Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to trim your essays

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Many people find rewriting to be the toughest part of writing -- here are a few time-honored tricks to help you kill off surplus verbiage.

By Ben Feuer

The New York Times has a fun article today about the importance of editing to good writing.  This is especially true for writing with a word count -- as you do when, for example, you are writing an essay for school!  Most people are able to get something down on paper, but then they have no idea what to do next -- so we have put together some important tips to help you shave excess words.

1.  Avoid redundancy, weasel words, and the passive voice.   To be fair, this is an easy trap to fall into -- after all, it can be hard to come up with exactly the right word to describe the job you did on your most recent volunteering trip to Guatemala, or the look in your boss's eyes when he told you you were getting promoted.  Unfortunately, people try to solve this problem by putting in EVERY relevant word they can think of.  Look out for obvious cases of redundancy -- using synonyms or restating an idea multiple times in slightly different ways.  But also be wary of superfluous adjectives -- your massive, amazing, innovative and revolutionary idea is probably really just a good idea with too many clothes on.  And above all, those words that people write when they are coming around to the thing they mean to say but not quite wanting to say it until they finally get to the sentence's end -- that's called the passive voice.  It stinks.

2.  Get fresh eyes.  Not your mom, not your best friend, not your coworkers, not alumni.  Those people have agendas.  You want someone who knows nothing about your subject matter and ideally, nothing about you -- because that person is as close as you're likely to get to the perspective a real admissions officer will have on your essay.

3.  Cover less ground.  Essay writing is not informational, it's persuasive -- forget trying to give a comprehensive account of your actions, or your time at a company.  Focus on one tiny sliver, one simple story, with powerful emotional roots, like the moment you convinced your boss to hire his first gay employee, or the time you finally got healthier options added to the lunch menu.

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Make self-evaluation work for you

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Sarah Lawrence has a new evaluation rubric -- but it's not only useful for teachers.  You can use it to review your application.

By Ben Feuer
Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts school whose primary distinction is being the most expensive school in the United States, has "invented", or at least revived, a system of evaluation that serves as an alternative to grades.  They have chosen six categories they feel cover the most important qualities a liberal arts education provides. 

 The good news is, these six categories aren’t just useful for assessing students currently in school — they’re also top qualities employers look for in employees and admissions committees look for in prospective students, and therefore, they are great things to think about when you are trying to distinguish yourself from a pool of candidates in (for instance) a school application.  So take a look over these six criteria and see whether you can find instances of them in your own life — then think about whether you can pull stories from that. 

1.  Thinking analytically.   This is the bread and butter of a liberal arts education — basically, it just means that you don't accept things at face value -- that you turn them over, examine them from a range of perspectives and (hopefully) come to inventive and informed decisions.  You can certainly demonstrate strength in this area by choosing stories that highlight this ability, but you can also show your ability to analyze yourself by explaining, in a clear headed and sensible manner, why you chose to pursue certain courses of action or make certain choices.  Essays about your favorite XYZ or a major dilemma you faced are great for this kind of thing. 

 2.  Communicating effectively in writing.  You can demonstrate this simply by writing your essays well and presenting strong, well thought out, persuasive arguments — but you can also look to your recommenders to bolster this aspect of your candidacy. 

 3.  Exchanging ideas effectively orally.  With the rise of video essays and the continuing importance of in-person interviews, your ability to confidently and persuasively make a case for yourself without being brash or overbearing (or fading into the furniture) is definitely worth a couple of practice sessions with a Forster Thomas interview coach. 

 4.  Bringing innovation in your work.  This has (fairly) obvious ramifications for talking about leadership, volunteering — it might play into peer recommenders as well (remember that these qualities may be qualities your peers see in you and can use to recommend you!).  Put simply, you have to first explain the situation, then the typical way it was addressed before you showed up, and then explain how you altered the pattern or broke the cycle.  And it doesn’t have to be a huge change like revolutionizing the way your internship office handled its workflow.  It can be about how you found a more effective way for your family to have Thanksgiving together too.  Innovation is innovation. 

