The Importance of Becoming an Interesting Person

When we think of kids and learning, academics generally come to mind. But while schoolwork and grades are undeniably important, the value of extracurriculars shouldn’t be overlooked. Most kids aren’t “passionate” about school. Sure, they are motivated (we hope!) to do well, but students rarely love to do homework, and they generally don’t look forward to studying or working on academic projects. Yet, learning is and should be fun, and it is important for students to identify the things they do like to learn about, and invest themselves in developing those passions. Not only will it make them a more well-rounded person, it will also make them a more unique and interesting applicant to universities and jobs. This month’s posts are all about the importance of extracurricular pursuits, an especially timely topic to consider as the weather warms and summer break nears!

Helping Your Child Discover a Passion

As children grow and mature, they slowly but surely discover those things that excite them and figure out the activities they do not enjoy. Little kids are generally up for anything, so they will participate in just about any activity their parents sign them up for. As they get older, however, children develop more specific tastes and interests, and learn more about who they are and what special skills or passions they might possess. With this in mind, it is important that students begin to explore a wide range of extracurricular activities at an early age, so they can discover the passions and interests that will enable them to thrive inside and outside of school.

There are many ways to encourage your child to get involved in extracurriculars; you might start by asking your student what he finds appealing or what she has always wanted to try. Because kids at this age don’t always know what appeals to them, you might ask a teacher or counselor if they have observed any special or specific aptitude your child might possess and then encourage him or her in that direction. The truth is, however, that at this age, your student might not yet show a passion or talent for any one activity as they simply have not yet been exposed to all the options. With that in mind, the more you can encourage them to try a wide spectrum of activities, the better. Below are many extracurricular options and the potential benefits they might provide your child:


Arts: the arts are a great way for your child to develop and express those parts of themselves that they may not be able to find in an academic setting. These might include, visual arts (painting, drawing, photography), drama (acting, singing, set design), writing/reading (newspaper, yearbook, poetry, book club), music (chorus, band, voice), dance and design. Involvement in the arts, even if they do not end up loving the activity, instills the values of self-confidence, communication, intrinsic motivation, creative problem solving, self-expression and improved cognition. Even if your student ultimately decides that the arts is not where their passion lies, by exploring an artistic extracurricular early on, he/she will still develop a deeper self-understanding.


Sports: taking part in a sports activity can provide a healthy outlet for young students who might feel constrained by academics. Most schools offer a wide variety of sports activities, whether intramural or clubs, competitive or not, and there is usually something for everyone. Encouraging your student to join a sports club can offer a nice counterbalance to the hours they spend sitting at a desk in school. Students at this age have a lot of physical energy, and there has been a great deal of research correlating participation in athletics with improved academic performance. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, taking part in a sports team teaches teamwork, perseverance, skill-building, commitment and time management and allows for important social bonding. 


Volunteering: when young students take part in an organization or extracurricular that focuses on giving back, your developing child will gain insight into the lasting social and health benefits of volunteer work, both on their community and themselves. Many schools offer volunteer programs within the school, (National Honor Society, peer tutoring, community gardening, library work, etc.) and in the community at large, (tutoring at under-privileged schools, parks and museum work, Big Brother, Big Sister, YMCA, etc.). Volunteer programs for middle schoolers have been shown to have the greatest positive impact on the social and mental health of students; he/she will gain a sense of agency, learn about teamwork, develop a passion for community building and allow the child to feel that they are giving back and accomplishing something, which can often translate to accomplishment in academics. 


Leadership: for those students who enjoy academic work but would like an outlet to display more agency and assertiveness, you might encourage them to join an academic extracurricular such as speech and debate or student council. Many schools have a Student Court, a Debate, Mock Trial/Mock Congress or Model United Nations club. This provides a great opportunity for kids to develop their public speaking, writing, and debate skills. Additionally, they will learn about diplomacy and problem solving, cooperation and leadership, while also developing self-confidence and grit. This provides long-lasting benefits to your child as they enter high school and transition into professional careers that will inevitably require strong writing and oratorical skills. 


