How to Prepare for the SHSAT

How to Prepare for the SHSAT

The Specialized High School Admissions Test (or the SHSAT) is a daunting prospect for any eighth grader hoping to attend one of the 8 specialized high schools in New York City that require the exam to apply.

We’ve outlined the 4 tips your student needs to know as they begin preparing for the SHSAT:

  • Play to Your Strengths

The SHSAT is made up of two sections. First, the English Language Arts (ELA) section tests a student’s ability to notice and correct grammar errors, improve a piece of writing, and understand and interpret what they have read. Second, the Mathematics section tests a student’s ability to solve word problems and computational questions involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals and statistics.

The SHSAT allows students to choose which section to take first, and choosing a certain order on test day could greatly impact a student’s confidence throughout the exam and their ultimate score. For some students, it might be better to start off with their stronger section so they can feel confident moving into the rest of the exam. For other students, it could be advantageous to start with the section they want to spend more time on so they do not feel rushed for the second section of the exam. We’ll discuss timing more in number 2.

  • Timing is Key

One of the most interesting – and potentially overwhelming – parts of taking the SHSAT is figuring out how to pace oneself on the test. Unlike other standardized tests, there are no set times for the Mathematics and ELA sections; students can spend as much or as little time as they need on each section. While this can be an advantage to a skilled test taker, this could hurt the student who doesn’t keep their eye on the clock and gets stuck on a harder math problem or a challenging reading comprehension passage.  

Going into the exam, it’s important that students have an idea of how long they’d like to spend on each section. Is it better to spend an even 90 minutes on each section, or is it more advantageous to allocate a bit more time to a weaker section? The approach is different for each student, and a good tutor can help determine which timing strategy would work best for a student depending on their specific test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

  • Guess Smart

The SHSAT has no penalty for wrong answers, so students should never leave questions blank – even if they have no idea what the right answer is.

If your student doesn’t feel confident that they know the right answer to a question, they can still use process of elimination to increase their chances of getting a right answer. As they read through questions, students should do their best to cross out the answers that they know are definitely wrong. This will help your student narrow down their choices, getting them closer to the correct answer.

  • Practice Practice Practice

After reading through these tips, the next thing your student should do is take the official practice SHSAT provided by the Department of Education. When your student takes the exam, try and make the testing environment as realistic as possible. For example, your student should take the exam in the allotted time (180 minutes), be sitting at a table, and avoid taking breaks to look at their phone or eat a meal.

After your student finishes the exam, have them check their answers against the answer key to see the kinds of mistakes that they made. Perhaps they made careless errors on the Mathematics section or they weren’t quite “getting” the meaning of the reading comprehension passages. Your student can then focus their test preparation on these challenging areas so they can get their ideal score when it comes to test day.

Hopefully these tips will help your student get off on the right foot as they work to prepare for the SHSAT in October.

If you’d like to discuss your student’s SHSAT prep timeline or talk about specific strategies to help your student get into their top choice specialized high school, please feel free to give us a call at (646) 583-3611 or submit a request here.

How to Get the Best Tutor for Your Buck

How to Get the Best Tutor for Your Buck


Private tutoring isn’t cheap – we get it – so it’s common sense to want to get the best possible price for the best possible service.

But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal for your money? Is that tutor you found on Craigslist for $15 an hour a steal, or are they going to literally steal your television? Is it really worth spending north of $200 an hour for that fancy test prep company?

Luckily for you, there are some really simple ways to ensure that you’re getting the best private tutors at the best possible price.

1. Don’t Use a Brand Name Tutoring Company

I know this is a strong statement to make, but it’s true – if you want the best value, don’t go with a brand name tutoring company. Why? Because traditional tutoring companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan pay their tutors around $20 an hour to start and charge customers $135 an hour (and up!).

This means that the person who is actually working with your student will be making less than ⅙ of what you’re paying per hour. Do you think they’re going to be motivated to do everything they can to help your child succeed? Probably not. Or at least not as much as if they were getting a bigger piece of that hefty hourly rate.

It’s not always bad to work with a traditional tutoring company as there’s security in knowing and trusting a brand. If you end up going this route, ask how much your tutor is actually being paid per hour.

2. Do Ask Around (but don’t stop there)

Ask your friends and family if they’ve used a tutor before or check with your school if they have tutors they recommend. Then ask how much these tutors cost. But don’t just accept this recommendation and stop there.

