A teen looks at her desk, which is covered in notebooks, a computer, etc.

9 Tips for Getting Organized in the New Year

A new year, a new start, and midterms right around the corner — it’s the perfect time to look back on the school-year so far and reflect on what went right or wrong. Maybe you found that you weren’t quite as organized as you could be: you spent a lot of time looking for papers, lost track of assignments, found yourself cramming for tests or scrambling to finish essays, or just generally felt stressed by the chaos of a busy life. In any case, here are some tried and true tips for giving your organizational system a New Year tune-up!

1. Develop a routine.

You want a system you don’t have to think about. The more you have to think about your organizational system, the more headspace it takes up, and your headspace is precious — so figure out times, places, and resources that work for you, and then let those become set parts of your day, like brushing your teeth or eating lunch. As a special bonus, neuroscience suggests that having daily rituals can make you more grounded and less stressed in general, allowing you to better focus on the tasks in front of you.

2. Use a planner (that works for you).

The fewer decisions you have to make and the fewer resources you have to keep track of, the better. For this reason, choose one spot to record all of your assignments and time commitments (practices, rehearsals, work schedule, family and social events, etc). This could be an electronic resource like Google Calendar or iCal, but don’t discount the paper planner: there’s something particularly effective about having all your dates and to-dos and associated items in one big panorama. If you do go for a paper planner, make sure you choose something durable with plenty of room for notes! Check out these options or this specialized planner for students with organizational difficulties.

3. Create a task list & prioritize it.

Write everything down either using an old-fashioned paper checklist, a to-do list phone app, or a project management software like Trello. Once everything that needs to be done is laid out in front of you, it will be easier to prioritize the tasks. To prioritize, try sorting the items in an Eisenhower Matrix, or plan to do first the one thing you’re most likely to procrastinate (we call that eating the frog).

4. Work on one task at a time.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating: multitasking leads to decreased productivity. Furthermore, if you’re shuffling tasks around, it becomes easier to bury the less pleasant but more important tasks under tasks that are perhaps less dreadful but not as valuable.

5. Break big projects into smaller tasks, or big tasks into steps.

If one of your tasks is to “write a paper on Mark Twain,” don’t just plop that onto your Tuesday list between “chem homework” and “return library books,” unless the requirements for the paper are very low or you are a leading expert on Mark Twain. Sometimes the biggest block to starting something is feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it, so focusing on smaller pieces can make you less likely to procrastinate.

Not sure how to break down a task into smaller parts? Firstly, don’t get obsessive: break a task down until the individual piece can be done in one sitting and you have a sense of what that one sitting will look like (e.g., rather than “go to the library, go upstairs, find the book” etc, try “check out book from the library”). Secondly, ask yourself:

  • Do I know what I want the end product to look like? (If not, that’s a good place to start.)
  • What are the resources I’m likely to need? Will I need anything from anyone else?
  • Are there parts of the project that can only be done before / after other parts?

6. Designate a study space.

People are diverse, so there’s not one perfect kind of study space, but there are some constants: scientific studies suggest that visual clutter impairs your ability to focus and process information, and background noise can distract you and even increase your levels of stress hormone, making it hard for you to work efficiently. So, to make the best use of your time, find a quiet and uncluttered spot where you can do your work each night. Other pro tips for optimal studying:

  • Make sure you have all the necessary materials nearby.
  • For the time that you plan to be working, silence your phone and shut down social media (the Internet is definitely a cluttered space).
  • Avoid studying on your bed! It’s bad sleep hygiene, and you might end up sleeping when you’re supposed to be reading Lord of the Flies.

7. Check in with yourself at the end of the day.

Take 5-10 minutes before you go to bed to take a look at your to-do list for the day. Is there anything on your list that you weren’t able to get to? If so, do you need to move it later in the week (like tomorrow) or should you scrap it? Did any deadlines or events come up today that you need to add to your calendar?

