Your Daily Conciseness #1

Write concisely means eliminating unnecessary words. Concise writing is sharp and elegant and provides a great reading experience.

I’m going to share one wordy sentence with you (almost) every day and show how it can be made more concise. Every time you enjoy Your Daily Conciseness, you’re one step closer to mastering clean academic writing with no unnecessary words.

And, it’s fun! (Really, I mean it!)

Here’s Your Daily Conciseness #1:

Not concise:

Smith draws the conclusion that global warming is a threat to 125,000 species of insects.

Concise:

Smith concludes that global warming threatens 125,000 insect species.

See the difference? I removed six words while preserving the meaning perfectly.

Creating an Engaging Tone for Your Academic Writing

The “tone” of a piece of writing can be described as how readers perceive the personality of the writer.

Whenever we read something, we form impressions about the writer. It’s almost like they are speaking to us, like we can hear them in our minds. And the voice we hear reveals a distinct personality.

Some academic writing is overly serious and unnecessarily complex. Reading it feels like attending a dry lecture by a professor who at best fails to connect with the audience and at worst talks down to the audience, as if the crowd is intellectually inferior.

On the other hand, you want to avoid producing academic writing that is too informal in tone. Academic readers expect you to show that you take your ideas seriously and are working hard to express them as clearly and professionally as possible.

The best tone for academic writing makes readers feel as though they are having a conversation with a highly intelligent person who is deeply knowledgeable about his or her topic and who understands that others may not know as much as they do.

Your writing should be only as complex as it needs to be to express the ideas. You should use a strong and specific vocabulary but avoid words that only a few people understand. And make sure to explain any specialist terms (jargon) or lesser-known references or concepts so all adult readers can follow your argument.

Your goal is not to impress readers with fancy and complex language and style, but rather to dazzle them with how clearly and elegantly you express your complex ideas.

The tone I try to achieve in my writing is warm, patient and conversational, serious but not too serious. I want my readers to perceive me as an intelligent person who loves sharing ideas with them. I want to sound confident and convincing, but also like I would listen to someone who disagreed with me.

Setting the right tone takes practice, but once you make it one of your academic writing goals, you can start working toward expressing yourself in a way that creates the best impression in readers’ minds.

Learning More about the MBA at Poets and Quants

I just found a website called Poets and Quants that has a wealth of information about MBA programs. It’s focused on programs in the United States, but it contains valuable information for those seeking an MBA anywhere. There’s also Poets and Quants for Undergrads, so check that out if you’re at that stage of your educational journey. You can find information, for example, on whether your SAT score will make you a competitive applicant.

At Poets and Quants you can ask questions about MBA admissions and GMAT prep. This article could also be very useful for your GMAT studies. It provides a quick overview of free resources online at Khan Academy that can help you prepare.

I’m finished getting degrees, but exploring Poets and Quants gave me an urge to start applying for some top-notch MBA programs.

Avoiding Common Student Mistakes — Timing Your In-Class Exercises

Imagine the following scenario….

There is one hour left in your class. Your professor asks you to do two things. First, spend 30 minutes reading a few of the many posts from a blog she recommends. Then, in the final 30 minutes, practice your writing and thinking skills by creating a short blog post on the same general topic and then email your post to the professor.

You start at 11:00 and at 11:40 you email your blog post off to your professor.

What do you suppose the professor thinks when she receives your email 20 minutes early? “Wow, that student is fast!”??? WRONG!

No, your professor will not admire your speediness in a situation like this. Rather, you’ve sent her a clear message that you’re not putting your best effort into your work. If you completed this one-hour task in 40 minutes, you either didn’t read for as long as requested or you spent very little effort crafting your written submission. Instead of finishing early in a situation like this, you should revise your submission to make it longer and stronger. If you finish that, then read more of the assigned material.

If you truly want to succeed at university, put your maximum effort into everything you do. Use all the time allowed whenever you’re assigned an in-class task. You’re at university to work hard and spend your time improving, not to do the bare minimum on assignments and then spend the rest of the time texting your friends.

At university, as everywhere, effort is rewarded.

Classroom Manners

It’s always helpful to know what your professors and instructors are thinking. Gaining insight into your professors’ perceptions can help you shine in the classroom. It can help you achieve better grades and build your reputation as a committed student with strong potential for success.

Here are a few tips to improve your professors’ perceptions of you and help you avoid frustrating behaviour. These are small things, but everything you do, large or small, contributes to people’s opinions of you. It’s the same in the workplace, the classroom, or anywhere else.

1] When a professor asks you to raise your hand, raise it high to make it clear what you are doing. So if a professor says something like, “Please raise your hand if you have ever taken a philosophy course,” stick you hand right up so it’s easy for the professor to see and for her to count you. Many students when asked to raise their hand lift it about three centimetres off the table. Some barely manage a finger twitch. It makes it impossible for professors to count how many people are answering affirmatively, and it’s frustrating. Don’t make the professor have to waste class time coaxing you “No, REALLY raise your hand.”

2] If you contribute a comment or question to the class discussion and your professor says, “Pardon me?” answer again, but LOUDER. It’s surprising how many students repeat their answer at the exact volume the professor couldn’t hear the first time. If someone can’t hear you, speak up.

3] When the professor says, “Let’s get started,” she doesn’t mean “Let’s get started after you finish your text message and conversation about the Oscars, and then loudly unwrap your snack.” You should be ready to start the instant the professor is ready. It’s just good classroom manners.

Whatever context you’re in, you’ll appear more sophisticated, committed, eager and polished if you work hard to maintain a high standard of behaviour and etiquette.

Academic Interview Questions–Describe One of Your Weaknesses

University applicants are often asked during admissions interviews to describe one of their weaknesses. As in all questions of the academic interview, the interviewer is evaluating your response at two different levels. First, she is assessing the content of your answer, meaning simply the details of your explanation and how clearly and engagingly you express them. Second, she is evaluating what your answer reveals about your creativity, critical thinking and level of preparedness for the interview.

Describing a weakness is a challenging task. You want to avoid highlighting an important weakness that actually threatens your ability to excel in the program you are applying to. The admissions committee will determine those kinds of weaknesses for themselves based on your application package. So stay away from something like, “I know that engineering requires excellent math skills, but I find math very confusing.” You’ll receive high points for honesty, but you won’t improve your chance of admission with that answer.

I encourage students to respond with a weakness that they are currently working to turn into a strength. You might say, for example, something like this:

During my undergraduate studies I found that although I wrote good papers, it took me a long time to complete them, and this made it difficult sometimes to meet all my study responsibilities. That’s why I’m currently completing a university writing course to continue developing my writing skills and make my writing time more productive.

What a great answer! It highlights a genuine weakness, but also demonstrates that you are good at reflecting upon your skills and identifying weaknesses. It also shows that you’re the sort of student who actively seeks solutions to obstacles standing in the way of your success.

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.