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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing Graduate School Letters

How to Write a Letter for Graduate School

It's that time of the year when professors go looking for jobs and graduate students begin sending out their applications for graduate school. Many students mistakenly assume that letters of application are about them. They aren't. 
The graduate school application letter is essentially a pitch letter. However, unlike pitching a new service or writing a cover letter for a job in the “real world,” graduate school is not the “real world.” A group of faculty members (or a graduate advisor/director) make admission decisions. Professors in the humanities are often looking for more than just decent GPAs and high GRE scores—al­though you should not make the mistake of thinking that these are not important—Professors are also looking to see that you know something about their department and faculty members, and have a clear idea what you want to do. In order to write an effective letter, consider the following suggestions.
First off, be sure not to wait until the deadline to apply. Just because a school says that applications are "due by February 1" does not mean you should wait until then. The applications that come in first are reviewed first by the admissions committee and have a greater chance of being selected for an assistantship. 
Second, writing a compelling letter takes hours, even days as you gather some research about the program and revise and rewrite your letter. If you write it in 30 minutes, it will probably not be that good. 
Things to Remember

       Do not misspell or misuse the name of the department (“communications” for example, or call a department of “Human Communication” a department of “Communication Studies” or [gasp] “Speech Communication”). Use their name. 
       Do not say that you are “undecided” (get decided or get a real job and figure it out). You can usually change areas of specialization once you are in the program (sometimes it’s hard), and professors want to be convinced that you know what you are doing).
       Clearly articulate why you want to come to the school. Be specific. Do not speak of “how interesting the department looks,” or “what great classes are offered.” Professors want to know who you want to work with, what specialization area you are interested in pursuing, what you want to write your thesis/dissertation on, etc. Professors want you to tell them what you are interested in studying. Additionally, it does not hurt to mention the professors you would like to work with—this shows that you are familiar with the program. For example: “I have read several of professor Taylor's articles in my public relations classes and it would be an honor to work with her. Her work on activism has been very influential in my thinking…”
     Include writing samples that show your ability to conduct graduate level work. Ideally you will submit a conference paper that was accepted at a regional or national conference. Any conference paper will do in a pinch. If you do not have a conference paper then submit your best class paper or ­professional document. Avoid trite/ephem­eral topics (critiques of movies, television programs, songs, etc.).
       Structure the letter to focus on three or four key points just like you learned to do in public speaking class. Be sure to have a proper introduction/conclusion, proper transitions, etc. You are asking to be accepted into a community that makes its living by writing and teaching. You are trying to convince us that you can do both (all graduate degrees are teaching degrees). You will best demonstrate this by showing proper scholarly form in your essay.
       Get useful letters of recommendation. Letter writing is an art; do not go to an amateur. If you want to get into a communication program, get communication teachers to write you letters. A useful letter comes from someone who knows something about graduate school in the humanities and knows you well. Your boss at the diner who has a Master's degree in business will not impress a professor deciding whether you should be admitted into the Doctoral program in interpersonal communication. Similarly, university presidents, CEOs, deans, and administrators write notoriously bad letters. Most administrators are out of touch with graduate school. Many administrators are too busy to write a good letter, or even to write the letter themselves. Professors do not care if you are “hard working,” “the best student assistant ever,” etc. Big deal. It only takes a “competent” student to be the best assistant ever. Every student thinks that s/he is above average—that is what teachers tell everyone these days. We want to be told that “your writing skills are among the best so-and-so has seen…”; “you have a clear idea of what you want to study…”; “your level of maturity is exceptional and is reflected in the topics you choose to study…” etc. Only someone who understands what a graduate acceptance committee is looking for can write this letter well. 
       Avoid hyperbole. Professors are not stupid and we know when someone is “blowing smoke” at us. 
       Do not write about your dreams (“As a child I knew that I wanted to work with people…”). This is perhaps the most common strategy used, and among the most boring. Professors love learning. Some of us love teaching but that gets beat out of us. You are writing a letter to professors not your mom and dad. Use your rhetorical skills and think about your audience as you craft your message. Don't pander, but don't ignore them.
       Unless you are applying to a religious school (and even then, avoid it) do not say “god bless,” “in sha Allah,” etc. This is guaranteed to annoy many educators who are sensitive about separation between church and state issues. Why take the chance?
       Do not write about yourself in the third person (“Let me tell you about a young man who…”).
       Do not use a narrative style (“Once upon a time there was a hard working student…”).
       Never, never, never, have spelling errors or proofing errors. If I have to explain this, you should not be thinking about graduate school. And if I have any here, please send me a message so I can remove them.
       Ask the professor in your department who writes the best to proofread and critique your letter before you submit it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Learning to Learn Fast

Below, is another summary of a Long Now lecture. Besides my plug to join The Long Now, NOW, as a member you can watch podcasts of the lectures and have access to a lot more information of interest.


[SALT] Learning to learn fast (Timothy Ferriss talk)
Stewart Brand []
Sent: Friday, September 16, 2011 5:58 PM

To acquire "the meta-skill of acquiring skills," Ferriss recommends approaching any subject with some contrarian analysis: "What if I try the opposite of best practices?"  Some conventional wisdom---"children learn languages faster than adults" (no they don't)---can be discarded.  Some conventional techniques can be accelerated radically.  For instance, don't study Italian in class for a year before your big Italy trip; just book your flight a week early and spend that week cramming the language where it's spoken.  You can be fluent in any language with mastery of just 1,200 words.

That's what Ferriss calls the "minimum effective dose" for learning a language.  The equivalent with any skill or goal is worth identifying.  A regular 5 minutes of kettlebell swinging can tone the body rapidly; 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking makes your slow-carb diet effective; just 20,000 "early evangelists" for your book in its first 2 weeks guarantees it becomes a best seller.