 5.  Thinking independently.  When everybody went one way, I went the other.  That kind of action takes courage.  Again, this can be in the context of leadership, but it doesn’t have to be.  Sometimes simply expressing yourself — artistically, socially, intellecutally — constitutes independence, especially if no one else is speaking up.  Sometimes it’s going to bat for someone else, someone in trouble like a brother or a best friend, someone you care deeply about.  You may see their actions in a different light than everybody else does. 

 6.  Taking and acting upon criticism.  This is a natural fit for a failure or setback essay or prompt, but it can also work in the context of leadership, or even diversity.  The key is to understand that in order to make good use of criticism, you first have to hear it in a useful way, and then figure out how to translate it into something you can take action on.  In other words, you need #1 to do a good job of #6.  But if you are sitting on a great story about how you impressed a person you had previously disappointed or offended, or if you have an example of when you let a colleague down but were able to come through for another colleague (or the same one!) in a different situation, it could definitely speak to your ability to take criticism and make good use of it. ---- Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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Just as social profiles are becoming key tools for employers, your target schools are also considering your online presence when you apply.  Here's how to manage what they see.

by Ben Feuer

It's a weird new world -- just a few short years ago, a resume was the be all and end all of your professional life.  Now, nearly anything is fair game, and not just for employers, either.  Surveys show 30 percent of admissions officers are checking up on what you do online, and that number will only grow.  So here are a few Forster-Thomas-style tips to help you manage your online presence.

1.  Don't whitewash.  White's NOT your color.  In all seriousness, though, one of the first things you'll read online is to delete all sorts of pertinent, identifying information like your religious and social convictions and causes.  Well, don't.  Remember -- you WANT admissions to get to know you better, and seeing what you stand for is a great way to make that happen.  Of course, use your best judgement -- that keg stand you pulled off last week might NOT look quite so impressive to Harvard.

2.  Be logical, be consistent.  Wherever possible, purge irrelevant or misleading details or elements of style -- they may lead a reader who does not know you well down a rabbit hole you'll have trouble getting out of.  Consider what your TOP links on Google are -- are they representative?  If not, can you try to push up some content that is, by updating it or refreshing it?  Are your social media presences well managed -- do you have outdated or inaccurate information in some old profile setting you forgot about?

3.  Be lovable.  Love is a greater motivator than fear, and ultimately this process is about falling in love -- you with the school, and hopefully, them with you.  So don't post a lot of negative, flaming comments (especially if they're true), and don't get a rep as a can't-do person or a naysayer.  Project your best self -- an image that is active, engaged, thoughtful and caring.

4.  Friend means friend.  The last thing you want is to content with ridiculous wall posts or junk Zynga game invites all over your profile because you friended someone who doesn't get tha interwebz.  Keep your friends close and unfriend your enemies.

Don't wait until you apply -- start taking action NOW.  Some of this stuff may take time to filter out of internet search caches and the like.

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As educational consultants, we hear it every day in one form or another -- isn't it the school's job to pick the best people, and can't they see that I'm one of them?



By Ben Feuer

One of the few real positives to come out of the Apple/Samsung patent war happened yesterday, when Apple engineer Greg Christie delivered a seemingly obvious but remarkably deep observation.

When designing products, Apple keeps in mind that it wants “normal people – people with better things to do with their lives than learn how a computer might work – to use the product as well as we can."

It's one of those quotes you glide over, thinking to yourself, 'oh sure, well of course, everyone tries to do that'.  And to a certain extent, you're right.  Everyone does try to do that.  And almost everyone who tries fails.  

A similar phenomenon, believe it or not, happens when people apply to school.  Everybody knows that the purpose of an application is so the school can determine whether you are a great 'fit' or not on campus.  But most people, when they actually sit down to WRITE their application, are thinking about nearly everything EXCEPT demonstrating a good fit.  They're worrying about getting their recommendations in on time, staying under word count, sounding smart, picking nifty colored envelopes -- but not that simple, insidious slogan -- am I making my case clearly, concisely, and consistently?

