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GRADUATE ADMISSION ESSAYS

Topic 1: Too many applications!

Academic Research

Question: Right now I am working like mad to finish all of my grad school applications and it feels like it is never going to end. I have almost everything filled out but the admission essays are killing me. All of the schools are asking for different length essays with different details. Is there any way to speed this up? I have five of these things due soon.

Response: The best advice I can give you now is to relax, take a deep breath, and focus on what you need to do. The question you ask is one I hear all the time when it comes to graduate admissions, and I am pleased to tell you that there are some excellent strategies for minimizing your workload while maximizing your chances of getting accepted. First of all, graduate schools are well aware that most applicants apply to five to ten other schools, and that there is a tremendous amount of repetition involved in this process. Therefore, although each school wants something slightly different, they do not check whether you have used the same essay, or pieces of the same essay, in your application to other schools. This means that you are free to cut, paste, and synthesize anything you use in any of your essays for inclusion in any other.

As you pointed out, schools ask for different things, but in the many applications you will find yourself doing, you will notice yourself saying the same phrases time and again, repeating information, and answering questions that, while different, require the same responses. The best way to start is to locate which school wants the longest, most completely thorough essay, and finish this. Then, complete the next most demanding essay, pasting in as many elements as you can from the first. Repeating this process for every essay, always using the relevant material from your previous essays, will make your later essays speed past faster than you thought possible. This cascading method of writing allows you to avoid the tedium of redundancy, while minimizing the time you have to spend. By the time you get to the final few, you will be doing almost no writing at all, merely cutting, pasting, and integrating existing materials.

Under no circumstances should you even consider submitting one essay to all of the schools to which you will be applying! Since they are subtly different, you will either not be addressing the important questions, or you will be providing far too much information in an attempt to answer every question asked by every school! Using the customized cascading approach provides you with the benefits of templating without losing the personalized flavor of each different essay.

Topic 2: Dropping Names

Question: I am argueing with my friend that who you know is more important than what you know for getting into grad school. She doesn’t want to put in the fact that she knows profs from other schools to her admissions essay but I am trying to tell her it only makes sense. Its like anything else in life, if you know people you have a better chance.

Response: Ahh, this is an argument that goes back a long way, and is about a lot more than just graduate admissions essays, but it certainly is a relevant one to have in this context. First of all, let me say that I DO NOT agree that “who you know” is more important that “what you know” when it comes to graduate admissions. You could be the daughter of the department head or the son of the dean, but if you don’t have the required grades and research background, all of your connections will not amount to anything. Merit is still vitally important, and without it, even the president (of the school, or even of the country!) would have a hard time getting you in.

That being said, I do agree that knowing someone in the school to which you will be applying is a definite advantage, and if you have such an association, this is something which MUST be included in your application essay. People are often reluctant to do this kind of “name-dropping” because they feel it is unfair, or they want to succeed on their own merits, rather than because of a connection they are lucky enough to have made. However, when it comes to the dog-eat-dog process of applying to graduate school, please remember that students are striving for every single edge they can get, and that not taking advantage of any angle is a recipe for disaster.

Think of it like this. You are choosing someone to work for your business, and you have a list of hundreds of applications to choose from. All of them could do the job, and even after you have trimmed the pile by increasing the minimum qualifications, you still have more than a quarter of the applicants remaining. At this point, your choice becomes almost arbitrary; you could pick names from a hat and still get a very strong employee. However, you go through the pile and realize you have been corresponding with one of the applicants, and that this person seems quite personable and interested in your company. I don’t think it would be a mistake to choose this person for the position; you know them already to some degree, and you know you are getting someone you will get along with. If you know someone you would like to work with at a given school, make sure to include this in your admissions essay. It gives you a face in a sea of anonymity, which may be the factor which allows you to rise to the top.

POETRY

Topic 1: Rhyming poem due tomorow!! help!

Question: I am really bad a writing poems and I have to pass in one tomorrow in English class but I am really nervous. It is supossed to have a rhyme scheme and I don’t really know what that is and it is too late to ask the teacher. Could someone tell me what it is? And give me an example? The longer example the better!

Response: You have asked a question that will help a lot of people, I think, when it comes to writing and understanding poetry. Whenever most people think of poems, they think of rhyming right away, and you can’t really understand poetry, let alone write your own, unless you know how to order your rhymes. Of course, some people will complain to me that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but I will say that, while this is true, knowing rhyme scheme is still very, very important for any poet. As you can see, from the question, you never know when you will have to make up a rhyming poem on short notice!

