The Last Question of the Academic Interview

Performing convincingly during your in-person or online academic interviews requires careful preparation.

In this first post on the topic, I want to share ideas for what is often the final question from the admissions committee during an academic interview: “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask us?”

This question is especially important since it generally comes at the end of the interview.  Your interviewers are most likely to remember the beginning and end of your interaction (due to what’s called the “primacy” and “recency” effects, respectively), so you want to make sure you have an especially strong answer for this question about questions.

My first and most important suggestion is to NEVER ask about anything that you could easily find on the program’s website. One of your main goals during the interview is to demonstrate that you have selected the program for the right reasons. That means showing your awareness that the program is an excellent match for your goals and interests. Convincing the interviewer of this requires proving that you have researched the program carefully. So the last thing you want to ask is something like, “Is there an internship in this program?” or “What kind of courses will I need to take?”

Ending your interview like that could be a fatal mistake, no matter how well it went up to that point.

The best answer to “Have you got any questions about the program?” is to ask about something that relates specifically to you and that shows you’re considering the program an important part of reaching your specific educational and career goals.

You could say something like, “I’m interested in your program in part because you take very seriously the project of helping students build a network. As a future entrepreneur, this is very important to me. Your website mentions the alumni networking event and two other networking social events. I was wondering if there are other ways you support students in meeting their networking goals?”

This is a great response, because it shows you are thinking carefully about your future in the program, and it demonstrates that you have researched the program thoroughly.

You could also consider asking what sort of jobs recent graduates have accepted. Or, if it’s relevant to you, you might inquire about any special support provided for international students. As long as the answer to your question is not readily available online, and the question relates specifically to you and your needs, then it will be a good one to ask.

My final tip is to always take a paper and pen to your interview, and write your questions on the paper in advance. This prevents you from forgetting them. Make sure to write at least three, because sometimes the answers to one or two of your questions will be covered during the rest of the interview, and you don’t want to be left at the end with nothing to ask about.

Good luck! More on academic interviews soon.

Obtaining Highly Convincing Reference Letters

It’s important to understand that good grades and intelligence are only part of the achievements highlighted in the most convincing reference letters. The ideal reference letter also provides a clear picture of the student’s (or job applicant’s) other abilities. Strong references allow the reader to imagine vividly what it’s like to have the student, or referee, in the classroom or workplace.

In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explains that:

…above a certain level of intelligence, most employers do not seem to be after still more of it. Instead, they claim that they’re after strong work ethic, reliability, self-discipline, perseverance, responsibility, communication skills, teamwork ability, and adaptability to change.

I would add creativity and leadership to the list.

The bottom line is that if you hope to obtain reference letters that attract employers and admissions committees, you need to work hard to develop a comprehensive range of skills that reaches beyond the core of intelligence. And developing these skills is only part of your goal. You must also clearly demonstrate them to your professors and instructors.

This means that you must showcase your enthusiastic participation, ask insightful questions, and help motivate your peers during group work. Just being in class every day and doing well on your tests and papers doesn’t guarantee you excellent reference letters. Intelligence and hard thinking work are absolutely vital, but it takes more to become the type of student who receives stellar  references that open the doors to great jobs and university programs.

The good news is that with some focused effort you can quickly make impressive changes to how professors perceive you. One great strategy is making sure to ask one or two questions every class. And raise your hand to volunteer answers when the instructor asks the whole class a question. Make sure you’re not the team member slumped wordlessly onto the table while everyone else shares ideas. And if you’re given twenty minutes for an exercise, put all your energy into it for twenty minutes. If you work on the exercise for twelve minutes and then browse around on your cellphone, you’re displaying the exact opposite of the qualities you need to impress reference writers.

Don’t let the range of important skills in Nisbett’s quotation above overwhelm you. Remember that you CAN gain all of those skills and qualities, and all it takes is working on it a little bit every day. Then when you’re ready to ask for references, you’ll have professors who are eager to tell the world about your achievements!

Books on How to Write Well

The best books to read when you’re seeking to improve your writing depend on your immediate goals and your skill level. I’ve compiled a list of excellent books about writing with various goals in mind.

1] If you want a quick and accessible book to increase your grasp of the writing basics and help you avoid common writing mistakes and weaknesses, try How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda. (The awkward title is Yagoda’s way of pointing out how jarring bad writing can be.)

2] If you’re confident about your writing skills and want an advanced exploration that incorporates information about how our brains work, I strongly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.

3] For a quick and sharp mentorship in convincing business writing, check out the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner. (The “HBR” stands for “Harvard Business Review.)

4] If you want to put your writing into perspective by understanding trends in academic writing, like what percentage of journal articles in your field use the first person (“I”, “we”), you’ll appreciate Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword.

5] To improve your research skills, look for the detailed explanations of research strategies in The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams.

6] When you’re interested in an acknowledged classic book on writing, look for The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

7] To explore how literary techniques can enhance your non-fiction writing, I recommend Voice and Vision, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Not everyone enjoys books about writing as much as I do, but they can quickly help you enhance your skills. Please leave a comment if you have any other books on writing you’d like to recommend.

