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

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.  

Percentiles

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.

 

Subscores

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

Toward the bottom of the page appears a list of subscores, which report performance on different aspects of each PSAT section. Reading and Language subscores cover Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, and Standard English Conventions. Math subscores include PSAT/SAT identified areas named Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving/Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. The subscores can help identify the areas in which you may want to focus your efforts as you prepare for the SAT. 

AP Potential™

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

 

Next Steps

The PSAT can give you an idea of which sections are strengths (and which need some extra practice), and predicts how you will perform on your first SAT only if you do no additional preparation. Disappointing scores are not the final word.

  • Try an ACT. You may do better taking the ACT. Open Door offers proctored SAT and ACT diagnostic tests that can help you decide which test is a best fit for you.
  • Determine which test is right for you. After completing the diagnostic test, you’ll receive a written analytical report and be offered a free consultation with Open Door.
  • Make time to prepare for the official test. No matter which test you decide to take, preparation with a tutor — combined with practice tests and homework — almost invariably leads to significant score improvement.
  • Know that an individualized approach to admission testing is best. Most students take the official SAT or ACT at least twice. Some students take both the SAT and the ACT. Everyone is an individual and you should do what’s best for you. Open Door can help you figure out what that is.

Final Note

You don’t have to go this alone. You can review your PSAT scores with your guidance counselor — they will be with you through the entire process of applying to college.

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


Making the Most of Your SAT/ACT Test Day

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

The Day Before the Test

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

Test Day

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

After the Test

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

When Results Arrive

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

 

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


What You Need to Know About the PSAT

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

What’s on the PSAT?

Reading (60 Minutes)

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

Writing (35 Minutes)

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

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

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

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

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

• Advanced Math (understanding and manipulating complex equations)

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

Why take the PSAT?

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

Why skip the PSAT?

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

How does the PSAT compare with the SAT?

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

When will results be available?

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

 

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


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


Students write the SAT and ACT essay portions

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

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

To write or not to write?

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

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

The SAT Essay

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

High scoring SAT essays include:

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

Scoring is confusing. According to the College Board website:

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

The ACT Essay

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

High scoring ACT essays include:

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

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

Can students practice writing these essays for improvement?

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

This work may include:

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

Does the score matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Sample SAT Writing Prompt

Sample ACT Writing Prompt

Contact Open Door


A student with test anxiety

Reduce Anxiety and Boost Test Scores

We’ve all experienced some level of tension or anxiety before an important or high-stakes event, such as public speaking, an interview, or a performance on the athletic field. One of the most anxiety provoking events for teens is tests, especially college admissions tests. It’s estimated that 40% of adolescents suffer from a higher than productive case of nerves before and during tests and other stressful situations, and 20% of teens suffer from severe test anxiety. For some students, the adrenaline and other hormones released in the brain actually improve performance. For others, even a “normal” level can be detrimental.

 

If your teen has normal levels of nervousness before tests, encourage them to employ the same methods they have learned for athletic events or music performances to “pump themselves up.” These include physical activity (push-ups, a short jog, stretching), mental concentration techniques (visualization of a good performance or reflection on competence), and listening to a certain song that gives them confidence.

 

However, what if your teen suffers from more severe test anxiety? How can you identify it? What are the causes? And most importantly, how can you help your student reduce it?


Symptoms of Test Anxiety

The signs of test anxiety can be grades and/or standardized test scores that are lower than expected, considering the ability of the student and the effort the student puts in. Note that there are gender differences when both diagnosing and addressing test anxiety. Boys often (but not always) avoid acknowledging test anxiety, and therefore it sometimes manifests as what can look like laziness or lack of interest; girls often are more likely to overcompensate and are more willing to describe it. Even if your teen is denying having test anxiety, you could ask about whether friends talk about it. . By describing the symptoms, the teen might end up confronting his own experience.

 

Symptoms can be physical, emotional, and cognitive:

 

Physical symptoms Emotional and cognitive symptoms
Fidgeting, bouncing leg, drumming fingers

Nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea

Rapid heartbeat

Shortness of breath

Headache

Faintness, lightheadedness

Body temperature irregularities: sweaty palms, burning cheeks, or chills

Racing thoughts

Anger

Fear

Negative thoughts, catastrophizing

Self-doubt, indecisiveness

Hopelessness

Sadness

 

In severe cases of test anxiety, these symptoms may be a precursor to or part of a panic attack.

 


Techniques to Reduce Test Anxiety

There are both short-term and long-term relaxation techniques that help control emotional (somatic) and worry (cognitive) test anxiety. Once these procedures are learned, the relaxation response will take the place of an anxiety response.