Science/Math: some students, even in middle school, find certain academic subjects so exciting that they would like to explore them outside of the rigid school requirements. If your child has an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, you might consider encouraging them to join an extracurricular program, such as STEM, that allows them to experiment, play and explore those elements they might not get to tackle in class. Taking part in an academic extracurricular allows students to get messy, explore real-world situations and take part in alternative learning methods. These clubs can also be beneficial for those students who might struggle with the structure and presentation of material in their math and science classes. Ideally, they can discover the potential love of learning through risk-taking, hands-on work and creative problem solving. This positive reinforcement and increased confidence can, in turn, improve academic work within the classroom. 

Extracurricular activity has long been linked to academic and mental health and there is no more important time for extracurricular exploration than in middle school. Students at this age are often vulnerable and unsure of themselves as they navigate a new social setting; joining a team, an organization or a club can give these young students the chance to be a part of something, and begin developing valuable life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, leadership, and problem-solving. If your middle schooler begins to explore options early on, and tries activities at which they are afraid they might fail, they will begin to conquer the fear of failure that plagues all students. Ultimately, the way middle school students spend their free time can have a huge impact on their academic work and hopefully plant the seed that will blossom into a full-blown passion as they focus their interests in high school!

Passion and the Well-Rounded High Schooler

With the increasing demands of high school academics, it can sometimes feel difficult to find time for extracurriculars — but the danger of feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork is all the more reason to carve out a balanced schedule that includes time for development outside of the academic sphere. Of course you have continued license as a high school student to explore new interests, but by now you have hopefully also found an area or two in which you know you can thrive, whether playing a sport, learning an instrument or art form, or advocating in support of a particular cause. Pursuing these extracurricular interests with sincerity is more than just a signal to colleges that you are a well-rounded, passionate individual; it is the time-tested formula for becoming one. 

The first step toward extracurricular development is setting ambitious but appropriate goals for yourself. In your first year at a new school, seek out older students whose example you can follow. Next cast your net more widely — look online for students who have excelled at something that interests you, and absorb what you find about the steps they took to get where you want to go. You will find students your age who are conducting independent research projects to compete in national contests, forming their own bands, making short films, volunteering with the elderly—almost anything you can imagine. You can even research the biographies of established professionals you admire to give yourself something to aim towards; let yourself be inspired!

Next, take the initiative to start down the path you find most compelling. Does your school already have a jazz band you can audition for, or a speech and debate team? If not, consider starting one yourself, gathering a group of like-minded peers to form a community that might well become an important part of your high school experience. You can also look outside of your high school for opportunities. If you’re living in New York City, the possibilities are endless — aspiring veterinarians can nurse wounded birds back to health at the Wild Bird Fund, and budding journalists can apply to the New York Times’ Summer Academy. Often the hardest part is getting started, so avoid procrastination by setting a clear timeline for applications and find a friend who can help you stay on track. 

Finally, remember that the more sincerely you can pursue the thing that interests you—rather than the one you believe will look best on a resume—the better you will do. It’s not a bad thing to consider how your skills and experiences will be perceived by colleges, and to work strategically to present yourself in the best light. However, it is also important to trust your instincts, and go after the goals that excite you. The authenticity that this kind of activity will show to colleges is not something that can be easily replicated, and so long as you chase your own particular passion with a dedicated effort, your work will pay off in one way or another. 

Smarten Up's Favorite Tech Resources

Students nowadays can barely fathom a world without digital flashcards, video tutorials, online learning games, and the powers of Google to handle just about any task. The wealth of online resources and apps to support student learning and organizational skills is seemingly endless, which is why it is so important to narrow down the field to identify the best tools to effectively support our students. With that in mind, this month’s blog posts highlight our favorite tech resources for elementary, middle, and high school students. From math and reading games, to instructional videos and 21st century literary guides, we’ve featured sites and apps to help learners of all ages.

Best Apps and Sites for Elementary Students


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QuickMath is a great tool for students in Grades 1-6 to build fluency with their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division math facts. With three different levels for each operation, and the ability to track progress after each round of play, this app is an excellent alternative to standard flash cards. Plus, students love that they can write their answer directly on the screen! There are also more wonderful apps in the QuickMath family, including QuickMath Jr. for students in K - 2, and QuickMath Fractions for students in Grades 3-6.

