Changes to the ACT: What families need to know

On October 7th, the ACT announced that significant changes to the ACT will be implemented in September 2020:

Students will be able to choose to take the ACT on a computer rather than with pencil and paper. The ACT has hinted at computer-based online testing for quite some time, already offering this format internationally, and it is reasonable to expect The College Board, which administers the SAT, to follow suit in the not-too-distant future. The GRE, which is taken for graduate school admissions, has been a strictly computer-based test for years. For the time being, students taking the ACT will be able to choose between online testing and the ‘old-fashioned’ way. However, this may not always be the case, given the significant benefits of online testing, which include ease and speed of score reporting (scores will be returned to students within 48 hours, rather than several weeks). There will be a learning curve for the test prep industry as it gets to know the online testing tools that the ACT provides to testers, including options to highlight text, cross out answers, and search the text for specific words. Test-takers themselves will likely find the transition to be much less remarkable and likely better aligned with how they most frequently encounter information in their day-to-day lives. Online testing is indeed a meaningful change, and concerns about equity are well-justified: how will online testing impact students who live in under-resourced districts that may not be able to accommodate technology-dependent testing? The ACT assures us that online testing will be widely available at testing centers, but infrastructure challenges are inevitable, and some are skeptical that the ACT can follow through on this policy change.

Students can choose to have their ACT Superscore sent to colleges. Superscoring, an admissions policy that calculates a new composite score (or average) from a student’s four best sectional scores from however many ACTs they have taken, is increasingly widespread. Up until now students have had to submit multiple tests in order to superscore. Beginning next September, the ACT will provide a single score report that consists of a student’s best sectional scores, though it is not yet clear whether all colleges will accept this report. With superscoring, students benefit from a decreased emphasis on achieving one across-the-board ‘best’ test, colleges benefit by using superscoring to boost their admitted class’s average test scores, and the ACT benefits by further incentivizing retesting, which itself is about to change dramatically…

Students who are retesting will be able to choose which sections to take. Students who are unhappy with a single sectional score will soon be able to retest for just that one section. Students are spared the exercise of retaking the entire 3+ hour test, and they can better target their preparation for each test date. For many students, this is a win; for the ACT, it may be a windfall. The SAT subreddit was flooded with memes and posts about students planning to switch to the ACT to take advantage of this change, and the ACT will likely see an uptick in students retesting just to improve one or two sections. There may be long-term strategic benefit to the ACT, too. Treating the four sections of the test as separate entities may allow the ACT more flexibility as Test Optional Policies continue to spread. Colleges could one day require individual sections of the ACT, better tailoring their testing requirements to the demands of a particular major. However, we must again ask about equity: how will section retesting impact students who are most disadvantaged?

Studies have confirmed that low-income students are already less likely to retest than their wealthier peers. Section retesting opens the door to a host of strategies for students with means. Some students may take an initial test, then retest for each section separately, preparing intensively for one section at a time, a far more manageable task than balancing simultaneous preparation for all four sections. It is likely that many students will retest for the Reading and/or Science sections in particular, as these are the final sections of the test and fatigue has set in by the time students get to them, particularly if a student is taking a test with an extended time accommodation. By sitting for only the Reading or Science section, students will feel fresher and likely improve their results. But which students will adopt savvy strategies that capitalize on the changes to the ACT? Likely it will be the students who already benefit from high-quality test prep, a well-resourced school whose guidance counselor’s have a manageable student load, and a family with the means, resources, and experience to navigate an increasingly complex admissions process. Both Computer Based Testing and ACT Section Retests have the potential to benefit students by offering flexibility and ease-of-use, but they also have the potential to widen the chasm of inequality in education by accommodating strategies that will inevitably be employed by the students who already exercise the most privilege in accessing higher education.

The world of standardized testing is complicated, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Open Door Education is here to help students, families, and organizations successfully navigate the testing process, anticipating and strategizing for whatever changes may come.