 

Short-Term: The Tensing and Differential Relaxation Method
  1. Put your feet flat on the floor.
  2. With your hands, grab underneath the chair.
  3. Push down with your feet and pull up on your chair at the same time for about five seconds.
  4. Relax for five to ten seconds.
  5. Repeat the procedure two or three times.
  6. Relax all your muscles except the ones that are actually used to take the test.

 

Short-Term: The Palming Method
  1. Close and cover your eyes using the center of the palms of your hands.
  2. Prevent your hands from touching your eyes by resting the lower parts of your palms on your cheekbones and placing your fingers on your forehead. Your eyeballs must not be touched or rubbed in any way.
  3. Think of some real or imaginary relaxing scene. Mentally visualize this scene. Picture the scene as if you were actually there, looking through your own eyes.
  4. Visualize this relaxing scene for one to two minutes

 

Short-Term: Deep Breathing Method
  1. Sit straight up in your chair in a good posture position.
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose.
  3. As you inhale, first fill the lower section of your lungs and work your way up to the upper part of your lungs.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  6. Wait a few seconds and repeat the cycle.

 

 Long-Term: Cue-Controlled Relaxation Response

The cue-controlled relaxation response technique is the best long-term relaxation technique. Cue-controlled relaxation means you can induce your own relaxation based on repeating certain cue words to yourself. In essence, you are taught to relax and then silently repeat cue words, such as “I am relaxed.” After enough practice, you can relax during tests.

 

Long-Term: Eliminating Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk (cognitive anxiety) is defined as the negative statements you tell yourself. , causing students to lose confidence and to give up on tests. Students need to change their negative self-talk to positive self-talk without making unrealistic statements. Using positive self-talk both before and during a test can build confidence and decrease your test anxiety.

 

Examples of negative self-talk:  “No matter what I do, I will not pass the course.”  “I am no good at math, so why should I try?” “I’ll never finish this test on time.” “I’m never going to hit my goal on the SAT (ACT).” “I’m not smart like my friends.” “My parents are going to kill me.” “It’s happening again. I’m so stupid.”

Examples of positive self-talk:  “I failed the course last semester, but I can now use my study/math skills to pass this course.”  “I know that with hard work, I will pass math.” “I prepared for this test and will do the best I can.”  “I feel good about myself and my abilities.” “I am not going to worry about that difficult problem.” “I’m going to use all my test time and check for human errors.”  “I’ve done problems like this before on homework/practice tests and I can do them again.” “Even if I don’t get the score I want on this test, it is not the end of the world.” “Even if I never hit my SAT (ACT) goal, I have so many other things going for me. I’ll get into a great college.”

Thought-stopping techniques: Some students have difficulty converting their negative self-talk into positive. These students need to use a thought-stopping technique to interrupt the worry response before it can cause high anxiety or negative emotions.

To stop  negative thoughts in the classroom or during a test, silently shout “Stop” or “Stop thinking about that.” During the interruption, students can repeat a positive self-talk statement or use a short-term relaxation technique. The student may need to repeat this  several times during a test to control negative self-talk. After every shout, a different relaxation technique/scene or positive self-talk statement should be used.

Students with high anxiety should practice this technique three days to one week before taking a test.

 

Long-term: Meditation

If you are cynical about meditation reducing stress, read up–it really works, and recent Harvard Medical School reports review the evidence. The longer a student practices, the better the results, but even last minute meditations before a test can be helpful. You can find several on YouTube, ranging from five to 15 minutes: just search test anxiety meditation.

 

Long-term: Reduced/Managed Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV, or other electronic device. Because adolescent brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than we may realize, children and teens can suffer dramatic negative effects from the six-to-seven hours a day the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates our kids spend looking at screens. Research has linked the resultant “sensory overload” to poor mood regulation, anxiety, sleeplessness, and symptoms that mimic those of serious mental health disorders. However, reducing screen time for adolescents is extremely difficult to do; one way is to set up a challenge among friends for just a couple of weeks prior to a high-stakes test or other event; read about additional strategies here.


Conclusion

If you think your teen may be dealing with test anxiety, take heart: there are many resources and methods that can help. We strongly recommend that you contact a professional, as well; at the very least, having a professional diagnosis may translate to extra time on standardized tests, reducing any time-limit stress the student may be feeling. Try to avoid labeling your student as a “bad test taker” or “not good in math.” And remember, all students–but particularly those who have trouble with test anxiety–should reduce/manage screen time and maintain good eating and sleep habits the week of the test.

Interested in a workbook?

