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.

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.”


Read additional articles on our blog!

Students study for midterms in Acton and Concord Massachusetts with the help of Open Door Education

10 Tips For Midterm Exams

Midterms are right around the corner. Although most students consider them a tough hurdle, they are also an opportunity. A strong score on a midterm can improve a semester grade. The best way to approach them is to have a plan—and some help.


Open Door tutors, all experts in various subjects, are available to help create study plans, organize and review materials, and fill in gaps. Students can also take independent steps, and here are 10.


Start early

Review notes, tests, and quizzes, and adapt your study guide, or create one if the teacher hasn’t provided one.  


Create a schedule

Split classes and material into manageable chunks on a calendar. Block out reasonable amounts of time for each subject until the tests. Usually, 90 minutes is a good limit for a study session on one subject.


Eliminate distractions

Find a quiet spot and put your phone out of sight. Limiting the distractions will help you make the best of the time you spend studying, by allowing you to give 100% of your attention to the subject at hand.


Join or put together a study group

Work with classmates who are equally motivated to fill in gaps and quiz one another. Sharing and comparing notes and insights is an effective way to review the material.


Take study breaks

Healthy eating, exercise, and plenty of sleep are all important. Self care and balance keep the brain working well.


Seek help

Early on, talk to teachers about the more difficult topics; the in-class review will be enriched. Need additional support? Contact Open Door. Getting a fresh perspective or an alternative explanation from someone other than your teacher may help difficult concepts click.


Use multiple senses

Transfer condensed outlines to 5×7 flashcards; rewriting materials and details helps to create additional mental synapses. Create mnemonic devices and speak them out loud. Close your eyes and visualize outlines, formulas, or facts.


Teach the material to others

Nothing solidifies knowledge better than having to explain it to someone else. Teach your parents. They are always asking for more details about what is going on at school, aren’t they?


Practice problems

Take the time to outline the answers to questions on the teacher’s study guide.


Get plenty of rest the night before

A good night’s sleep the night before the test will do wonders for your mental state and physical well-being.


Finally, plan a small reward after each midterm, like one of your guilty pleasures like a Netflix show—not a binge—or a yummy coffee concoction. Having one of your favorite things to look forward to each day makes the week of tests seem less dreadful!


Read additional articles on our blog!