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) as well as 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 basic statistical operations)

• Passport to 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?

Taking the PSAT can help students gain familiarity with the experience of taking an admissions test, but without the pressure since PSAT scores are not sent to colleges. In addition, the results provide valuable feedback about a student’s strengths and challenges. Students who take the PSAT are entered into the competition for National Merit Scholarships.

Why skip the PSAT?

For most, scholarship eligibility is not a sufficient reason to take the PSAT; very few students (<1%) ultimately receive a National Merit Scholarship. Additionally, if a student is better suited to the ACT, then the PSAT may not be a helpful preview of admissions testing.

How does the PSAT compare with the SAT?

The SAT and PSAT are very similar in structure and content, but there are a few notable differences, including:

• The PSAT is slightly shorter and not quite as difficult as the SAT

• The PSAT does not include an optional Essay section

• Each section of the PSAT has a maximum score of 760, and each section of the SAT has a maximum score of 800

When will results be available?

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

How can Open Door Education help?

Preparation for the PSAT is not essential. However, for students seeking to make the most of their PSAT, Open Door Education teaches the skills and strategies that help students to succeed on test day by providing one-on-one personalized tutoring in all sections of the PSAT. Students who work with a tutor at Open Door Education feel confident and prepared on test day, and are better equipped to answer the most challenging questions in each section of the test.

What else should I do?

The first half of junior year is an ideal time for students to determine which test, the SAT or the ACT, is a better fit for them. The best way to make this decision is to take a diagnostic test of each and then meet with a test expert at Open Door Education for a complimentary consultation to establish a game plan. Students preparing for college admissions testing can sign up for a free diagnostic SAT and ACT by visiting today!

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

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

Sliding Scales: Easier Questions Result in Lower SAT Scores

Beginning with the June 2018 SAT, students across the country noticed that their SAT scores were lower than anticipated given the number of questions they had answered correctly. These students took to social media, forming Twitter accounts like @rescoreJuneSAT, starting petitions, and writing to the College Board looking for answers. The story was picked up by news outlets such as NBC and The Washington Post. The College Board released a statement and published an FAQ on SAT scoring to assert the fairness of the test.

While the College Board does not publicly release the June test, a number of more recent tests have been made available through the College Board’s SAT Question and Answer Service, and there seems to be a downward trend in scores for students who answered the same number of questions correctly, with Math and Writing scores experiencing the biggest changes.

In order to compare how the SAT scale has changed, we’ll consider three hypothetical students. For each student, we’ll compare how their raw score (or number of correct answers) compares on different test versions.

Student A — 90% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing 730 720 680
   Reading 47/52    37    36    35
   Writing 40/44    36    36    33
Math 52/58 720 750 700
Total 1450 1470 1380


Student B — 75% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing  620 630 590
   Reading 39/52    31    32    31
   Writing 33/44    31    31    28
Math 44/58 640 660 620
Total 1260 1290 1210


Student C — 50% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing 490 500 450
   Reading 26/52    25    26    24
   Writing 22/44    24    24    21
Math 29/58 520 530 510
Total 1010 1030 960

Below is a graph of the score that each of the above students would get on the publicly available tests if they had answered the same number of questions correct each time.

A chart comparing the SAT scores of three students over time. The scores are fairly stable, and then they decrease fairly sharply after June 2018.
Tests that have a number in addition to a year (e.g. Test 5) are available in the Official SAT Study Guide 2020 Edition. Test 1 and Test 3 do not include a date because they were released before the first redesigned SAT test date in March 2016 and were never administered.
So, what does it all mean?

The changes to the SAT scaled scores suggest that questions on the SAT have gotten easier, especially in the Writing and Math. The College Board uses scaled scores to control for the variations between different versions of the SAT: the average raw score on each section of the SAT will correlate to a 500 scaled score regardless of whether the average is higher or lower than in previous administrations. When the mean raw score on a particular test is higher, then the test is generally considered easier; however, this test will also have a more aggressive curve to adjust for the higher average raw score. It’s worth noting that the SAT scale is created before the test is given, so it is not likely that students are doing better than anticipated on the test.

