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.

Making the Most of Your SAT/ACT Test Day

Students taking the SAT or ACT are wise to prepare for not only the content of the tests but for the experience of testing itself. Spending upwards of three-and-a-half hours reading, calculating, and filling in bubbles is an unusual task, and it’s important that students make smart choices during the 24 hours leading up to the test so that they can feel as ready as possible on test day morning. This Test Day Game Plan will help students to plan strategically and ensure that nothing catches them by surprise when they sit for their official test.

The Day Before the Test

  • Relax. This is not a good day to write a 10-page essay or run a marathon. You’ll need your energy tomorrow morning.
  • Eat. Eat good stuff, loaded with proteins and healthy fats and complex carbs. This is a test of endurance, so loading up on nutritious food the night before is essential.
  • Drink lots of water. A hydrated brain is a happy brain.
  • Practice. Work through a couple of practice problems from each section. Try to spend 30-60 minutes making sure that you’ll know exactly what to do in each section. This is not the time to try to learn something new but instead an opportunity to review your strategies and reflect on how you will approach each section.
  • Prep your materials. Make sure that you have everything that you’ll need for tomorrow laid out by the door and ready to go. This includes your admission ticket, calculator, batteries, pencils, directions to the testing center, photo identification, and snacks for during the test.

Test Day

  • Wake up early. Give yourself plenty of time in the morning. This is one day when it shouldn’t be a rush to get out the front door.
  • Eat (again). Have a big, healthy breakfast that will fuel you for the next several hours. Avoid sugars; they won’t do you any good when it comes to sustained mental focus. Also, if you typically drink coffee, then drink coffee. If you don’t, then don’t start today.
  • While you’re eating breakfast, tackle a handful of practice problems. Don’t go for the crazy hard ones at the end of the section, but instead try four or five easy and medium questions to warm up your brain and build up your confidence.
  • Walk around the block, do jumping jacks, or engage in some other form of light exercise (on the morning of the test, Sal Khan of Khan Academy used to do push-ups while listening to “Eye of the Tiger”).  You’re about to spend your entire morning sitting at an uncomfortable desk taking a test, so whatever your preferred aerobic activity, do it. Loosen up a bit.
  • Wear a layered outfit. Some test centers are freezing, others are way too hot. Wear something that allows you to adjust accordingly.
  • Bring snacks. Granola bars and trail mix are great for test day. Nourish yourself like you’re going for a hike.
  • Lastly, be confident!  You’ve been preparing for this test, and you’ve probably completed more practice problems than most of the other people in the room with you. You know how to take this test, so put your skills to work!

After the Test

  • Take a few moments to jot down anything notable from your test experience (timing challenges, surprises, sections that felt easier than usual). This will be helpful information if you retake the test in the future.
  • Treat yourself! You’ve completed one of the most stressful parts of applying to college. What’s done is done, and ruminating about the test won’t make the scores come back any quicker. Take yourself out for ice cream, watch a movie with friends, or go to the beach or a park. Whatever you do, be kind to yourself this afternoon – you’ve earned it.

When Results Arrive

  • Look at the results – you’ll probably be anxious to see the numbers. This can be emotionally loaded information, so take a look at the score, then do something else for a while.
  • A few days later, once you’re past the surprise (be it good or bad) of seeing your scores, sit down and review the results with your family. If you have questions, seek out thoughtful, strategic advice from your guidance counselor or a test professional.


By Travis Minor, Open Door Education Master Tutor & Co-Owner

What You Need to Know About the PSAT

The Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, is a standardized test administered by the College Board and cosponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in the United States. It is often taken by high school students during the fall of their junior year.

What’s on the PSAT?

Reading (60 Minutes)

Students answer 47 questions from one literature excerpt, one historical document, one humanities passage, and two science-themed articles.

Writing (35 Minutes)

44 questions test students’ understanding of standard english conventions (punctuation, sentence structure, and usage) and logical organization and development of ideas.