So what should you do about it?

1.  Figure out what your primary strengths are and list them.  No really, write them down in a list.
2.  Search your application.  Where are these strengths on display?  Are you being direct enough?  If you're a great leader, have you given enough concrete examples to show leadership?  If you're passionate about the law, have you demonstrated passion through the examples in your personal statement and resume?
3.  If necessary, ask a friend.  Heck, ask an enemy if you have to.  One of the hardest things to do is see yourself clearly.  Enlist others's help in making sure your history is conveyed in a persuasive and direct manner. 

Pull this off and your candidacy can be like an iPhone -- designed to look effortless.

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Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.


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Still struggling with your personal statement?  Take a tip from Buzz Lightyear on how to make it memorable. 

By Ben Feuer

Ed Catmull, a head honcho at the fabulous Pixar studios, has a new book out about management and creativity.  In an article for Fast Company, Ed discusses some of his management (and storytelling) techniques, particularly Pixar's reliance on their 'braintrust', a small group of professional storytellers who help the director hash out issues with the story.

 As you sit down to write your personal statement, your leadership essay, or even your cover letter, remember these three key tips -- Pixar-derived, Forster-Thomas approved!

1.  Be Wrong Faster.  Many candidates take far too long agonizing over a decision when, ultimately, there is no way of knowing for certain which approach is best.  Just write it and figure out later if it was the right choice.  If not, you can always go back and try again.

2.  You Don't Have Perspective.  When candidates are in the middle of writing their essays, they lose perspective.  It is inevitable.  When that happens, they need honest feedback to set them back on track.  Which leads us to #3 --

3.  Honesty is Everything.  Candidates who attempt to sugarcoat their personalities or inflate their accomplishments to score points on an application are only fooling themselves.  Just tell the truth -- to paraphrase Mark Twain, this will will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Simple, right?  Good rules of writing usually are.  The challenge is actually pulling it off, but it's worth the extra effort.  As Ed Catmull reminds us, great design is its own reward.

 

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If you are an MBA applicant looking for the next amazing entrepreneurship opportunity, forget Silicon Valley -- Beantown's where it's at.

By Ben Feuer

As someone currently living in Boston, I may be a little biased when I say this, but this city deserves more credit.  And perhaps it's finally getting it.  According to a new BBC article, Beantown may well be taking its rightful place beside New York City and Silicon Valley as an innovation hub. Not that that would be news to famous Boston innovators like Ray Kurzweil, innovator in OCR and music.  For them, this is merely an acknowledgement of what has long been true -- Boston is one of the most educated and intelligent cities on the planet.

Now, new tech companies like Spritz are choosing to make their home in Boston rather than flee to the West Coast.  Spritz, which promises to increase reading times by saving your eye the effort of scanning a page of text, has a cool tech demo on their homepage, and if it works, it could be particularly useful for our law students, who seem to spend half of their waking hours reading and taking notes.

Spritz, by the way, is from MIT.  MBA applicants take note -- if you have entrepreneurial ambitions and you have even a passing interest in tech, how can you NOT love this school?  And if for some reason you don't, you have more than 100 other options available to you.

Yeah, New York and LA are great.  But don't forget about Boston!
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To reveal or not reveal other awards? That is the question.

During this time of year—and more and more, during this economic climate—my accepted students revisit, meet with, and ultimately follow-up with financial aid appeal letters to their top-choice colleges and universities, asking for more financial assistance. And why not? It never hurts to ask—especially if you are a top, sought-after candidate at that college. Right?

Maybe. All too often, the request from the college-of-your-choice is the same:  “Please attach the offers you have received from the other schools to which you were accepted.”

So what should you do? Is it ethical for your first-choice school to see what other institutions have offered? Is it anyone’s business? Should you ignore the request?

Let’s work through these questions for some peace of mind.