Okay, but what can students do about it?

• Practice what is difficult. By practicing what is difficult, students can ensure that they are well-prepared for whatever difficulty they encounter on test day. Like a basketball player who practices with ankle weights and then takes them off for the game, students will be pleasantly surprised to find that the test feels easier than the work they’ve been doing to prepare. For students who are preparing on their own with the Official SAT Study Guide 2020 Edition, Test 7 and Test 10 are most aligned with the current trend in SAT scoring, so they can be good choices for full-length, timed practice tests.

• Improve scores by mastering the test rather than fixating on the score. A student’s sectional scores will naturally fluctuate a bit based on any number of factors. As students prepare, it can help for them to prioritize the experience of taking the practice test, how the number correct changes from test to test, and what questions felt most challenging. If students decide to calculate their scaled scores, they should keep in mind that there may be a significant difference between this score and the score that they actually get on their next official SAT.

• Consider both the SAT and ACT to determine which test is the best fit for your student. Open Door Education offers free diagnostic tests and consultations to help families navigate the college admissions testing process.

Someone wearing a white shirt and blue jeans studies on a laptop.

The Final(s) Countdown: A Guide to Rocking Your Exams

Final exams are a fact of high school life, the final hurdle between you and your summer vacation. Studying for finals can be overwhelming, time-consuming, and stressful. The advice that follows will help you to conquer your finals without losing your sanity.

Getting Started

Start Early

Don’t wait until the week before finals to start preparing. You will end up with too much work and not enough time. You should begin planning for finals at least two weeks in advance so that you don’t have to cram at the last minute.

Anticipate the Workload

Estimate how long it will take to prepare for each exam. It is better to overestimate than to underestimate. A number of factors will affect your estimates. Be sure to consider these questions:

• Is this a cumulative assessment for the entire year, or just for the last semester?
• Did you struggle on tests or quizzes earlier in the year and therefore you have lots to review in that unit?
• Will the final require lots of memorization?

Make a Calendar

First, create a calendar showing when each test is. Next, block out times during the preceding weeks when you will prepare for each exam. Be ambitious, but also realistic. It is probably not reasonable to plan to study for finals for 6 hours a day, but 3 might be doable. Don’t just block off when you’ll study – block off what you’ll study. Make sure that your allotted study time accommodates your estimate of how long you will need to study for each class.

Gather Materials

Start with the review guide your teacher gives you and all of the tests and quizzes you have saved (you did save those, right?). These are your best study tools. Crowdsourcing is smart, too. Some classes create shared google docs so that everyone can access the same review material. Quizlet has ready-made flashcards for almost anything you can imagine. These are terrific tools, but the person who gains the most from them is the person who actually writes them. Consider writing (or typing) your own review guide or creating hand-made flashcards that you can take with you anywhere.

Color-Code to Prioritize

Not all finals are created equal, and you probably already know which ones will be hardest for you. But it is not enough to simply prioritize the harder classes, we must also identify the difficult content within each class. Many students benefit from a simple color-coding exercise: grab a red marker, a yellow marker, or a green marker and go through your review guide, marking each item green (I do not need to spend much time reviewing this), yellow (I need to review this a bit), or red (I need to review this a lot). This helps you to know what to study first, and hopefully it also reminds you that you already know a lot of what you need to know for Test Day.

Meet with Your Teacher

Your teacher is probably the person who actually writes the final exam AND they know how you have been doing in their class, so who better to talk to about it? Find a time to meet with each teacher and let them know that you are preparing for finals and want to be sure that you are on the right track. Ask them the following questions:

• Are there certain units that will be more important than others?
• Is it wise to study from past tests?
• What do you think I personally need to work on most?
• Are there certain study methods that students have found especially helpful in the past?