With any skill, "solve for extremes and anomalies."  Look at who's best and how they do it, but especially look for those who are surprisingly good---the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds---because they're doing it with technique rather than genes, and technique is learnable.

How do you manage the self-discipline to bear down on learning a skill?  Ferriss suggests you begin by treating your new regime as a trial (vowing permanence can be discouraging)--- give it 2 weeks or 5 serious sessions.  By that point early rewards from the discipline will keep you going.  You have to measure to detect the rewards ("What gets measured gets managed"--Peter Drucker), and score-keeping lets you make your progress a competitive game with others---which becomes its own motivation.  Make public bets about your specific goals, where you'll pay painfully if you fail.  "Loss aversion" is a surprisingly powerful incentive.

You can get profound effects in an amazingly short time, Ferriss concluded.  "Doing the unthinkable is easier than you think."
                                        --Stewart Brand

PS:  Acollection of all of these summaries of the SALT talks (nearly 100 now) is available on the Kindle for $3.  Foreword by Brian Eno.

Stewart Brand --
The Long Now Foundation -
Seminars & downloads:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors, IPads in schools

Many US schools adding iPads, trimming textbooks

Many US public schools providing iPads to students, moving away from traditional textbooks 

This is one of those news stories where you have to ask what kind of unreflective and apparently untrained (in fact checking) journalists is the AP hiring. Some basic math tells a different story here.

According to the post (which you can read below):
At Burlington High in suburban Boston, principal Patrick Larkin calls the $500 iPads a better long-term investment than textbooks, though he said the school will still use traditional texts in some courses if suitable electronic programs aren't yet available. 
"I don't want to generalize because I don't want to insult people who are working hard to make those resources," Larkin said of textbooks, "but they're pretty much outdated the minute they're printed and certainly by the time they're delivered. The bottom line is that the iPads will give our kids a chance to use much more relevant materials."
There is nothing outdated about a literature textbook, even if it is 50 years old. The same can be said of Algebra, which, as a discipline, contains a discrete body of knowledge that does not change much from year to year.

iPads instead of books, while it sounds compelling is a waste of taxpayer money. A book costs a fraction of the price of an iPad and will be good for about five to ten years in most subjects. IPads, are breakable, valuable, and subject to "loss" (both real loss -- "oops, I left it on the bus" -- and fake loss "I lost it" when it is sold to someone or taken from from a younger student by a bully or criminal). iPads also require schools to instal and maintain wireless equipment and create infrastructure costs (lots of new places needed for kids to plug them in when they come to school with no charge or run down throughout the day are needed, relevant apps., etc.). The story also suggests that lots of stuff are free for the iPad like graphing calculators, etc. That is just not the case. A decent calculator for the iPad costs money. The free stuff is mostly junk (crashes a lot, bad interfaces, etc.), read the reviews, look at the apps yourself. I just paid for an HP calculator for my iPad because the free ones were so bad.

There is no upside to spending taxpayer money on this. A better model is simply to require kids to buy them when they enter school as "school equipment" like a calculator or sports equipment, and create funds for disadvantaged kids. Students need to own them for the devices to be taken care of and treated with respect.
The iPads generally cost districts between $500 and $600, depending on what accessories and service plans are purchased. 
By comparison, Brookfield High in Connecticut estimates it spends at least that much yearly on every student's textbooks, not including graphing calculators, dictionaries and other accessories they can get on the iPads.
The HMH Fuse online app is free and gives users an idea of how it works, and the content can be downloaded for $60. By comparison, the publisher's 950-page algebra text on which it was based is almost $73 per copy, and doesn't include the graphing calculators, interactive videos and other features. 
For a school that would buy 300 of the textbooks for its freshman class, for instance, the savings from using the online version would be almost $4,000.
Okay, let's unpack this: by not buying 300 textbooks they save 4,000 bucks. Hmm., 300 books means 300 students need them. Three hundred iPads at only $550 each is $165,000. Three hundred books at the estimated cost of $73 is $21,900. Divide that into 165,000 and we get 7.5, about the number of textbooks that a student might need per year, except, the books will last 5-10 years (depending on how much money the school has to buy new ones). Even if books were used only once (and they are not), it's a wash.

But no one will steal an algebra textbook, break one, or have it stolen from them. There are no service contracts needed, no extra costs for software and programs to monitor student use and block porn or prevent pedophiles from having easy access to them in a way that will be largely unmonitored by parents. Indeed, going to and from school, in school, over lunch, in their rooms at night, etc., children would have access to the internet (free wireless is everywhere and in many homes). No IT person to be hired for books, and every teacher teaches the same course content, so the learning experience is similar for everyone, and teachers spend more time actually teaching and not developing materials that do not yet exist, etc.

Additionally, how long, realistically, will an iPad last in the hands of school children, even vigilant ones? Most hardware is considered to be obsolete or nearly so in three years. The iPad is unlikely to take three years of 24/7 abuse anyway, but if it did, it would be nearly obsolete. The school that bought books can still use most of them them (literature, math, natural sciences, foreign languages, etc.) for a few (or several) more years. The math in the story just does not work out.

More impotently, U.S. children lag behind 32 other countries in the world in reading, including places like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, (all right above us). You can be sure that Finland and Canada (2 &3), aren't giving kids iPads to use in school. We are 27th in Math and 22nd in science. None of these scores will be improved by iPads.

This is smoke and mirrors. I love technology -- buy my ibooks -- but we should use it to make our lives better, not simply because it is the latest thing and we think it's cool.