Applying to Grad School — The Interview

23 Jul

The application interview for prospective graduate school students can make the difference between being a contender on paper and actually getting accepted.

It is important to be 'ready' for a graduate admissions interview. Consider at least a few practice sessions before the big day.

It is important to be ‘ready’ for a graduate admissions interview. Consider at least a few practice sessions before the big day.

Today, Wise Words concludes a 3-part series on applying to grad school with a look at the interview and the potential value of participating in academic conferences. In Part I, we focused on the importance of self-awareness and gathering information about potential schools before applying.
In Part II, we examined the admissions essay, test and letters of recommendation.

“You should consider the interview as an opportunity to provide the individual or committee interviewing you with as much information as possible, while also trying to stress your strengths and weaknesses,” says Shirley Jackson, graduate school coordinator for the Sociology Department at Southern. “Therefore, you should really think about how you might respond to various questions.”

One way to prepare for the interview is to ask a friend or someone you trust to throw questions your way in a mock interview setting. It can be even more effective if that individual has strong interview skills, or is familiar with the types of questions a college or university may ask an applicant.

Jackson suggests this Web page at Catholic University that provides examples of the types of questions that may be asked during the interview.

“Remember, an interview for graduate school is much like an interview for a job,” she says. “You are trying to sell yourself as the best candidate for admission and the department is trying to sell itself as the best option for someone who is looking at a number of possible programs.”

Be Part of the ‘Conference Scene’

Academic conferences abound in higher education – in almost every discipline. While professors and graduate students generally participate in greater numbers than undergrads, there are opportunities for everyone to participate.

At Southern, undergrads often team up with faculty members on interesting and valuable research projects. This is beneficial for many reasons, including the visibility and notoriety gained through being associated with scholarly research. “There are even undergraduate research conferences to help to familiarize the novice conference attendee and participant,” Jackson says.

“Once you learn to navigate the ‘conference scene,’ it will become something that is enjoyable and less intimidating,” Jackson says.

And Finally…

Be prepared to make a time commitment when searching for a graduate school. “Applying to grad school can be like having a part-time job,” Jackson says. “It takes a bit of work to find a program that works for you.”

Indiscriminately getting into any program – without doing your homework and figuring out what you want to pursue — may not be a good idea because the chances of completing the degree are reduced, she adds.

But finding the right program and the right school can be valuable to your career and your future. A little effort now – okay, sometimes a lot of effort – can pay big dividends later.

Good luck in your search!

Applying to Grad School — The Essay, The Test, The Letters of Recommendation

9 Jul

The undergraduate college essay can be a source of stress for prospective students. Many of us can relate to the angst of trying to put together an “admissions-winning” composition.

The same often holds true for students writing an essay as part of their application package for grad school.

In Part I of this 3-part series, we looked at the importance of self-awareness and gathering information about potential schools before applying to graduate school. Today, Wise Words explores the admissions essay, admissions tests and letters of recommendation — three crucial components of the application process.

The application process for graduate school involves many of the components as at the undergraduate level -- and can be just as stressful.

The application process for graduate school involves many of the components as at the undergraduate level — and can be just as stressful.

Shirley Jackson, graduate coordinator of Southern’s Sociology Department, recommends that students write their graduate school admissions essay in a scholarly fashion. “I constantly tell my (undergraduate students) that when they write assignment or papers, they should write in a scholarly fashion and to revise their work,” she says. “I do that for good reason. Both a scholarly style of writing and a heavily revised essay are key to writing the graduate school essay.”

While her next suggestion may be a given to most prospective graduate students, it may be necessary to remind a few folks, especially in this day of electronic access to all kinds of materials.

Do not use websites that offer to write personal essays for a fee. In addition to a person’s honesty and academic integrity being at stake, pragmatically it doesn’t make sense to risk your reputation with another person’s work. “There is a good chance someone will find out, and your career as a graduate student can be over before it begins.” Jackson says.

Instead, Jackson suggests buying a book that can be helpful in writing the essay. “Bookstores have sections on graduate and professional schools in their reference section,” she says. “Check through their shelves to see what may be most helpful to you.”

Admissions Tests

Jackson points out that many grad programs will require taking a particular type of admissions test (GRE, LSAT, etc.) as part of the admissions process. “The test scores may not alone result in admission, but they are usually considered with the rest of a person’s application materials (essay, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.)”

One of the most often required tests for grad study in the social sciences and business schools is the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). It is offered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The following link provides information about the admission tests:

http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about)

Those considering law school should prepare for an extremely competitive process, according to Jackson. She suggests the following link from the Law School Admissions Council for information about the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test): http://www.lsac.org

Some people are better test takers than others, of course. Jackson says those who are not good test takers should consider taking one of the preparation courses offered by Kaplan or Princeton Review, or checking whether there are sample test questions available through the test administrators for your particular entrance examination. Bookstores also have a large selection of test preparation books.

Letters of Recommendation

Just as you should do during the undergraduate school application process or with a job opening, give the people you are asking enough time to write a thoughtful letter. “These letters will carry a great deal of weight, especially if they can help offset weak test scores or a low GPA,” Jackson says.

