Tag Archives: application tips

How to become an interesting student.

How to become an interesting student. (By AMagill on Flickr.)

Last week, I was invited to lead a college essay writing workshop for Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls, an incredible program dedicated to high school girls pursuing math and science degrees.

The students in attendance were between the ages of 13 and 16. Most were in the very beginning stages of the admissions process for next cycle but others were definitely on the younger side of my usual student pool. While college admissions requires plenty of time management and diligent preparation, it was almost too early for some of these girls to work on their essays proper. But, these highly driven underclassmen weren’t going to let me get away scot-free. After a break, I was approached by a freshman with a great question: “What can we [underclassmen] do to prepare for a great college essay now?”

Of course, there are a number of immediate answers that come to mind. Successful writing skills– adept knowledge of writing mechanics, style, and grammar– come with practice and persistence, which students of any and all ages should be conscious of. (It also helps if you follow this blog!) Likewise, choosing an appropriate topic for your essay comes through careful consideration and a thoughtful process of elimination. But, the question posed was begging for an answer that is even deeper than all this; after all, several of the attendees had only just begun high school. How does one really develop great potential topics to begin with? How do you create them? In other words:

How do you become an interesting student?

While we all like the preternatural-prodigy story– where magnetism and intriguing qualities are seemingly innate and one is simply born interesting– these attributes are often discovered and, later, developed and cultivated. Sure, there are some who are born with the knowledge of what they like, the ability to be good at it, and the all-around support system to nurture it, from the beginning. But most have to investigate at least one if not all three of these qualities.These students are no exception. These particular girls are at beginning of their academic careers and are now forming these interests of their own– ones that will likely permeate through to their specialties and professions. But, through careful search, dedicated practice, and active involvement in these interests, they are on their way to not only becoming dedicated, driven students, but genuinely interesting ones at that.

How does this work? Well, here are three steps to do so.

1. Find out what you like (or don’t like).

Finding out what you like is critical to being an interesting student. How?

When you find something you like, you develop a potential genuine interest. These potential interests are kernels of promising growth that can possibly be expanded upon and developed fully into, well, a genuine one. Things you like tend to become things you care about– qualities that will enhance your experience and, in effect, your personality. Genuine interests, in turn, are what make you interesting.

To find what you like, you have to search, to really explore. Keep your ears and eyes open for whatever it is that grabs your attention. And, when they do hold your attention, investigate them! Find out what it is that you like about it and, when you do, keep doing it. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If you realize after trying it a few times that you don’t like it, don’t fret– narrowing down these potentials is as much a part of this investigative process as it is finding that sweet spot to begin with.

These girls, by participating in this event, have at the very least least started the search process and are actively honing in on what it is they do like, whether it is medicine, engineering, computer science, or robotics (!). These interests are informing their high school experience and, in turn, their own unique personalities, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest. Their pursuit of what interests them are what makes them interesting.

2. Stick with it.

Following what I said above, you’re more likely to follow through with something you like than you would with something you don’t. That being said, once you do find something you like, you have to solidify that commitment.

Immersion learning is the best method of learning a language and the same is true for learning a new skill or discipline. Athletes practice during the on- and off-season to keep their minds and bodies in prime shape for competition, year-round and at all times. Likewise, students of every discipline must keep themselves sharp by consistent practice and dedication.Through this kind of persistence, interests become specialties and areas of expertise.

How does this happen? Simply put, people pursue what they like. When you enjoy something, you’re that much likely to remain committed to it. Being immersed in something you like is definitely a lot more pleasurable than being mired in something you don’t.

From this kind of commitment, your personal expertise and knowledge grows– after all, there is a reason that people tend to be good at the things that they happen to like. And, with intimate knowledge comes the ability to communicate freely and confidently about these interests. The ability to relay this interest to others –friends, teachers, admissions counselors, and professors alike– is what makes you interesting to them in the first place.

These students, by their own admission, are completely dedicated to their academic pursuits. They eat, breathe, and sleep math and science. Their attendance clearly spoke of this dedication but I was continually told of their active participation in other areas relating to their individual interests, from building computers for charity organizations to volunteering in projects dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainability. They not only found what they liked, but they involved themselves in everything they could to further themselves within it, and did so tenaciously. And, having done so, they were able to speak confidently about what their passions and drew me in, even as a decidedly “non-math” outsider. Their dogged interest interested me.