Math (Two sections: 25 minutes no-calculator, 45 minutes calculator active)

The math score is based on two sections, the first with 17 questions and the second with 31 questions. There are three major question categories:

• Heart of Algebra (linear and quadratic equations and systems)

• Problem Solving and Data Analysis (interpreting graphs and charts and using basing statistical operations)

• Advanced Math (understanding and manipulating complex equations)

The majority of the content focuses on pre-Algebra and Algebra skills; Geometry accounts for a very small portion of the test.

Why take the PSAT?

The primary benefit of taking the PSAT is gaining familiarity and comfort with the experience of taking an admissions test without the pressure, as PSAT scores are not sent to the colleges to which a student applies. The results provide feedback that can help guide future test preparation. Students who take the PSAT are entered into the competition for National Merit Scholarships; very few students will ultimately receive this scholarship.

Why skip the PSAT?

For most, scholarship eligibility is not a sufficient reason to take the PSAT: very few students (far less than 1%) ultimately receive a National Merit scholarship. Because many students take the ACT rather than the SAT, the PSAT is not necessarily representative of a student’s admissions testing experience, nor is it essential to a program of test preparation. Additionally, the results of the PSAT take a while to come back, diminishing their usefulness.

How does the PSAT compare with the SAT?

The two tests are very similar in structure and content. The PSAT is somewhat easier as it is written for students taking it in the fall, rather than spring, of junior year. Each PSAT score is out of 760 points, while the SAT is out of 800. This allows for reasonable score concordance between the two tests. The PSAT also has fewer questions than the SAT, and there is no optional essay portion.

When will results be available?

PSAT results are typically available in December. High school counselors receive the scores and then distribute them to students. Scores are available on College Board’s website approximately one week after they are sent to high schools.


By Matt McNicholas, Open Door Education Master Tutor & Co-Owner

7 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Tutoring Program

1. Make time for tutoring.

Imagine if your chemistry class were only 1 hour a week— you probably wouldn’t learn much chemistry, right? Tutoring works the same way; in fact, in many cases, tutoring involves breaking habits, which can require a lot more practice than learning something for the first time.

For that reason, an optimal tutoring program isn’t just the time you spend with your tutor. Take a look at your schedule and try to map out 2-4 hours, outside of session time, to:


Academic Support Test Preparation Organizational Coaching
  • Make a good faith effort on coursework before you meet with your tutor
  • Review notes you took during your previous session(s)
  • Work practice materials as necessary
  • Review notes you took during your previous session(s)
  • Work practice materials
  • Look over and reflect on what you missed
  • Work at least 1-2 full-length practice tests leading up to your real test
  • Update your planner daily
  • Sort your school papers daily
  • Reflect on/journal about organizational lapses
  • Gather/audit materials for your organizational coaching sessions


2. Pay attention to yourself.

The ability to think about your own thinking is called metacognition. It’s one of the most important tools for learning, and it starts with understanding that there’s not just one way to miss a question on a test and not just one way to fail a class.

After you finish an assignment (or get a test or paper back from your teacher, or have an organizational plan fall through) ask yourself questions like:

  • Are there any patterns in the types of question I missed or the types of mistake I made?
  • Was there something about my working environment— like where I was sitting or what was going on around me or what time of day it was— that made this assignment easier or harder?
  • What worked well for me, that I want to make sure to implement again?
  • What, if anything, do I want to do differently the next time I work a similar assignment? (Be specific.)
  • Is there anything I should do/review/ask my tutor about before I do a similar assignment? Is there one particular difficulty I keep coming up against that I want to talk over with my tutor?

Part of your tutor’s job is to pay attention to you and figure out where your obstacles are— but, at the end of the day, you’re the only one with a front-row seat. By reviewing your mistakes and taking the time to start thinking about what your specific challenges are, it’s going to be much easier for you and your tutor to address those challenges.

3. Be willing to face what you find difficult.

My first day of college, a professor told my Italian 101 class that the greatest impediment to learning a new language is vergogna—“shame.” In order to become fluent in a language, you have to be willing to make mistakes, to imitate accents that probably sound ridiculous, to have people laugh and correct your grammar, to tell people that you’re sorry but you don’t understand them.

