Three Research-Proven Ways to Stick to Your New Year's Resolutions


Every January, many of us roll up our sleeves and set out to improve our lives with New Year’s resolutions. For high school students, this could mean resolving to stop procrastinating, get more sleep, or join a new club. We all start determined and optimistic, but by this time in the month many find themselves lacking motivation and slipping back into old, established habits.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This month, we’ve collected some of the best research-proven strategies for sticking to your new resolution. Building new habits is hard, but by using evidence-based strategies you can start working with your brain instead of against it - and make your life that much easier this semester in the process!

  • Get SMART. SMART is a common goal-setting strategy that emerged from corporate settings in the 1980s, and it’s still a helpful way to conceptualize your goals today. It’s an acronym that stands for:

    • Specific. Specificity helps you keep yourself accountable. Instead of resolving to stop procrastinating, keep your goal grounded in reality by deciding, for example, to spend the first hour after you get home on Friday working on homework so you have less to rush and finish on Sunday night.

    • Measurable. Tracking and quantifying your progress - for example, how many more hours of sleep you’re getting each week - is a great way to stay motivated.

    • Attainable. Setting unreasonable goals (I’m going to start ten new clubs this semester!) is a straight path towards disappointment, which will only discourage you from trying next time. Set reasonable, but appropriately challenging goals.

    • Relevant. Think about what your overall goals are - less stress, better test scores, a healthier social life, etc. - and pick a resolution that will move you in the right direction. It’s easier to stay motivated to do something specific when it’s working towards a larger goal.

    • Time-bound. Give yourself a deadline to keep yourself focused. Deciding to run more often is one thing; signing up for a 5k on March 3rd is another!

  • Keep it simple. Princeton social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has conducted numerous studies demonstrating that human willpower is a limited resource, so you’re more likely to succeed by limiting temptation rather than simply trying to resist it. If you want to spend less time on social media, for example, you can delete apps from your phone, have a friend change your passwords, and keep other sources of entertainment (books, art supplies, etc.) readily available. You’re unlikely to succeed just by deciding to change your behavior; instead, make permanent changes that make the habit you’re trying to develop more convenient than the one you’re trying to break.

  • Chain your habits. MIT researcher Ann M. Graybiel theorized that the human brain thinks of behaviors in chains; for instance, many people check their phones before going to sleep because the actions of getting into bed and turning on a cell phone are cognitively grouped together. You can take advantage of this by determining what strong habits you already possess and linking your new goals to them. So if you want to drink more water, for example, and you routinely get an after-dinner snack, try keeping a glass in the snack cabinet to remind you to hydrate while you’re snacking. Before long, you’ll find yourself drinking water every evening without needing to think about it.

As you work on establishing new habits this semester, the most important thing of all is to be patient. You’re not going to hit your goal every day, and that’s okay. Everyone works a little bit differently, so if you try one of the tips above and it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it - just dust yourself off and try differently next time.

Managing Time and Stress in the Final Weeks of College Apps


With Early Decision letters in the mail and Regular Decision application deadlines around the corner, December can be a stressful time for our seniors and their families. This month, we’ll take a look at some time and stress management tips to help keep you calm and focused.

  • Set a schedule with specific goals. Instead of setting a blanket goal to finish your applications by Christmas, try deciding which forms or essays you want to work on each day. According to psychologist Edwin A. Locke (Harvard, Cornell), the more specific a goal is, the harder you’ll work to achieve it.
  • Set time limits. Instead of deciding to work on an essay until it’s done, sit down the intention of working for a specified amount of time. The self-imposed deadline will keep you motivated, and research shows that regular breaks can boost your productivity and focus.
  • Focus on one task at a time. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the length of your to-do list. Remember that you only ever have to do one thing at a time: your only job in any given moment is the task in front of you, and by focusing on that, your to-do list will start to take care of itself.
  • Give yourself some breathing room. Nothing’s worse than finishing an application an hour before the deadline, only to have your computer crash. Save yourself the stress by building time into your schedule for the unexpected.
  • Take care of your body & mind. You’re still on break, even if it may not feel like it, and you won’t do your best work if you’re overtired and stressed. Catch up on sleep, stick with your regular exercise routine, eat healthy, and take time to enjoy the holidays.
  • Trust yourself. You’ve worked hard to get where you are today. Between your coursework, extracurriculars, and life experiences you’ve already done 98% of the work it takes to get into a great college; all you’re doing now is putting that picture in a frame.