Thankfully, almost everyone knows how to rhyme, and which words rhyme with which other ones, so I can skip explaining that (but if you aren’t sure, you need to get this explained to you immediately!). However, knowing how to put rhymes into a given pattern according to a poetic structure or form is not something that comes nearly as naturally, which is why it is something that has to be taught later on in school, whereas rhyme is something most children pick up before they even start kindergarten. There are many ways to arrange your rhymes in a poem, but I will focus on the two most popular ways to make things easy.

In this example, the four lines (separated by a /) have the rhyme scheme AABB: “The little dog/ Inside his log/ Rolled round and round/ Till he was found.” The first two lines rhyme with each other, and the second two rhyme with each other, which is what AABB indicates. You can go through a whole poem repeating this kind of rhyming, and it will sound just fine. Another popular way of arranging rhymes is ABAB, which can look something like this: “I drove my car to school/ But didn’t check the gas./ I feel like a fool/ Because I’m late for class!” The first line rhymes with the third line, and the second line rhymes with the fourth line, which makes the ABAB structure. Using either of these rhyme schemes can lead you to a good poem. Now, it is up to you to write it!

Topic 2: Shakespeare plays are poems?

Question: I just had a class where a student said that all of Shakespeare’s plays are actually poems. But aren’t plays and poems different kinds of writing? Novels tell stories on paper in regular language. Plays tell stories on stage in regular language. Poems don’t tell stories and they rhyme, which Shakespear usually doesn’t. So how are his plays poems? Do they mean that they sound poetic or something? I am finding this confusing.

Response: Although it seems hard to believe, your classmate is correct about Shakespeare. All of his plays are actually composed in verse, or poetic form, and so they are all technically poems. Your confusion, though, is completely understandable, and I think it is based on the ideas of poems, plays, and novels that we have in modern society. The definition of a poem, or poetry in general, goes a lot further than many of us today might think.

If an author needs to tell a story today, he or she will usually put it into novel form, or the form of a play. Poems are usually short works that express something emotional, and have an engaging meaning, but which do not tell a series of connected events. However, if we go back into the distant (and not too distant) past, we find that people used poetry to tell stories even more often than they used prose (or regular language). A poem does not have to be short, and it certainly does not have to rhyme, so this leaves Shakespeare’s plays possible candidates for inclusion under the label of poetry. Poetry is highly structured language, and although rhyme is the most usual arranging feature, there are many others.

In the case of Shakespeare, looking at any single line of his poetry, we notice that a definite pattern emerges, even though it is not obvious at first. Take any line from any of his plays, and count how many syllables it has. Compare this to any other lines, before it, after it, or even in another play entirely. Notice anything? That’s right, they almost always have ten syllables! This might come as quite a surprise, but that is only the beginning. Read any of those lines you have chosen, and then another from somewhere else, and then another. Do you find yourself falling into a kind of sing-song way of reading them, with every second word seeming to come out with more importance or stress than the others? Believe it or not, this is completely intentional, and this is the structure that binds all of Shakespeare’s plays together. This regular pattern of stresses is called poetic meter, and whenever you see (or hear) it, it is a sure sign that what you are reading is certainly poetry.

SPEECHES

Topic 1: Kinds of speeches

Question: I have heard of different kinds of speeches, and I am just wondering what the main types are and what is the difference between them? Are informal and formal different kinds of speeches? What about informational and educational?

Response: Your question is a good one, and should help to clarify this issue for many people confused by the multitude of divisions that can be made in the world of speeches. If you search the web, you will find hundreds of different kinds of speeches, ranging from the toast to the hour-long lecture. By looking at the most basic categories, we can apply some order to this seemingly chaotic field.

The four major divisions into which almost all of the smaller speech-types can be placed are informative, persuasive, entertaining, and narrative. The informative speech involves the presentation of information in as objective a way as possible. Explaining how lightning is generated, or how the structure of government works, are both good examples. A persuasive speech deals with some issue and argues for a certain position or perspective, with the goal of convincing people to adopt the same position. A speech which extols everyone to vote for the Republicans would certainly be an example of a persuasive speech. An entertaining speech can be based on almost anything, but should come off sounding more like an extended stand-up comedy routine than anything else, because the purpose is to delight the audience, not to teach or convince them. The final type, the narrative speech, tells a story, and often takes the form of an extended anecdote or even an oral short-story.

