Monthly Archives: November 2011

Application tips, the Black Friday edition.

Ah, Thanksgiving. Its passing signifies so many things. The start of the Christmas shopping (or groaning) season, winter weight gain, basketball, and admissions. Thanksgiving is often considered the unofficial admissions deadline for the following fall semester. While most early-action and early-decision deadlines have ended already (most early deadlines are either October 15th or November 15th), the ever-growing application rate has only exacerbated the need to submit applications early and “go complete” as soon as possible.

So, now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s crunch-time.

I’ve gotten many emails from students, all under varying degrees of duress: from those who have only very recently decided to apply to school, to those who are chewing their nails before hitting “submit”. To help staunch your panic, here are tips to help you survive this season.

If you’re applying this cycle… and breaking a sweat about hitting “submit”.

You’ve gotten your test scores back, your transcripts have been sent, and your letter writers have sent in their recommendations. Now, you’re tying up loose ends: editing and proofreading your addendum, your diversity statement, your resume, and, most important of all, your personal statement.  You’ve drafted and re-drafted, and have finely honed your writing materials to such a degree, you can’t possibly add or subtract anymore. Everything is done… right?

First off, it’s completely understandable to have less-than-itchy trigger fingers. You are only beginning on a process whose end-result could have serious, life-altering effects. So, yes, stress is to be expected.

If you have most of the necessary components in line– your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores– and are only working on your own parts, you can breathe a little easier. Unreliable letter writers and unhelpful university policies can be the cause of a huge amount of stress; so, if you were able to get past those in good time, congratulations. You have gotten the relatively uncontrollable parts of your application out of the way, so relish in the fact that your application rests now on you, not on outside circumstances.

At the same time, you can’t prevent yourself from letting go. You are your own worst critic and, at times, your own worst slave-driver. So, don’t beat yourself up and nit-pick your application to death– doing so will only allow more and more time to pass.

To ensure that you’re not holding yourself back, entrust your written application materials with someone else. Whether it be with an editor, your advisor, a professor, or even a close friend. Get another set of eyes to look at what you have written so far and give you honest, reliable feedback. Ask them: Does your writing need further tweaking? Are your statements concise, well-written, and well-argued? Does your resume make a positive impact? Your reader of choice should be able to give you an accurate assessment of your work as it stands and tell you whether you can send it in, or need to work on it a bit more. That being said, they should be able to tell you if you’re almost there or are ready to go– and, chances are, you may be that much closer to the latter than you think. So, listen to their advice; if you have chosen your reader carefully, they are usually right.

If you’re applying this cycle… and haven’t started your application yet.

These kinds of emails are certainly the most panic-stricken ones, to say the least. You’ve decided, at the last minute, that you want to apply and give it your best shot. Well, here’s the deal.

The application process is an arduous one, requiring a lot of preparation, time, and, of course, work. If you have read the above, you will find that the application packet entails the following:

  • The application form. Yes, it’s a form but a long, often tedious form.
  • Transcripts. Depending on the school, this can be an easy or mindbogglingly difficult task. Also, be mindful of processing times of both the school and the admissions board.
  • Letters of Recommendation. These will have to be completed by either your professors, advisors, or (if you have been out of school for some time) employers. This could mean tracking down someone you haven’t worked with or seen in some time and asking them to complete a major aspect of your application on their own time. The obvious potential issues are obvious.

These, of course, are not considering your own parts of the application– you will still have to submit a personal statement and a resume. And, you will also have to consider supplementing your application with an addendum or diversity statement– additional materials that are not necessary but, if needed, are in fact additional work for you to consider.

I’m a big proponent for optimism and I certainly don’t mean to discourage you. However, you do have some serious thinking to do.

Will you realistically have enough time to complete these tasks? Consider your work/school/personal schedule and situation. Can you feasibly do this? If you feel that you may not be able to, then you have your answer. Wait this cycle out and try next time– you’ll be better prepared and will be more successful than this go-around, guaranteed.