The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety and Worry, by Lisa M. Schab, is a great place to start, as is another in the same series: Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back, by Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD.

 


How to prep for the SSAT over the holiday

Last Lap to the SSAT Finish Line

With the January SSAT right around the corner, parents have been asking what–if anything–they can do to help their students stay up to speed and even improve their skills over the holiday break. By now, most students are well on their way to feeling ready. However, extra practice never hurts.

With long afternoons free, maybe a full, timed practice test won’t feel burdensome. Another option is completing one or two timed sections in one sitting–the quality of time invested is more important than the quantity. It definitely helps build stamina for the long test.

Free practice tests for all different levels are available online. These are great for timed work. Print them out, as the actual SSAT is in printed format; also print a bubble sheet so your child can practice filling one out. The best approach is to circle the right answer on the test and then fill out three to five bubbles at a time. That prevents “mis-bubbling,” as your child is unlikely to fill in a bubble for a skipped problem or question, and also increases speed. You can also dissect a test for daily practice, rotating from one subject to the other.

A simple reward planned for after its completion, such as a trip to the skating rink, a movie, or a favorite dinner, can also lighten the mood and add to future motivation. We recommend a fun post-test adventure on the actual test day, itself–something your child will look forward to–so you might as well introduce that notion now!

Below are suggestions for using the tests, and for online and family activities that hone skills in all subjects the test covered on the test.  

 

Math

  • Mark five to ten problems that require a variety of skills: basic number skills, percentages, ratios, word problems, geometry, and algebra. Having children do problems they’re comfortable with builds confidence for exam day. Challenging problems should be done with a tutor or prior to a tutor session, when the child knows someone will explain.
  • Check out the Spiked Educational Games website. They offer an entire selection of math games that are age appropriate, including logic-building games.
  • Work together with your child on a more sophisticated number game. The New York Times Kenken is challenging and enjoyable for parent and student, as are Sudokus at all levels.
  • Play board games that use number skills. Because the SSAT does not allow calculators, any kind of games using math facts are helpful: Yahtzee, for example, or Monopoly (make your child the banker, have them calculate rent or percentages owed to the bank for mortgaged properties).

 

Verbal

  • Work through synonyms and analogies together.
  • Make a Quizlet. Help your child create word lists on Quizlet.
  • Try out FreeRice.com, where you’ll find vocabulary practice that starts easy and quickly accelerates. As a bonus, every right answer leads to a donation to the World Food Programme: how perfect for the holiday season.
  • Play more board games! Try Scattergories, Scrabble, and Balderdash. If you don’t have the board game versions, try apps (Words with Friends), or games that require purchasing nothing, like Fictionary (the “Dictionary parlor game” that preceded and led to Balderdash, and teaches poker-face skills, too).
  • Introduce your child to the pleasure of crosswords. The New York Times publishes Crossword Puzzles for Students on a variety of subjects; these puzzles not only improve vocabulary, but are educational in additional ways. Also, building a love for word puzzles now will last life long.
  • Interject vocabulary words into everyday conversations. Converse using your child’s vocabulary flashcards–this practice can be hysterically funny. Act out scenes playing characters who speak in “$5 words.”

 

Reading

  • Read with your student! Go for just a passage or two at a time. The passages are often more entertaining than you’d expect.
  • Read from newspapers and magazines. If possible, read items that are in print as that’s the format of the SSAT. Discuss what you’ve read. Analyze what is and isn’t reliable news.
  • Encourage reading an actual print book. Choose one that is a level or two above your child’s typical choice. Modeling reading for fun, curled up near the fireplace, makes the experience more pleasurable for all.

 

Overall strategies

  • Indulge in down time. To relieve students’ increasing anxiety about the looming test, allow them to play video games that require focus and speed under stress.
  • Get your child outside, and go along. Parents get stressed at this point, too!

 

Finally, if you are staying home for the holidays, Open Door SSAT tutors will be available over the break. Sessions during that week can be very productive, as the students are relaxed and can focus well on the tasks at hand. We even get a little festive and find that students connect well with holiday treats or a few minutes of a board game built in at the end of the session!

 

For students applying to private school, Open Door teaches ISEE and SSAT test prep and helps students complete their application writing.


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

PSAT Scores Are Out: Now What?

At long last, PSAT scores are out!

Once you gain the courage to open the envelope or log onto the website, you will see a confusing page of numbers, graphs, and fine print otherwise known as the PSAT Score Report.

“If this user-unfriendly page of information seems like a second test of your analytical skills, you are not alone,” says Travis Minor, Founder of Open Door.