Go online and search for tutors in your area to see if the prices match up. If you find that there are tutors with strong education backgrounds and experience working with students available for significantly less, then your friend may not have gotten the best deal.

Wondering where to look online for actually qualified tutors? Read on.

3. Go Online (but focus on individual tutors)

Look for tutoring companies with professional and up-to-date websites, but don’t stop there. Focus your search on companies that include tutor profiles where you’ll be able to read about each individual educator. These companies will let you search at specific price points for tutors who teach the subjects your child needs help with, so you can make sure you’re finding exactly the type of tutor you’re looking for. Smart Alec, my company, does this quite well (if I do say so myself), as do Wyzant and Revolution Prep.

However, with so many tutor options, it’s hard to determine who’s actually going to be the best value for your money. Some companies – like Smart Alec – have stringent tutor-hiring requirements so you have a guaranteed high quality of tutors. Other companies – like Wyzant – have many reviews which you can use to get a sense of a tutor’s teaching quality. If the site has neither rigorous tutoring-hiring practices or reviews, you may want to look elsewhere.

And, if you’re struggling to figure out how to choose a tutor, check out our guide here.

4. Different subjects have different price tags

As you dig through tutoring options, it’s important to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Don’t get too caught up in the prices you see as you scan through tutoring sites – different subjects can be very different rates depending on where you live. For instance, homework help for an elementary student will almost always be less than half the price of SAT or ACT prep. Tutors who specialize in higher level classes and exams like college level chemistry or the LSAT will probably be even more expensive than that. So if you find a tutor who is only $50 an hour for elementary school math and then see a tutor is charging $70 for calculus tutoring, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the cheaper tutor is the better deal.

When you’re searching for the best value tutor, it’s a good idea to avoid the big brands, ask around, go online and note that different subjects have different standard prices. While there’s not one perfect way to find the best tutor for your buck, it’s important to remember that the easiest way to waste money when it comes to tutoring is to hire the cheapest tutor you can find. By simply going for the cheapest option, your child will likely have a bad experience and you’ll be flushing money down the drain.

Instead of looking for the lowest absolute price, look for a tutor whose price you can afford and whose credentials are amazing.The potential payoff of finding the right tutor for your child is tremendous, and with the availability of great, affordable tutors, you’ve got no reason to settle for anything less than the best.

How to Choose a Tutor in 4 Questions

How to Choose a Tutor in 4 Questions


Your child paid attention in math class, studied their notes and did the algebra problem sets twice. Everything should be falling into place for them, but for some reason the concepts just won’t stick.

If this sounds familiar, it might be time to get your child a bit of extra help. You’ll want to choose a tutor who’s going to work well with their unique personality and learning style. With the wrong tutor, students can get even more discouraged, but, with the right math tutor, students can discover their academic potential and build self-confidence in new and exciting ways.

But how can you tell what makes a good teacher for your child? Answer these four questions and you will be a long way towards determining if a tutor is actually a good teacher and if they are a good match for your child, before they ever meet.

1. How well do they know the subject?

Obviously if the tutor can’t teach math, then nothing else really will help, so we need to start here. But how can you figure out if they know their stuff if you haven’t taken an algebra or calculus class in twenty years? Check to see if they majored in math or a science that would require solid math fundamentals (like physics, chemistry or biology). If they don’t have a degree in these areas, have they taught the class or subject in a classroom?

If your student is in high school or college, it’s important to choose a math tutor with a depth of knowledge. In this case, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that a math tutor can teach at least one course level above your student. For example if you are looking for a high school precalculus tutor, you also want to make sure that the tutor can teach calculus. If your student is studying pre-algebra, their tutor should certainly have a mastery over algebra (through algebra 2, preferably). Having this base of knowledge means that the math tutor is going to be able to help your child dive deeply into the subject. A math tutor whose knowledge ends at your student’s grade level may not be able to explain the “why” behind important concepts.

2. How good are they at actually teaching?

Just because someone earned perfect grades in their calculus course doesn’t mean they’re automatically good at teaching that material. Do you see any evidence that the tutor is able to communicate complex topics simply and effectively? Do they cite experience working with different kinds of learners when you speak with them on the phone? When you choose a tutor, you want to look for tutors who talk about their passion for teaching, the joy they get from helping students, and the reasons they tutor. Most educators who take the time to talk about these things are genuinely passionate about helping students.