It is important to keep in mind that aspects of one kind of speech can appear in another; your persuasive speech can have entertaining elements, as well as informative. These categories are most helpful when you are first writing your speech, because they help you to underline the speech’s main purpose. Do you need people to understand something, or do you need them to believe your position? Are they expecting a captivating story, or do they want to be amused by your speech? After deciding on the basic speech type, other categories can be considered: should it be written in a formal or informal style? How long should it be? Should it be entirely prepared, based on basic notes, or presented off-the-cuff? The answers to all of these questions depend on two major factors, the first of which is your audience, and the second of which is yourself! Knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you to mould a speech that you will feel comfortable giving, and that others will enjoy hearing.

Question: I am having a really hard time with the start of my speech. I have looked at different ways to start and there seems to be a lot of options. What do you think?

Response: Sometimes having too many choices is more difficult than having too few, and this is definitely one of those times. There are so many different ways to begin a speech, and so much “common wisdom” about the best way to do it, that everything you hear seems to contradict everything else: Start by introducing yourself and greeting the audience; save the introductions for later and start with a joke; begin with a little piece of a suspenseful story to hook your audience; start with a famous quote or dictionary definition to ground your speech in authority…. All of these options are widely recommended, but they are also all mutually exclusive! I am pleased to say that each one has its proper place, and that knowing which one is best for your situation is key to hitting the right tone with your opening.

The traditional opening for a speech runs something like “Ladies and gentlemen…” appended to whoever else happens to be in attendance, which may include judges, teachers, fellow students, and important individuals. After this you introduce yourself, your topic, and then start in on the content of your speech proper. There are times when this opening is appropriate, especially in the case where you are saying all of this to show that you know the proper conventions of greeting and address, like in a contest or in a class. However, notice how formal this is, and how repetitive it can be when a succession of speakers all uses it. If the situation permits using another opening, I would highly recommend it, since this one is so predictable and relatively empty.

Leading with a joke, or a funny story, is a great idea of your speech is on a light topic, or any topic that you plan to treat lightly. However, don’t begin a deathly serious speech with a one-liner; if you plan to tell a sad story about how your best friend died of cancer, nothing will work against the rest of your speech like a funny opening. Starting with a quotation can be useful in a persuasive speech, especially if it comes from a notable figure speaking on your topic, whether for or against your point of view. However, make sure to avoid the common trap of using the most overdone quotations. “I have a dream” was a fantastically effective line in Martin Luther King, Junior’s famous speech, but it has appeared in so many speeches since that it has lost its rhetorical power. A quotation from a dictionary to define a term is often a strong way to begin an informative speech, but you have to be certain the term you choose is not so complex as to lose listeners from the beginning, and no so easy that it really didn’t need to be defined at all. As is the case with most aspects of speech writing, context is the key, and knowing what you are trying to accomplish will provide a good guide to what device you will use to begin.

THESES AND DISSERTATIONS

Topic 1: How many sources?

Question: I am doing research for my MA thesis (100pp) and really don’t know how many sources are appropriate for a document this long. I have never written anything more than 20pp before, so this is uncharted water for me. Is there some acceptable range that I just don’t know about?

Response: Ah, you have come upon one of the most important principles of academic writing: for every formal written rule, there are two informal unwritten ones that are just as important! It is obviously very important to take the guidelines you have been given by your school very seriously – they may be called guidelines, but they are actually rules which, should you dare to break them, will cause you to fail, or at least rewrite your thesis. However, there is a huge mass of understood assumption which forms the bedrock of all academia, theses included.

One of these unstated but certainly understood assumptions is that you should have a given number of sources in a document of a given size. The number is not written in stone anywhere, which would actually be nice, so you have to take your best guess. Let’s look at things in the small scale for a moment. How many sources would you include in a 10 page research paper? At any advanced level, especially at the graduate level, you wouldn’t want to hand this paper in with fewer than 10 sources, taking both primary and secondary into account. On the upper end, 20 would be at the high end of acceptable. If you go below the bottom value, your paper can seem poorly researched, and if you go over the high end, it can seem wholly unoriginal. Simple multiplication would suggest that a 100 page thesis should therefore have from 100 to 200 sources, and this isn’t a terrible range to work with. However, keep in mind that this paper should not look like 10 different papers piled into the same binding, but rather a series of interconnected chapters devoted to the same purpose. As a result, you will have more opportunity to follow a given secondary argument for a greater period of time, meaning you will not have to provide as many new sources. Also, when you consider that the number of primary sources you are using will remain relatively constant regardless of the length of your paper, you can see that 100-200 sources becomes an exaggerated figure. So, depending on your topic and the available materials, as well as your approach, a number between 50 and 125 sources should mark the effective range.