Needless to say, vergogna doesn’t just affect the learning of languages. You can easily get so wrapped up in avoiding the things you’re not good at that you never give yourself a chance to be better at them. Furthermore, failing is one of the most valuable things we can do in life. Your tutor can help you to understand and hopefully avoid repeating old mistakes— but making new mistakes is how we learn.

4. Be honest with your tutor.

Sometimes it’s not shame that holds us back but a desire to be polite. When something is our fault, we want to keep the consequences from affecting other people; if we feel like we “should have” understood something, we don’t want to make it anyone else’s problem.

Maybe your tutor is in the middle of an explanation, and you start thinking about what time you need to leave the office to pick up your sister, and then you’re thinking about whether you need to put gas in the car, and suddenly you realize you don’t have any idea what your tutor just said. They say, “Does that make sense?” Desperate not to reveal that you weren’t tuned in, you say yes.

But that is not what your tutor wants.

Your tutor’s job is to help you learn, and if they have a false idea of what you know (or, worse, a false idea of how much you’re absorbing in-session), it’s hard for them to work effectively. And since that’s not what either of you want, it definitely doesn’t count as polite.

5. No, really— be honest with your tutor.

Maybe you don’t have time to do 2 hours of homework. Maybe your tutor keeps explaining things with sports metaphors that don’t make any sense to you, or they ask you to “look over your missed questions” but you don’t really know what that means. What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and your tutor may not know it doesn’t work for you unless you tell them that.

In other words, advocate for yourself. One of the biggest potential benefits of tutoring is that you get to take a more active role in directing your learning than you do in a typical classroom environment— but only if you speak up.

6. Do your own (best) work.

Sometimes being honest isn’t about what you do or don’t understand— it’s about what you didn’t get done, despite your best intentions.

Sometimes the week just didn’t go like you planned, and you left yourself only 30 minutes to do 2 hours of homework. Rather than rush through it like a maniac and do poor, unreflective work— or, so much worse, copy the answers instead of attempting the problems— you should do a good job on what you can get to and then tell your tutor you ran out of time for the rest. That’s life. Your tutoring homework is important, but your tutor also understands that you have other things going on in your life, and sometimes tutoring gets crowded out. It’s so much easier for your tutor to recover from that than to recover from bad data.

7. Be willing to try new things.

Some students believe all they need to do in order to improve is practice— and practice is important, but not if you don’t reflect on that practice and learn from the mistakes you make. Improvement is almost never the result of luck or magic. If you don’t change what you’re doing, you shouldn’t expect different results.

Moreover, most students have to experiment a little to find the approaches that work best for them. If you try something and it doesn’t work, reflect on what you liked or didn’t like, talk to your tutor, try something else. Most importantly, stay positive and don’t give up.


By Erin Webb, Open Door Education Master Tutor & Co-Owner

Summer SAT Prep

5 Ways to Prepare for the SAT (Even When You're Not Preparing for the SAT)

Some things are best left to the expert advice of an SAT professional, but even if you’re not planning to deal directly with the SAT over the summer, there’s plenty you can do on your own to make you a better SAT test-taker.

The SAT is designed to test skills and knowledges that are accrued over a long time, things like vocabulary and math fluency, and these can be developed and honed beyond the hours spent in class. Not only do you not have to wait until a full-scale test prep program to start building these skills, you probably shouldn’t. Here’s a list of 5 ways you can utilize the precious summer months to build your skill and knowledge, laying the foundation for a strong performance on your next (or first) SAT in the fall.

1. Read old-fashioned books

Arguably the steepest learning curve on the SAT is the Reading section’s use of historical passages, which are pulled from various literary and political texts stretching as far back as the late 18th century. In the good old days, sentences went on for a mile without stopping, and paragraph breaks were a matter of personal preference. For a modern reader who is not used to old-fashioned prose, these texts can be extremely difficult to parse. Furthermore, because these texts can’t be understood in a hurry, it’s hard to maintain the focus and patience necessary to teach yourself old-fashioned prose in the middle of a busy school year.