Of course, the best way to see if they are a good tutor is to actually watch them teach. Some sites, like Smart Alec, actually include video math lessons so you can see how individual tutors communicate and teach.

3. How successful have they been?

When choosing a tutor, look to their track record with students. If you’re going through a company or service, ask how they selected the tutors they work with. Do they have to have a certain number of hours tutors have to fulfill or specific qualifying credentials? If not, are there reviews? You obviously want a tutor who has proven they can help students succeed. You can either limit your search to only looking at tutoring companies that have stringent tutor-hiring requirements or you can look on sites like Wyzant that have many reviews of tutors to help you.

If you’re nervous about the teacher’s quality (or if you just want more of a sense of how the tutor teaches), ask them for a few references. Talking to former – or current – students will give you a sense of how the teacher communicates and if they can actually adapt their expertise to your child’s needs.

4. Are they a good personality fit for your child?

Once a tutor meets all the other requirements, you should choose a tutor that your student actually wants to work with. The wrong personality fit can mean the difference between a successful lesson and a painful one. You know your child best, so think about whether they need a more authoritative teacher or if they’re going to respond better to a more relatable one. Will they connect with a math tutor who is very energetic and animated or one that is more reserved and calm?

This is where bringing your child into the decision making process can really pay off, especially if you have an initial consultation at a tutoring company or a tutor’s profile up on your computer. If your child thinks the math tutor looks like someone they may want to work with, letting them make the final call can go a long way towards having them buy into the tutoring process and ultimately making the tutoring relationship more productive.

So don’t just go with the first math tutor you come across. Look at how deep their knowledge goes, how good they are at communicating that information, how successful they are, and finally, whether or not your child is going to respond to their personality. With the right math tutor, your child will be feeling more confident and capable in no time.

You’re Delusional About Your Essay — Here’s How to Fix It

You’re Delusional About Your Essay — Here’s How to Fix It
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It’s late. You’ve just cranked out a brilliant essay, and the last few pages practically wrote themselves. This may be your best work yet, and you’re sure that your teacher is going to be blown away.

But a week later you get your essay back, and it’s bleeding red ink and scarred with a less-than-stellar letter grade.

How did this happen? Why did your brilliance go unrecognized? The answer to this age old question is, almost always, a lack of editing…

Editing is so often the difference between an incredible piece of writing and a complete mess. You know that game where you tap out a beat and a friend tries to guess which song it’s from? The song is so obvious to you, but for your friend it’s incredibly difficult to guess. That’s because our minds are remarkably good at superimposing sensible patterns of our own creation onto chaos, whether it’s the erratic tapping that you firmly believe is the beat to T-Swift’s “Shake it Off” or the paper you wrote that failed to effectively get its message across. This disconnect between the words on the page and what you’ve written is the real reason great editing is essential to any successful paper.

Of course, simply understanding that your literal writing is different than your imagined writing isn’t enough to make a piece great. It does, however, position you to be exponentially more effective in your editing. Because you know that your brain is lying to you when you read your essay, you can learn to expose those falsehoods and edit your paper as if you were an objective observer with the following four techniques.

1. Back Away from the Computer Screen

First thing’s first — get away from your essay. Literally. Just don’t look at it for a full 24 hours, including a night’s sleep.

After some time away from your paper you’ll immediately start to notice where your ideas don’t come across as effectively as you’d imagined. Give it a good read over and take notes on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe a structural change is required, or you notice that one paragraph is weak compared to the rest of the paper. The moral of this step is don’t be afraid to make larger scale changes. Once you’ve gone through and re-written and re-structured the most obviously lacking parts, then it’s time to move onto the next phase of the editing process.

2. Change Your Context

The second method is to change the context in which you’re viewing your essay. This is the best stage for finding awkward sentences, grammatical mistakes, and not-so-smooth transitions.

The easiest way to change your context is to simply print it out. Read through your paper with a brightly colored pen and don’t be shy or overwhelmed by the amount of ink on the page. Remember, no one writes perfectly the first time around.

