Grammar Is Often Your First Impression

So, who cares about grammar and correct word choice? Surprisingly, many people. Writing is often your introduction – to a college admissions officer, potential employer, or future partner. Using vocabulary incorrectly, misspelling words, or forgetting an apostrophe can give the impression that you have limited education and/or intelligence (sorry, but it’s true!). 

Even if you consider yourself a good writer, check out these common grammar mistakes (from Inc Magazine’s Christina DesMarais, “43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make”).  Learn these 37 most common (even among great writers) mistakes so you can communicate clearly and prevent an embarrassing faux pas.

  1. First-come, first-serve
    It should actually be "served." Without the d, the phrase above suggests that the first individual who arrives will be the one who serves everyone, which is not the idiom's intent.
  2. I could care less
    Think about this one for a minute. The way it's written above suggests you possess care which still could be allocated to the situation in question. "I couldn't care less" is correct because it communicates that "I have no more care to give."
  3. Irregardless
    This is not a word. It's simply "regardless," as in "Regardless of what you think about grammar, you'll look silly if you use it incorrectly."
  4. "I" as the last word in a sentence.
    This mistake is remarkably common, yet a correct example would be "Karlee talked with Brandon and me." The trick to getting this one straight is to take the other person's name out of the sentence and see if your personal pronoun choice still sounds right. "Karlee talked with I" is awkward and incorrect.
  5. "Me" as the first word in a sentence.
    I hear people saying things such as "Me and Brandon met at Starbucks this morning" all the
    time, even though it's always wrong. "Brandon and I met at Starbucks this morning" is correct.
  6. Shoe-in
    "Shoo-in" is what you really want to write when you're trying to say that someone is a sure winner. It's because when you "shoo" something you're urging it in a certain direction.
  7. Emigrated to
    Emigrate" and "from" always go together, as do "immigrate" and "to." To emigrate is to come from somewhere, and to immigrate is to go to somewhere. "Colin emigrated from Ireland to the United States" means the same as "Colin immigrated to the United States from Ireland."
  8. Overuse of apostrophes
    These little guys are ubiquitously misused. Apostrophes indicate one of two things: possession or letters missing, as in "Sara's iPad" and "it's" for "it is" (second i missing). They don't belong on plurals. "FAQs," for example, should not have an apostrophe. Also, people often make a mistake with their own last name. If you want to refer to your family but don't want to list everyone's first name write "The Johnsons" not "The Johnson's." Another big one: Decades should not have apostrophes. For example, "1980s" is correct but "1980's" is not.
  9. Prostrate cancer
    This one is a simple spelling mistake resulting from an extra r. "Prostrate" actually means to lie face down. The "prostate" gland is a part of the male reproductive anatomy.
  10. Slight of hand
    A "slight" is an insult, whereas "sleight" indicates dexterity or cunning. It's why "sleight of hand" is commonly used in the world of magic and illusion.
  11. Honed in
    Just know that to "home in" on something means to move toward a goal, such as "The missile homed in on its target." To "hone" is to sharpen.
  12. Baited breath
    When I think about bait, worms and lures come to mind. The first word should actually be "bated," which stems from the verb "abate," meaning to stop or lessen. So, if you're trying to say that someone is holding his breath, you can see that "bated breath" makes the most sense.
  13. Piece of mind
    If you want to share what you're thinking with someone, this could work if you add "my" before "mind." But if you're trying to indicate tranquility, then spell it "peace."
  14. Wet your appetite
    "Whet" means to sharpen or stimulate. As such, the latter spelling is more appropriate.
  15. Make due
    "Due" means "owed," and that's not the intent with this idiom. "Make do" is the proper way to say that you're going to get along with what you have.
  16. Do diligence
    "Due diligence" is the proper business and legal term. It means you will investigate an individual or company before signing a contract.
  17. Peaked my interest
    To pique means to arouse, so the correct phrase is "piqued my interest," meaning that my interest was stimulated. While the incorrect way it's written in the heading may suggest that someone's interest was taken to a high level, it's still wrong.
  18. Must of, should of, would of, and could of
    All those ofs should be "have." The proper versions were corrupted by contractions such as "must've."
  19. ll the sudden
    Whether you say "all of a sudden" or "all of the sudden," the preposition "of" must be involved either way. But if you're really trying to say "suddenly," just do.
  20. All the sudden
    Whether you say "all of a sudden" or "all of the sudden," the preposition "of" must be involved either way. But if you're really trying to say "suddenly," just do.
  21. Worse comes to worse
    "Worse comes to worst,"--note the t--is better because it indicates something has degraded from one negative plane to the lowest possible.
  22. Unthaw
    Even though people use this word as a verb all the time, the best way to "un-thaw" something would be to put it in the freezer. Is freezing what you mean, or thawing?
  23. Hot water heater
    If anything, it's a cold water heater. Just use "water heater."
  24. Boldface lie
    "Bald-face" means shameless or showing no guilt. When a person tells a bald-faced lie, they are openly lying. An acceptable variant of this phrase is a "barefaced lie."
  25. Chock it up
    The correct version--"chalk it up"-- comes from keeping score on a chalkboard.
  26. Through the ringer
    The incorrect example above is missing a w. A wringer is an old-fashioned mechanism which presses water out of clothes being washed by hand, a process indicative of giving someone a hard time.
  27. Subject and pronoun disagreement.
    This one is subject to debate, but here's my two cents. Take the sentence, "A person who smokes damages their lungs." See anything wrong there? You should. "A person" is--obviously--one person. But "their" is a word you would use if you were referring to more than one person. Correct sentences could either read:
    1. "People who smoke damage their lungs."