If you feel that you could very well pull it off, ask yourself: Will rushing have a detrimental effect on my application? Rushing to get your application in and getting dinged the first time around is no better than waiting until next year and trying with a better hand.

I understand having your heart set on getting that degree or attending that particular school. But, if you are just deciding to do so now, you should give it some more thought. If you’re worried about not being able to do it next time around, then consider the time involved– if you can’t apply by next cycle, then will you be able to even attend next fall?

You’re making some pretty big decisions very quickly. And, if you’re finding yourself scrambling to make this happen, you could very well be forcing yourself to make these huge decisions even more quickly which can be problematic. Take some time and think: Can you do this, or should you wait? Is this for you? Is this a fluke, a rash decision? Is this even possible? Be honest with yourself.Think very, very carefully and be mindful of your answers– yes, these are big things which is precisely why you need to be slow and steady in your decision making.


Common Grammar Mistakes: Affect versus Effect.

Affect and effect are so often confused, they are practically the original common grammar mistake. They are misconstrued nearly every which way, everywhere,  on a nearly daily basis. Of course, all these errors are easily avoidable, and here’s how.

First, you have understand the intrinsic differences between these two words. For the most part, this difference is actually pretty straightforward: one is commonly used as a verb (affect) and one is commonly used as a noun (effect). Easy, right? These two can actually be switched but let’s start with the basics first.

Affect, as a verb, means to influence, as in “My recent lottery win has affected my spending habits greatly” or “His recent knee surgery affected his gait.”

Effect, as a noun, means a result, as in “My recent lottery win had a clear effect on my spending habits” or “His recent knee surgery had an obvious effect on his gait.”

Here’s an easy way to tell them apart:

An Affect is  an Action, but an Effect is an End result.

Awesome, right? Now, let’s move on.

Rare uses of Affect and Effect

So, I hinted above that these two can be used differently than how I had previously explained.  In rare instances, they can, in particular circumstances.

In psychology, affect can be used as a noun– as in, “She displayed a happy affect.” This definition is used in psychology to signify the difference between knowing a person’s mood really is and knowing what their mood appears to be. Meaning, it’s hard to discern whether the person (or, really, patient) is actually happy or just appearing to be happy. In psychology, this difference is important.

Effect, in turn, can be used as a verb, meaning to bring about, cause, or accomplish. For example: “The President hoped this new program would effect change.” Here, effect is used as a noun. Here is another example: “Andy effected his escape from prison with a rock hammer and a carefully placed poster.” Of course, this usage is less common; it is used predominantly in political writing and journalism.

Like most common grammar mistakes, these two words seem confusing but, with a little thought and maybe a memory trick or two, they’re actually very easy to tell apart.

How to write a diversity statement.

How to write a diversity statement. (From rutlo on Flickr.)

Last week, I covered what a diversity statement is and how to decide whether a diversity statement is right for you. Now, for those of you who will be writing one, I will cover how to do it.

Generally speaking, your diversity statement should be written very much like your personal statement. However, the approach you will take will differ slightly.

In your personal statement, you are presenting yourself to the admissions counselor as an ideal candidate for your prospective school. You are to show them how your experience is indicative of your qualities and drive and how these traits are proof of how you’ll succeed, at school and in the future. These experiences can be either personal or professional, but, either way they have to somehow exemplify your abilities as a prospective student.

With your diversity statement, you have to provide yet further examples of your experience, and talk about how these have made you a mature, more diverse person. Meaning, you will have to discuss your personal background and how this has affected you. Some people talk about the diversity statement being akin to an adversity statement, but that’s not necessarily the case– it doesn’t have to necessarily be about obstacles. However, it does have to involve is your personal experience, and how this has given you a different or more diverse perspective than most other students.

Note the marked differences between these two types of statements.

While both the personal statement and diversity statement serve the same purpose– to shed more light on your personality for the admissions committee–  they differ in the manner in which they do that.

Like any writing task, you should start with a brainstorming session. However, the diversity statement can be much more, well, personal than the personal statement– as such, your brainstorming should naturally be different along these lines as well. In last week’s post, I wrote some basic questions you should ask yourself when considering whether to write a diversity statement or not. Your brainstorming should stem from the answers from these questions.