Are these books beach-reading? Possibly not. But it doesn’t have to be painful. Maybe you read some Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mary Shelley in school and hated it— no problem, there’s a whole world of old books for you to choose from, across different subject areas. Look for what you’re most likely to enjoy so that you can spend your energy on unpacking dense prose and not on trying to care about what’s up with Jane Eyre and her eccentric boyfriend.

• If you’re a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, try combining your love with some writings from Alexander Hamilton himself.

• Enjoyed the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law? Check out the original source material by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: plenty of old-fashioned prose to work through, but action-packed and rich in dialogue.

• For those with a romantic bent, any of Jane Austen’s novels is a sure fit. You can even watch the movie first, which will not only help you follow the plot (so that you can devote greater energy to unpacking the prose) but also solidify your investment in the characters so that you’re less likely to give up if the going gets tough.

• For the politically inclined, try Democracy in America (1835-40) by Alexis de Toqueville. Fresh on the heels of the 1830 French ousting of King Charles X, Toqueville traveled the U.S. in order to study democracy and report back to his fellow Frenchmen. A lot of his insights can help us understand even our own current political ups and downs.

• Likewise for the politically inclined, or anyone interested in American history, sociology or race relations, try The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois. In this series of essays, the author attempts to represent Black culture to a White audience, coining the term “double consciousness.” What is that, you wonder? Read to find out.

2. Improve your vocab

Even though the SAT no longer has a specific vocabulary section, questions that require a sophisticated vocabulary are embedded in the Reading passages and in questions scattered throughout the Verbal portions of the test.

One way to study vocab over the summer is to keep a Frayer Model vocabulary journal and record words as you come across them in your reading; you can download a template here and an example page here. If you need a more focused list, try starting with this shortlist of useful vocabulary words for the Verbal portions of the SAT. It includes “tone words”— words that describe the emotion of a passage or character— that frequently show up in SAT Reading passages and answer choices, plus obscure transition words and homonyms for the Writing/Language section.

Another way to improve your vocab is to focus on word parts in addition to the words themselves. The nice thing about learning classical roots is that these apply to multiple words, not just one; if we know that the Latin root here– means “cling,” that can help us understand (and remember) valuable SAT words like adhere, cohesive, and inherent. When you look up a word in a dictionary, pay attention to the word origin (or etymology) and add anything useful to your vocab journal. You can find a great, studyable list of Greek and Latin roots here and then quiz yourself here.

3. Study math memorizables

So much of SAT Math is about recognizing certain forms— the key to moving forward in a question might be, for example, that this expression looks like the vertex form of a parabola or that its multiple-choice answers all look like the discriminant of a quadratic function. In other words, you may be comfortable with factoring as a concept, but are you fluent enough that you’ll recognize a difference of squares when you see it?

Summer’s a great time to gently refresh yourself on these topics without necessarily diving into SAT material. We love the algebra chapters of the CliffsNotes Math Review for Standardized Tests— or, if you need something more interactive, check out Khan Academy’s suite of videos and exercises for assorted algebra topics, particularly functions, linear equations, and parabolas.

4. Practice mental math

The SAT has two Math sections; one of them allows the use of a calculator, but small mental math errors (or slow mental math) are likely to cost you points no matter which Math section you’re on. Some of us are more comfortable with mental math than others— but even for strong mental math-ers, if you’re testing in August, you have a couple of months out of school for those skills to atrophy.

To improve your mental math skills or keep your existing skills sharp, engage in low-key computations daily. If you’re already doing math enrichment for school, try doing as much of the math as you can in your head. If not, look for other opportunities.

One resource we love is ThinkFun’s Math Dice; it’s a convenient, tactile way to practice mental math, even in the palm of your hand, and it scales up according to your difficulty needs. (If your mental math is rusty, start off by rolling the two numbered dice in your hand and adding, multiplying or dividing the face-up numbers; for intermediate difficulty, try rolling the three dotted dice in your hand and adding, multiplying or dividing those; for advanced difficulty, try rolling one numbered die and one dotted die, and let the dotted die be an exponent.)