"A person who smokes damages his or her lungs."          

In the first bullet, "people" is more than one person and now agrees with "their." In the second bullet, the use of "his or her" can be awkward, so you can just pick one or the
other as long as you're sensitive to any gender issues an audience might raise.

  1. Given free reign
    It's easy to see why this one looks correct, considering that "reign" is something that kings, queens, and other sovereigns do. Yet the correct idiom refers to the reins which control a horse. When you give a horse "free rein" you let it go where it wants to go.
  2. Nip it in the butt
    To "nip" means to pinch or to bite. Therefore, the correct version is "nip it in the bud," which refers to snipping off a flower bud before it can bloom. The idea is to put an end to something before it gets worse.
  3. Tie me over
    You don't really want someone to tie you on top of something, do you? The phrase "tide me over" is talking about sustaining someone through a difficult time and refers to the ocean's tide, which is capable of moving boats to a new location when the wind will not.
  4. Tow the line
    To "toe the line" means to follow the rules. It comes from runners who put their toe to the line before running a race.
  5. Chalk full
    The word "chock" is an Old English word which means "cheek" as well as "full to the brim." In other words, "chock-full" means "mouthful."
  6. A mute point
    Mute means silent, so would you really want to make a point that doesn't say anything? A point that is "moot" is debatable or doubtful. So, a point can be moot, but not mute.
  7. Expresso
    The strong coffee drink brewed into a tiny cup is pronounced with an "s" in the first syllable and written "espresso."
  8. Eccetera
    Pronounce "etcetera" exactly how it is spelled. Lots of people bristle when a speaker drops the "t."
  9. Deep-seeded
    The incorrect spelling above seems like it could be right since something that is planted deeply in the ground would be firmly established. The correct expression, though, is "deep-seated."
  10. Sneak peak
    A "peak" is the top of a mountain. The correct word is "peek," which means a quick look.

For the complete list of tips, read the Inc. article.

Why College Students Are Becoming Interested In Becoming Lawyers

The number of students who took the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) increased by nearly 20% this year.  That’s the biggest jump in over 15 years.  So why the sudden interest in law?


As students have watched the Trump administration flagrantly misuse the law since January 2017, these students are starting to see the necessity for laws.  Hmm.  So whether or not you’re wanting more government, we are going to have more lawyers in the future.  I think environmental law is going to be a booming industry soon.

International Students Aren't Always Full Pay

Until recently, international students always paid full fare for their privilege to attend American colleges and universities.  But that is changing because colleges are seeking those higher-caliber international students.  To be competitive, colleges are offering scholarships to attract those top-notch students from abroad.

At public colleges, there’s been a bit of a backlash from in-state families because legislatures and constituents want public colleges to cater to the taxpayers who finance these institutions.  Makes sense. So some public colleges offer modest non-need based scholarships to students they hope will matriculate to their colleges.  These students receive scholarship dollars to offset the out-of-state tuition fees, but they rarely ever get a full ride (all tuition and housing fees).  That’s reserved for well-deserving in-state students!