Good luck with your writing!

Getting Gritty about Grit

“Grit,” or “perseverance,” is one of the key factors in success. It’s the quality that keeps students motivated and working hard when life is at its most challenging. Put most simply, it means never giving up on your goals and your vision of the future. Grit means focusing on your long-term success. As psychologist Angela Duckworth explains, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Duckworth is an expert on “grit” and her 2013 TED Talks Education presentation gives a quick and clear introduction to the concept of grit and how you can make it work for you. She focuses on children in her talk, but the ideas apply equally to university students.

You can click here to visit Duckworth’s TED Talks speaker page. You’ll find a survey to help you discover how gritty you are already, and a link to Duckworth’s research lab and insight on how to get even grittier.

Increasing Self-Control so You Can Study

In his new book, The Marshmallow Test, psychologist Walter Mischel explains how our self-control is determined by the “hot” and “cold” systems of our minds.

The hot system threatens self-control. It’s impulsive, instinctive, desirous and emotional. It gives us cravings for foods we shouldn’t eat and activities that throw us off our study schedule. It’s the mental system that can make it almost impossible to study when your Xbox is sitting there practically begging you to pick up the controls.

The cool system is slower, rational and thoughtful. It allows you to set aside your urgent emotions and desires and think things through carefully.

Imagine you desperately need to study for your mid-term, but your hot system is giving you powerful cravings to play video games instead, and you’re finding it impossible to sit still and do your work. You might think the cool system is the only way to free yourself from your cravings. You could use the rational cool system to ponder your study goals and calculate the mark you need on the mid-term to get your A. This is a good strategy.

But, when you need to boost your self-control quickly so you can start work before it’s too late, you might even be better off putting your hot system to work for you.

Try imagining logging onto the site for your course and looking up the score for your mid-term and finding it’s 58%. Picture how this torpedos your average and how you’re going to have to re-think your applications to those great grad schools or forget about the big scholarship. Imagine as vividly as possible realizing that your awful mark was caused by playing video games, and picture how stupid you’ll feel for letting yourself waste your valuable study time.

Now your hot system is working for you. You’ll be feeling powerful emotions and instincts that will help convince you to toss the Xbox in the closet and get down to work! The hot system can derail our success, but when used skillfully, it can also boost your self-control and get you right back on the track to excellence.

When to Use a Final Comma in a List

One of the tricky questions about comma usage is how to use commas in a list of items.

For example, should it be:

I love to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.    OR    I love to eat apples, oranges and bananas.   ???

Technically, both versions are correct. But I prefer the second. I try to make my writing as clear, simple and elegant as possible, and part of my strategy is to eliminate anything unnecessary. The final comma in a simple list is unnecessary, so I leave it out.

Sometimes, though, you need to add the final comma to preserve your meaning. Here’s an example I love from Ben Yagoda’s book How to Not Write Bad (the title is a joke, by the way, to demonstrate how jarring bad writing can be).

Imagine a student writing about what he is grateful for. Yagoda shows how the final comma in a list is sometimes not superfluous. There’s a big difference between:

I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.    AND    I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

In the first statement, the student is clearly listing three things for which he is thankful. In the second, he appears to be claiming he’s the offspring of Ayn Rand and God. That final comma sometimes makes a crucial difference in meaning.

You often also  use a final comma in a list of items when the items are longer. Here’s an example:

He returned many items from the storeroom to  their original owners, including a bicycle once ridden by Joe Clark, a colourful kite featured in a film about South Africa, and a white ribbon used to alert troops in World War Two to the surrender of a village.

The final comma improves readability in cases like this.

So, sometimes the final comma is needed. Other times you can use it or not. The most important thing is to keep your use consistent throughout your document. So if you use the final comma in a short list once, use it every time. Or if you plan to leave it out of a short list, make sure you leave it out every time. You can make an exception and plop a comma in there, though, whenever it improves readability or is needed to shape the meaning.

Quick Tips–Boosting Self-Control

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel began studying self-control in children. In a series of experiments that became famously known as the “marshmallow test,” Mischel examined the skills and situations that could make squirmy kids hold off on eating one treat (sometimes a marshmallow) in anticipation of a double treat a little later.

Mischel’s new book, The Marshmallow Test, is filled with ideas on “mastering self-control.” I’ve just started reading it and I’ve already come upon one quick tip you can use to help yourself avoid temptations and distractions so you can study.

I love quick and effective strategies for reaching your goals, and Mischel’s explanation of “If-Then implementation plans” is elegant and powerful. All you need to do is plan ahead, and you’ll increase your self-control in the face of temptation. Make a plan. Tell yourself, for example, “At 5:00, I’ll start writing my paper.” Or “If my phone rings, I will ignore it.” Or, “If I get hungry I’m going to finish my chapter before hitting the kitchen.”

The key is to make the if-then plan before you face the temptation, and practice it until it becomes an instinct.

So simple, and yet it helps. Mischel explains the science behind the strategy and it’s a great read, but you don’t need to know why it works to use the trick to your advantage. Good luck! I’ll bring you more from Mischel soon.