3. Cultivate it.

Aside from finding that thing you like and dedicating yourself to it, you have to allow it to grow. This all is a continual process that needs to be fostered by not only you, but by others as well.

Involve your peers in your interests. More likely than not, there will be some sort of club or organization devoted to this recently discovered interest. If there isn’t, then this is an opportunity to make a space for yourself and those like you to join forces– chances remain high that you are not the only one interested in this particular thing, nor will you be the last one to be. Involving others in your interests also creates fertile, creative ground to explore and investigate them further. The best and most creative ideas often come from such collaboration, especially when new territories are concerned. This will also help foster greater dedication; as any fitness nut or otherwise athletic person will tell you, it is easier to retain — and keep!– commitment when others are joined in with you.

The G.O.A.L.S for Girls campers certainly inspired each other– the camp comprised of a competitive pool of girls with similar interests and background, working and learning together for six weeks. Surely, a camp full of high school girls can make for an interesting experience in and of itself (I can definitely attest to that from my own experience, oh-so-long ago) but the opportunities like this to inspire and challenge yourself and others in a fertile environment is critical to the success and longevity of these interests.

Similarly, these interests need to be nurtured by you and those like you, first and foremost, but they also need to be nurtured by others with greater and more expansive knowledge on the subject as well. Aside from securing letters of recommendation in the future, involving teachers, professors, and organizers will also allow you to delve deeper and become especially good at them. Self-teaching can certainly go far but having guidance will help you not only develop your skills even farther, but also cultivate your own interest level, in both the thing itself and in your own “interestingness.” Enhancing your own understanding will doubly enhance your own experience within and outside of this process– thereby make your experience, your personality, and, by extension, you that much more interesting as a whole.

How to write a successful cover letter.

How to write a successful cover letter. (From Drongowski on Flickr.)

Writing cover letters can seem astronomically hard. Yes, this struggle is similar to personal statements– you know yourself better than anyone else yet writing about “you” as a formal subject is a hard task.

But, there is a major difference. Personal statements ask you to show why you should be considered as part of a pool of accepted students by writing about an anecdote, specific event, or your life history thus far. Cover letters, on the other hand, ask you to showcase not only why you should be considered for the job but why you deserve this position over anyone else, period.

Now what?

Well, to begin, you have to do some introspection. Like personal statements or papers, you have to do a bit of brainstorming to formulate an appropriate topic or a particular bent. So, sit down and think for a bit: What is it about this position that is so attractive? Granted, ITE, you are most likely considering this position along with many others, sending a slew of resumes into cyberspace at large, and hoping for a response back. Or, this could be your dream job/internship/position that you’ve been fantasizing about since you were six. Either way, you have to consider: What do you like about this particular position? Make a list of your ideas: write down every reason, whether it’s the field, the particular company/brand you’re interested in, or even the increase in pay, better benefits, or better location. Then, consider what you offer: What makes you the ideal candidate? Is it your problem-solving skills, your punctuality? Maybe, it is your “go-get-it-ness” and genuine drive to be in this industry? Or even just your desperate need to get out of your current job or industry?

Now, consider how these intersect: How will you utilize your strengths if you’re given this position? How will this position satisfy your needs? And, in turn, how will you satisfy the requirements of this job?

Think carefully about your answers. These questions I’ve just posed are meant to get your juices flowing and to get you to start thinking about your selling points– and, how to market them to your prospective employer. You want to prove that you are not only a shoo-in for this job but also a natural fit.
Lastly, here are a few tips to get you on your way:

  • If you’re responding to a job posting or ad, follow the directions. Meaning, if they ask for specific information in your cover letter (the specific position you’re applying for, your salary requirements, etc) then you must provide it. Also, if it says “no phone calls”, don’t call. I’m serious.
  • Proofread. If you take away anything from this post (or even this blog), please proofread your work. Remember, mistakes reflect carelessness– the total opposite of “detail-oriented.”
  • Keep it simple… and short. Purple prose is always a no-no, but this is especially applicable here. Be concise; most cover letters are only a page long. If it must be over a page, make it only a page and half, tops. So, don’t send a missive, send a directive– keep it short and sweet.
  • Keep it professional. Use a professional-sounding email or, at the very least, your school email when including your contact information. As hot as “spankmebaby69@aol.com” sounds, it’s incredibly jarring to Human Resources. Don’t be the office joke, and sign up for a nice, normal-sounding Gmail account that includes your name and not any weird proclivities.

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.

 

 

 

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?

 

Application tips: How to survive the home stretch.

In a previous blog post, I gave application tips for those who are basically finished as well as for those who haven’t even started the admissions process yet. Now, I know a lot of you may not have fit into those categories– and, you are not alone. Most of you in fact lie somewhere in the middle– you’ve gotten the ball rolling a long time ago, but you’re not quite done yet. You are by no means green– you have gone over what goes into the admissions process time and time again, and know exactly what is required of you. Yet, time is ticking, and deadlines are approaching and the pressure is on.

Well, unfortunately, the pressure is on– to some extent. By now, you should have already taken the necessary exams and, hopefully, gotten the scores you want. Or, you are either awaiting new scores to come in or planning to retake very soon. Clearly, this is a crucial step in the whole process as test administration dates can frame your entire application timeline– this is especially the case for college and law school applicants. So, ideally, you should have completed this step by now or, at the very least, know when you will be doing so. If not, see my previous blog post about how whether to start the application process from the beginning this late in the game.

With that said, where do you go from here?

First off, breathe. That’s step one. You are almost there. Then, start cracking.

Compile a list of deadlines. To have a full handle of this process, you should have in mind some sort of time-frame of official deadlines and even “unofficial” ones. Meaning, you should know when your schools officially stop receiving applications and when you are hoping to get your applications in by. This list should function as an official tally of when your application materials must be completed by.Most of you should have done this by now. If you haven’t, drop everything right now and figure it out, stat. If this is a mental list, get it down on paper or on-screen; it is more helpful to see this list written out, chronologically, in front of you than juggling it somewhere in your mind. If you have this already written down, pat yourself on the back. Then, revisit it. Be mindful of when everything is due, and when you would like to have them completed by.

Now, time to consider your applications themselves.

Take note of what remains outstanding.  Write down what you have completed already, and congratulate yourself on having done so. Then, concentrate on what remains to be done, and write them down. This will be your “Remaining Items” list. Your list could look like this:

  • Letter of recommendation from Professor Thom
  • Study-abroad transcript from Narnia University
  • Addendum for freshman year “open container” issue
  • Resume
  • Personal statement
  • Diversity statement

I know this seems like a lot– in fact, it may seem like your entire application. However, these are examples of items that you might not have finished entirely and, as such, they are outstanding.  And, chances are, these examples may very well be on your own list, too. So, what now?

Compile your “Next Action” list. Consider what you have listed above. What are the steps necessary to make this “Remaining Items” list a “Completed/Stick a fork in it” one? Think about what actually needs to be done, and write those items down. It very well look like this:

  • Email Prof. Thom to follow-up
  • Check the status on my transcript request from Narnia U.
  • Call admissions rep of XYZ University to find out if I have to disclose an “open container” violation or not
  • Proofread resume
  • Submit personal statement electronically
  • Make final revisions of diversity statement.

Okay, great. Now, your “Remaining Items” list is in a more digestible form– a truly detailed, precise “To Do” list. So, while looking over this new list, think: what can be done immediately?

This, of course, is largely a judgment call– for example, proofreading your essay can be an easy task for, say, me but it can be  a more time-consuming and arduous task for someone else. Also, if you have been working on your personal statement nonstop the past couple of weeks, you may feel that it’s time to work on other parts of your application. So, carefully consider what can be done right now, and what should be worked on in the long run. Submitting an essay electronically certainly takes less time than revising a whole diversity statement so, if you have a few minutes to spare, you can definitely squeeze in the former in the meantime.

This, of course, is an exercise in effective time management— of how to fit in what needs to get done in the time that you have remaining. So, taking these lists into account– your deadlines, remaining items, and next actions– you should be able to create and maintain a firm grasp on your application process. Now that your oh-so close to the finish line, you must have the utmost control over what needs to get done, and when. Being mindful of when your materials need to be in, what remains to be completed, and what remains to be done is only way to do that.