The Smart Alec Reading List

The Smart Alec Reading List

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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):ill-give-you-the-sun-3-01

2. The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander

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

3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Review (courtesy of Amazon):

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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

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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

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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

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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 ask@smartalec.com for a chance to get your question answered in next week’s “Ask a Smart Alec” column!

Sunk Costs Made You Do It

Sunk Costs Made You Do It

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Have you sat through an entire movie even though you knew you disliked it within the first thirty minutes? Have you ever gotten in a checkout line at a grocery store, noticed that another line is moving faster, and stayed in your original line? Have you ever ordered way too much food, and then forced yourself to eat every slice/dumpling/bite just because you had already paid for it?

If so, you’re falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy.

First, it’s important to define what we mean by “sunk cost.” A sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. In this case, a cost may not just refer to monetary value but also the emotional investment an individual has made on a decision.

The sunk cost fallacy is the phenomenon of making a decision based off of these sunk costs. The issue is that you don’t need to take these costs into account when making a choice as these costs have already been incurred. Instead, you should be making a decision in the interest of your future happiness or well being (and not considering the investment you have already made via sunk costs).

Imagine you have purchased a ticket to a concert. On the day of the concert, however, a friend tells you that the artist doesn’t perform well live, and you decide that you don’t really want to go to the concert at all. Now you have two choices:

  • Going to see a concert that you’re not going to enjoy; or
  • Skipping the concert to do something more enjoyable with your time.

Either way, you already bought the ticket to the concert and you can’t change that. The rational choice is the second option – you should do something that you know you’re going to enjoy (despite the fact that you already bought the ticket). However, most people would likely choose the first option – going to the concert because it seems like the right thing to do since you’ve already made the investment on the ticket. That’s the sunk cost fallacy.

Almost everyone suffers from the sunk cost fallacy, the question is can you avoid it now that you know that it exists?

 

A Curious Case of the Classics

A Curious Case of the Classics

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In undergrad, I had a roving academic mind and I couldn’t settle on a major. I didn’t want to study English and miss out on learning new and exciting stories from history, nor did I want to settle on History and miss out on the beautiful poetry and rhetoric that comes with an English degree. When I finally stumbled into my alma mater’s Classics department, it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

My first class in the department was called Poets, Lovers, and Monsters, and we explored Greek and Roman poetry and mythology. I was hooked. Classics was able to capture my heart because it is about a time period as opposed to a subject. All within my major, I was able to study philosophy, political science, art, architecture, poetry … the list goes on and on! Still, the core of my degree was learning and exploring Ancient Greek and Latin.

One of my favorite things about knowing those classical languages is how they help me to understand English. I look at a word and I can often find Greek or Latin roots within it that can help me to understand what that word really means. For example, one of my favorite words is theoxeny, which is made up of two very simple Greek words. First being “theo” which means God, as in theology, and “xenia” which means stranger or guest, as in xenophobia. So if you understand those two words, you can then understand that theoxeny means god as a stranger. We see this a lot in old fairytales where a prince is cruel to a beggar woman who turns out to be a beautiful fairy in disguise. A modern example of this would be the opening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when the young prince insults the old woman, who then transforms him into a beast.

The Greeks themselves were very scared of theoxeny. They were terrified of accidentally offending one of their twelve Olympian gods so they had this practice called xenia, where if a stranger or someone in need knocked on their door they would treat them with the utmost respect. They would invite the stranger in, feed them a meal, and get them anything they need. Then, after catering to all of the strangers’ needs, they could ask the stranger their name or who they were. This practice is a beautiful thing and it teaches us a lot about the Greeks – as well as the importance of treating people with respect.

Now I am a graduate student at New York University studying cultural psychology and art in a degree I built myself. Both of these fields are areas I would never have been exposed to in other majors. Each time I go to write a paper or analysis a text, I am thankful for my education in the Classics!

About the author:

Katie Mears is currently pursuing her Master’s degree at New York University, and specializes in teaching writing, history and Latin.

Inside the Literary Devices in Pop Music

Inside the Literary Devices in Pop Music

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You might’ve learned about literary devices in school, but did you know that these aren’t just for poets and professors? Many popstars also use these techniques to give your favorite anthems some extra punch.

Below are some literary devices that are used in pop music. Please feel free to sing along as you read.

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity (and is frequently used in pop music). You may have never noticed, but Rihanna and Eminem use assonance to create lyrical gold in two of their hit songs. Perhaps their penchant for literary devices aided their collaborations, “Love the Way You Lie” and “The Monster.”

  • The “eye” sound in “Diamonds” by Rihanna:

Shine bright like a diamond.”

  • The “oh” sound in “Lose Yourself” by Eminem:

Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked

He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy? No.

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the middle or end of a word. While consonance is generally used less frequently than assonance, divas (and boy bands) still utilize consonance to create catchy lyrics.

  • The “n” and “shun” sounds in “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé:

“I need no permission, did I mention

Don’t pay him any attention.”

  • The “Ur” sound in “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction:

You’re insecure,

Don’t know what for,

You’re turning heads when you walk through the door.”

Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of closely adjacent words. Alliteration is used in many popular songs, and we hope you don’t have any bad blood with your favorite artists because they use it.

  • The B’s in “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift:

Baby now we got, bad blood.”

  • The W’s in “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay:

“Never an honest word

But that was when I ruled the world.”

Who knew that Eminem was a modern day Shakespeare? Listen to pop radio for a few minutes and you’ll start to hear how often artists use these techniques to add some extra snap, crackle and pop to a verse.

As a test, check out the following three songs and let us know which literary devices the artists use at contests@smartalec.com. (Note: there may be more than one right answer for some of these songs!)

  • “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
  • “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift
  • “Let It Be” by The Beatles

Our tutors help students master grammar, literary devices and English.

Source: All song lyrics from Google Play Music