Tutor Spotlight: Paul Chiampa

Paul Chiampa, one of our Senior Tutors and a sports and travel enthusiast, has been tutoring at Open Door Education since 2015. When not helping students determine an angle of elevation or inscribe a special right triangle into another polygon, he can be found walking his roommate’s dog or in a lab working on projects for his master’s program in mechanical engineering. As the first of our tutors to be featured in our new Spotlight column, we asked him a variety of random questions.


Q: Can you share why you chose engineering?


I originally thought about astronomy–a hobby of mine since I was very young–but then I realized the job market for astronomers isn’t very promising.


Ironically, playing and coaching baseball influenced my decision to study engineering. A few years back, I was looking for an adventure, and ended up getting a job as a baseball player and coaching for a program in Austria, about 15 miles west of Vienna in the small town of Tulln an der Donau. I didn’t know much about Austria before going, but it now holds a special place in my heart.  The people were so kind and welcoming; they love their country and cherish the world we live in. Their passion about the environment inspired me to pursue a career in the industry here. I hope to work in the sustainable energy industry to help turn the tides on climate change.  I also work on a research project at BU that is working to improve the efficiency in solar panels.


Q: Great pun, turning the tides on climate change. Are you also a writer?


Totally unintended. Writing is a major theme of my job as a tutor and student.  My professors are completely thrown off by my punctuation at times; I don’t think many other engineering students –that I know of, anyway–can successfully incorporate a semi-colon, hyphen, and comma into one sentence.  


Q: Speaking of hobbies, what passions take up your time away from your master’s program and tutoring and test prep in Acton?


I am sort of obsessed with watching, playing, and reading about sports of all kinds. I play golf, flag football, and softball. I also coach an 18-and-under AAU baseball team out of Medford. I have been coaching pretty much the same group of players since they were 15 years old; they’re a fun group, never a dull moment.


Q: You’re a glutton for punishment! We know you also have a love of travel. Can you share a bit about other foreign places where you have lived?


I studied abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland while in college. I was drawn there for a few reasons but mainly because one of my favorite people of all time, Charles Darwin, studied there. I thought, what better place to study science than where one of the greatest studied?! Scottish culture was just so much fun. People there are always joking, laughing, and looking to have a good time. Also, Edinburgh is still the most beautiful city I have ever visited.


I also volunteered for a summer to teach English to children living in an orphanage in Costa Rica. The saying in Costa Rica is “Pura Vida,” translating to “Pure Life,” and they truly live by that sentiment–in the moment–and value the small, wonderful things in life.


Q: Open Door tutors share a love of pets. Tell us just a bit about yours!


Although he is technically not “my” dog, I live with and help take care of a black lab named Riggins, so I just consider him mine. He has an obsession with toys and needs to take one on every walk just in case an opportunity to play arises.


Q: What is the best teaching experience you’ve had thus far?


I used to teach math and science in a juvenile detention center in Boston. These students HATED math, and wanted nothing to do with calculations, or anything even vaguely related to numbers. They loved sports, though, so I had the idea of incorporating fantasy sports in class to help them gain some comfort with math. It worked wonderfully. We did fantasy football, basketball, and baseball, and kept it going throughout the year. By the end of the year, there were far fewer groans and complaints about working through the algebra and geometry assignments. Every student passed his respective math course that year.


Q: What is the best thing that has happened in your life in the past year?


Four months ago I became an uncle for the first time when my sister and brother in law had a beautiful baby girl named Ella.  


Q: Congrats! Two more questions! What’s the best book you’ve recently read, and if you had to describe standardized testing using figurative language, what would you say?


I recently reread The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; it’s my favorite book of all time and should be mandatory reading for everyone! And … succeeding on the SAT or ACT is like beating the final boss in a video game.  It is an arduous journey and you probably fail a number of times, but in the end, you learn from your mistakes, and use those to finally take down the test monster.


