How to Start Off the New Year Right

How to Start Off the New Year Right

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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

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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

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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):

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2. The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander

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

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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?