Topic 2: Project already done

Question: I have been researching my topic for three months and I just found a study that I had never heard of that does exactly what I was planning on doing! I feel like I have wasted all this time, and I have no idea where to go from here.

Response: While this isn’t every graduate student’s worst nightmare (that would be getting up to perform your defense and realizing you are naked), it is certainly in the top 10. I know this must be disappointing, because originality means so much in contemporary academics, but there is definitely a bright side to this, and a reason to press forward. My own students often ask me what the purpose of academic research is, and I always respond to them that it is two-fold. First, you want to see what people are talking about in the discipline, and where the arguments are, to give yourself some direction and inspiration. Second, you want to make sure that your best and brightest ideas haven’t already been done, and done better, by someone who has come before you. The academic community thrives on interesting overlap, but what value is there in doing work that has already been done, and saying precisely what has been said already? Not much.

Your research has run you into an unexpected wall, but it has allowed you to become aware of problem two listed above, and to correct it before your project begins in earnest. Imagine how you would feel if you were defending your research, only to have an examiner ask you how your study is different from study X, which is actually identical? You would then have wasted 4-5 years, and felt (understandably!) much worse. Now you are in a relatively enviable position. First, consider how nice it is that you have independently arrived at ideas which have been validated by a professional in the field. Also, the fact that neither your supervisor nor your committee members knew of the work puts you in a position of superior knowledge: you can now use this relatively unknown but related work as a platform from which to launch your own investigations. You must have had some idea about what your original research could be used to find after it was established – go to that next level and count yourself lucky to have given yourself this opportunity! You now get to fast-forward through the research path you had projected, something few students get a chance to do.




RESEARCH AND WRITING IN ACADEMIA

Research does involve a lot of things and in conducting a research study, it is always beneficial to maintain high standards of ethics and try to keep the information presented by the paper to be as accurate as possible. However, is there any chance of conducting a perfect research? That is a weighty question. To answer this question, we first need to know what research is. There are many definitions of research available and one of them states that research is the eternal but sequential process of collection of data from various sources, which is then manipulated, stored or further discussed to suite the topic being covered by the study. The reason why research is endless is because the pool of information is extremely large and there is endless possibility of extending the research done. There is also a myriad of thought-provoking points in each study which provide opportunity for further research to be conducted. For example in a research done on the cause of cancer, every now and then, we hear of new causative agents. These arise due to continuous research being conducted on the topic of cancer.

There are two distinct kinds of research. One is qualitative, and the other is quantitative research. Qualitative research raises a question in the form of ‘how’ and ‘why?’ while quantitative research raises a question in the form of ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. Quantitative research is interested in finding percentages, measures of central tendencies and other numerical measurements to analyze and describe the relationship between the independent and dependent variables while qualitative research is concerned with individual cases and provides greater depths and understanding of each case while looking only at the practical and pertinent information.

A perfect research would need to have testable, verifiable, and unchallengeable results and it should not leave any questions unanswered. Therefore in this sense, a perfect research would need to have an absolute ending which is utterly not possible considering the nature of research. However, this depends on the type of research being conducted and the role of the research. For a qualitative research, in my humble opinion, I think it is not possible to run a perfect research. This is for the simple reason that a qualitative research is involved with analyzing individual cases and this brings a lot of potential for bias. Be it interviewer bias, Hawthorne effect or any other form of bias which is relevant to the research. For example in a study recently conducted on the knowledge, attitude and practices of women attending Huruma sub-district hospital in Johannesburg towards female condoms, the researchers did try as much as possible to minimize the risk of existence of this bias but the research cannot be accepted as perfect since it sets the stage for further research to be conducted regarding the same topic.

In quantitative research, the researcher is interested in using analytical tools to produce results. This includes using measurement instruments and other tools to intensify their results. In a recent research conducted on the safety of drinking water sold by hawkers in Kampala, Uganda, they did use tools which were calibrated to reduce chances of occurrence of any instrumental bias. However, their studies only handled the hawkers in Kampala town center and did not analyze the sources of this water and this left a potential for further research so this research cannot be taken to be perfect.

All research studies are conducted by human beings and there is an agreeable statement that states that “no man is perfect”. Therefore in this context, we can derive that no research can be perfect provided it is done by humans. If machines could conduct research on their own, then maybe, just maybe, we can assume that research to be perfect.




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