Once you have narrowed it down to one– or even a few– topic ideas, start outlining. The only way to test drive the solidity of a possible argument is to outline it; if you can come up with enough material to develop your argument from start to finish, think about it a bit further and consider using this as a viable topic. If you find yourself scrambling to fill out this outline, then drop it.

Because of the often deeply personal nature of diversity statements, you will have to spend a fair amount of time on this. Granted, the word-count for a diversity statement is not nearly as much as a personal statement. (Personal statements should be about 2 pages, double-spaced with reasonable font and margin sizes, while diversity statement should be about a page, page and a half, tops.) However, the diversity statement does needs extra consideration– certainly more thought than, say, an addendum. Chances are, your diversity statement will be dealing with some pretty sensitive issues. Take time and precaution with how you treat your topic, as failing to do so can turn an otherwise compelling and moving statement into something trivial or, even worse, bad.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

DON’T:

  • …be antagonistic. Being critical of greater social and cultural forces is one thing, but using your diversity statement as a soapbox is another.
  • …throw yourself a pity party.  Admissions counselors want to see how you’ve matured and grown. Don’t trivialize yourself by coming off as if you’re complaining or whining.
  • …blame others. Instead of pointing fingers at who or what may have complicated your background, talk about how these things have changed you for the better. Playing the blame game will only make you seem immature and close-minded.
  • …talk about “would have, should have, could have”. Your life, up to this point, is what it is. Take ownership of that, and talk about the past in how it reflects your present and your future, but don’t talk about rewriting anything. Talking about ” what if”s can be a waste of time and, in this case, precious word-count.

Instead, DO:

  • …talk about how your life has changed because of your experience. Admissions counselors want to know the level of maturity and self-confidence you will bring to the admitted class but they also want to know how you have grown to achieve that. Shed light on how you’ve grown and developed into the person you are now, at the precipice of entering into a new degree-track.
  • …use some humor, but tastefully. You can have a healthy sense of humor about your background– it doesn’t have to be all gloom-and-doom. However, don’t be crass, crude, or morbid. That can be a party and application killer. So, don’t be that guy.
  • …talk about the positive aspects of your experience. What good came from your diverse background? What are you grateful for?
  • …draw upon your personal statement or letters of recommendation. If there is a common tie between your career goals and what you talk about in your diversity statement, then make that connection. Don’t be afraid to be thematic in your application, stemming connections and ties across your diversity statement, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and even addenda. It would only help to make your application a more solid package.

 

 

 

 

Common Grammar Mistakes: Who and Whom.

Common Grammar Mistakes: Who versus Whom.

Okay, guys. I’m about to embark on one of the most confusing aspects of grammar and word choice. It is mistaken so often, I would have go into spasms if I even attempted to address it at every encounter. Alas, this is a daily struggle. So, with that, I will describe the differences between who and whom, how to use them, and, most importantly, how to avoid mistakes. First, in order to fully understand the differences between these two, we also must discuss the differences between subjects and objects. I have covered this in previous grammar posts but  here is a brief refresher for you. To help remember the differences between subject and object, you can use this interesting mnemonic:

I love you; you are the object of my affection.

Aw, how sweet. This mnemonic works in two ways, both of which describe subject and object pretty clearly. I, in this sentence, is the subject and is in the active voiceI is doing the loving here. You, on the other hand, is the receiver of this action, making this the object. This fact, of course, is further clarified by the mnemonic: You are the object of my affection. Quite literally, you is the object of I‘s affection. Such is love. Okay, moving on. Who and whom both function as pronouns but, in operation, they differ from each other much like subjects and objects do. Who operates as a subject– it is the I of the above mnemonic. Whom, in turn, operates as the object– the you. As such, their usage has to follow these functions; who completes the action and whom is the receiver. Here are some examples: Who stole my cheese? : The who, in this instance, is the one allegedly stole my cheese. Therefore, it is the subject. From whom did you steal that cheese? : Here, whom functions as the one who the cheese was stolen from; it is the receiver of the action,  steal. Therefore, it is the object. Following this, use whom when you are referring to the receiving object. So, the question “who do you think you are?” is correct. But, the questions “Who do you love?” and “Who do you voodoo?” are not. Another easy way to remember is to think of the answers to these questions and how they would relate to he or him Meaning, when I ask “From whom/who did you steal that cheese?” and you answer “from him,” then you know to use whom. Similarly, if you ask “Who/whom does he think he is?” and you answer “he think he’s the cat’s pajamas,” then you know to use who. Just remember: the –m in him should correspond with the -m in whom.