She suggests:

*Choose your letter writers carefully. It may not be enough to have someone write a letter to simply say that you have received an “A” in their course, especially if the course is not related to the major or does not draw upon the skills necessary to show your potential as a grad student.

*A letter from a professor who taught a class in which you earned a “B” might be a good candidate under certain circumstances.

*Consider letters from professors who taught courses where much writing was required, or in which you wrote a research paper.

*Think about seeking letters from those professors who know you well. Do not be offended if a professor declines to write a letter. The professor may simply not know you as well as you think, or perhaps may not believe they can write a strong enough letter to support your application. If that happens, simply seek out another professor.

*Employers may also be good options, especially if they can speak to your level of commitment, positive character traits and ability to work well with others.

Coming Soon:

Part III — Admissions Interviews and Other Words of Wisdom

America’s ‘Real’ Birthday

1 Jul

While we prepare to celebrate Independence Day on July 4, you might be interested to know that the Second Continental Congress actually approved a resolution declaring the United States an independent nation on July 2, 1776.

Many historians contend that America's actual date of independence is July 2, 1776.

Many historians contend that America’s actual date of independence is July 2, 1776.

In fact, John Adams originally thought that would be the date that we commemorate each year.

“What are you doing for the Second of July?” could very easily have been the question we ask our friends around this time of year.

So, how did July 4 become the national holiday?

Check out a previous post that offers some trivia about our nation’s birthday. Some of the factoids may surprise you.

Happy 4th! And Happy 2nd, too!

Applying to Grad School — Tips, Pitfalls and Self-Awareness

20 Jun

The rigor of the undergraduate college selection/admission process is well-known.

But if you ask people to explain what it takes to select and be admitted to graduate school, you are likely to get a sea of blank stares. After all, even in well-educated Connecticut, only about 16 percent of the population attains a graduate or professional degree.

Applying to graduate school -- and finding the right program -- is often more time consuming and involved than people think.

Applying to graduate school — and finding the right program — is often more time consuming and involved than people think.

“Many students do not consider graduate school as an option until their last year of undergraduate study. This leaves students with only one semester in many cases to prepare the application for graduate school,” says Shirley Jackson, graduate coordinator for the Sociology Department at Southern. She recently presented a workshop called “Everything You Need to Know About Applying to Graduate School Workshop.”

Today, Wise Words begins a 3-part series on navigating the graduate school process for the first time. Jackson offers her recommendations in each post.

Part I:

The first thing that a potential student should consider is whether they should go to grad school, and if so, why. She says while people are familiar with the sometimes painstaking process of getting into the undergraduate program of their choice, choosing and applying to graduate schools also requires time and attention.

“The process of applying to graduate school should not be taken lightly,” Jackson says. “It involves a lot of work. You should spend time researching programs of study, universities, faculty and funding opportunities. Information is readily available via the Internet, through bookstores and your department.”

She suggests that prospective graduate students contact the schools that they are most interested in, as well as ask those schools about the possibility of talking with graduate students currently in the program.

Jackson recommends reading “Best Graduate Schools” in U.S. News & World Report to get an idea of the strength of a school’s program. She also says this U.S. News link offers valuable information for potential grad school applicants:

Jackson notes that competition can be more intense at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level. “A much smaller number of students are admitted into graduate programs,” she says. “You are in competition with students from all over the state, nation and/or the world.”

As a result of the competition, Jackson offers two handy suggestions:

*When considering graduate school or professional school, do not limit yourself to applying to one school. You should apply to as many schools as you can afford and reasonably expect to be a successful candidate for admissions.

*Familiarize yourself with the requirements for admission and then work to go beyond these minimum requirements to increase your chances for admission.

(Southern’s School of Graduate Studies is holding its spring open house from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 23, at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Several new program offerings will be showcased.)

Coming soon:

Part II — A look at the graduate school essay, admissions tests and letters of recommendation

Avoid Stumbling Upon the Plagiarism Monster

9 Jun

As students approach the end of the school year/semester, you can sense the anticipatory joy that fills the school hallways and classrooms. But this time of year also often brings with it the anxiety of finishing term papers and theses.

Trying to write an “A” or “B” paper can be challenging enough, but figuring out what to footnote and what not to footnote can be a tedious, even painstaking process. Yet, it’s a crucial component of the writing process if you want to avoid plagiarism, an academic cardinal sin that can derail a person’s college career.

It is better to err on the side of citing, rather than not citing, information on an academic paper to guard against plagiarism.

It is better to err on the side of citing, rather than not citing, information on an academic paper to guard against plagiarism.

Wendy Hardenberg, instruction coordinator at Southern’s Buley Library who also teaches a freshman Inquiry class, says a surprising number of students don’t have a clear understanding of what plagiarism is when they first get to college. As a result, some students actually commit plagiarism accidentally.

“It’s still bad even if you didn’t mean to do it,” she says. “In fact, consequences of plagiarism can range from getting a poor grade on an assignment to failing a class outright.”

And the consequences don’t always end with your academic career. “You can actually lose a high-profile job years in the future because someone finds that you plagiarized your dissertation,” Hardenberg says.