Another great resource is arithmetic-level math drill worksheets, like Kuta Software’s free pre-algebra worksheets.

5. Practice analyzing arguments

Formal rhetorical analysis can be hard to practice without some set-up from a tutor or teacher, but informal rhetorical analysis is just about paying attention to how people try to convince you of things, and whether they’re successful, and why or why not. That’s not only something the SAT tests, it’s a straight-up life skill.

To practice informal rhetorical analysis, you could visit a news website and check out its editorials or blog posts (any piece of opinion-based writing that is meant to be persuasive). Discuss what you read with a friend, noting what was compelling or not.

What we aim to understand is how the writer is trying to manipulate the reader (not necessarily in a negative way), so think about how the writer is trying to affect you (or someone else, if you’re not necessarily a member of the piece’s intended audience). Check out Purdue University’s shortlist of logical fallacies and then keep your eyes open for them while you’re reading articles, listening to friends, even watching TV commercials. You may find that this not only better prepares you for the SAT essay, it also makes you a better thinker, citizen, and consumer.

Conquering the SAT requires more than just honing your skills, of course. It demands active engagement with practice materials, savvy strategies for each section of the test, and a thoughtful plan for preparation, including practice tests. Open Door is proud to offer smart, effective one-on-one tutoring to help students improve their scores and their confidence. Contact us today to make the most of your preparation.

No matter what you do this summer, however, make sure you also include plenty of “you” time to have fun, relax, and just be. A happy brain— with plenty of unstructured time for play and aimless wandering— is a high-performing brain!


By Erin Webb, Open Door Education Master Tutor & Co-Owner

Books in front of a chalkboard

Yes, We Can: Growth Mindset as a Tool for Successful Learning

In her 2006 groundbreaking book Mindset, Carol Dweck, PhD, lays out her theory of “growth mindset,” a radical concept that talent and intelligence may be inborn to an extent, but can also be built. The book was updated and re-released in 2016, and her theory has recently gained popularity among family counselors, corporate trainers, and educational consultants.

Central to Dweck’s theory is her rejection of the idea that intelligence and talent are “fixed,” or static. She rejects assumptions we all make about our abilities, like whether we are good at math, playing an instrument, or performing athletically. She relies on examples like Michael Jordan, who was cut from his middle school basketball team, to show how countless hours of work combined with the conviction that skills can be built will result in extraordinary accomplishment. The cases she cites share a significant commonality: each highly accomplished individual had family members, coaches, and/or mentors who believed in and modeled a growth mindset.

What does this mean to parents and tutors?

Dweck explains that parents’ communication style is essential to changing how their children approach learning. For example, praising children’s abilities as opposed to their accomplishments or hard work creates abstract standards that are actually harmful. If parents repeatedly tell high-achieving children that they are smart, they will likely grow into teenagers and adults who reject challenges—held back and sometimes even paralyzed by fear of failure—and remain in arenas and at levels where they are confident they will not fall short. On the other hand, those children who are told that hard work builds abilities accept new challenges with enthusiasm and without the need to prove, time and time again, that they are gifted. Children who do not fear failure, but see it as a learning experience, actually end up more skilled, and with broader experiences.

In standardized test prep, tutors explain that almost every missed question in practice work is an opportunity for a right answer on the actual test. Think about it: students learn through their mistakes where to focus their time practicing, as well as how to recognize tempting incorrect answers. Sometimes this learning results in new mastery of material, and other times in additional test-taking skills, but the result is always positive. In contrast, students who criticize themselves for missing answers on a practice test and see no benefit to making mistakes establish negative self-talk that is counter-productive.

Parents can model “growth mindset” at home by avoiding comments like, “He’s just not a good test-taker,” or “My daughter isn’t good at math,” even when combined with statements like, “However, he’s great at school,” or “She’s really talented in the humanities.” Even statements like, “It’s okay, I was terrible at test-taking, too,” can negatively affect a student’s attitude. Instead, try, “We all need to learn and practice strategies to become good at tests/performance/public speaking,” or “English came more easily to me; I had to work hard to understand physics.”