Read on for help decoding the report.

 

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.

 

Percentiles

Nationally Representative Sample Percentile

Near the top of the score report, under the section scores, 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. Your percentile score remains somewhat of an estimate, however, as for some mysterious reason the College Board includes juniors who did not actually take the PSAT!

User Group Percentile

In the online version of the report, 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.

Benchmarks

PSAT Benchmarks indicate college readiness in content areas where you may need extra support as you prepare for college. The red, yellow, and green color-coding highlights relative strengths and weaknesses, but as they are based on this test alone, they should not discourage you from taking difficult courses or make you think you are under-qualified for the college you’ve dreamed about attending.

Subscores

Toward the bottom of the page appears a list of subscores, which report performance on different aspects of the PSAT. 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 (which includes geometry and basic trigonometry).

Cross-Test Scores

Cross-test scores, which can be found next to the subscores, 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 Comprehension or Writing/Language section 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 might emphasize those content areas, but might also include a math question about a sociological study accompanied by a figure or graph.

Annotated PSAT Score Report
Click here to see an annotated score report

Next Steps

Open Door can help you further interpret the results–that’s part of our expertise. We will also advise you on what your next steps should be.

The PSAT shows you which section is your stronger, 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 be offered a 30 minute free consultation with Open Door. You’ll receive a written analytical report and, yes, more advice.
  • Make time to prepare for the official test. No matter which test you decide to take, at least six weeks of preparation with a tutor–combined with diligent practice as assigned–almost invariably lead to significant score improvement.
  • Consider taking a proctored practice test. In addition, when you prepare with us, you typically take additional proctored practice tests, which helps reduce anxiety and improve pacing. Working through completed practice tests with your tutor help you further improve on challenging areas and identify how to approach the actual exam.
  • 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.

“Don’t forget to review your PSAT scores with your guidance counselor, too,” adds Minor. “They will be with you through the entire process of applying to college.”

And don’t forget to call or email Open Door Education when you are ready to take the next steps in the college admissions testing process.

For more information on ACT/SAT Test Prep tutoring at Open Door Education, check out our Test Prep page or contact us directly.


Header for an image from an anxiety blog by Open Door Education, a tutoring company in Acton and Concord Massachusetts

Recognizing and Dealing with Test Anxiety

Recent statistics show that more than 8% of American teens have diagnosed general anxiety disorders, and the numbers are rising each year. Among teens not suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, another group suffers from something called “test anxiety,” and that, too, is increasing in incidence.

 

According to the American Test Anxieties Association (AMTAA), the professional organization for mental health researchers and practitioners specializing in diagnosis and treatment of the syndrome, 16 to 20% of American teens suffer from severe test anxiety, and another 18% suffer from a moderate version.

 

How do you know if your student suffers from it? Don’t all people feel anxious when taking a timed test? Many teens describe it themselves as panicking, freezing, or blanking on tests, regardless of the number of hours they studied or how well they know the content. They might also have other symptoms of any panic attack: dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sweaty palms, and nausea.

 

How can education professionals recognize it? Both moderate and high test anxiety results in confused reasoning, more mistakes than seem reasonable considering the students’ knowledge of the material, reduced short- and long-term working memory, and, of course, more mistakes and lower test scores. AMTAA research shows that students with test anxiety score on average 12 percentile points below low-anxiety students, both at school and on standardized tests.

 

Open Door co-owner and tutor Erin Webb explains, “Anxiety isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because a student doesn’t suffer from generalized anxiety doesn’t mean anxiety can’t play a role in that student’s ability to recall information or focus in a testing environment.”

 

Erin adds that if students struggle with content knowledge the tutor is sure they know, or have trouble processing written texts no matter how strong their reading fluency, it’s important to question how much pressure they are experiencing in the moment of testing. Other signs are over-deliberation among answer choices, small computational errors, and difficulty sustaining energy over the test. Through close observation, tutors can help frustrated test-anxious students recognize what’s holding them back. Identifying the problem helps students reduce negative self-talk; they are trying hard, they do have mastery, and it’s anxiety that’s preventing them from achieving their test score goal.

 

What can parents do? Most importantly, if you see that your teens apply themselves in school, study, and comprehend the material being tested, yet still can’t achieve the same scores as their peers, avoid judgment or criticism. Ask them about their test taking experiences, and gently suggest that anxiety may be influencing their performance; usually, they’ll welcome your empathy and open up. If that fails, try meeting with teachers to determine whether you are correct in identifying the gap between students’ effort, content mastery, and test performance; of course, school psychologists and guidance counselors are also excellent resources.