3. Get Vocal

Once you’ve fixed the larger mistakes, go through your essay with a fine-tooth comb. Read it aloud to yourself, or better yet (and probably even more painful), record yourself reading your paper and play it back. Hearing your paper read aloud will distance you from what you think you wrote, and force you to edit what you’ve actually written. It also makes bad sentences, poor word choices, and residual grammatical errors stand out like sore thumbs.

4. Get Perspective

If you’re working on an especially important assignment, this is when you should start thinking about getting a fresh perspective. Once you’ve done all of the above, show your work to a friend or teacher, or you can even get a professional to look at it like those on Smart Edits (

While objective edits can sometimes be hard on the ego, editors will be able to eliminate unnecessary sentences (or even paragraphs) that you’re too fond of to judge extraneous. An expert will go a long way towards helping you focus your ideas, finding your voice and polishing your product. There’s a reason publishing houses employ teams of editors after all.

These incredibly simple techniques go a very long way towards helping you see your writing through the eyes of your readers. They break the illusion of superimposed greatness and allow you to see the words on the page, warts and all. So before you hand in your next paper, try to give yourself some space from it, print it out and listen to it. Once it truly sounds brilliant, then you can turn it in confident that you’ve written something worthy of that amazing brain of yours.

How to Start Off the New Year Right

How to Start Off the New Year Right


Winter breaks are for recharging, right? We think so, but if you ask a high schooler what they’re looking forward to most over the holidays, they might answer with “binging that new Netflix show” or “finally getting a chance to beat that new video game.” While we understand the importance of kicking back in front of a TV or computer, we also think there’s value in using winter break as a time to mentally reset before diving into the next year.

So without further ado, here are some of our best tips for how to make the most of your break (and start the new year off on the right foot):

  • Meditate

One of the best ways to clear your mind is to actually take some time to be mindful. Not only has meditation been shown to enhance academic performance, it has also been demonstrated to reduce stress, improve an individual’s well-being, actually change the way your mind works, and even potentially improve your health.

But how am I just going to sit there and meditate on my own?

Well, there are loads of classes out there dedicated to meditation – a quick internet search will almost inevitably turn up countless opportunities for meditation near you. In addition, there are many ways to experience guided meditation from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re having trouble finding some meditation classes outside (or if you’d prefer not to brave the tundra that is winter in the Northeast), there are many online resources dedicated to helping you meditate from the comfort of your own home. The New York Times has a some great guided meditations of different lengths, and there are some smartphone apps such as Headspace dedicated to helping you practice mindfulness, wherever and whenever you want.

  • Read Something

Instead of staring at a screen for your whole holiday break, try and take some time to read something. Reading can help you stress less, and much like meditation, it can clear your mind and transport you to a whole new world.

Ask your English teachers for some reading recommendations, or better yet, ask your parents or family members for their favorite books. Not only will it give the two of you something to talk about, but it may also help you understand your parent a little bit better.

If you’re stuck or looking for some other recommendations, check out the Smart Alec reading list, which includes some great picks from our expert tutors.

  • Give back

While volunteering or donating to charity is important all year round, the holidays are a great time of year to give back. Donating your time or money is clearly important from a moral and interpersonal point of view, but did you know it can also have positive psychological effects?

In fact, psychology researchers have found that spending your time doing things for others can actually increase your subjective sense of time affluence. More simply, by using some of your time to “give back,” you can actually feel as if you have more free time than if you never took the time to volunteer in the first place.

So, take some time this break to give back in advance of the new year. You’ll feel as though you’re starting this new year with more time than ever.

  • Get Moving

You probably know that feeling – that “rush” after breaking a sweat at the gym or playing a sport. We all know that it’s good to exercise, and getting active can actually have a tremendous impact on brain power. A recent study from the Journal of Science Medicine and Sport reported that boys who spent the most time sitting (and least amount of time moving) had poorer reading skills than the rest of the students. Who knew that the easiest way to flex your mental muscles was to get moving?

However, you don’t need to even hit the gym to start benefitting from these effects. Grab a family member, bundle up and go take a short walk. Even better, find somewhere that isn’t heavy with traffic where you are able to enjoy nature — it just might make you happier and more attentive. Plus, it’ll give you a chance to spend some quality time with a loved one.

Don’t wait until your New Year’s Resolution to get your blood pumping – kick your year (and your brain off) right by getting off your couch now.

These are just a few ideas for how to use your winter break to recharge before heading into the new year. Enjoy the holidays, and try to get in a little mental relaxation before you head back to school in 2017.

