Monthly Archives: March 2012

Time Management: Prioritizing Tasks.

When things get out of hand (From LOLitsLloyd on Flickr)

I’ve written an earlier post about how to start managing your time properly by consciously assessing how much time you actually have. Here, I will explain a bit further of how to really use your time more efficiently by prioritize your assignments. Why? So you can get more work done, on-time.

First off, take a look at what assignments are due and order them by deadline, from earliest to latest. Of these assignments, if you have any that are due right now, as in, today or tomorrow, please stop reading this (or anything else, including Facebook) and do them right now. But, if you’ve been following my time management tips so far, you shouldn’t have fires burning on your desk and will have at least a little wiggle-room for what to accomplish next.

Now, start assessing your assignments list. What can be taken care of immediately? Short response papers and articles, for instance, can be done relatively quickly compared to, say, a 15 page term paper. These short assignments can be completed first as they are (for the most part) relatively easy and cluttering up your assignment schedule. As such, they should be the first to get done and quickly. By doing so, you’re freeing up more time to conquer the larger, more daunting assignments– like, the ones that count for a larger percentage of your grade and/or the ones your professor will be looking at closest. If anything, you can call it survival of the fittest and, in the arena of schoolwork, they should be eliminated immediately.

Following this method, you should work on assignments in order of least difficult and quickest to hardest and most time-consuming. You will then allow yourself to devote most of your time to assignments that require the most time, effort, and concentration, without other assignments slowing smoldering in the back of your mind. Wouldn’t it be easier to work solely and dutifully on that massive 10-15 page paper on Russian literature that’s 50% of your grade without smaller assignments nagging at you?

That being said, you want to make sure you’re being completely honest with yourself and realistic: in order for ANY of this to work, you need to devote the truly appropriate amount of time each assignment. This means you can’t dilly-dally over a 1-2 page response paper for four days; this would be the complete opposite of what I’m saying. Misappropriation of time is a symptom of procrastination— meaning, spending way too much time on menial tasks are really attempts to put off tackling the bigger ones. This not only makes smaller, menial tasks more tedious and time-consuming (literally), but also leaves you with little time for assignments that really matter. This is where you have to be as blunt and honest with yourself as possible– to know if the time you’re using is an appropriate amount of you’re just slacking off. And, should you realize that, yes, you are slacking off, you’ll need to summon the inner drive to cut it out and finish it, so you carry on to the next item on your agenda.

This is all easier said than done– and I know exactly how hard this can be. Like writing itself, this requires self-discipline and, sometimes, a little self-adjustment. But, with practice, you’ll be well on your way to acing your papers and your semester as a whole. This may not seem like writing advice per se, but methods like these give you the tools– such as more time and more discipline– to better yourself as a writer and as a student.

Stefanie Arr

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How to write without self-consciousness.

Writing without self-consciousness. (From J. Paxon Reyes on Flickr.)

In my last post, I covered writer’s block, reasons why it occurs, and how to beat it when it does. Whether it’s disorganization,  difficulty with topic formulation, or sheer laziness (hey, it happens), I covered a number of remedies on how to combat it.

Sometimes, however, a writing assignment could be so daunting that the task itself is what’s keeping you from writing and from getting it done. It’s normal to get nervous when a big assignment is due– particularly if it’s a requirement to graduate, part of an incredibly hard course, or if it was assigned by a notoriously difficult teacher. Often, this can manifest in negative feelings about your own writing or even about writing itself:

“I’m not really much of a writer.”

“My writing just isn’t good enough.”

“I hate writing; I suck at it.”

I’ve heard many variations of these thoughts over the years. This usually stems from feeling apprehensive about the writing process. But, most often, it arises out of self-consciousness and anxiety over the reader and his/her potential response.

It is understandable to feel this way– writing can be a very scary thing. But, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed; with some reassessment and planning, you can overcome feeling self-conscious about your work. Here are a few ways you can combat self-doubt and write without hang-ups.

