Monthly Archives: January 2012

How to get a great letter of recommendation.

How to get a letter of recommendation (From staralee on Flickr.)

Nearly every program and school asks for at least one letter of recommendation in the application packet– often, they even ask for two or three. The good news is that these recommendations are written for you– for once, you don’t have to outline! That being said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any preparation involved.

Hard data, like your GPA and test scores, and your essays, like your personal statement, diversity statement, or addendum, are relatively in your control, based on your own preparation, hard work, and writing skills. Letters of recommendation, however, are a different animal. When getting a recommendation letter, you are entrusting someone else, your recommender, to write about your intellectual ability and academic capability.  You are essentially leaving it to your recommendation writer to inform the admissions counselor —directly– of what they can expect of your performance.

The purpose of a recommendation is to provide an insider’s view for the admissions counselor– your letter writer is essentially telling your prospective school of what expect of you within the classroom, from administrator to administrator, tête-à-tête. A recommendation then functions very much like a reference when applying for a job; it provides valuable information to admissions committees with information that isn’t found elsewhere in the application. It is a detailed discussion of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you an ideal candidate.

To guarantee a good recommendation, you clearly have to choose someone who will vouch for you in the best way possible. So, you will have to do some careful thinking. To help you, here are some tips on how to ensure your recommendation letter is a great one.


Choose recommendation writers who know you best.

There are a number of factors you need to keep in mind when considering possible recommenders. Obviously, you need to find someone who can describe you in a positive light; however,  the writer in question must also know you well enough to back up their high opinion of you. Your letter should be more than just a good description of your abilities– it should also be well-written and knowledgeable of who you are as person, an applicant, and as a student. Be sure to choose someone who not only knows you, but also knows your work and who would then be able to write about you with confidence and with authority. You should also consider how favorably this person could compare you to your peers.

That being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your writer should automatically be the person who knows you for the longest. You need to find someone who can speak of the breadth of your work– ideally, the person who has worked the closest with you and who knows you better, however long that may have been.


Your recommendation should reflect your past achievements.

Much like your personal statement, your recommendation should explain why you are an ideal candidate. Now, a recommendation is essentially professional’s opinion and, as such, as recommendation should be backed up, with concrete examples.

Don’t take for granted how much your recommendation writer knows about you. If you’ve been following along, they should already know you better than most. But, by all means, you should give them a fuller picture of what you’re accomplished and what your interests are. The more informed they are, the better and stronger their recommendation will be of you and your abilities.

So, when you meet with your advisor or professor, bring your resume. You can also bring a draft of your personal statement or diversity statement, if you’ve started working on them already. Don’t be afraid to talk about other aspects of the admissions process; after all, your recommender is there to help you get in. Talk to your recommender and discuss the achievements you’ve been awarded or accomplishments you’ve made in other classes, at work, or elsewhere. Allow your recommender to have full knowledge of all that you’ve have done; remember, their recommendation can only be as well-informed of your accomplishments as they are themselves.
Your recommendation should also include your future professional and academic goals.

Yes, when you ask someone to write a recommendation letter for you, you are already involving them in the process of applying to prospective schools. However, their involvement is more than just writing a letter for you; they are directly speaking to the admissions counselor on your behalf. As I said above, you want to choose someone whose recommendation can speak well of you. He or she will also know that you are clearly applying to a particular school or program and are hoping to get in. But, do they know know what your goals are exactly?

As I had said above, your recommender will only know as much as you tell them. When asking for a recommendation, talk to your letter writer. Discuss at length what your goals are, and what you are hoping to accomplish in the future. Your letter should ideally reflect your professional aims– by doing so, you will bolster your application two-fold: it will show that you are serious enough in your goals to involve others in your career planning and give you that professional affirmation that you are committed to succeeding.




Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less

Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less. (By Jennifer Peyton from Flickr.)

So, for today’s grammar topic, I’m covering the difference between fewer and less.

Now, less and fewer pretty much mean the same thing—they both mean the opposite of more. So, what’s the problem?

Well, what differentiates these two is not their definition, but the types of nouns that they are used to describe. At its most basic, the rule is that you use less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns.