Studying Effectively

Don’t Go it Alone

You are not the only person preparing for each of your finals, and chances are pretty good that your strengths may be someone else’s weaknesses and vice versa. Identify a few friendly, hardworking classmates who might be good study partners. You will benefit from being accountable to one another, you can practice quizzing each other or explaining challenging concepts, and you can share your study resources.

Use Multi-Sensory Tools

We all learn differently, and most people find that they learn best when they interact with information in multiple formats. Yes, you should read your notes from class and the information in the textbook, but consider watching videos about a topic, listening to podcasts, or using google image search. Additionally, don’t just look at diagrams from class (especially for Science and Math) – redraw them yourself! You’ll create a useful study tool AND improve your understanding and recollection.

Don’t Study Individual Terms, Study Groups of Terms

Imagine trying to memorize every single part of a cell without actually knowing how the parts relate to one another? When you have to memorize a number of vocabulary terms for a particular class, don’t study them as individual words. Instead, create groups of 5-9 terms (if possible) that relate to one another in some way, shape, or form. For example, as you study a cell you might group the terms that relate to cellular reproduction, the terms that relate to cellular respiration, and the terms that relate to nutrient uptake. By grouping terms together, you will find it easier to remember their individual meanings as well as their relationships to one another.

Be the Teacher

If you can teach a concept, then it is more than likely you actually understand the concept. Try teaching a friend, sibling, or parent. Explain to them, with or without notes, what the specific causes of Spanish American War were or how Tectonic Plates interact with one another. Whatever the topic, there is value in saying it out loud, and a good study partner may ask questions that help you to recognize parts of a concept that you need to brush up on.

Do New Problems

Many students wisely prepare for their final exam by reviewing past homework assignments and tests. This is important, but it also means recycling problems you have seen before. If you are studying a certain difficult unit, try some new problems from the textbook. If you have already done the odd-numbered questions, try the evens. If you have already completed the work-sheet, have a friend pick new numbers and try the question again. Re-doing problems from old assignments IS a good idea, but it should not be the only way that you practice.

Use Explanations that Work for You

If you are making a review sheet or flashcards, do not simply write down the textbook, dictionary, or Wikipedia definition word for word, especially if you do not fully understand it. Instead, paraphrase in a way that is memorable and understandable. For example, writing that “the US Congress is a bicameral legislature” is not particularly helpful if you do not know what bicameral means. You might write instead “the US congress has two chambers (bicameral): the Senate and the House”.

Test Day

Don’t Hit Snooze

This is one day to be ahead of schedule. Get up extra early so that you can take your time, review while you have breakfast, make sure you have all of your things, and get to school with time to spare.

Snacks Matter

Ideally you have had a big dinner the night before and a healthy breakfast the morning of. Even so, it is smart to have some snacks to get you through the day – you never want to take a final when you are really hungry. Go for (mostly) healthy, energizing snacks like trail mix, fruit, or a protein bar.

Get (and Stay) in the Zone

We all have different ways of building confidence and putting ourselves in the right mindset before a challenging task. If you have lucky socks, wear ‘em. If you feel pumped up when you listen to Beyoncé, bump it. Power pose in front of a mirror, visualize your success, take 5 deep, slow breaths – whatever it takes! You have done the necessary work to prepare for the material on the test; now be sure to take the time to prepare yourself for the experience of taking the test.

These tips should help you to prepare for your finals in a smart and effective manner. If you find that you are struggling, whether it is a particular class, unit, or just the whole process of planning for finals, know that Open Door Education is here to help. Contact us today to learn how our team of expert tutors can help you succeed on your exams.

Academic Tutoring and Organizational Coaching: Skills for the Classroom and Beyond

Academic support at Open Door Education generally falls into two categories: organizational coaching and subject-specific tutoring.  Let’s take a look at both of these while also discussing major areas of overlap between them.


What is Organizational Coaching?