Dweck explains that Mozart, who had an uncanny musical ability at an early age, worked his fingers to the point of crippling muscle cramps. Even child prodigies who do not apply their gifts can freeze up and fail at the very thing they were born with talent to do.

Dweck cites as another example Billy Beane, who despite being an extraordinarily gifted student athlete, had a short and disastrous career as a major league baseball player, paralyzed by fear of failing to live up to expectations. In the early 2000’s, Beane famously built the Oakland A’s into a world championship baseball team by hiring players who hadn’t been hyped as the best, and thus could be hired for less. His theory was that players who aren’t burdened by out-sized expectations will often outperform those who are. Beane was right, and now teams throughout the MLB use what is called “sabermetrics” to build winning teams.

The evidence Dweck cites is convincing, and when applied to our own lives, makes good sense. We have all known students who succeed in grade school with little to no effort, and are praised for being intellectually gifted, only to find middle school and high school daunting when classes become more demanding. These kids, who never had to learn how to learn, feel constant frustration or even give up from fear of failure. That is certainly not what we want for our children.

If we accept Dweck’s argument that those who have been told that abilities can be developed will continue to strive, and in the long run live more enriching lives in which they continue to learn for learning’s sake and for the fun of accepting a challenge, then certainly it is worth changing how we communicate.

Moving from a “fixed mindset to a “growth mindset” enables individuals to embrace new challenges for the growth they bring. The very definition of success changes from one of a grade or score to one of continual learning and expansion—also known in psychology as “flourishing.”

Remember that old maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? There is, indeed, much power in resilience and what today’s psychologists call “grit.” Now add the idea that it is in the very act of trying (learning, practicing, growing) that we receive fulfillment, and we have a new, enriched way of looking at both learning and success.

Tonight, praise your child for a job well done, for consistent effort, and for willingness to accept a new challenge with positivity, regardless of the immediate measured result. Model the same behavior in your own life. Talk to your child’s tutor about efforts to redefine ability and success—we are eager to participate in making a positive difference!

Pens and art supplies

Student Artist Spotlight: Alexis Chisom

Alexis Chisom’s piece “Mother Earth,” a black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing
Alexis Chisom’s piece “Mother Earth,” a black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing, will be on display until May 31, 2018

Open Door student Alexis Chisom, a home-schooled sophomore from Littleton, is April and May’s featured student artist in the Acton Office.

Alexis’s piece, “Mother Earth,” is on display in Acton until May 31, 2018. She says she was moved to create the piece, hoping to inspire people to re-establish a connection with nature. The black and white chalk pastel pencil drawing depicts a figure who, she says, is based on herself, but is also representative of any Mother Earth figure.

“I feel like there was a reverence for nature in the past that has slipped away,” says Alexis. “I wanted to create something to connect the viewer and nature, and an image of myself became the vehicle.”

Why a Mother Earth in black and white? “I felt that black and white is more striking and unusual for a piece about nature,” says Alexis. “Since most of us are accustomed to seeing nature drawings in color, seeing light drawn on dark makes the viewer pause and think.”

Alexis also works in pen and ink, graphite, and, occasionally, watercolor. She says that after taking a class in scientific illustration, which satisfied her combined interest in bio and art, she has enjoyed creating anatomical drawings.

Alexis indeed has a strong interest in the sciences. She recently applied for the prestigious Inspire Science Award for Collaborative Cancer Research, and as a recipient will be working this summer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in research on anaplastic thyroid cancer. She also trained as a certified yoga teacher at the age of 15 and teaches privately. Her blog, Young Adults Discovering Wellness + Health, covers topics that range from personal wellness to public health—the latter being the field she hopes to enter as an adult.

Alexis’s goal is to found a system of wellness centers that focus on youth, including services for underprivileged adolescents, and combining pediatrics with research. She imagines the first center being “in a big building, probably near an underserved area.”