Should I write a diversity statement?

Blank page. (From Birohi >H!ROK< on Flickr.)

Now that applications are fully underway, I’ve received tons of questions about supplemental essays.. Applications call for more than just a personal statement— often, a secondary “Why [insert school name]?” also known as a “Why X” essay, may be included. Also, students may need to include an addendum.

Another type of supplemental essay that is the diversity statement.  I describe in further detail how to write a successful diversity statement in a later post but, first, let’s break down what a diversity statement actually is.

Many of you already have the right idea: that it’s an essay that explains your diverse background or experience. But, there is some confusion after that.

You don’t have to an Under-Represented Minority (or, URM) to write one. There is a common misconception that a diversity statement should be about only ethnicity or race. It’s not. A diverse experience can be related to, yes, ethnicity and race, but it can also relate to your sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, religious belief, or age. It is more than just the color of your skin; it is about any circumstances or experiences that have made you outside the mainstream, different from the rest of the applicant pool. This also applies to your home life or household as well– whether you grew up in a non-English speaking household, an adoptive home, or any otherwise “non-traditional” household.

It’s up to you to decide what your diverse experience is. Again, what constitutes diversity is often misunderstood, so only you can be the best judge of that. But, here are some questions for you to consider, when deciding whether you should write one or not:

  • Did you have a diverse experience, background, or upbringing?
  • Does this background make you genuinely different and more diverse than others?
  • Did these experiences allow you to have a different perspective?
  • How has this diverse perspective changed your outlook? Your career and life goals?
  • How will this experience help diversify the student body? What about your experience can you bring to the table as part of the admitting class?

Carefully consider these questions. Now, there is one more important factor you must consider as well.

As an applicant, you want your application to be as competitive as possible. One of the ways to do so is to possibly include a diversity statement in your application packet. After all, you would not considering adding yet another essay on top of a long and arduous process if that was not the case. I’m glad you’re a kind of achiever that is willing to do the extra work, but, as an optional essay, there is a risk.

Diversity statements are not mandatory. As such, not including this optional essay will not detract from your application. Your application packet– the application itself, test scores, letters of recommendation, personal statement– can very well get you into the school that you want. It is perfectly possible for applicants to get in with only these items and plenty of applicants before you have gotten in without any supplementation or additional materials at all. The admissions package is designed to, at its barest bones, to do allow admittance– that’s why they are the required parts of the application over others.

A supplemental essay, by definition, is supposed to do exactly that– to supplement your application. It’s an opportunity for you to present yet another side to your personality to the admissions committee. And, it’s an opportunity for the admissions counselor to get to know you further and possibly find more reasons to admit you.

If your essay is well written, well-composed, and truly compelling, it will do all these things. However, if your essay is not, then you risk taking away from your own application. By presenting additional information, you’re giving them more to look at which, as I said, can work to your advantage. But, in doing so, you’re also giving them more written material to judge you on and, by nature, giving yourself more room for error.

This is why you must be particularly selective and careful with your decision. Just as you have to be selective with your recommenders, your statement topic, and your methods of LSAT studying, you also must be selective in the supplemental materials you provide.

If, when considering all these factors I’ve listed, you still feel uncomfortable or unsure, then don’t do it. You won’t lose out by not doing a diversity statement, but you can lose out by doing a bad one. If you find that you’re forcing yourself to write one, that awkwardness will be evident to the admissions counselor. Trust me– they look at up to thousands of these kinds of essays and forced, awkward writing is easy to pinpoint and with good accuracy, too.