Many thanks to Paul for being our first interviewee! And, if there are aspects of our tutors’ biographies you’re curious to know, or students you think would make great Spotlight subjects, please let us know!
Paul Chiampa

Planning for College Admissions, Part Two: The College Tour

April vacation is a popular time for college visits. If you are about to go on such a jaunt, you have researched colleges, given much thought to a good fit for your son or daughter, and made travel arrangements and hotel reservations. You have combed through college websites and you may even have contacted admissions officers regarding interviews or more. But have you thought ahead about what you will ask in admissions presentations?


College admissions officers report that after their formal presentations, which cover everything from admissions rates to class size, access to faculty, and alumni involvement, they encourage questions, and usually hear the same three: What improves my student’s chances for admission, Early Decision/Early Action or Regular Decision? (Unanswerable.) What is the most important aspect of an application? (No one piece.) Are the campus and surrounding areas safe? (They always say “yes.”)


College is an enormous investment of time and money. Don’t waste this opportunity to consider some of the serious issues many students find themselves unexpectedly confronting long after they celebrate being accepted. Here are 12 areas of importance, from A-Z:


Academic rigor and supports: How much time do students typically spend on reading and other class preparation? Are students graded on curves? Do you have a writing center to support first year essay and research paper writing? Do you offer learning disabilities support? General tutoring?


Careers and further education: How many employers visit to recruit seniors? Do you provide help with summer placements? What percentage of students go on to grad school? Is there a list of these schools?


Dining (if your son or daughter has special preferences or requirements): Do you offer organic, locally grown food? Are there vegetarian and/or vegan options? Do you have nut, dairy, gluten, or other allergen free kitchens?


Financial aid: What does the typical financial aid package look like? Is financial aid need-blind? How much student loan debt does a student graduate with, on average?


Gender and minority support: Is there an LGBTQ center? What kind of supports and activities are available for gender, religious, and racial minorities?


Housing: Are first-years guaranteed housing? Second-years? What does the typical first-year living arrangement look like? What percentage of upperclass students live on-campus? What is the average per student cost of off-campus housing?


Internships: What percentage of students get academic year on-campus and community internships? Do you help students find meaningful summer internships? If so, how many employers participate?


Mental health services: What confidential student-run and professional services are available, and how do they coordinate? How many students partake of these services? (Great indicator of how stressful the environment is.) Do you offer meditation, yoga, or other stress management programs?


Research opportunities: Do students have the opportunity to engage in meaningful research supervised by faculty? Off-campus at local institutions of merit?


Senior year requirements: Do you require graduating exams? (Many do, and fail to mention this little detail.) What percentage of students complete a senior project or thesis?


Sexual assault prevention and services: What kind of sexual assault prevention course do you offer first-years? Do upperclass students get refreshers? Do you have a women’s center? How easy is it for female and male students who have experienced unwanted sexual contact to find immediate and long-term support? Do you offer self-defense classes?


Substance abuse policies: What are penalties for violations of substance abuse policies? What percentage of your first-years violate the policies? Do you offer substance-free housing?


As you ask the tough questions, beware of inch-deep answers, marketing slogans, or propaganda. When meeting with other on-campus officials and students, dig deep.


Finally, have these conversations ahead of time:

  • Warn your teen that you will have questions about some aspects of academics and college life that the tour won’t address. Their eye-rolling should happen prior to the visits.
  • Discuss what they might personally be concerned about and together scour the website to find out if these questions are answered online.
  • Encourage them to be ready to ask those that aren’t.

Planning for College Admissions, Part One: The Timeline

As our test prep and academic support students begin to reach their standardized test and GPA goals and move into the fourth quarter of their junior year, many ask us what is next in the college application process. Most families are aware that April vacation is a great time for college tours, but both students and parents express indecision and even a bit of panic: How many schools should we visit? How honed should our list be? And, importantly, what comes next?


This article kicks off a series with answers to those questions and more. Through advice from our tutors, college advisors in the Acton-Boxboro and Concord-Carlisle communities, and our AB High School, Concord-Carlisle HS and other regional seniors who have just completed the process, we will present a wide range of perspectives and advice. Our students are the ones who have most recently marched through the trenches of college choice and admissions, some emerging less battle-scarred than others. They are ready and eager to share their newfound wisdom with current juniors and their parents!