How to Find the Perfect Last-Minute Gift

How to Find the Perfect Last-Minute Gift


The holidays are quickly creeping up on us, so you probably have to get gifts for your parents, your siblings and maybe even a significant other.

While it’s easy to find the right gift for some people, others can pose a serious challenge when it comes to gift giving. Don’t worry though, the academic experts here at Smart Alec have used their brainpower to help you find that perfect last-minute holiday present!

1. Give a book or two (or a million)

It’s the best time of year to cozy up with a great book, and nothing truly says “I love you” quite like literature.

With Goodreads, you can get personalized book recommendations and see reviews from thousands of other readers around the world. If you have some idea of what type of books the person likes to read, Goodreads makes it easy to find the right one and then purchase it online.

If you’re stumped (or if the idea of searching around a huge database of books is a little overwhelming), you can always check out the Smart Alec reading list, which includes personal recommendations from our expert tutors. We’ll be updating the list weekly with more recommended reads, so stay tuned for even more amazing books.

If you’re still not finding anything that piques your interest, head down to your nearest local bookseller (yes, brick-and-mortar bookstores still exist) and ask an attendant for their recommendations. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a new book fresh off the shelf – and it might even inspire you to pick up a book for yourself as well.

2. Games

Bored of video games, movies and television? Board games are a very un-boring alternative to sitting in front of a screen all night, and nowadays, it’s not just your basic Monopoly and Scrabble (which are both superb games, by the way). There’s pretty much a game for anything you can imagine.

Here are just a few of our favorites that allow you to stretch your mind (and still have a good time):

  • For the person who is obsessed with Top Chef, there’s Foodie Fight, an addicting culinary trivia game. Pro tip: this game pairs nicely with an aged brie!
  • For the person who likes to think outside of the box, there’s Concept. This game forces you to use your imagination and creativity to solve riddles. Pro tip: ignore most of the rules and get creative with your own!
  • For the person who secretly wants to be an engineer, there’s Jenga. In a test of balance, precision and luck, you need to pull out blocks from a tower without making the entire thing come crashing down. Pro tip: don’t remove all the blocks from a single row if you’re trying to win.

3. Go Do Something Together

If all else fails, get tickets for you and the person to do something fun. It’s a great way for you and your loved one to spend some time together, and plus, you are sneakily getting yourself a present as well.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • A concert for a band / artist that your friend likes
  • A concert for a band / artist that your friend hates (and you can go and laugh at the band / artist together)
  • A musical (because who doesn’t like to pretend that we lived our lives through song)
  • An interactive play such as Sleep No More (because the only thing more fun than watching theatre is actually actively engaging with it)
  • A dog show (because who doesn’t love puppies)
  • A pottery class (because everyone needs a handmade mug)

Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and look online for some fun events happening near you. If the you think the two of you’ll have fun, it’s probably a good idea! And if money is an obstacle, there are tons of websites dedicated to free (or cheap) events near you.

At the end of the day, in a world with millions of options finding the perfect present is always going to be a challenge. Hopefully this list can help you think of an amazing idea, and if you’re still stuck, just go with your gut. After all, you likely know your loved one way better than we do!

The Smart Alec Reading List

The Smart Alec Reading List


There’s nothing better than cozying up with a great book, so we’re starting a Smart Alec reading list to aid you in your quest for the next amazing read!

Check out some of our picks below.

1. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Smart Alec’s review (courtesy of Julia de Lorimier):


2. The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander

Smart Alec’s review (courtesy of Michael Glendening):


3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Review (courtesy of Amazon):


Stay tuned and check back every Tuesday for updates – we’ll be adding to this list every week with some more of our favorite reads!

How to Stress Less

How to Stress Less


For most high schoolers, the beginning of December is a wintery mix at best. On the upside, you’re looking forward to the holidays, there’s only a few weeks left until winter break, and there’s plenty of great food to eat. However, standing in the way of this holiday cheer is a mountain of tests, essays, college applications, and SAT/ACT studying. With so much going on, it’s important that you stay focused without stressing out too much.

Here are some of our best tips and tricks to make sure that you can sail towards winter break while staying relatively stress-free.