I’m not trying to scare you, I promise. However, I do want you to be realistic– don’t write a diversity statement just to write one. Write one because, as a diverse person or one who can bring diversity to your prospective schools, you have something strong and meaningful to say. If you feel that you do and feel comfortable with the material enough to write about it, then by all means do so. This essay is supposed to serve not only as a supplement but as a complement  to your application package. If you treat it as such and write a genuine, well-meaning essay, then it will.

If, at the end of this exercise, you have decided that a diversity statement is the right choice for you, then check out my post on how to write one.


Stefanie Arr
Stefanie@TheAdvancedEdit.com

Common Grammar Mistakes: Active versus Passive Voice

A student recently sent me the following question: “My professor wrote ‘Do not use passive voice’ on their syllabus under the final paper requirements. Why is passive voice such a bad idea?”

I must say, passive voice does get a bad rap. Many people (professors and other writing educators, included) are adamant in their disapproval of the passive voice. In fact, many consider this to one of the many common writing rules everyone has to abide by. I will give you my opinion in a bit but, first, let’s go over what we actually mean by active voice and passive voice.

Active Voice

In the active voice the subject is doing an action– specifically, the action outlined by the verb. Since the subject is active in whatever the verb calls for, it’s referred to as the active voice. This is found in most English sentences.

An example of the active voice would be: Stefanie loves dogs.

The subject of this sentence — in this case, Stefanie— is doing the action: the subject is, in essence, doing the loving. The word dogs in this instance, is the direct object, the receiver of this loving. Again, since the subject is active in doing, this sentence is in the active voice.

Passive Voice

In the passive voice, these roles are reversed. The direct object moves to the subject’s position and, in turn, the subject becomes the direct object. This role reversal is interesting because the focus of the sentence changes, allowing for the subject to receive the action, while the direct object does what the verb describes. So, instead of the active “Stefanie loves dogs”, the sentence then becomes:

The dogs are loved by Stefanie.

In this instance, the subject, the dogs, aren’t active in doing anything. They are just sitting there as the direct object, Stefanie, does all the action– in this case, all the loving. Lucky them.

The passive voice can also be phrased like this: “The dogs are being loved by Stefanie.” This is also valid as it’s still in the present tense and the subject is still passive.

“So, is using passive voice wrong?”

Not necessarily. However, it can obfuscate your writing so it’s best to use it sparingly. The active voice is direct and (ideally) to the point– this is clearly the best for academic writing and admission essays. It’s encouraged to use the active voice because of its clarity and is a great way to make your writing tighter and more concise.

That being said, passive voice does well when writing reports, scientific studies, or anything else that requires objectivity over subjectivity. This is one of the major reasons why scientific studies and police reports are written largely in the passive voice– the writer has to be objective and not insert themselves into the work as a subject or, if the subject is unknown, hypothesize who or what that might be.

Passive voice can also be used creatively, particularly when writing fiction. The passive voice can denote a sense of mystery– “he was killed suddenly in the night,” for instance– and can also create suspense. This is also more reason why it shouldn’t be used in admissions or academic writing.

So, a few words of advice:

  • The active voice means the subject is active in whatever the verb is doing. The subject is doing whatever the verb says it is.
  • The passive is the opposite– it’s not doing it but, instead, receiving it. The direct object is the one doing the work.
  • Not every sentence in the passive voice has to have the verb to be in it. The verb phrase I am is a form of the verb to be which, as I’m sure you can figure out, is very much in the active voice.
  • It’s not necessarily incorrect to use the passive voice, but avoid it unless writing fiction, an objective report of some kind, or a scientific study.

 

Interview with LSAT Blog

LSAT Blog by Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz of LSAT Blog was kind enough to interview me earlier this week. In our interview, we discussed burnout (and how to fight it), diversity statements, and addenda.

Here is an excerpt from our interview:

2. Now, about supplemental essays. What do you tell your students about writing diversity statements?

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the diversity statement. Two of those are that:

1. Diversity statements is only for underrepresented minorities (URMs)
2. Diversity statements are mandatory.

Both of these statements are far from correct.

