total Scores

The easy reading appears at the top. It includes two section scores–Evidence-Based Reading and Language (a combination of Reading Comprehension and Writing/Language scores) and Math–and the total score, the sum of the two sectional scores.

Each section is scored on a scale of 160 to 760, resulting in a total score between 320-1520.

In addition to these section scores, the PSAT report provides you with a lot of other information more difficult to interpret.



Nationally Representative Sample Percentile

Near the top of the score report, under the section scores, you will see something called the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile, or the percent of students who scored the same or lower than you.

For example, if you are in the 65th percentile, you scored the same as or better than 65% of a nationally representative group of students in the same grade. This percentile is based on a research study of U.S. students; the number is mostly a data-driven evaluation of how a student performed relative to every other junior in the country. Your percentile score remains somewhat of an estimate, however, as for some mysterious reason the College Board includes juniors who did not actually take the PSAT!

User Group Percentile

In the online version of the report, you will see a User Group Percentile, which is based on the performance of students who have actually taken the PSAT; this percentile is the more valid of the two.


PSAT Benchmarks indicate college readiness in content areas where you may need extra support as you prepare for college. The red, yellow, and green color-coding highlights relative strengths and weaknesses, but as they are based on this test alone, they should not discourage you from taking difficult courses or make you think you are under-qualified for the college you’ve dreamed about attending.


Toward the bottom of the page appears a list of subscores, which report performance on different aspects of the PSAT. Reading and Language subscores cover Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, and Standard English Conventions. Math subscores include PSAT/SAT identified areas named Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving/Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math (which includes geometry and basic trigonometry).

Cross-Test Scores

Cross-test scores, which can be found next to the subscores, show how you performed on test items pertaining to Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science in more than one section of the test. For example, the Science cross-test score might refer to questions in the Reading Comprehension or Writing/Language section from a passage about a scientific study (which may or may not include data literacy and graph interpretation). The History Social Studies cross-test score is based on passages that might emphasize those content areas, but might also include a math question about a sociological study accompanied by a figure or graph.

Annotated PSAT Score Report
Click here to see an annotated score report

Next Steps

Open Door can help you further interpret the results–that’s part of our expertise. We will also advise you on what your next steps should be.

The PSAT shows you which section is your stronger, and predicts how you will perform on your first SAT only if you do no additional preparation. Disappointing scores are not the final word.

  • Try an ACT. You may do better taking the ACT. Open Door offers proctored SAT and ACT diagnostic tests that can help you decide which test is a best fit for you.
  • Determine which test is right for you. After completing the diagnostic test, you’ll be offered a 30 minute free consultation with Open Door. You’ll receive a written analytical report and, yes, more advice.
  • Make time to prepare for the official test. No matter which test you decide to take, at least six weeks of preparation with a tutor–combined with diligent practice as assigned–almost invariably lead to significant score improvement.
  • Consider taking a proctored practice test. In addition, when you prepare with us, you typically take additional proctored practice tests, which helps reduce anxiety and improve pacing. Working through completed practice tests with your tutor help you further improve on challenging areas and identify how to approach the actual exam.
  • Know that an individualized approach to admission testing is best. Most students take the official SAT or ACT at least twice. Some students take both the SAT and the ACT. Everyone is an individual and you should do what’s best for you. Open Door can help you figure out what that is.

Final Note

You don’t have to go this alone.

“Don’t forget to review your PSAT scores with your guidance counselor, too,” adds Minor. “They will be with you through the entire process of applying to college.”

And don’t forget to call or email Open Door Education when you are ready to take the next steps in the college admissions testing process.

For more information on ACT/SAT Test Prep tutoring at Open Door Education, check out our Test Prep page or contact us directly.