Neuroscience shows that adolescents’ brains are developing so rapidly that some days, they retreat into their bedrooms or the basement as one person, and emerge literally as another. We’ve all seen it happen! With this list and the articles to follow, we hope that step by step, blog by blog, we can make this confusing, important, and exciting time of life, the prelude to the launch of a brand new adult, a little more stable and comfortable, and a lot less stressful.


Finally, as always, Open Door Education values feedback and questions! Please comment below, and share any topics you would love to see covered, as well as questions or input! If you know of a wonderful regional student to be featured, we’d love to hear that, too.


College Admissions Timeline

The PSAT at a Glance

Soon many juniors will begin their college testing process by sitting for the PSAT. Below are short descriptions of the sections and some general strategies to help students score their best.

Test Taking Tips

  • Get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast!
  • Wear a watch to track your time. Some testing rooms have the clock on the back wall, or no clocks at all.
  • There is no guessing penalty on the PSAT, so answer all of the questions.


  • Passages: 5
  • Questions: 47
  • Time Allotted: 60 minutes
  • Strategies:
    • Start with the passage that seems the most interesting to you; save the 19th century passage for last, since these tend to be the hardest.
    • For the paired passages, read Passage 1 and answer those questions. Next, read Passage 2 and answer the rest of the questions.
    • Some questions will be paired: a question will ask for evidence to support the previous question. For these questions, look at the evidence first, and use that to choose the correct answer.

Writing and Language

  • Passages: 4
  • Questions: 44
  • Time Allotted: 35 minutes
  • Strategies:
    • The PSAT emphasizes on making choices in context, and it is important to read the whole passage.
    • Mouthing the words as you read can help you determine what sounds right.
    • Simple answers are good answers. Choose answers with fewer commas and simple sentence structure


  • Questions:
    • 17 without a calculator (13 multiple choice, 4 grid-in)
    • 31 (27 multiple choice, 4 grid-in)
  • Time Allotted:
    • 25 minutes without a calculator
    • 35 minutes with a calculator
  • Strategies:
    • Math on the PSAT is mostly word problems. Try drawing pictures or listing information given to you in the lengthy questions to help make it make sense.
    • The math test increases with difficulty as you move through the section, but it resets when you get to the grid-in questions. If you are low on time, guess on the last few multiple choice questions, and get points from the easier grid-in questions.

Some families aren’t sure if they should sign up for the PSAT. The most common justification for taking the PSAT is the fact that it is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. While this is indeed a potential benefit for a small subset of testers, the PSAT is also a low-stakes opportunity for a student to experience the type of standardized testing that your student will have to navigate as part of their admissions process, which is wholly different than anything they’ve done in school. Through this experience, students can get an idea of what the SAT will look like and begin to determine whether it’s worthwhile to explore the ACT as an alternative.

SAT or ACT? – Shedding Light on the Tests

The biggest challenge that students who take the SAT will face is the relative newness of the test: there are fewer practice tests, fewer certainties, and a certain lack of sophistication in the test prep process. The ACT has stayed more or less the same for years, giving students more material to review, but many families aren’t familiar with this test. So which test should we take?


Students with strong verbal skills will likely excel on either test; however, the ACT demands fast, superficial reading while the SAT aims for deeper reading. The SAT reading material is generally more difficult–many tests include a classic literature passage (think Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë) or other dense reading material–but students get significantly more time to complete the test. On the ACT, passages are modern and three out of four passages are straightforward with questions that mainly ask for fact recall, but many students find the timing difficult.

Grammar and Language

Both tests have similar grammar sections. As with all aspects of the ACT, the timing is more difficult on the English test, but it is a good fit for students with a good understanding of punctuation rules. The SAT Writing and Language test has slightly more emphasis on tone matching, vocabulary, and word choice, which can be difficult for some students. Due to the similarities between the two tests, the grammar section is usually not a deciding factor for most students.