  • Get your facts straight.

As with speaking, writing comes a lot easier–and a lot less self-consciously– if you have full understanding of what you’re going to say as well as how you will say it. As any one who has done public speaking would know, it’s infinitely more nerve-wracking to speak on the spot than to speak after you’ve had time to fully prepare yourself. So, to build confidence before taking on your next writing assignment,  you need to strategize and plan ahead. Use brainstorming tools to formulate topic ideas. When you have a topic, do your research. Create an outline. Take full command of the information at hand– sketch out your ideas and fully digest the material you are using. Make yourself comfortable with the information– the more comfortable you are with the task at hand, the more confident you’ll feel writing about it.

  • Turn the spotlight away from you and onto your work.

Whenever you write, you’re expected to tell a story, and to tell it well; this is what your professors expect of you, what readers expect of novelists, and even what you expect of me. Because of this, subconsciously, you might feel as though you’re being judged– that, whatever you produce, is a reflection of you. To some extent, this is true; those working on personal statements, for instance, can understand how this works. However, writing isn’t about you– writing serves a purpose, to divulge information in a well-reasoned manner with intention. While, yes, you are responsible for creating good work, you yourself are not the words on your screen. It is important to remember this difference, especially when that pesky self-doubt starts to rear its ugly head; it’s all about the work itself. So, if you’re feel stuck or lost while writing, don’t turn the scrutiny towards yourself–  take a step back and focus on the work and the assignment. You are not what you write.

  • Only edit when you’re editing.

It’s hard not to self-edit– trust me, I know. I make a living by critiquing other people’s work so it’s incredibly hard not to second-guess my usage of punctuation and panic over tense agreement. (And, don’t even get me started about word choice– my inner monologues often sound like this.)  But, editing while you’re writing is like burning a bridge on one end while you’re still building the other side; you simply can’t make progress while looking fearfully (or, in this case, critically) behind you. Just getting your thoughts down on paper is hard enough, so don’t make the process anymore difficult for yourself. So, get the words out however you can and save the self-critiquing  for later. Don’t hold yourself back; the ability to write freely and easily comes only when you allow yourself to let go. When your self-editor tries to sneak in while you’re writing, point to the door and just write. Once your draft is completed, you then can look it over and edit to your heart’s content (reason #34,382,370 why time management is key) but not until after the fact.

Of course, these are all hard habits to break; I’ll admit that I’m still working on some of these myself. But, like all efforts to improve writing skills, with consistent and continual practice, it can be done and the boost in confidence is totally worth it.

How to beat writer’s block.

Writer’s block.

We’ve all suffered from it. I certainly have and, at some point in time, I’m sure you have as well. Plenty of famous authors have succumbed to it, also. It’s an affliction common to both creative and academic writers alike.

There are many reasons to writer’s block occurs, and nearly just as many strategies to overcome or at least circumvent it. This week, I will cover those particular to academic writing, by going over scenarios that all students have found themselves in. By learning what to handle these kinds of situations, you can unplug the stopper, unblock your writing, and get yourself going again.

You’ve started writing your paper, but you don’t really know where you’re going with it.

This is probably the most common of writing blockages. You’re sitting at your computer starting your paper when you realize, “Crap, I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

This lost feeling is often the symptom of disorganization. I’ve talked about the importance of outlining in some of my posts on personal statements, but it’s just as relevant here as well. When writing an essay or paper, you need to devise a convincing argument– a thesis that is strong from beginning to end, and is presented and explained thoroughly and clearly. One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an outline, so that you can create a framework to build your argument upon.

But, in terms of defeating writer’s block, outlining helps clarify your own thought process. Staring at pages of academic research, peer-reviewed journals, and a blank word document will cause anyone to go into a foggy, non-writing trance. But, realizing that your thesis can be deduced to a basic logical structure, it can ease some of your anxiety. With a well-devised outline, you can see your argument unfold which, in effect, will help you see exactly where you should be going.