Students of all ages may seek organizational coaching.  Often these are individuals trying to figure out what it means to be an effective student in middle school or high school.  This entails learning:

• How to prioritize assignments

• How much time should be dedicated to each assignment

• How to write effectively

• How best to prepare for tests

Tutoring can help with each of these objectives, as the student works not only to improve grades but also to learn critical study habits.

The Game Plan

Organizational coaching sessions begin with the tutor and student discussing the assignments for each class and putting together a weekly calendar.  Discussing goals is a critical part of this process. To make sure these goals are clear and reachable, tutors use the SMART framework, ensuring that the goals are

• Specific,

• Measurable,

• Achievable,

• Relevant, and

• Time bound.

During the first few meetings, the tutor drives the process of structuring weekly calendars and setting goals, modeling how to determine which assignments to do first, when to start studying for an upcoming test or the timing for creating a first and then final draft of the paper.  Gradually, the student takes a more active role as they become more comfortable prioritizing assignments and also determining what would be most helpful to work on with the tutor during that session. As sessions shift from proactive guidance to reactive support, students gain the agency that allows them to become more effective students.

Once a game-plan has been established at the start of a session, the tutor and student work will work together on a multitude of tasks, including preparing for tests, writing papers or working on current assignments.  Often there will not just be one class that is the focus of the meeting, but rather the tutor and student will work on several. For example, the student may work with the tutor to lay the groundwork for preparing to write a paper or study for an exam with a plan for the student to complete these tasks at home. This approach is a great way for the student to learn best practices (a tutor will make recommendations for what to study, or help a student create an outline for an essay) while also setting a foundation and gaining good habits for independent work at home.

Organizational coaching sessions end with a summation of the plan for the week that was developed during the first few minutes. That way, the student leaves the session with a clear idea of how to manage their school workload and allocate their time over the next few days.


What is Subject-Specific Tutoring?

Subject-specific tutoring is tailored to help with a specific academic course.  The goals of academic tutoring are to help students:

• Sharpen general skills in the class

• Improve grades

• Develop study habits that they can employ when working on their own

Ultimately, subject-specific tutoring is designed to help students find the right balance between improving grades and building foundational study skills.


The Game Plan

Subject-specific tutoring sessions will look very different depending on whether or not the student has an exam coming up in the next couple of days.  Sessions that don’t preceded a test serve to build foundational skills in the subject matter. Often these sessions take a similar shape; they are both backward and forward looking.  Tutors will ask students what concepts from the past few classes have been confusing, and review them to ensure mastery. Generally students jot down notes to review later, since simply knowing how to deal with a type of problem in session doesn’t ensure that the approach will be remembered several days later.  

From there, a session will often move on to looking at the student’s homework.  But a quality academic tutoring session will avoid turning into a situation where the homework is covered question by questions – as the tutor’s goal in these sessions is to build a student’s autonomy rather than risk becoming a crutch.  So instead of doing each problem on the assignment, the tutor will pull out a few specific examples from different categories of questions and then craft analogous problems or supplement with questions from online worksheets. The student can then finish the assignment at home and see if they can employ the approaches practiced during the session on their own.   

If time permits, tutors will often anticipate upcoming topics and provide brief lessons that prepare students for the next unit.  Many students find it advantageous to be introduced to the material before seeing it in class. Creating this foundational comprehension helps students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the topic when it is first presented in the classroom.  

When there is an upcoming test, most of the time in session will be spent preparing for it.  Tutors will work with students to complete any review sheets and questions from the homework, getting a sense of any challenging areas.  Creating similar problems from these areas for students to work through helps determine whether the student feels comfortable with the approach or needs more review.  More difficult variations of a given concept are given to students who show a good grasp of the key concepts, as this will help students anticipate challenge problems that teachers usually include on a test.


Want to learn more?

If you think your student could benefit from either organizational coaching or subject specific academic tutoring, please reach out to Open Door Education to learn more about our services.

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.

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

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