Recently, a student of mine who was accepted to her first-choice private university, and offered $10K per year. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough. What she needs is $15K to make it possible for her to attend without taking a job. After her second visit to the campus, the financial aid office asked her to reveal the other colleges’ offers. That’s when my student asked me, “What should I do?” After all, no one had offered her $15K. Her second and third choices offered her $11K and $13K respectively. She was worried she had boxed herself in.

Are you in a similar situation? Have you already met with the financial aid office? If so, here are a few questions you might be asking yourself:

If my first-choice college—the one I want the $15K from—sees the lower offer from another school, are they likely to meet it or beat it? What is the benefit of showing them a better offer? Isn’t it like showing your poker hand?
 
Should I reveal the lower offer, but explain that although my first-choice college is A, I will have to go with College B—a great school, but not the one I have my heart set on?

Since it’s my number one choice, should I just take the 10K offer and figure out a way to make up the difference? Work at Starbucks or the bookstore?

Obviously, you get that all of the questions depend on how bad you want to be at your number-one choice, here are some responses from the wisest colleagues in the admissions biz.

First off, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples—make sure the tuition is frozen for the next four years—meaning the colleges you received financial awards from are similar in rank and style…

1. Go ahead and show your number-one that better offer from the other schools. All colleges base their calculations on the same federal methodology, but alter their offers based on their particular financial policies. So, seeing a higher offer just might get you the extra $ you need. If the margin is small, my colleagues assure me, your top-choice will adjust their original offer to match the other schools.  But make sure you’re only sharing the letters of “comparable” schools…for example, a highly selective college won’t care that you got a full ride from a local “suitcase school.”

2.  When you’re sending in that “please, sir, I want some more” request, make sure you do it with grace and respect. Express your regret at even having to make the choice between your number-one and the other schools.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If your number 1 is really your number 1—has the programs, the people and the professors you want—then rise to the occasion and don’t let a few thousand dollars come between you and dream school. Who cares if you spend a few hours a week in college asking “would you like fries with that” if you’re set up for the career you’ve wanted?

Finally, I’d go with what Nirav Mehta, the associate director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said when I asked him the above three questions:

“I believe the other offers should be revealed, as requested by the Financial Aid Office. But it's equally important to highlight the real financial need without an adversarial approach. Financial aid officers are interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation will be the most effective approach. I have seen modifications in the financial aid package with this kind of approach that focuses on the need, especially if [you’re] academically stellar.”

Thanks, Nirav!
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Bottom line: It never hurts to ask, and honesty is the best policy.

Best,
Auntie Evan

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Forster-Thomas interview skills expert Jani Moon offers ten great tips on how to conduct a powerful, sexy, persuasive MBA admissions interview.

By Jani Moon


In case you missed it, yesterday I explained in detail how to have a mind-blowing sexual encounter – I mean, MBA interview. Actually, I explained both at the same time. Check it out. And then come back here for the after-party – ten essential tips that will make you irresistible in an admissions interview.

1. Get my attention. I'm HBS. I'm the hot chick in the room, and I know it. If you do not get my attention, you won't get anywhere with me. So start with a dramatic introductory fact, question, statistic, quote, or thought. Make sure you've practiced it in front of a mirror and can deliver it well. If it's good, it will hook me.

2. Give me foreplay. Here's a little open secret about us girls – you have to lower the drawbridge BEFORE you storm the castle. Set up the story. Give me the time and place. Introduce the cast of 'characters' I need to know. Present the internal or external conflict. An internal conflict is a struggle that you have within yourself and external conflict is one you have outside of yourself.

3. Guide me, but gently. Some like it rough, others like it gentle. But here's something nobody likes – being left uncertain what to do. This is your ride, and you have to be my guide. Tell me a sequence of specific events that build to the conflict and climax. Tease me with details. Use metaphor, simile, personification and the language of the senses to paint a full picture.

4. Reveal your thoughts and feelings. What are you thinking right now? I want to know. No, I'm not just asking, I really want to know! Those kinds of details are exciting! Whatever you talk about in the interview, make sure I know what you are thinking and feeling about it. I will feel more connected to you. You're opening a gateway into your soul, an opportunity for me to relive this specific moment and time with you.