Math Playground

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Math Playground is an incredible site with a wealth of math games, logic puzzles and a variety of 
problem solving activities. It is a great resource for arcade style math games, digital manipulatives for illustrating mathematical concepts and operations, and even coding practice. With over 500 different activities to choose from, it will be hard for any child to complain about being “bored” with the games.


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Epic! is a digital library for children offering over 25,000 high-quality ebooks, audiobooks, learning videos, and quizzes for kids 12 and under. This app’s award-winning service includes a wide variety of high-quality books and learning videos from leading publishers like Scholastic, National Geographic, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Smithsonian and many more. The Epic! library contains everything from picture books to chapter books, early readers, audiobooks, graphic novels, non-fiction titles, educational books, videos and more, and it even offers books in Spanish and Chinese.


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Homer is an incredible literacy app for children age 2-8. With thousands of lessons and activities that target the development of phonics skills, sight word knowledge, the ABCs and more, this app is a great way to build confidence with the earliest of reading skills. In addition, the app also includes tons of digital books and interactive stories to promote independent reading from a young age. Homer Reading has been proven to increase early reading scores by 74% with just 15 minutes a day. And with stories and activities customized to each child’s interests, they’ll learn while having fun.

BrainPop Jr.

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BrainPop Jr. will help kids as young as 5 learn something about any topic they can dream of in a developmentally appropriate way. Ideal for kids in Kindergarten through grade 3, BrainPOP Jr. spans topics across Science, Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Math, Health, Arts, and Technology. The gentle, humorous, and relatable characters Annie and Moby serve as guides through each topic, empowering kids to form their own ideas. BrainPOP Jr. is designed to cultivate critical thinking skills and encourage children to ask questions and make connections.

Digital Tools for Middle School (and beyond)

Flashcards of the Future


Quizlet is an online and app-based interactive flashcard system that is invaluable for digitally minded students who can progress with relatively little friction through flashcards sets they create in advance of tests or quizzes. Creating a basic account is free, and offers access to the platform’s quiz games and “learn” feature, which tracks performance and selects the cards that continue to give students trouble, effectively tailoring the test to what the student knows and doesn’t know. A recent update makes Quizlet especially easy to use with vocabulary lists — when you enter a word into the list, Quizlet will automatically generate definitions for you to choose between from its built-in dictionary. Another under-explored feature of Quizlet is the library of crowd-sourced lists — while usually students will want to make their own lists based on their specific material, study lists already exists for many common courses (such as AP US History, or Spanish II). These can be used as a way to check student work and preview or review a difficult textbook reading. 

Student News


Newsela is a news aggregator focused on providing articles for students - this means that its staff gathers articles from news sources across the web, and then adjusts them to its audiences in schools. The articles are organized by topic area, and often published ‘adaptively,’ so that students can select their reading level and the article’s text will subtly change (in its vocabulary and syntax) according to their individual skill. 

The Digital Classroom


Khan Academy is a fantastic resource for short video lessons, generally focused on math, science, and computer science at all grade levels. This is a great place to go for additional practice in a particular subject area — along with videos, there are short tests and practice questions that students can use to test their understanding. There are also diagnostic quizzes that will help place students along the spectrum of skill levels, and a point system that allows students to earn badges for mastering content. The core feature, though, is video content that can be paused, replayed, slowed down, so that students can review a challenging concept from class at their own pace while working through a difficult homework task. And heads up for the high school years — Khan Academy recently partnered with Collegeboard to offer a completely free SAT prep curriculum, including practice tests and problem breakdowns. 



Brainpop is another resource for educational videos and games—but with an animated, cartoon look that is approachable and engaging, better for some students than the blackboard aesthetic of Khan Academy (and with a wider range of topics). 

High School Helpers

Online Reading Guides


 Lit Charts is a competitor of SparkNotes, and offers a well-designed theme-tracking interface that makes it easy to ‘chart’ the development of a major theme from chapter to chapter, which can be very helpful when seeking out evidence for an analytical essay — there’s even a section on important quotes organized by theme. It’s also a source for very thorough summary and analysis breakdowns, chapter by chapter and page by page, so that students can preview difficult texts or review before an exam. Two more helpful features: the literary devices and terms reference guide, and a modern, line by line adaption of every play by William Shakespeare. 