Another of Alexis’s passions is writing. She penned her first book as a young child, a picture book called The Lion and the Elephant, and recently she received a Scholastic Silver Key in poetry. Fluent in Spanish, she has begun writing fiction in that language, as well. She hopes someday to be published in both fiction (she’s currently working on a fantasy adventure that also addresses family bonds) and nonfiction (with a particular interest in the beneficial aspects of intergenerational activities between adolescents and older adults).

If Alexis’s current energy and passion are any indication of how she will live her life, it is likely that her “big building” full of health and wellness services will come to fruition, and we are honored to be sharing this part of her journey!

Students write the SAT and ACT essay portions

SAT and ACT Essays: To Write, or Not to Write?

Most high schoolers’ parents took the SAT when it was completely multiple choice, but today’s students must choose whether to register for the essay on both the SAT and the ACT. The cost of adding the essay section to the multiple choice test is negligible relative to the rest of college application expenses—$14 extra for the SAT essay and $16.50 for the ACT essay. Yet, parents and students frequently ask whether it is worth it, less in terms of dollars than in time spent preparing and practicing. Students and parents also wonder whether it is worth the time spent writing on the day of the test—another 40 (ACT) to 50 (SAT) minutes more tagged onto the already lengthy and exhausting multiple choice exam.

To write or not to write?

In April 2018, Harvard announced that they will no longer require or recommend the SAT and/or ACT essay, and the University of California system is also under pressure from the California legislature to move in that direction. Because Harvard often sets precedents, and because half of the 27 schools that require the essay are in California, it seems that the essay is on its way out. However, it isn’t yet: many competitive colleges and universities continue to recommend or require it*, and in the world of college admissions, “recommend” might as well be “require”. Students should check the requirements and recommendations each college on their list provides on their admissions website page.

Considering the fluid nature of college list building, it is safer to write the essay in case of any last minute decisions to apply to a college or two that do recommend or require the essay.

The SAT Essay

The SAT essay is a 50-minute handwritten rhetorical analysis akin to the AP Writing/Language five-paragraph essay. The test provides a passage taken from a famous speech, book, or journalistic piece, and the prompt requires students to identify the argument and explore the effective persuasive rhetorical strategies and devices employed. Such strategies and devices include: appeal to emotion, strategic repetition, authorial positioning, data use, allusion, figurative language, ethos/pathos/logos, and more.

High scoring SAT essays include:

  • An understanding of the position taken in the passage as well as facility with rhetorical terminology
  • Coherent, well-developed, well-organized writing which is mostly free of grammatical and usage errors
  • References to specific lines of the passage
  • A structure based not on the order of passage paragraphs but instead on strategies and devices the student identifies as the most significant
  • Length (anecdotal evidence suggests going onto the third page results in a higher score)
  • An introductory paragraph that grounds the issue discussed in the passage and provides a “roadmap” for the body paragraphs
  • Clear and specific analysis
  • A conclusion that reaches beyond mere analysis to reinforce the position of the passage in a broader way

Scoring is confusing. According to the College Board website:

  • Two different people read and score the SAT essay.
  • Each scorer awards 1–4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing.
  • The two scores for each dimension are added.
  • The student receives three scores for the SAT Essay—one for each dimension—ranging from 2-8 points.
  • There is no composite SAT Essay score (the three scores are not added together) and there are no percentiles.
  • The Essay score is not factored into either the Verbal or the Total SAT score.

The ACT Essay

The ACT writing test is a 40-minute handwritten essay based on one writing prompt that describes a complex issue and presents three different brief perspectives on that issue. Students are asked to develop their own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between their perspective and one or more other perspectives. They may adopt a perspective from the prompt, partially or fully, or generate their own. The score will not be affected by the point of view taken on the issue. The student’s goal is to write a coherent and well-developed four to five paragraph argument with a clear thesis.