Count nouns are, well, things that you can count. Whether they are books, pens, or Skittles, these are all things that can be counted individually. So, if you can count them, it’s a count noun which means it belongs with fewer, as in, “You should eat fewer Skittles.”

Mass noun, on the other hand, are nouns that describe things that can’t be counted individually. These can’t be pluralized– for example, rice, dust, or wool are all mass nouns, all words that can’t be made plural. Because these things can’t be counted individually, so they are described with the word less. For example: “If I had less dust in my house, I wouldn’t sneeze as much.” This clearly makes much more sense than “If I had fewer dusts in my house.” So, if you have difficulty pluralizing the word — the words clutter, leather, and cloth are more examples– then this signifies that it is a mass noun.

Sometimes, however, determining certain words as being either count nouns or mass nouns can be a bit confusing. For example, coffee or soda can be either count nouns or mass nouns depending on how they are referred to. For instance, if you are making coffee, it is a liquid that can’t be quantified– so, if the coffee pot overflows, you need to make less coffee next time. Yet, if you’re a barista making cups of coffee as a barista, you may need to serve fewer coffees if patrons decide to leave. Of course, the noun that is actually being count is the word cups — the cups are being counted, not the coffee itself– but, it is common to refer to a cup of coffee as just “a coffee” and so this distinction must be clear. Mass nouns (like coffee) can’t be made plural but, in this case, it can be made into a count nounI’ve made a mass noun plural, but in the process I transformed it into a count noun.

Another tricky noun is the word furniture; it isn’t immediately obvious whether it is a mass noun or a count noun. Like coffee, it is technically a mass noun, even though it can describe multiples of count nouns– there can be countable pieces of furniture, but furniture itself is a collective name for a mass of stuff. You could say, “There are too many places to sit; we need fewer couches,” but you would never say, “we need fewer furnitures.”

Of course, we can never be without exceptions. For instance, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance. Yes, they are quantifiable, but they require less rather than fewer: “The flight time is less than two hours so I hope to pay less than $350 per ticket.” But, aside from time, money, and distance, the rules I stated above remain the same.

So, now that we’ve gotten count nouns and mass nouns straightened out, let’s finish up by clarifying a very important fact: Most signs for supermarket express lanes are wrong. As you know, most of the signs for these lanes read, “10 items or less.” Now you know that these are grammatically incorrect and should instead read, “10 items or fewer.” Why? Because, of course, items are individual, countable things. As such, they are count nouns which means it uses the word fewer. Why this mistake is made in practically every grocery store and supermarket is beyond me but, at the very least, now you know the difference.


How to have a successful semester, from the start.

Plan for school. (from Kate Consumption on Flickr.)

In earlier posts I’ve covered time management tips, and ways to make your work load (and, therefore, your life) easier.

So, now that the semester is in full swing, here’s a few tips on how to manage your time correctly, from the start.

Map out your work load.

The first step to optimal time management is to know exactly what will be due this semester, and when. Collect all your syllabi given at the start of classes and jot down in your calendar when every single assignment is due. Whether it’s a paper, presentation, or simply a set of readings, write them down. It doesn’t matter if you compile this into a weekly planner, iCal, or Hello Kitty wall calendar– what’s important is to create some sort of temporal guide of when everything are due, so that you can plan your time accordingly, leaving no room for error. Also, be sure to be as specific as possible so that you can immediately identify what each assignment is and what exactly the assignment entails.

Map out your weekly schedule.

Next, you should have at least a general idea of what your weekly schedule would be like. Ideally, you will know your course schedule before class begins; if you are working, you should also know of where these classes will fit into your schedule. Even for those who work in shifts, you should have at least a general idea of what your schedule will look like, at least roughly. Whatever that case is, you should plan our when during the week you will be class, at work, or at any other obligation that you may have and for how long.

The purpose of this is to figure out, at least generally, how much free time you will have during the week. Aside from knowing when things are due, a crucial part of effective time management is knowing how much time you have to work with. When creating your schedule, it’s helpful for you to see all the items on your schedule– including free time– in blocks of time. Breaks between classes, free evenings or mornings (!!) should be blocked out in your weekly schedule, just as like your classes or work shifts. These time blocks need to be delineated just like real “things to do” because these chunks of free time are what you are actually going to manage. To manage them –or anything else– properly, you need to be fully conscious of their limitations: how long and how often these blocks are are, and what you can possibly do with them. Like money, you can’t properly manage the time you have if you don’t know exactly how much you have to spend.