“Plagiarism basically means presenting someone else’s ideas and/or writing as your own,” she says. “If you found something somewhere else, you have to tell your reader!”

Hardenberg offers a few clarifications and tips on avoiding plagiarism:

*Cutting and pasting a quote from someone is fine — as long as you put their words in quotation marks and indicate where you found the quote.

*You can paraphrase instead of quoting directly, but paraphrasing also has to be cited. And paraphrasing does not mean just changing a few words. If you find yourself only changing a few words, you might well be better off using a direct quote.

*Remember, if you can Google the quote, your professor can, too. And many professors have lots of experience checking on whether quotes or parts of a paper were “lifted” from another source without attribution. This is especially true in this era of electronic media.

*Copyright infringement and plagiarism are not the same thing. Copyright infringement is a legal issue, while plagiarism is an academic honesty problem.

*When in doubt, cite it!

(Incidentally, Hardenberg recently competed on Jeopardy!, where she placed a close 2nd to a defending champion who had been victorious on 20 consecutive shows. Check out an article that appeared in the New Haven Register before the show aired on May 30.)

Train the Brain

22 May

Everyone has stress in their lives. And the sources are many.

It can be the seemingly endless nights of crying babies; the increased job workload in which you think you’ll never get your head above water for the foreseeable future; or the anxiety of upcoming SATs or final exams.

But regardless of where it is coming from, stress can easily beget more stress — unless you take the time to slow down, figure out why your heart and mind are racing, and take constructive action.

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, explains that the increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other common symptoms of anxiety, are related to the region of the brain that responds to stress.

“The limbic system – which is a primal and very old part of the brain — interprets stimuli using your five senses to determine whether you are in danger,” Zack says.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Even though not getting your report finished on time or being 10 minutes late for your next appointment is unlikely to result in bodily harm or terrible consequences, these kinds of episodes can trigger the primitive part of the brain to trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

“This part of the brain has been conditioned to interpret everyday interactions in much the same way a caveman would respond to life or death situations with a saber-tooth tiger,” Zack says. “The amygdala (a part of the brain) determines that a situation is stressful or dangerous and releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones into your system. That automatically sets off a cascading series of physical and emotional responses that can be very distressing.

“This can occur periodically or chronically and leave an individual feeling overwhelmed. Aside from the immediate results of these hormones raging through our blood and increasing tension, the long-term effects can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being.”

Zack says that over time, a patterned way of responding to similar stimuli or situations can develop. “The neurons that begin to fire together are now wired together, and an individual may feel powerless to change it.”

She notes that when the limbic part of the brain is stimulated, it makes it much more difficult for a person to engage in logical or rational thought. But by taking a deep breath and thinking about what is happening, people can access the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for rational, logical thought.

To access the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, Zack recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • Is this an old pattern (of physiological or psychological response)?
  • What is my emotional reaction beckoning me to work on?
  • Given my insight, what are my options in addressing the stressful situation?

She says this type of thinking can begin to “rewire” the brain.

“When the pre-frontal cortex is being used, more blood flow is sent to that region and by default, less blood flow is sent to the limbic region of the brain,” Zack says. “In addition, new neural pathways are formed because the individual is now thinking about their response, as opposed to simply having a reaction.”

Don’t Forget to ‘Take 5 (or 10)’ Amid Studying for Final Exams

7 May

It’s that time of year again — the weather turns warmer, the grass is green and the birds are chirping in the morning. But if you’re a student, these picturesque spring days can be accompanied by a knot in your stomach as you work to finish term papers and prepare for final exams.

For most college students, early May is crunch time. High school students generally get a reprieve until after Memorial Day, when the reality of June finals really starts to hit home.

High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.

High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.

Everyone approaches finals week a little differently. Let’s face it – some people are just better at handling stress than others. But it is very easy to get caught up in the moment – studying, writing and fretting for hours at a time with little or no down time. While diligence is instrumental in preparing for finals, it is also important to remember to “Take Five.”

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, points to the importance of students giving themselves periodic breathers despite the frenetic pace that often accompanies finals week. She says that it is important from time to time to take a step back and reflect upon what is actually happening and see the bigger picture.

“Getting ready for finals can be a very difficult time,” Zack says. “It usually means added stress because more time and energy is given to the task of studying, which takes time away from other activities and responsibilities. It is important to remember that you need to take time to be reflective and mindful about how you are managing the added pressure.

“You may say there aren’t enough hours in the day to take just five minutes for yourself. You manage to come up with excuses for not caring for yourself or listening to your body and your needs go unmet. But by now, you also know that your energy gets depleted and your immune system may weaken from the stress. Something must change and the change must originate from you.”

Zack explains that by getting caught up in the worry, the amygdala part of the brain releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones that can raise blood pressure, heart rate and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.

In other words, stress begets stress. And studying when your heart is racing and feelings of worry are stimulated is even more difficult and less effective.

Zack presented a paper last week on this subject at the annual conference of the National Association of Social Workers.

For additional tips on handling the stress of finals week, check out a previous post.

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