5. Build to a climax. I know it's coming. I've been waiting for it. Don't disappoint me. Instead, dramatically build into your climax. Increase the pace of your voice, use a higher pitch tone, and repeat phrases to build intensity. And don't be afraid to surprise me with a last minute twist.

6. Release into darkness. That's it. You hit the emotional summit. But don't be sad. Instead, be silent. This was amazing. No need to talk about it. Sh-h-h-h. Breathe. Pause. Pause. Pause. Silence is golden.

7. Surrender. When you finally do speak again, don't you dare ask me how it was. Do not seek my approval – your job is not finished yet. Now it is time, softly, slowly, and with total vulnerability, to tell me your deepest, darkest, rawest truth. The one that scares you. That's the one. Your fear, your pain, your dream, your joy, your hidden belief that you are not good enough. That moment will complete our emotional bond.

8. Give empathy. When I participate, offering something in return, be a generous partner. Empathize with my point of view, even if you do not agree. Be kind and accepting and prepared to learn something amazing. Above all, be humble and grateful for the emotional ride and soulful experience that you just shared.

9. Complete. Ok, so we had this earth-shaking, amazing moment. Now what? Don't leave any questions in my mind, or in my heart. Resolve every story, answer every concern or fear I may have (remember, I'm vulnerable here too!). Make sure before you walk away that I am satisfied and I know what the next action should be.

10. Share what you learned. It may not come up, but if it does, you have to be ready. If asked what you learned, thoughtfully reflect on the experience. Tell me how you have changed because of our meeting. Share a valuable lesson. Discuss what you might do differently – next time. Remind me there will be a next time.

Wow! That was amazing. I think I need to take a cold shower now.

Take me on the ride of my life. Interview like you are making LOVE to me and get into the MBA program of your dreams. I dare you.

;)
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Jani can guide you personally! Schedule a consultation to find out how.


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Virtual reality entertainment, education and interactivity open up new possibilities for graduate school applicants. 

By Ben Feuer



The Oculus Rift, headed soon to a living room near you, is more than just another screen.  It is a virtual reality headset that also tracks your body movements.  In other words, it's interactive entertainment brought to a whole new extreme.

Of course, this immersive medium is a natural fit for film (MFA applicants, take note), and MBA students should always be hip to exciting new potential business ventures (VR streaming services, anyone?).  But if you do not see a potential for your future career in this, you're just not thinking inside the box.
Going to earn your architecture M.Arch?  You might wind up designing virtual environments in CAD that people can walk through from the comfort of their own homes.  Medical school?  How about immersive long distance video checkups on patients with limited mobility?  Journalists?  Maybe your next news piece will walk us through the middle of a conflict zone, sensing gunfire erupting all around us.  Psychologists?  You'll probably be stuck comforting the rest of us after we realize that we have no actual in-person experiences anymore.

The future is now!  Bottoms up, and when it comes time to write your personal statements and goals essays, take your blinders off, unless, of course, your blinder is an Oculus Rift.

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Can I Take My Drone to Class, Please?

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By Ben Feuer

Tech toys takes a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous look at the world of technology, and how it continues to interact with (and impact) the educational landscape.

HuffPo posted a new article on February 19th.  The topic?  New trends in tech for 2014.  Pay attention, all you budding entrepreneurs, because HuffPo has the down low on what's hot (hint … not this), and if you're planning to write your MBA goals essay on a technology topic, you should be aware of this stuff.

Most of the usual suspects are there: big data, smart objects.  But the one that caught my eye was drones.

Drones?  Really?

Can you imagine what it would be like if drones ACTUALLY caught on in 2014?  What if we all got our own personal drones, following us to school?  Imagine the possibilities!  They could --

– Carry our heavy books
– Fabricate doctor's notes
– Tase people who annoy us
– Surveil the laundry room, so you can finally find out who keeps stealing your detergent

That's it, I'm sold.  Drones in 2014?  Sign me up.  I mean seriously, what's the downside here?

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