1. Stay Organized

One of the best ways to stay calm is to stay organized. Before you start working, write down all of the tasks you need to accomplish and how long you think each task will take. As you complete your work, cross off the items you have completed. With each task, your list will get shorter and you’ll also be able to look back at all of things you have accomplished!

2. Remember to Breathe

It seems obvious, but remembering to breathe can help you relax and focus when you have to overcome stress and get work done.

We recommend the simple and effective abdominal breathing technique outlined by Time. Take in 6 to 10 deep breaths through your nose each minute (for 10 minutes) to help reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. When practicing this breathing technique, it’s important to make sure that you inflate your diaphragm (not the chest) and that you inhale enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. We’ve found that doing these breathing exercises can help calm you down before a big exam (or before a big study session).

If this works for you (or if you want to try some more advanced breathing exercises), you can check out some other breathing techniques here.

3. Take a Break

Although it seems counterintuitive, one of the most important parts of working hard is taking breaks. If you have regular breaks as part of your work schedule, you’re able to take a minute to de-stress so you’re re-energized to continue working! We like the Pomodoro Technique, which encourages you to work in 25 minute increments with 3-5 minute breaks in between. You can read more about the Pomodoro Technique in our blog post here.

4. Read More

If you’re reading at school and reading when you do homework, why would you read more during your limited free time?

In addition to being a great source of entertainment, reading has been shown to reduce stress and may work better and faster than relaxation methods such as listening to music or going for a walk.

And you can choose any type of book you want to reap the benefits of reading! Neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis, who conducted an experiment about reading and relaxation at the University of Sussex, stated, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

So you officially have our permission to read a chapter for fun before you dive into your work!

5. Have Fun (and Be Social)

Even when you’re busy with all the stress that comes with high school life, make sure you take time to have fun and do activities that you’re passionate about. Go play a sport, listen to some music, or take a walk outside. Even better, go do one of those things with a friend, as surrounding yourself with a strong social support network can be important when reducing stress.

So, there you have it! It’s normal to get overwhelmed during stressful times, but if you just follow these simple tricks, you’ll be de-stressed in no time. Happy holidays!

How To Perfect Your College Application Essay

How To Perfect Your College Application Essay


So you’ve finished your college essay and you think it’s actually pretty good. You’re telling a story about yourself and you’re pleased with the message. You’ve read it over, edited it and are feeling confident. Before you hit submit, make sure you’ve double checked that your essay is as clear, poignant and powerful as you think it is. All too often, we don’t realize how flawed our own writing can really be, especially in the case of this milestone admissions essay.

With these 5 simple techniques, you can rest assured that your college essay will showcase your story effectively.

Read it aloud, record it and listen to it.

Creating a compelling essay is extremely time consuming. This is especially true for one as important as your college admissions essay. Sometimes you spend so much time writing that you lose track of keeping your piece coherent. Hearing your work read aloud takes you out of the writer’s chair and gives you a chance to think critically about your piece as a whole. So use your phone to record yourself reading it aloud, and then, as painful as it may be, sit and listen to your own rendition with a red pen in hand. Any awkward prose choices, unnecessary repetition or tonal irregularities are easily spotted using this technique.

Have a stranger read it.

Telling a story takes a lot of effort. To you, the story is so clear – you’re living it every day and it’s rooted in all of your past experiences. However, many facets of your story may not be so readily apparent to the outside reader. We may think we are painting a clear picture with our writing, but sometimes we may not realize that the full story doesn’t always make it onto the page. They may need some added context to fully grasp what you are trying to say. Allowing someone who is completely unfamiliar with you and your personality to read your essay can help fill in any gaps in your narrative. The right person will be able to give you feedback about what isn’t clear, impactful or effective. Forums such as College Confidential are great for anonymous and honest feedback. Writing tutors, whether at your peer writing center or professional, are also a great resource for feedback on general narrative flow and comprehensiveness.

Have someone who knows you better than you know yourself read it.

While having an impartial editor read your paper is great, allowing someone who knows you well to take a pass at your story is equally as important. Someone who has a perspective on your journey can help fill in certain gaps you may have missed in your effort to build your narrative. Moreover, sometimes these sources are able clue us in on important observations that we may not see ourselves. Does the story you’re telling showcase the real you? Does it weave together formative experiences, real traits and values to form a compelling and truthful portrait? Close friends, relatives, academic mentors and even coaches are invaluable resources for our personal narrative.