Private colleges, on the other hand, have more leeway to offer scholarships because their institutions don’t rely on public funds from taxpayers. So they don’t deal with politics the way public colleges do.  If the college really wants a particular student, they now offer scholarships – even full rides – to sweeten the offer.  That’s just like they do to entice American students to attend their colleges. 

By giving scholarships to international students, it helps create a more global community of students who learn to work together as they prepare to solve major issues that we face as a civilization.  

Don't Ignore the PSAT!

It can help with college scholarships and admissions.  Here’s how:

Everyone thinks the PSAT is just a preliminary “SAT” that colleges don’t see, and subsequently, they neither prep for it nor take it seriously.  BIG MISTAKE!  The PSAT is actually also the NMSQT, National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is the only way you can qualify to be a National Merit Scholar. Out of the 1.5 million students who take the PSAT each year, 34,000 students are commended and 16,000 become semifinalists.  Of these 16,000 semifinalists, 15,000 go on to become Merit Scholars.  These scholars win $2,500 scholarships or corporate/college scholarship awards.  And this is just for taking the PSAT!  Easy peasy.

Being recognized as a recipient of the Merit Scholarship Award is highly regarded by college admissions committees.  When my daughter Nicole won this award, she received a full-scholarship offering from colleges that she didn’t even apply to!  Colleges get ahold of these Merit Scholars and actively pursue them as they recruit students each year.  

My recommendation: Take PSAT practice tests so you become familiar with the test process.  Work on improving your scores by completing each section within the given time allotment.  Review math concepts that you may have forgotten over the summer.  READ, READ, READ.  The best way to improve the tricky reading comprehension and grammar sections is to simply read every day.

You can start taking the PSAT in 9th grade.  Your “real” PSAT score is calculated in 11th grade, so by starting early, you get 2 chances to prepare.  Just think -- this is probably one of the easiest scholarships to apply for -- No essays! No interviews!.  And if you score in the top 4%, colleges will be knocking on your door!

Grade Inflation is Real...

...and how it will affect your child’s college admissions is alarming.

We all hear about grade inflation – when teachers give A’s to average students – and we look the other way, especially when our kids benefit from them, right?  I’ve heard about teachers giving students a full-letter grade bump just for showing up to take the standardized tests at school each year. Others give students 10 points for bringing in snacks or class supplies.  What’s worst of all are teachers who offer so much extra credit that students don’t do their work or study for tests because they know that one way or another, they can pull their terrible grades up to A’s by the end of the semester.  None of this builds character or prepares students for college.

Grade inflation hurts the students.

Yup!  Because so many schools are inflating grades – especially in white, affluent schools—colleges can’t rely on grade point averages (GPAs) to assess whether or not the students will be successful in their colleges.  So when colleges can’t rely on the students’ grades, they revert to the SATs and ACTs.  After all, college-bound students take the exact same test in a proctored classroom on the same day across the country.  If we’re comparing apples to apples, this may seem more reliable than GPAs. 

But SATs and ACTs don’t determine which students will be our next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  Testing reading comprehension, grammar, math and science skills in a timed, multiple-choice format does not weed out students who would do poorly in college. Instead, students who do well on standardized tests today are those who can afford private SAT/ACT tutoring and spend years preparing for these tests.

Both the inflated GPA at wealthy white schools and high SAT/ACT scores due to expensive prep programs give these affluent students an unfair advantage.  They aren’t better equipped to succeed in college; they’re simply able to afford to attend schools that give away A’s and spend many hours under the expensive supervision of SAT/ACT coaches.

The good news is that college admissions officers receive school profiles that list GPAs and demographics so they know which schools inflate grades.  And colleges that require personal statements, essays, letters of recommendation and interviews use an eclectic approach to selecting their incoming classes.  When a student stands out because they’ve done a project or something remarkable, colleges notice. 


Tips on Borrowing Money for your Kid's College Degree

So you got your kid into college – and it’s a great college – and the financial reality smacks you in the head when you get your first college bill.  Yikes!  Unless you have the funds to pay for your child’s college safely tucked away under your mattress, you’re going to need money fast. 