If you’re still struggling with stress or time management, there are a wide variety of resources available. Check out some of our favorites:

  • Wunderlist is an excellent way to keep track of all your to-dos and deadlines.
  • If you’re struggling with constant stress, try taking a break with the popular meditation app Headspace or get a quick workout at home with Sworkit.
  • If you find yourself easily distracted while working, check out OmmWriter, which provides a distraction-free writing space, or SelfControl, which blocks you from accessing sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for a set amount of time.

And don’t forget that your Cortex coaches are here to support you! Everyone on our team will be cheering you on as you cross that finish line in a few short weeks.

- The Cortex Team

Merit Scholarships - What they are, and where to find them

College affordability is one of the top concerns among parents of college-bound students today. Merit-based scholarships are an often overlooked part of the financial package that can make college affordable for your family.

There are two major categories of merit scholarships: those offered by the school and those offered by third-party organizations. Although some merit scholarships can cover up to the full cost of attending a university, most are smaller, often in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Don’t let low dollar amounts discourage you, though; it’s possible to stack multiple in-school and out-of-school merit offers on top of each other, and scholarships can add up quickly.

School-offered Merit Scholarships

Be sure to consider these factors when looking at school-offered merit scholarships:

  • Selectivity. Schools use merit scholarships as a way to attract students who may otherwise matriculate somewhere else, so pay special attention to quality schools with little name recognition and schools where your scores will put you in the top 5-10% of your class.
  • Individual college offerings. Be sure to look at each school individually; many of the most selective universities (including most of the Ivy League) offer no merit-based financial aid, while others (such as Duke University) offer full-ride merit scholarships through a separate application process.
  • Application timelines. Although many schools will automatically consider all applicants for available merit scholarships, some require an additional application materials or an application for need-based financial aid. Be sure to look into the merit scholarship program of each school you’re applying to!

The following universities have a demonstrated history of offering competitive, merit-based scholarships. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it may help jump start your search!

  • UC Berkeley. Berkeley offers a number of merit scholarships, including the Fiat Lux Scholarship, which targets high-achieving students from local California high schools.
  • The University of Southern California. USC considers all applicants who apply before the December deadline for quarter-tuition, half-tuition, and full-tuition four-year merit scholarships.
  • The University of the Pacific. UoP offers merit scholarships covering up to the full cost of tuition, including several which require an additional application.
  • The University of Chicago. Chicago is currently the university with the highest U.S. News & World Report ranking to offer merit-based financial aid; all applicants are considered for scholarships that cover partial tuition and summer programs.

Third-party Merit Scholarships

Beyond school-offered merit scholarships, many third-party organizations offer merit scholarships you may qualify for.

The best way to find third-party merit scholarships is through search engines that match you with scholarships based on several factors, including test scores and GPA, demographic information, and academic interests. The top scholarship search engines are run by College Board, CollegeNET, and; it’s worth looking at each of their databases, since some scholarships you qualify for may be listed on some but not others. In addition, one of the largest merit scholarships available is the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation, which offers full-ride merit scholarships to dozens of partner universities, including UC Berkeley, USC, and CalTech.

As you work through your scholarship search, it’s also worth talking to your teachers and your school’s college counselling department. Some scholarships require a nomination by a teacher or counselor, and if yours know that you’re looking they’ll be more likely to put your name in for consideration. They may also have leads on scholarships they think would be a good option for you.


Demonstrated Interest: What Is It, and Why Do Colleges Care?

Looking for an edge in the college admissions process? When you’re competing against an ocean of applicants with similar academic records and test scores, it’s critical to find something to set you apart from the crowd. Beyond the numbers in your application, schools across the country agree that two factors matter most: your personal statements (essays), and something called demonstrated interest.

Demonstrated interest is the degree to which you show that you are sincerely interested in attending a school. It’s the difference between sending off a generic application to a school just because you think you’ll probably get in and infusing your application with the passion and excitement you have for that school in particular. Admission committees want to know that if they let you in, there’s a good chance that you’re actually going to go.

So how do you demonstrate interest in a school?