Lastly, go ahead and make sure you have everything you need for the following day (printed-out copy of that Mark Twain paper, your gym clothes, money to get a snack with your friends after school, etc). If you’re not a morning person, having everything ready to grab as you head out the door will make life much easier!

8. Declutter and regroup once a week.

Life is messy, and as the week goes by, those messes pile up. That doesn’t mean you’re disorganized; it just means you need to set up a dedicated time every week (weekends are good for this) to tidy both your physical space and your headspace. During this time, you want to:

  • Take a few minutes to go through the piles at your homework station and get rid of what you no longer need. Put away things you may need to reference later. Identify items that need your attention.
  • Take a look at the week ahead. Note any big projects or tests that are coming due. Identify activities outside of school (sports, family commitments, social events) which could impact your ability to get your work done.
  • Schedule time for your school work. Make a plan for how you are going to complete the big project and/or study for the test.

9. Don’t give up.

Organization (planning, sorting, compartmentalizing, etc) comes easier to some people than to others, just like artistic talent and athletic prowess are stronger in some people than in others. Furthermore, even very organized people order themselves in different ways: not everybody color-codes, not everybody feel comfortable working in front of a clock.

The most important part of becoming more organized is experimenting to find out what’s going to actually work with your specific set of strengths and circumstances. If you expect something to work and it doesn’t, don’t just throw in towel. In a completely non-judgmental way, try to figure out why it didn’t work and how you could adjust or what you could try instead. Maybe the optimal system for you has never been captured and put down into one single blog post, but it’s somewhere out there, waiting for you to find it.

Decoding the PSAT Score Report

At long last, PSAT scores are out!


You will receive an email letting you know that your PSAT scores are available. Once you gain the courage to log onto the College Board website, you see your PSAT score, followed by pages of overwhelming and intimidating data. So what does it all mean?

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. Clicking “View Details” gives you information on percentiles, benchmarks, subscores, and cross-section scores.

Percentiles and Benchmarks


Below each of your section scores, some benchmark data is provided. PSAT Benchmarks indicate college readiness in content areas where you may need extra support. The red, yellow, and green color-coding highlights relative strengths and weaknesses, but as they are based on this test alone (which is a relatively small sample size), they should not discourage you from taking difficult courses, and they do not indicate how well you are capable of scoring on the SAT.  


Nationally Representative Sample Percentile

Under the section scores and benchmarks, 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. This data point is less reliable, as the College Board includes juniors who might not actually take the PSAT when conducting this research.

Your PSAT/NMSQT User Group Percentile

Below the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile,  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.

Cross-Test Scores

A screen capture showing what PSAT cross test score reports look like. There are boxes for each cross test score with numbers in them.

Cross-test scores 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 or Writing/Language sections 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 emphasize those content areas, but might also include a math question about a sociological study accompanied by a figure or graph.



A screen capture showing what the PSAT subscores report looks like. It is a series of number lines, with sections colored red, yellow, and green for benchmarks.

Toward the bottom of the page appears a list of subscores, which report performance on different aspects of each PSAT section. 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. The subscores can help identify the areas in which you may want to focus your efforts as you prepare for the SAT. 

AP Potential™

The College Board now offers AP Potential™, a tool intended to identify which students are likely to succeed on AP Exams. As this is based on your PSAT alone, it should not deter you from taking an AP-level class that interests you.


Next Steps

The PSAT can give you an idea of which sections are strengths (and which need some extra practice), 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 receive a written analytical report and be offered a free consultation with Open Door.
  • Make time to prepare for the official test. No matter which test you decide to take, preparation with a tutor — combined with practice tests and homework — almost invariably leads to significant score improvement.
  • 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. You can review your PSAT scores with your guidance counselor — they will be with you through the entire process of applying to college.

Open Door can help you further interpret the results and advise you on what your next steps should be. Contact us when you are ready to take the next steps in the college admissions testing process.