Be careful when looking at loans.  They’re not all the same and the rules have changed.  Check out many options before signing any contracts.  I read this great article in Money Magazine (August 2017).

Federal Plus Loans (fixed APR: 8%)
Plus loans are the easiest to get – even with bad credit (except bankruptcy).  Be careful how much you actually borrow because it’s easy to take more than you really need and then set yourself up for difficulty in repaying the loan later.

Private Loans (fixed APR: starting at 5.4% and up)
Private loan lenders seek clients with good credit history.  So if you have excellent credit, you’ll probably get a great deal at a low APR.  But if your credit is less than stellar, you may end up paying upwards of 12%!  Yikes!

Home Equity (fixed APR: starting at 5.4% and up)
By using your home (that you own) as collateral, you can qualify for good loans at low APR.  But, be careful of hidden costs – make sure your quotes include all costs such as appraisal fees.  Because your home is probably one of your biggest investments, make sure you have enough funds to cover your retirement, kids’ weddings, and other expenses in the future.

Remember, education loans are almost impossible to escape – even in bankruptcy – so only borrow what you actually need.  

Why Do Colleges Keep Their Admissions Protocol Secret?

As a college advisor, I wonder why selective colleges like Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Stanford keep “trade secrets” about how they choose their freshmen class each year. Students and parents strive to see the formula that colleges use to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. 

In the book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton? author Jerome Karabel exposed how the Ivy League was more interested in sustaining aristocracy than shaping young minds. They routinely rejected women, Jews, blacks, and others, and they even changed admissions criteria so their legacy and elite students would get in before the super bright Jews and Asians.

Sadly, it’s still going on today.  Princeton just filed a “reverse Freedom of Information Act” lawsuit against the Dept. of Education and the Office of Civil Rights to prevent their “trade secrets” on admissions decisions from becoming public information. Hmm. I wonder what they’re hiding?

Every year, I see amazing students get passed up by legacy students (students whose parents attended the same colleges and donated lots of money) with substandard grades, average SAT/ACT scores, and no projects.  If colleges were transparent about admissions decisions, I believe that more students would be admitted based on merit and not family name, wealth, and ethnicity. 


TEDxMeritAcademy Success!

Our TEDxMeritAcademy debut at the Rio Theatre was a huge success!

With 9 dynamic speakers, 1 music video, and 2 TED pre-recorded speakers, we introduced innovative solutions to climate change, overpopulation, and plastic up-cycling, as well as exploring black holes in the universe and contemplating racism in America. 

We’ll post our TEDx videos soon to share these ideas worth spreading!

TEDxMeritAcademy Video: Nicole D'Arcy & Anna Krawisc's "Ode to Advanced Directives"

To offer both comic relief and valuable medical advice, Nicole D’Arcy and Anna Krawisc – along with the Stanford Video Department – perform a music video. 

Come see this today, Monday, August 14th at 7:00 pm at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.  Get your tickets at or at the door. 

TEDxMeritAcademy Speaker David Vasquez

Thrilled that we are hosting a TEDx event at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz! Join us on Aug 14, 2017 at 7 pm.  Get your tickets for TEDxMeritAcademy at  Meet David Vasquez, one of our speakers!

“What if there actually IS an energy ‘magic bullet’?”

David Vasquez is going to challenge the cliched notion in the energy world that “there are no ‘magic bullets’. There’s a breakthrough energy technology from an engineer-scientist-inventor in Arizona named Roy McAlister.  He’s developed a new liquid fuel for both motor vehicles and power plants called METROL that is typically made from garbage and sewage and is  not only clean, safe, affordable, unlimited in supply, and 100% clean, but actually  cleans the air around it.  The implications for both climate change, environment, and world economic prosperity in general are profound.

About David Vasquez:
David Vasquez is a college instructor, book author, computer-graphic specialist, and filmmaker who is focused on renewable energy and sustainable urban design.  He has a doctorate degree mixing cognitive science with science education and he wrote a book about next-generation solar-hydrogen railway-systiems. His professional role has been as VISUALIZER of outside-the-box environmental solutions. He uses this craft both (a) as an independent consultant to public planning agencies in the SF Bay Area, and (b) to educate graduate students in a Landscape Design Dept. (Academy of Art University, SF) about how to create emotionally-engaging promotional images of proposed public projects.