High scoring ACT essays include:

  • An introductory paragraph with a “hook” that grounds the topic in real world examples to be addressed in the body paragraphs and leads up to a strong thesis statement
  • Body paragraphs with specific examples supporting their points and one paragraph addressing the opposing view and refuting it
  • A concluding paragraph that returns to the thesis in a new way, not adding more evidence, but instead a gesture toward a broader implication of their argument
  • Length—again, anecdotal evidence shows that essays longer than two pages receive higher scores

Each ACT essay is scored by two different graders on a scale of 1-6 across four different domains, for a total score out of 12 in each domain. These domain scores are then averaged into a total score out of 12. The score is not factored into the student’s ACT English or composite score.

Can students practice writing these essays for improvement?

Absolutely. Although tutors focus first and foremost on the multiple choice sections of both tests, a minimum of one and sometimes two practice essays written for homework provide an opportunity for critique and suggestions for improvement. Working together, tutors and students can identify strategies that will allow the student perform to their best ability on test day.

This work may include:

  • Reviewing prompts, sample scored essays, and rubrics
  • Discussing best use of time
  • Outlining
  • Drafting good introductions and conclusions
  • Creating good thesis statements and strong topic sentences
  • Using evidence well
  • Building a word bank

Does the score matter?

A high score of course never hurts; an average score likely won’t hurt; a below-average score is a red flag to selective colleges’ admissions officers. Because such a high percentage of students applying to selective colleges now work with personal essay coaches, admissions officers who see a strong personal essay and a low standardized test essay score will have to wonder: who is really responsible for the high quality of a personal essay?

Whether to take the test again for the sole purpose of raising the essay score is a question only the family can answer, but if you received a low score, not repeating it risks your personal essay looking suspect to admissions officers. Still, it’s complicated. Students who earn top grades in challenging high school English classes and who do well on the AP Writing/Language exam also prove their abilities there.

How parents can help students who aren’t excited about writing the essay

As with all elements of test prep, parents can encourage students to practice without a negative attitude. Students who say, “But I’ll be tired at that point!” can be reminded that with all that adrenaline pumping, they’ll make it through another test section. Students who say, “Why bother? I’m not a good writer,” are doing themselves a disservice. All students can improve their writing with the right attitude and help. Parents who talk up their own improvements in writing over the years set a great example for students who resist taking this part of the test.

As with all elements of the SAT and ACT prep, students should view all critiques and errors as opportunities to learn, and be willing to self-analyze mistakes and challenges based on the expert advice provided in tutoring sessions. Think about trying to improve your tennis backhand without a pro, or your batting stance without a coach. The best athletes take the analysis of their physical (and mental) behavior on the court or field, and then go home and practice, practice, practice with that advice in mind. Both elements are essential, and maintaining a growth mindset about improvement–fostered by the parent, another coach of sorts–is the icing on the practice cake.

*Information on whether colleges recommend or require the SAT or ACT essay can be found on their admissions webpages.


Sample SAT Writing Prompt

Sample ACT Writing Prompt

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Girl relaxes during her senior slump

Avoiding the Senior Slump

College acceptances are beginning to arrive, which can bring great joy, and then… senior slump.


Every year, teachers complain that seniors are getting a little “too relaxed.” While seniors deserve to enjoy their last semester, it’s how relaxed they sometimes become that can be a problem! Most college acceptances are contingent upon grades staying respectable through to the bitter end of high school. And students have a lot of other responsibilities to think about as well.


So, what should seniors be thinking about in their last semester of high school?


  1. Staying focused on school work–it’s about learning and preparing for college, not just keeping grades up! (Parents: if grades are falling dangerously low, or your student is procrastinating on major projects, intervene.)
  2. Completing any leftover college application requirements: send first semester transcripts to colleges still considering applications.
  3. Applying for scholarships and submitting financial aid forms, as well as reviewing financial aid rewards. Students should notify the financial aid office at their colleges regarding outside grants or scholarships.
  4. Planning for a summer job or internship–never hurts to have some money saved for sundries freshman year.
  5. Enjoying the last semester of high school and living at home. (Parents–make the most of it. That bedroom will be all too tidy and all too quiet all too soon.)


And here is some advice from a recent high school graduate who is now at Tufts University: “Getting in is not the end; it’s the beginning.”


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