 

Should you decide to seek outside help, one of the most effective treatments for the syndrome is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). John Dalton is a leading researcher in the field of teen anxiety, particularly social anxiety that interferes with academic success. A CBT practitioner who advises many educational professionals, Dalton teaches teens that although fear is real, thoughts are not facts. He guides them through written work identifying first their fears and worst case scenarios, and then descriptions of what actually happened the last time they faced similar stressful situations. Finally, they write realistic predictions of what might result the next time. For example, the last time they feared flunking a math test, did they? And even if they did, what happened? Were they able to retake that test? Bring their grade up another way? Did it prevent them from moving forward? Dalton stresses teens suffering from anxiety tend to catastrophize, and pulling them back from that cliff is essential to minimizing their fears.

 

CBT exposes teens to the anxiety-causing situation itself. For example, if a teen is afraid of appearing silly in public, Dalton has the teen purposefully act silly in public and notice how few people notice. If a few people laugh or point, the teen may experience a few moments of embarrassment, after which life goes on relatively unchanged. Similarly, test anxious students who take advantage of Open Door practice tests face their fears early in their testing cycle when the stakes are lower and, in most cases, catastrophize less when heading into the actual exam.

 

Additional therapies are many: mindfulness exercises; yoga; art, music, and writing therapy; hypnosis; and other modalities.

 

If we suspect your student suffers from test anxiety, we will notify you; likewise, if you suspect your teen struggles with it, please let their tutor know. Open Door’s mission includes preparing students not just for tests, but also for lifelong learning, confidence, and success.

 

***

 

Read more about identifying and treating test anxiety at the following links:

Mayo Clinic 

Reducing Test Anxiety

In addition, the AMTAA highly recommends a CD, Tame Test Anxiety, available online and in bookstores.

 


Students receive SSAT tutoring at Open Door Education in Acton and Concord

SSAT FAQs

As families begin the often confusing process of applying to private high school, we hear a variety of questions about the SSAT. Here are answers to those we hear most frequently.

 

When should my child take the SSAT?

The SSAT is offered eight times over the school year, beginning in October; test dates can be found here. Check with the schools to which your student is applying as to the final possible date that will meet their deadline.

 

Can my child take the SSAT more than once?

Yes. Most students plan to take it twice.

 

How much preparation will my child need?

Even the strongest students benefit from SSAT test prep. It’s a difficult test, and familiarity with the types of questions, format, and, of course, material covered makes a huge difference. We recommend minimally four sessions; students see the greatest benefit from 6-12. In particular, vocabulary practice is time-intensive–there are no shortcuts.

 

What is the most important element of the private high school application?

Answers to this question vary. Private school admissions officers will say that the SSAT is not the most important factor; however, it is rare to see acceptance of a student whose scores are far outside the school’s typical range. Other top factors include interviews with student and family–they aim to build a well-rounded student body with a diversity of talents and interests, supported by involved parents. Grades, recommendations, and extracurriculars are also of high importance. Essays and short answers on the applications themselves are also indicators of whether the student will be a good fit.

 

How many schools should be on my student’s list?

Most students have a good idea of a few schools they’d like to attend, and families in Eastern Massachusetts are fortunate to have multiple excellent choices nearby. No matter the reputation of the school, however, it’s important to do your own online research to learn whether the environment is right for your child, and then schedule a tour during a school day. If you already know your student will be applying, request an interview the same day.

 

Am I too late for this year?

Most private and Catholic high schools have mid-December application deadlines. In most cases, admissions and financial aid/scholarship decisions are made by February.

 

Where can I learn more?

Here is more detail about the SSAT we have compiled. If you are interested in working with an admissions consultant, please contact our office for a list of consultants we recommend. Below is a list of some of the top private and religious affiliated schools in our region.

 

Area private schools

Highest range of SSAT scores

Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols, Cambridge

Cambridge School of Weston

Concord Academy, Concord

Deerfield Academy, Deerfield

Groton School, Groton

Middlesex School, Concord

Milton Academy, Milton

Nobles and Greenough, Newton

Phillips Academy Andover, Andover

St. Mark’s School, Southborough

 

Middle range of SSAT scores

Brooks School, North Andover

Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, Waltham

Dana Hall School, Wellesley

Lawrence Academy, Groton

 

Catholic High Schools

Boston College High, Boston

St. Sebastian’s School, Needham

Xaverian Brothers, Westwood

 

If you are interested in SSAT tutoring, email info@opendoor.education to schedule a free consultation. Open Door also prepares students for the lower and middle levels of the SSAT and ISEE.