Plan out a flexible study schedule.

Now is when you put all of it together. If you have been following along, you will now have a solid grasp of when all your assignments are due and of how much free time you will have every week. Using your weekly schedule against your assignment calendar,  you should be devise a tentative study schedule.This schedule should map out roughly when you should complete your assignments or study for exams, throughout the coming weeks. Taking each schedule into account, you should start figuring out when you should be working on particular readings or assignments and how you can manage your time to do so.

During this, it’s absolutely crucial that you are honest with yourself about:

1- how much time you have available
2- how much work you have to do
3- how much time it actually takes you complete certain tasks.

I’ve written earlier posts that discuss why knowing how much time you have is important, and why being honest with yourself is even more so.

All this being said, the point of this whole exercise is to organize your time and, at the same time, spend them as productively as possible. Success throughout the semester, application cycle, and life in general rest on this almost completely. But, don’t be (too) overwhelmed by it. Be flexible with your time– unexpected things happen so wiggle room should always be made to accommodate such things and, of course, to enjoy them.

Stefanie Arr

Do’s and Don’ts of Transfer Essays.

Do's and Don'ts of Transfer Essays. (From josef.stuefer on Flickr.)

Writing transfer essays can be particularly hard– how do you tell one school why you’re leaving another?

Like “normal” personal statements, your aim is to show how you’re the ideal candidate. But, you also have an additional directive at hand: why you should join yet a different graduating class, as opposed to the one you are already a part of. It then becomes less, “Why X school” and more “Why X school, as opposed to the one you’re in now?

Regardless of what your reasons may be for leaving, writing generically won’t help you– it’ll only seem as though you’re just trying to get the heck out of Dodge, which doesn’t suit your purpose of getting in.

But, rest assured, dear readers: here are some do’s and don’ts to help you on your way to hopefully brighter, greener pastures.

DO: Talk about your your time at your previous school.

Highlight what was positive about your old school– don’t worry, an admissions counselor won’t judge you for leaving. If you really are hard-pressed to the positive about your experience (good thing you’re transferring!) then talk about how much you have grown– what have you come to realize during your experience at your soon-to-be-old school? Growth does include learning what you really want out of your school experience, and learning what kind of environment or program you prefer to be in.

DON’T: Talk trash about your old school.

Even if the campus sucks, the professors are awful, you live with a crap roommate in a room without heat, don’t diss it.  Yes, you may be unhappy with your school experience thus far, but don’t criticize it in your essay– it will only seem negative or even tacky. Talk less about how much the school failed you in whatever way, but talk more about what your needs and wants in your education or ideal campus life.

DO: Talk about how your prospective school will be an ideal fit for you.

“Why do you want to attend this school?” This question certainly sounds familiar, but it can be answered doubly now that you have spent sometime elsewhere. Why does this school appeal to you so much more than your current one? Consider what your prospective school offers, in comparison to your school now– what attracts you the most? Is its campus life? Or its programs of study? Talk about specifics.

DON’T: Mention how you wish you applied there/attended in the first place. (Or, how you wish you were admitted the first time around.)

Allusions to any of these will make you sounding regretful or even bitter, which will only take away from your essay. Through your personal statement, you should aim to sound positive and hopeful, as a promising future student who looks forward to advancing your education. Don’t demean your previous decision (or, worse, the decision of the previous admissions counselor) by presenting them in a bad light– talk instead about what you plan to do in the future.

DO: Talk about what you hope to accomplish at your new school.

When transferring, you have to a do a bit of homework. Investigate what programs are offered and what their campus life is actually like. Consider what their student body is like; what could you bring to the table? If there is a particular program you are interested in, talk about why. If there is a particular professor you want to study under: why, and how come? Then, what could you provide for the department or research team? If you’re interested in athletics, a similar line of questions are also pertinent. Talk about not only why you want to be there, but what you plan to do once you are there– how will you make the most of this school, and how will the school make the most of you?


