Staying Connected

Yesterday, I received an email from a student I mentored a few months ago. He wrote to share the good news that he had been accepted into his ideal program. I’m always happy to see emails like that in my inbox. And, it’s a very smart thing for students to do.

It’s great to express your appreciation for the people who helped you succeed. You did most of the work, but the people who nudged you in the right direction are happy to know you’re grateful for their assistance. Your email makes your instructors, professors and mentors happy, and it also means you stay fresh in their minds. It makes you memorable. That’s key to creating and maintaining a strong network.

Now that I’ve had an update on where that student will be studying, I’ll be more likely to think of him when I hear of events he might be interested in or opportunities that could benefit him.

The bottom line: maintaining friendly, professional communication with those in your academic life shows them you’re the sort of person who values their assistance, it keeps you fresh in their mind, and it encourages them to think of you when opportunities arise.

It just makes good sense. And, many studies have shown that the simple act of expressing gratitude makes YOU happier. That’s what I call a win-win situation.

The Power of the Nap

My love for a good afternoon nap has the power of a million supernovae.

Napping is a fact of university life, and it pays to know how to maximize your mid-afternoon slumber.

Take a look at this article by Robbie Gonzalez on He gives a solid introduction to different kinds and lengths of naps and how they affect us. The section on “sleep inertia” is especially interesting. We all know sleep inertia. That’s when the nap that was supposed to refresh makes us feel instead like we’re half zombie.

Gonzalez also provides a range of links you can use to dig deeper into your sleep strategies.

Quick Fixes for Conciseness (Examples)

One of my recent posts introduced the concept of writing “concisely,” meaning eliminating unnecessary words.

Here are a few more examples.

1] Not concise (some people say “wordy”):  this research sheds some light on

Quick fix:  this research illuminates

The word “illuminates” is powerful and precise and replaces the four words “sheds some light on.”

2] Not concise:   she researches various types of categories of minerals

Quick fix:  she researches categories of minerals

The words “various types of” add no additional meaning to “categories” and so should be deleted.

3] Not concise:  they sat in a circular formation

Quick fix:  they sat in a circle

Isn’t a “circular formation” just a “circle”?

4] Not concise:  the paper puts the emphasis on

Quick fix:  the paper emphasizes

Same meaning, 50% fewer words.

If you have interesting examples of ways you’ve made your own writing more concise, please share them as a comment!

Rethinking Passion

You’ve almost certainly heard this before: Studying something you’re passionate about is the best way to ensure your success!

As an academic mentor for university students, I’ve proclaimed the merits of passion often.

It’s true that a passionate interest in your field of study makes university life, and then your career, a lot easier. The happiest people I know are the ones who find their work most meaningful. Advocating passion is also a way academic mentors encourage students to listen to themselves first when deciding on a program. You can welcome input from family, professors, and academic counselors, but the choice of what and where to study should ultimately be your own.

Passion is important, but living out your true passion is not always easy. First, you need to possess some natural ability to excel in your studies (and your work), no matter how much you love your university endeavours. And it’s not always popular to say this, but not everyone can do everything. Take me, for instance. What if I became passionate about a life as a ballet dancer? No matter how hard I might work on my leaps, my body is still more Belushi than Baryshnikov, so I’d be out of luck.

It can also be difficult to figure out what you’re passionate about. We’re pushed and pulled by countless forces as students, and that makes decisions tricky. For a while I thought I was passionate about becoming a psychiatrist. I had top grades in high school, and it just seemed like the thing to do to attend med school and then specialize. Next I set my mind on a professorship in Southeast Asian politics. I had two great MA supervisors who believed in me and the lure of opportunity blinded me to my general lack of interest in comparative politics. Part of me always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it took ages before the fog cleared and I could see my goal sharply. Until then, visions of status, wealth and opportunity drowned out my true dream. But opportunities are only truly opportunities if you actually want what they offer.

You should also keep in mind that passions change. Just because something captivated you for a year or two, doesn’t mean it won’t bore you later. After all, you’re not still wearing your Hootie and the Blowfish concert t-shirt, are you?

And remember that passions can develop over time. Even though right now studying psychology may be a distant second place compared to becoming an astronaut, don’t despair if you can’t shake that nasty case of motion sickness; psych could grow on you. (And who doesn’t like a multiple choice final?)

None of this necessarily means you shouldn’t pursue your passion when choosing what to study. It just means life is complex and a lot of factors contribute to your success and happiness.

If you find yourself trapped in a seemingly endless decision about what to study, sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith and pick a program and go for it. And one of the things you should take into account is your passion for a field of study. Just remember that passion isn’t everything. It’s a great start, but even passion must be examined carefully when you’re making important decisions about your future.


The best academic writing provides the most information with the fewest words. This is called being “concise.”

Think of being concise as eliminating unnecessary words.