It’s, yours and who’s?

Grammar is one of the most important parts of any piece of writing. Without proper grammar, an entire narrative can fall apart. Make sure your “yours,” “its” and “who/whoms” are used correctly. Your admissions essay is your personal recollection of your pre-college growth. It should be engaging as well as professional. Nothing ruins a great story more quickly than poor grammar. Your essay may sound great but it also needs to look great.  

Print it out, don’t look at it for 24 hours and then edit on paper.

When we spend a long time with a document, we stop seeing what’s really on the page and start seeing what we think is on the page. You may have edited your paper five times, but still have missed that one misplaced comma or used “it’s” instead of “its” because your mind is simply glossing over it. So, give yourself a little space from your essay. Take a full 24 hour breather from it: no writing, no editing, no nothing. Then print it out and read it over with a pen in hand. You may be shocked to find how many mistakes you find (and fix!).

Your college admissions essay is an important piece of your application. It gives your prospective university a true glimpse of what makes you who you are. With these five steps in mind, you can turn any rough draft into a polished final product ready for submission. Happy writing!

Ask a Smart Alec: How to Get Organized

Ask a Smart Alec: How to Get Organized


Q: My son is completely disorganized; he can never find his assignments or his class notes and he doesn’t manage his time well. How can I help him organize his classwork so he can focus on studying for his midterms?

Thanks for the question! Organization is one of the biggest keys to academic success, and it definitely doesn’t come naturally to all of us (in high school, I used to keep my notes in messy stacks all over my bedroom; thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then).

We put together some of our favorite tips and tricks to help kick your student’s organization into high gear. Just give your student this short list to help them get started.

1. A place for everything

One of the most important parts of getting yourself organized is making sure you have a place for everything. Go to your desk, your backpack, underneath your bed or any other place you keep items related to school and dump everything on the floor. Look through all of your items, and evaluate what you need to keep and what is garbage. If you have any doubts about whether to throw something away, ask yourself when you last used the item. If it’s been more than 6 months, get rid of it. If it’s something worn out or broken, ask yourself if you can replace it (or if you’re probably going to replace it in the near future). If the answer is yes, toss it!

Now that you’ve thrown out the junk, you can start organizing. When finding places for your belongings, make sure that the things you use all the time are easily accessible (i.e., pens and pencils, stapler, erasers, etc.). Then you can find a designated place for everything else.

Use labels to make sure you know what items are in a given location. For papers, notes, and old exams, get large, envelope-style folders so your papers don’t fall out of the folders when you’re trying to find notes.

2. And everything it’s place

Once you’ve established where things belong, it’s important to actually put things back in the right places. If you start letting papers pile up on your desk, you’ll find yourself right back in the disorganized mess you started with!

If you’re having trouble staying on top of all of it, set a reminder for yourself at a certain time every day (i.e., the time you get home from school) when you can spend five minutes to make sure everything is in its place before you start working. This way, you won’t let the piles pile up again.

3. Make a list (and check it)

Do you have trouble keeping track of all of your work? Before you start working away, write down all of the tasks you need to accomplish and how long you think each task will take. As you complete your work, check off the items you have completed. With each task, your list will get shorter and you’ll also be able to see how much you’ve already accomplished!

Start with the work you’re dreading the most, and then move onto the work that is more enjoyable or easy. You can use the more enjoyable work as a “reward” for getting through a particularly arduous task.

4. Take a break

Although it seems counterintuitive, one of the most important parts about working hard is taking breaks. We like the Pomodoro Technique, which encourages you to work in 25 minute increments with 3-5 minute breaks in between.

Executing the Pomodoro Technique is simple. Choose a task to be completed and set a timer for 25 minutes. Whenever you get distracted — be it by a text, email or snap — immediately write it down and then resume the task at hand. At the end of the first 25 minutes, take a 3-5 minute break and then start another 25 minutes of focus. After four blocks of focus (also called “Pomodoros”), give yourself a 15-30 minute break. Repeat the cycle until the task is completed.

You can read more about the Pomodoro Technique in our blog post here.

So, there you have it! Follow these simple tips and you’ll be organized in no time. And if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed, just take a deep breath (or a short break) and come back stronger and more focused than before!

Submit any questions you have to for a chance to get your question answered in next week’s “Ask a Smart Alec” column!