You have a topic, but you hate it.

The writing assignments that you dislike are some of the most difficult ones to write– this much is true. Whether you find the topic to be boring, the content disagreeable, or you just don’t understand the material, you have your reasons to dislike the assignment given, all of which are hard to surmount.

Unfortunately, there’s no way out of doing what is asked of you. Sorry, but there’s no way out of doing the work. That being said, you can get yourself through it.

As I have said earlier, you should aim for a topic that addresses the overall theme of the course– what does the professor want you to come away from course with? What major themes or ties can be drawn through the material? If you’re still having difficulty, then consider this: What aspect of the material did you like the best? Or, what can you at least explain the best?

If you’re still deep in trouble, try speaking to your professor or, at the very least, your TA. (This is when having good time management skills will come in handy.) If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, they should also be able to offer suggestions. However, if you’re you’re having difficulty with the material itself, you’re experiencing more than writer’s block, and should look to outside help. If this is the case, you must speak to your professor– not only so he/she could understand your predicament but also to better your own understanding of the task at hand. If for whatever reason they aren’t helpful to you (and they really should be if they’re worth their salt), try talking to your classmates. Or, find someone who has taken this class before. Even try speaking to your librarian. Your goal should be to reach out to someone who can give you some guidance– if you’re truly lost in the course, you need to throw out a lifeline. If you find yourself struggling with the material, it will make the writing process that much harder. Do everything you can to find someone to help you– most schools have some sort of advising or tutoring program that you can turn to for help, as well.

You just don’t want to write. 

Well, sorry to break it to you. There’s no real way to get out of this aside from taking an incomplete, dropping the course, or, worst of all, failing it outright.  As fatalistic as it sounds, even if you don’t want to write, you’ll have to resign yourself to the task eventually.

But, sometimes, this extreme dislike is often masking some other problem– do you not want to write because you don’t know how to engage the topic? Or do you not want to write because you don’t understand the material fully? Or, alternatively, do you just not want to do it because you’d rather play Words with Friends? Be honest with yourself. If you’re having difficulties engaging with the material or understanding the assignment, follow what I said above. Often, writer’s block emerges when you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with the assignment, so do a bit of a self-check up. Here, brushing up on your outline will help you figure what kinks need to be worked out– it will help you see where the fogginess is coming from. Talking to others, like your professor or classmates, will help as well– some outside feedback may just be what you need. Try to figure where this writing malaise is coming from; chances are it’s from being overwhelmed by one of the issues I’ve stated above.

But, if you don’t want to write simply because you “just don’t want to,” then you’ll have to get past that. There’s no easy way around it. Get off Facebook, Twitter, this blog, whatever. If need be, disable your Internet connection– save all your articles and research so you can work offline to avoid distractions. Do whatever it takes for you to stop procrastinating and get motivated.  In this case, talking to others may not be the best idea; you can’t afford yourself any further time away from doing what needs to get done. You might not like writing, I understand that. You might be one of those people who just don’t feel “right” in academia– I understand that as well. However, there is no salve or “quick-fix” to getting out of doing the work. (Or at least moral ones anyway, and I’m certainly NOT suggesting those by any means!) And, spending time away from the assignment is only putting off the inevitable which, as time goes on, will only grow in its dreadfulness. So, do yourself a favor and just get it over with. Stretch, go for a short run, take a shower, whatever– then, grit your teeth and rip the bandaid off and just do it. Trust me, you’ll be happier once it’s done.

Letters of Continued Interest: What they are, and how to write them.

Letters of Continued Interest. (From Muffet on Flickr.)

So, you’ve been waitlisted. Or, you’ve been deferred. Now what?

Well, you can do one of two things: you can either sit on your laurels or you can write what’s called a letter of continued interest.

A letter of continuing interest (or, if you’re cool, a LOCI) is essentially what it sounds like: a letter to the admissions committee stating your continuing interest in their school.