First, make sure you’re applying to schools that you’re actually interested in. Researching and creating your school list can seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources available to help: the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and CollegeBoard’s BigFuture are great places to start, and our College Application Consulting program will give you great, one-on-one guidance on choosing schools. As you’re compiling your list, do your research and listen to your passion - what programs does the school offer that make you want to go there? What aspects of the campus environment appeal to you? Are there extracurriculars and courses that fire up your imagination?

Second, convey your passion in your essays. Essays that ask you to explain why you are interested in a particular school are often the most tricky to answer, but they’re also a great opportunity to demonstrate genuine interest.

  • Show you’ve done more than a basic Google search. Anyone can name-drop a professor whose bio they found on the website. Instead, focus on the broader picture: campus culture, academic philosophy, traditions, and student life - show that you’ve really investigated what it’s like to be a student there.
  • Put yourself in the picture. Show the admissions committee how you’ll fit into the class they’re building and what you bring to the table that makes you a perfect fit for them. Real estate wisdom says that once you’ve gotten a potential buyer to imagine themselves living in a house, it’s sold; demonstrate to the admissions committee that you’ve done just that.

Third, get in contact with admissions officers. Campus visits are a great way to demonstrate your interest in a school, but even if you can’t fly out to Cambridge or New Haven, there are ways to make this happen. Go to college fairs and introduce yourself to school representatives, reach out to local alumni, or see if there’s a college club in your area. You may even learn something about the school you can’t get from the website!

At Cortex, we guide our 12th grade students to success on all aspects of the college application process, including demonstrating interest on their applications. For more information on what we do, click here to request a free consultation with a member of our team!

interested students.jpg

Seven Secrets for Better Time Management & Study Habits

Yesterday, we presented our September workshop, Seven Secrets for Better Time Management & Study Habits, just in time for the new school year. Improving time management skills and building better study habits are critical to success at all ages, and it's no wonder that parents frequently ask us for tips on how to help their students develop in these ways.

Our methods for staying focused and being more productive are based on research, and take advantage of how certain areas of the brain physically change in response to efforts to build good time management and study habits.

In this presentation, we covered:

  • Minimizing mental clutter by choosing the right study setting and music
  • Prioritizing effectively (not always starting with the most important tasks first!)
  • How stress and anxiety physically affect the brain, and how to train your brain to be stronger in the areas that handle higher-order thinking and memory
  • and more!

If you missed our workshop, click below to download our slides and handout, and be sure to check our Workshop page (linked below) for our next event.


The Cortex Team

 - Download Workshop Slides
 - Register for Our Next Workshop

August Workshop Announcement

Last month, we kicked off our Workshop Series with a presentation on college application planning strategies. We were floored by the positive response we got--more than a dozen parents and students came up to us and emailed us after the event to let us know their appreciation for the event and how useful they found the info we gave them.

Because of this positive response, we've decided to repeat this presentation on August 17 from 7-8pm for families who could not attend last time. If you're able to join us, please be sure to RSVP below.

See you at the workshop!

The Cortex Team

Links [Update - we have added the workshop slides and handout below]:
 - Download Workshop Slides
 - Download Workshop Handout
 - Register For Our Next Workshop

Essential College Application Planning Strategies

Yesterday, our team was thrilled to launch of the Cortex Workshop Series, where our founders and coaches host informational events covering a wide range of topics relating to academics, extracurricular activities, college application strategies, effective study habits, and more.

Our first workshop, Five Essential College Applications Planning Strategies, was presented by Amy, James, and Daniel, the founders of Cortex.

In this workshop, some of the main points we covered include:

  • Effectively choosing extracurricular activities: what makes an excellent activity?
  • Choosing meaningful, powerful essay topics to write about
  • Creating activity/experience outlines to produce impactful, self-reflective essays.

If you missed our workshop, click below to download our slides and handout, and be sure to check our Workshop page for our next event!

The Cortex Team

 - Download Workshop Slides
 - Download Workshop Handout
 - Register for Our Next Workshop

Welcome to the Cortex Blog!

Welcome! In the Cortex Blog, we'll post articles about college applications, academics, and personal and working habits. We hope that you find the content here useful. If you have an idea for a topic you'd like us to cover, feel free to email James at

Thank you for being a Cortex Blog reader! See you in our next post.