Academic Writing Centers


Academic writing centers can provide guidance as students begin to embark on more challenging essay assignments. The Harvard Writing Center site offers tips for each step of the writing process, from breaking down an assignment to developing a thesis, and from rough draft to final copy. The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is another great resource for academic writing — when we use Purdue OWL with students, though, it’s most often specifically to explore the comprehensive guide to citation practices. Whether your student’s teacher prefers MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations, Purdue OWL is one of the web’s best references for the nuanced formatting requirements of a well-made bibliography. 

Citation Tools


BibMe, or any of its comparable competitors (such as Easybib, Citationmachine, Citefast), is a quick and easy upgrade to the traditional approach to creating a bibliography. Students can enter the title of a book, journal article, or website, specify a style of citation, and then sit back while the site seeks out the relevant publication information and generates a complete citation. As with any time-saving digital shortcut, though, be sure to double check the site’s work, so that the occasional glitch does not slip by undetected.

The Google Toolbox


Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets — Students today will no doubt already have encountered the most common of these Google Apps before high school, but now is the time to master them. It’s worth taking the time to create an organizational system for docs and slides in Google Drive, broken down by school year and subject. Students should also play around with the different collaboration tools, learning how to make suggested edits and respond to comments. With the right adjustment in settings, Google Docs can also be edited and composed offline, which can be incredibly valuable when students are fighting to remain focused in the always-connected cybersphere. One under appreciated app in the Google toolbox is Google Keep, an intuitive checklist maker and digital bulletin board that can be a useful place to track assignments and gather notes - an easily installable extension in Google Chrome will allow students to pin any article from across the web on their Keep platform, and notes can then be tagged to a specific category and color coded for organization. Encourage students to explore how they can customize their experience with these apps to work more efficiently and increase their productivity.

Spellchecker 2.0


Grammarly is an online grammar checking app that can effectively proofread both academic papers and everyday emails; if students submit an essay to the Grammarly platform, they can receive a detailed breakdown of grammatical errors with short explanations or suggested fixes, cleanly and clearly displayed. The app will also automatically detect plagiarism, using a web-scraping capability similar to that now used by many teachers to check over digitally submitted assignments. With this function, students can be alerted to any quotes or ideas in their work that haven’t been properly cited before they turn it in as a finished product. 

Letter from Mara

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While December is synonymous with holiday cheer and a well deserved holiday break, it also marks the end of a semester, which means one thing - finals! With that in mind, this month’s blog posts are dedicated to study strategies and project planning, two big ideas that are front and center in just about all of our middle school and high school tutoring sessions at the moment. Central to both is the question of what it means to learn.

For many students, the ability to recite definitions for a given set of terms is synonymous with being prepared for an assessment. However, if that same student has to identify a synonym for a vocabulary word, explain why a single event is important within a revolution, or illustrate the importance of a specific organelle to a cell, he is often at a loss. That is because there is a difference between memorizing and understanding, and effective learning is arguably a hybrid of both. If a student works to truly understands the material he is working with, he will also be able to remember important terms, names, and dates without explicitly focusing on memorizing those isolated details. I would argue that any good assessment will challenge a student to demonstrate their understanding of the material through a variety of different exercises, which is why it is so important for students to take a thoughtful and active approach to studying for assessments.

With this in mind, this month’s posts include a discussion of how to develop an effective study plan, strategies for effective project management, and suggestions for how to avoid cramming by engaging in meaningful learning throughout the semester, rather than in the weeks before finals. Hopefully these articles will help you help your child navigate the stresses of summative assessments this semester, and if you need additional support, our team of excellent tutors is always just a phone call away.

Happy holidays and good luck!

The Finals Stretch


Depending on the specifics of your child’s school schedule, December regularly brings with it the promise of impending holidays and a much needed break, along with the specter of final exams. This last hurdle before the break requires a final sprint of concentration right at the moment in the fall semester when students are increasingly ready to leave the classroom behind for a time. Of course, though, that is why it is so important to help your student clamber over this obstacle successfully and finish the term on a high note. With that in mind, we wanted to be sure to go over Smarten Up’s smart studying tips. 