While a LOCI doesn’t bear as much weight as other parts of your application like, say, your personal statement, it is still a very good idea to send one. If you’ve been waitlisted, deferred, or otherwise on hold, a LOCI could perhaps be the extra nudge you need to get in.

Here are a few tips to help get you out of limbo:

Write it as soon as possible.

“When should I submit one?” is usually the second question I’m asked. (Following what a LOCI is to begin with, of course.) My answer, as it is in many scenarios, is as soon as possible. Meaning, you should begin working on your LOCI as soon as you receive your notice of deferral or waitlist letter. Sending it out quickly shows your seriousness as an applicant by illustrating just how badly you really do want to go to this school. Also gives you a practical edge over the rest of the applicant pool– you’ll beat them to the punch.

Your LOCI should ONLY be one page.

Yes, this should only be a one-page letter. You have already written a personal statement– perhaps even a diversity statement as well. Your LOCI is a letter of continuing interest; there’s no need to rehash your application again. In terms of format, your LOCI should resemble a business or cover letter– it should include all relevant contact information as well as the appropriate greetings. (“Dear Mr./Ms. X,” works as an opening salutation, and “Sincerely,” to close.)

Explain why you’re still interested in attending.

Ideally, if you’re thinking of writing a LOCI, you still want to attend a particular school. So, be sure to explain how this school  is the perfect match for you– what specific programs are you interested in? Is there a particular professor you’re interested in studying with? In other words, why do want to get in, and what will you do there once you are admitted? Consider these questions, but be sure your answers are concise. Also, if you’ve visited them since applying, let them know– it will really drive home your veritable continuing interest in the school.

Provide updates to your application.

Surely, some time has passed since you first submitted your application. Has anything changed since then? Have you accepted any new positions or received any awards since you first applied? Have you completed any interesting research or published anything? Be sure to include updated information– don’t be redundant. By now, they have already reviewed your application, so repeating it all over again would be unnecessary and even unwanted. However, if there are some serious changes — like internship or thesis credits–  you can send them an updated transcript or even an additional letter of recommendation. It will not only confirm what you’re saying but also bolster your open application, giving them more reason to possibly admit you.

Address it to the right person.

Following what I said earlier, your LOCI should resemble a business letter. As such, it should be addressed to the appropriate person– in this case, the person who signed your deferral or waitlist letter. If no one signed your letter, send it to the Dean of Admissions. You can also do a little detective work on the school’s website or even call the admissions office and ask who it should be addressed to. Be sure to address the letter to an actual person, lest it end up lost in the shuffle somewhere and not seen by the right person.

Mail it. (And, no, I don’t mean by email.)

Following what I said above, you should physically mail your letter rather than email it. As you can imagine, an admissions office inbox is a crowded place where things can get lost, misplaced, and, worse yet, unread. As such, you want to send your LOCI in a manner that you know will be physically opened, read, and sorted by a real person. This sounds terribly archaic, yes, but there is something to be said about physically receiving, opening, and filing a physical letter over receiving an intangible email that can be easily skipped over or even accidentally deleted. By using snail-mail, you’ll be reducing the chances of clerical error as well as increasing the chance of it being read by the right person. (Hence, the importance of addressing it appropriately, as I said above.) Also, a physical letter is more professional and, dare I say it, even nice— almost like a thank-you note.

Follow the directions given.

As I’ve said so many times before, to be admitted anywhere for anything, you must follow the directions. Some schools specify to not send any additional materials at all, ever. Others ask for an extended response, requiring more than a single-page letter. Granted, there are only a few schools are such exceptions, but make sure your school in question is not one of them. If the admissions committee is still on the fence about admitting you, don’t make the decision for them by not following basic directions. So, if you can write one, by all means do so. But, if the school says specifically not to, then don’t– it’s pretty simple. Of course, if you’re not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask.