Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Express Yourself: Generating Content for Your Application

“Express yourself.” This seemingly simple piece of advice is critical to writing a strong application essay or personal statement. However, it is also one of the most challenging suggestions for applicants to implement, as it requires a high level of self-awareness. Below are two effective, easy-to-apply strategies that you can use to generate essay topics, anecdotes, personal characteristics, and meaningful experiences that illuminate who you are as an individual.

Twelve Topics Fast
Come up with a list of 4 ways to describe yourself (athlete, musician, reader, son/daughter). Next, think of 3 stories you could tell about yourself in each of these roles. Jot down a few notes about each story—sensory details about what you saw and heard, how you felt, what happened, what you learned. The result: twelve potential essay topics.

Who am I?
Make a quick list of characteristics that you think describe you (e.g., loyal, extroverted, diplomatic, inquisitive). Focus on positive characteristics that you believe make you a special, appealing person whom others will want to get to know better. Select one characteristic from your list and free write about a time you demonstrated that characteristic. Repeat as desired. You might to try to generate additional evidence about the first characteristic or select another characteristic on your list about which to free write.

Once you have generated notes and jottings, you will move to a phase of selecting from that beautiful mess the best of the best. The stories and themes you choose to expand upon need not be complex, glamorous, or extraordinary. But they should be meaningful, compelling, and uniquely yours. Consider how the information you present will help the admissions committee get to know you. What does it say about who you are?

A few general tips to help you avoid common pitfalls:
  • Follow the instructions. Choose anecdotes that actually help you answer the question posed in the application.
  • Tell a personal, memorable story, but be aware that this is not a private journal entry. Do not include information you would be embarrassed to show your grandmother. Do not include information that will make the admissions committee pity or fear you.
  • Start drafting early. Give yourself plenty of time to reflect and revise as needed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The A B Cs (and Ds) of Time Management

One of the most common challenges students face is time management. Simply keeping track of commitments from multiple courses, extracurricular activities, family obligations, and paid employment can feel like a full time job in and of itself.

I'd like to share four simple time management principles* with you, intended to get you on track and keep you there.

A is for "Anticipate & Plan"
To effectively manage your time and commitments, make friends with some kind of calendar system. Low-tech or high-tech is up to you, the important thing is that it is portable! Log your deadlines, tasks, and commitments on the calendar. Block off time for studying, commuting, and relaxing in addition to blocking off time for classes and meetings. Keep your calendar up-to-date and refer to it often, so you are never surprised by a commitment or deadline.

B is for "Break it Down"
When faced with a complex task, try to disaggregate it into smaller, more manageable chunks. Think about a logical order for completing each smaller parts, and create a timeline for yourself that builds in time to work on each part. For example, do not simply schedule time on your calendar to "write psychology paper." Consider that to effectively complete the paper, you will need to do library research, generate a thesis statement, write an outline and a draft, and edit the draft into its final version. On your schedule, include a realistic amount of time for you to work on each piece of this larger project.

C is for "Cross it Off"
As you meet your goals and complete tasks, reward yourself by crossing them off of your to-do list. Creating a to-do list not only makes you aware of what you need to accomplish, it can also offer a psychological boost as you cross items off. You can see your progress, really see how much you have done.

D is for "Don't Procrastinate"
"Trying to catch up on time management is like trying to catch up on sleep - it's almost impossible to do" (Nist-Olejnick and Holschuh 2007: 78). Small spans of wasted time can really add up, with adverse consequences for your schoolwork, your activities, your health, and your sanity. If you make time management a way of life, you will be less stressed and get more accomplished. Take care of business first, then party.

*I learned these principles from Sherrie Nist-Olejnik and Jodi Patrick Holschuh's excellent book
College Rules! How to Study, Survive, and Succeed in College, Second Edition. (2007) Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. p. 77 - 85. This book should basically be required reading for all undergraduates, as it is chock full of wonderful advice on study skills, interpersonal skills, and life skills. Honestly, much of it is also applicable to grad students and professional students as well. Check it out on Amazon.com!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fall is almost here! Are you ready for college application season?

The beginning of the school year is right around the corner, and college application deadlines will be here before you know it. Be aware that some colleges have early decision deadlines that are as early as October. (That’s less than two months away!)

If you will be a high school senior this year, you should be…
  • Finalizing the list of schools to which you plan to apply
  • Beginning to work on application essays
  • Updating your academic resumes with recent activities & accomplishments
  • Considering which teachers to ask for letters of recommendation

If you will be a junior, sophomore, or freshman, you should be…
  • Preparing for standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, Subject Tests, ACT)
  • Beginning to research colleges
  • Earning good grades in courses that challenge you
  • Participating in extracurricular activities that interest you
  • Building relationships with teachers who might later write letters on your behalf
With deadlines in the near future (especially for seniors), procrastination can be a formidable enemy. Fight it! If you would like help with these and many other aspects of the college application process, I am here for you. Please check out my college advising web page and/or drop me a line.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Keep Track of your Apps!

The fall application season is just around the corner. Many colleges, universities, and graduate programs begin reviewing applications as early as October, and the majority of deadlines will fall between November and January.

If you have been doing your research this summer, you are hopefully zeroing in on a manageable list of schools to which you plan to apply. It is common to submit four or more applications, each with different deadlines, essays, and forms. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and confused by the sheer number of tasks, dates, and requirements you must manage, I recommend using an application tracker, a simple organizational tool that will provide you with a snapshot of what you need to accomplish and when. Here is an example of a basic application tracker that could be used for either the undergraduate or graduate application process:

For a full-size pdf version of this tracker, click here.

Alternatively, you can build your own application tracker and customize it to your process. Depending on how you work most effectively, you may wish to track your applications with hard copy worksheets, in word processing documents, or on spreadsheets (e.g., in excel). No matter what the specific format, be sure to include space to record:
  • The school or program name
  • Key contact information
  • All relevant deadlines
  • A complete list of application requirements (so you can check them off as you meet them!)
As you work your way through the application season, consult your application tracker frequently and keep it up to date. This simple tool can help you stay focused and on schedule.

If you have questions or would like assistance creating your own application tracker, please contact me by visiting my website.