What is your New Year’s resolution?

Ahh, the beginning of the year.

Now that the holiday season is over and you’ve picked out the last piece of confetti from your hair, it’s time to start enacting your New Year’s resolutions, for real.

For most, resolutions are some variant of “lose weight and/or make more money” all of which make sense, of course. For even more of you, your resolution may be to improve your grades, be less stressed out, or to get into your dream school.

But, with each resolution, one question always remains:  Am I really going to stick with these resolutions this year?

Resolutions can be complicated, especially when considering the delicate-yet-often-unfair balance between your work, personal, and academic lives. Do you have the time, energy, and attitude to make these changes?

The new year can be a great time to reflect not only on what you’d like to improve but, most importantly, how you can effectively do so. So, here are a few tips to help you make your resolution stick this time around:

1. Set realistic expectations.

Nothing is more demoralizing than setting lofty goals. Why? Setting unattainable goals are just that– unattainable. Yes, you can vow to improve your test scores by 800% and lose 30 lbs. in a week but the reality is, when these goals aren’t reached, this only amounts to feelings of defeat– and, bam!, there you are, back at square one.

So, how do you combat this?  Think about the things you’d like to change as well as what this realistic change would– and should— look like.

Say, for example, that you’d like to get your grades up– a perfectly reasonable if not encouraged goal to have in mind. But, before you start thinking of how nice summa cum laude would sound, consider you fared last semester. Is this an achievable goal? Instead of aiming for straight A’s across the board, consider aiming for a particular point increase in your GPA. Or, raise the bar for yourself– say, nothing lower than a B. This is especially relevant if you’re facing a particularly difficult course load this semester. Aim for realistic grades within each class instead of demanding perfection across the board. Don’t get me wrong, perfect grades are certainly laudable and encouraged, but don’t set yourself up for defeat if you already know this semester may be incredibly difficult as it is.

In your personal life, setting realistic expectations is just as important.  Don’t focus so much on suddenly trying to become a radically different person from the start. Instead, focus on the particular parts of yourself that you’d like to improve—such as your time management or leadership skills, for some examples—and work on those. Do you want to be more in control of your work load, and have less stress in your life? Think about improving your time management skills. Thinking of changing careers or moving on to the next step in your education? Start doing your research and start thinking concretely about how you can achieve this.

2. Set both specific and general life goals.

Work and academic life involves managing many, many details all the time. So, setting New Year’s resolutions that deal with specific goals—such as working on your final paper at least a week in advance and getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night —is important for making your life more manageable.

But, as every student knows, your life can still be a mess even if you manage some of the details well. This is why the bigger picture is also incredibly important. True, you may have gotten everything done on your task list for a certain day, but you didn’t eat well, you missed a planned night out, and you haven’t slept enough. Your life, in the big picture, can be seriously lacking if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the more holistic sense.

Good New Year’s resolutions then focus on both the details and this bigger picture. Set a few goals for what you’d like to experience in your life next semester, this year, and onwards, whether it is to be better rested, in better physical shape, more balanced and less crunched for time.  As time goes on, you should check-in with yourself regularly– I like to on the first day of each month– and see how you’re doing: Do you feel more in control of your time? Balanced?  How have you been treating your body? Are you well-rested? If not, start setting smaller, specific goals to help you achieve these larger ones.

3. Focus on the means, not just the ends.

Sometimes, focusing only on the end result can be just as self-sabotaging as lofty goals. Why? Many of these goals are not immediately attainable but instead are true works in progress, and focusing too much on its end can lead to impatience… and possibly premature disappointment.

One of the best ways to set– and keep–New Year’s resolutions is to focus on the means of getting to where you want to be, not just on why you haven’t arrived there yet.  If you’d like to reduce your stress, focus on incorporating stress-reducing activities into your routine (exercising for 30 minutes each day, for example) as well as getting your work done in time. If you’re aiming to improve your grades, consider developing a better rapport with your professor on top of studying harder. Developing the ability to make better choices is just as important as the choices themselves.

What are your New Year’s resolutions? And, how are you working on them? Let me know in the comments!

Stefanie Arr