You don’t have to be an underrepresented minority to write a diversity statement. Similarly, diversity statements are not adversity statements, either. Anyone who feels that their background or upbringing has allowed them to have a more diverse experience can write one. This also goes for anyone who feels that, by being part of the representative admitted class, will bring diversity to the student body of their prospective school.

That being said, you don’t have to write a diversity statement. Yes, it can be a valuable asset to your application package, but it’s not mandatory and, therefore, isn’t necessary. If you are considering writing a diversity statement, be sure that you have something well-argued and genuinely compelling to say; it’s better to submit your application “as is” with its required materials than to submit an extra essay that is questionable or, worse, written poorly.

For all my dear readers out there applying for law school, LSAT Blog is one of the best resources for help with LSAT preparation on the Internet, hands down.


Stefanie Arr
Stefanie@TheAdvancedEdit.com

How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement: Part 3.

Just keep writing. (From smemon on Flickr.)

For those of you keeping up, I’ve been covering the last couple of weeks remedies to help with the personal statement writing process– a series entitled “How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement.” Part 1 dealt with unsticking yourself from the brainstorming process and Part 2 discussed how to become unstuck from proper outlining and structuring techniques. And, now, for Part 3, as the final installment:

If you’re stuck… and you’ve already written your first/second/umpteenth draft.

First of all, if you’re stuck while revising your draft and don’t know how you can go on, then you should probably stop… for a little while, at least. This means: stop writing, stop editing, stop working on your statement. Don’t look at it, don’t even think about it. Work on other parts of your application, continue studying for the LSAT, work on school assignments, whatever. Occupy yourself with other (productive!) things that are not your personal statement. Think of it as a personal statement abstinence.

The purpose of this is to give you some time off– starting at the same 500+ words will make anyone’s glaze over, and that is not how you want to review and edit your own statement. Burnout can cloud your mind and your eyes, allowing for stupid mistakes to happen. Simple grammatical mistakes and spelling errors can go unnoticed, and your whole argument structure can go woefully awry if you’re not careful and on your A-game.Taking time off is one of the few ways certain to prevent burnout and to relieve your stress at least for a short while. If you feel that you’re burnt-out already, taking time off is absolutely crucial.

Taking a break will allow you to refresh your perspective and interest, so that you can pull off the best final draft possible. A few days off will allow for more ideas to come to mind when you return to your statement, as well as for mistakes to surface when you read it over with renewed eyes. You’ll be able to immediately spot awkward phrasing, poor argument structure, grammatical error, and overall roughness. Provided that you’ve allowed yourself enough leeway to do so (and have the self-discipline to get back into it), taking time off is almost never a bad idea.

If you find yourself still stuck even after taking a break, then perhaps you need a refreshing brainstorming session. If you find that even after taking a short break you’re still having trouble, follow my advice in Part 2 of this series to start getting your wheels turning again.

By brainstorming, you can find and develop a new direction for your statement that will make it stronger. Brainstorming and outlining are not limited to just the beginning stages of writing– they can be used whenever you need to refresh your thought process, to further develop ideas or even generate new ones. This, of course, is always welcome, whether you’re at the beginning or end stages of your statement’s development. You want to always be active in your statement writing– not passive in the doldrums– when submitting such an important essay. Do whatever it is you can to keep your spirit up and to stay alert.

Of course, once you feel that you’ve exhausted all your own resources– you’ve done all the above and still feel at a loss, unable to add or edit anymore– it may just be about time to stick a fork in it. Granted, it is always a wise idea to give your essay over to someone for review and, in this instance, it is especially appropriate. You want an objective reader to confirm that you are truly finished and that nothing else needs to be added, fixed, amended, or changed. At times, such an objective reader is the only one to make that call as burnout can often masquerade as that “finally finished” feeling. But, at the same time, you are often your own worst critic and own worst slave-driver and someone else has to tell you to step away from your computer. So, use discretion when deciding to hit “submit,” but don’t be afraid to let go either.