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!

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.

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.

Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security [while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.