Sometimes you do this naturally. You’d almost certainly never say this: “The sweater of Brenda is red.” [6 words]

Instead, you’d express the same idea more concisely: “Brenda’s sweater is red.” [4 words]

Although we all speak concisely at times, most writers could trim many words from their writing while preserving the meaning. Concise writing feels much sleeker and effective to readers.

But keep in mind that writing concisely means eliminating UNNECESSARY words. Writing concisely does not mean every sentence must be as short as possible. Sometimes extra words are useful. Here’s a great example. The most famous writing manual written in English is called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.  In Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, Pinker quotes White, a student of Strunk’s, talking about Strunk’s lecture style. According to White, Strunk once, with great pomp and ceremony, iterated his perspective on conciseness:

“Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

It’s funny at first, because nothing seems less concise than saying the exact same thing three times. But I wouldn’t suggest leaving out a single syllable. None of those words are unnecessary, because they make his utterance, through their sheer humorous irony, unforgettable.

Building Relationships that Lead to Strong Reference Letters

Achieving high marks is one critical way success is measured at university, but it’s not the only important factor. One of your other most important goals is making a positive impression on your professors (and instructors). Strong letters of reference are invaluable, especially if you’re hoping to attend graduate school or at least keep the possibility of grad school open.

You can’t expect a stellar reference from a professor unless you have impressed him or her with your maturity and drive. A reference letter is the professor’s way of giving you a personal stamp of approval, and this must be earned. No professor is going to vouch for you to their counterparts at other universities, some of whom may be their friends or future colleagues, unless you deserve it.

Building a strong academic relationship with a professor is one of the best ways to enhance your chance of a glowing reference. They need to have a good sense of the sort of student and person you are before they’ll feel comfortable advertising you to other programs.

It’s a good idea to take more than one class with potential referees. This gives professors more time to develop an awareness of your skills and commitment. If there’s no chance to take a second or third class with a prof, consider joining an academic club they oversee, attending events they organize, or asking if they have volunteer research opportunities available. The better they know you, the better your chance of a reference.

It’s also a great idea to drop in on a professor’s office hours and ask a question or two. I suggest doing this at least once or twice every term with every professor, and perhaps once or twice more if you are hoping they will give you a reference. Attending office hours demonstrates your willingness to take extra time to do well in a class. It’s also a perfect opportunity for professors to connect your name with your face. When you chat with your profs, you’re also encouraging a psychological process called the “mere exposure effect.” Put simply, we tend to like things and people more the more we encounter them.

Of course, finding opportunities to make an impression on a prof only makes sense if you’re working hard to make it a good impression. You want them to perceive you as a hard-working, eager, motivated, mature student. This means you need to:

1] Attend all of their classes.

2] Arrive on time for class.

3] Be prepared for class. Read everything they assign and take notes that include your thoughts on the material. That way you’ll be ready to ask meaningful questions and engage effectively in class discussions. It’s also a good idea to read at least a little of the optional reading. Optional reading is truly optional, but showing you’ve reading some of it alerts a prof to the energy you’re putting into class.

4] Never do the “bare minimum.” Make sure your assignments highlight your research, communication and critical thinking skills. Don’t submit anything until it demonstrates your abilities fully. Professors know when students are putting in a solid effort and when they’re not, and you know which side of that spectrum you need to be on if you’re hoping for a reference.

5] Always be respectful. This means NEVER talk in class, NEVER look at your cellphone, and NEVER do anything on your computer except for taking class notes. Professors notice these things and they consider them rude and disrespectful. How do you feel about people who’ve disrespected you? You’re not likely to want to use your valuable time to write a letter saying how great they are, are you?

And by the way, if you think your masterful acting abilities will convince your prof that you’re diligently recording notes on your laptop when you’re really buying shoes on Amazon, you’re wrong. It’s totally easy to know when people are following the lecture and when they’re not. If you don’t believe me, try it. Stand at the front of class one day and see just how obvious it is when someone isn’t paying attention.

6] Demonstrate your brilliance and passion. Speak up, share your ideas and push your thinking on every topic to the highest level possible. And if you don’t know something important to the discussion, learn it.

Following all of these strategies doesn’t guarantee you a set of amazing reference letters, but it will give you your best chance of securing the references you need to make your applications competitive.

My Favorite Ambiguity

My previous post highlighted the importance of avoiding ambiguity in your communication.

[Notice that above I could have said, “My previous post was about….”  Instead, I replaced “was about” with one descriptive and powerful word: “highlighted.”]

I want to share my all-time favorite ambiguity. A classmate of mine in university wrote this in a creative non-fiction assignment. He was writing about the interaction between a friend of his and the friend’s mentor. Here’s what he wrote:

“He said, ‘Thank you very much, professor,’ and stroked his beard.”

Can you detect the ambiguity?

It makes me laugh every time. Readers don’t know whether the student was stroking his own beard or the professor’s beard!

I probably don’t need to write a future post explaining that it is not appropriate to express gratitude to a professor by stroking his beard.