The first step of any strong study plan is figuring out exactly what knowledge will be tested on the exam, and in what format. Cumulative final exams can feel overwhelming, since they might cover 3-4 months worth of material — but attempting to learn every fact and detail from every reading or lecture in that period will often be not just stressful, but counterproductive, depending on the specific requirements of a given teacher. Encourage your student to communicate with their teacher proactively to ask for any guidance on what areas to focus on, and in what way they will be tested: will the test feature multiple choice, short answer, or essay questions? Smart studying is targeted to the content and format that students will actually encounter on test day.

Smart studying is also active, rather than passive. Many students will put in time ‘studying’ by reading through their old notes, or skimming through textbook pages, and then find themselves at a loss on test day when the information they’ve been looking over has vanished from their memory. Instead, students should create opportunities for active engagement with past material every time they sit down to study. If they are looking through textbook pages, they should always use the comprehension questions that are often found at the end of a chapter to test their understanding, or write out a set of questions they can ask themselves about the reading the next day to make sure they’ve remembered the main idea and key details. If they’re expecting to write an essay — or even if they aren’t — writing an outline with bullet-pointed evidence will require students to actively process the information they’re committing to memory and slot it into an argument or narrative that will be easier to retain than a collection of unrelated facts. Rather than memorizing a list of words for a foreign language test, students should write out example sentences, create flashcards, and devise creative connections between similar words. 

One way to activate the study process is to find a partner. Studies have shown that teaching material is the best way to gain full mastery of it, and if two or more students can divide and conquer on a particularly lengthy study guide, they can make efficient use of studying time to quiz one another and probe for weak spots in their comprehension. A reliable study partner is a very valuable resource, but be sure that he or she does not become an excuse for waiting to start work individually! The best way to feel confident on test day is to study smart by engaging with the material over time and maintaining an active approach to learning.

The Future Project

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Another common feature of December in the classroom is the long-term project, the culmination of a semester of work that sometimes replaces a written final. This project may take many forms, from a research paper to a creative portfolio or analytical essay. Each of these different tasks has its own challenges and opportunities for learning, but common to any type of long-term project is the importance of effective planning. 

People are notoriously bad at projecting ourselves into the future, consistently choosing to privilege short-term benefits over long-term goals in a phenomenon known by economists as temporal discounting. In the context of the long-term project, this means that we must consciously work to devise a clear plan with real incentives for gradual progress and disincentives for procrastination. We’ve all been in a situation where — even knowing how much better our work would be if we afforded ourselves a proper drafting process, with various rounds of revision — a months-long project floats along in the background until a few days before the deadline, when work must be crammed into the available hours and then submitted in a rush. School projects are a chance to build good habits for this type of project from a young age. 

In some cases, helpfully, a teacher will provide a set of intermediate deadlines for the project, so that in the final few days before the project is due, all that remains to be done is to stitch together the different components that have already been completed and revise them together. If these intermediate deadlines are mandatory, all the better — if they are merely ‘suggested,’ they should be treated as mandatory whenever possible, with some flexibility if an exam or major project in another class is pulling focus. If there are no intermediate deadlines, students should absolutely create their own. This can be accomplished by reflecting frankly on similar assignments they have completed in the past to accurately estimate how long each component — brainstorming a question, initial reading and research, the annotated bibliography, outline, first draft, second draft, etc — will take them, and then creating a project planning document with the deadlines written out together (and entering each into the general academic planner). If students have someone — a parent, a friend, a tutor — who they can ask to help hold them accountable to these independently chosen deadlines, all the better. 

Of course, the day-to-day work of sticking to this schedule contains its own executive functioning challenges. Students might benefit from using a timer to work in twenty-minute distraction-free chunks without their phones, and they’ll need to balance the long-term needs of the project against short-term work and tests in other subjects. This is all the more reason to break the larger project down into manageable pieces, so that progress can be made in 20-30 minute chunks over the course of a week. Planning for the future is inherently difficult, but doing so in a pragmatic, proactive way gives students a chance to take more control over their schedule, reducing stress and improving the final result.