While there is significant overlap on the math tests, there are some key differences in terms of timing, content, and approach for each test. The ACT Math favors students who can remember a lot of math, from Pre-Algebra and Geometry to Algebra 2 and even a little Pre-Calculus, and perform that math quickly and accurately. Good mental math skills can save time on the ACT, but they are a must on the SAT, which now includes a portion of the test to be completed without a calculator. The SAT provides some formulas, gives students more time, and focuses mostly on Algebra. Data analysis appears in the math section in the form of statistics questions on the SAT Math, which many students haven’t seen yet. In general, the questions are more context driven, asking students to interpret the meaning of a linear equation instead of simply solving it. Many students find that they need more practice with the somewhat more abstract math and multi-step word problems on the SAT, but it is not insurmountable. Students with a strong, fundamental understanding of Algebra 1 and 2 who need a little more time to demonstrate their potential should consider the SAT; students with a surface-level understanding of Geometry and Algebras 1 and 2 who can move quickly through math problems might find that the ACT is a better fit for them.

Data Analysis

Both tests will ask students to analyze graphs and data for trends, extrapolate data, predict outcomes of additional experiments, and evaluate experiment design, but in slightly different ways. The SAT has incorporated these skills into each section of the test. Reading and Writing and Language passages will include graphs at the end; the math test will have data tables and ask questions about random sampling and statistics. There is less science content on the SAT, which benefits some students, but it requires students to be more flexible in moving from reading comprehension to data analysis and back. The ACT has a separate Science test, which is daunting to students at first, but can be learned. Students who are good at reading graphs will do well on the ACT Science test, but the Science section should not be the only reason that a student chooses the SAT.


Overall, the ACT has difficult timing and straightforward questions but it also moves quite quickly. For this reason, students with extended time often find the ACT to be a better fit. Please note, however, that the ACT is notoriously stringent in evaluating student applications for extended time. The SAT, while generous with timing, focuses on whether or not students truly understand a concept.  While the test styles can be generalized and simplified, this decision must be made on a case-by-case basis. A great first step is to take a diagnostic test of each. Open Door Education proudly offers free proctored tests every weekend; to sign up, visit our website or call us directly. We are here to help families make this important choice and we are always happy to discuss a student’s testing options.

The Role of Demonstrated Interest in Your College Search

by Marla Platt

During the college process, sometimes showing a little love can go a long way.

Colleges and universities care greatly about their yield rate, that is, the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission and join the freshman class.  As a result, schools aim to welcome engaged applicants who appear predisposed to accept a potential offer of admission. Consider this:  If you were throwing a party and had room for a limited number of guests, wouldn’t it make good sense to invite those who would enthusiastically respond with, “Yes, I’ll be there!”  Would you invest time asking those who would likely put you off with, “Um, I’ll have to check…” or who have long seemed lukewarm about hanging out with you?

How schools gauge interest will depend on each institution’s priorities.  For super-selective schools, such as Ivies and the like, or public colleges that rely mostly on an applicant’s statistics, demonstrated enthusiasm on its own is not going to propel one very far.  For many schools, however, demonstrating interest matters and simply starts with “showing up.”

Have you taken the time to contact the Admissions Office with questions to voice curiosity about the school? How about a campus tour?  For colleges that value this expression of interest, visiting is an important demonstration of an applicant’s intention to grasp more about the school and potentially enroll. If an applicant lives within a 3-4 hour drive, the college may expect the student to head on over for a look.

Not everyone, however, has the time and funds to trek out to distant college campuses.  Costs for transportation, hotels, and meals add up quickly, and admissions offices understand this.  If a campus visit is not realistic, there are other ways to reach out to a school to let them know that they are on your radar.

Try emailing or phoning the admissions office to request that pertinent information be forwarded to you – or ask where to locate it on the school website. Find out if college representatives will be attending college fairs close to where you live. Admissions reps commonly field student questions about majors and requirements; interviewing possibilities; high school visits; merit award potential. Because campus extracurricular life is central to a vibrant college experience, specific questions about activities; ways to become involved; or research prospects are also welcome questions for admissions representatives.

At the very least, simply find your spot on the school mailing list. If a college contacts you with information or inquires about what matters to you in your education, do respond and investigate further.

Taking the time to express sincere interest in a school and how its offerings fit your goals can end up supporting your best interest!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com.