Monday, February 1, 2010

Professional Writing Workshop for Undergrads

Today's meeting was to help me develop a "Professional Writing Workshop" for the undergrads I mentor in a club promoting minorities in the environmental sciences (SEEDS - Strategies for Ecological Education, Development, and Sustainability). But before I get to that I want to pose a question to all of you readers; What are the red-flags you notice when reading an email or personal statement that makes you think the writer is unprepared, uninterested, or otherwise a bad candidate for admission to a graduate program?

The two main types of writing I wanted to cover were writing an introductory email and personal statement. In the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology most graduate applicants MUST get in touch with a faculty member six months to a year prior to apply to a graduate program. This is in order to develop a relationship and get the faculty member(s) support for sponsorship. Applicants with good grades but no sponsor are unlikely to get an interview or be admitted.

For the emails I wrote two writing samples, one good and one bad, using Lord of the Rings and Fellowship of the Rings as an example. The recipient of the letters was King Aragon, aka Strider. The writers were Grimli the Dwarf and Boromir the Steward of Gondor. The emails were as follows (slight modifications to improve my Grimli email):
Date: 1 Feb 2010
Subject: Potential member of your Fellowship of the Ring

Dear King Aragon,

Bilbo Baggins and Gloin Longbeard recommended that I contact you about joining your Fellowship of the Ring. I am currently a guard at Ered Mirthin where I protect the mines with my battle-axe. During the 30 years I have guared Ered Mirthin, I have repelled Orc, Trolls, and Balrogs.

My interests are in protecting Middle-Earth from Sauron by destroying the One Ring. I am aware that your tracking skills are vital to this endeavor and I hope to learn from your experiences in tracking to become a better tracker myself. I believe I could add a unique skill, close combat with a battle-axe, to your party and in turn benefit from the exposure to different races and cultures.

Attached is my CV, which includes a list of people who can speak to my qualifications for your party. I look forward to discussing this opportunity with you further. I can be contacted at 555-555-5555 and at the above email address.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Grimli Longbeard

And for the bad letter I threw in a bunch of "Blah blah"s to indicate that if letters get too long professors start to glaze over. In other words, be concise otherwise your letter may get overlooked! To help with this John P. suggested looking at your email in "Print Preview" to check the length.

Date: 1 Feb 2010
Subject: Fellowship

Hello Strider,

My name is Boromir Boer. I’m writing because I think you need me in your Fellowship of the Ring. Well, you don’t actually need, NEED me but I think I could help out alot. Right now I’m a steward of Gondor while we wait for the true king to return to Gondor. I think that’s you right?

Anyways, I think I’d be great for your party because I’m strong and smart. In fact I think I’m the smartest person in Gondor. I want to save Middle-Earth from Sauron and become a hero of Middle-Earth because it’s the right thing to do and I think I am worthy of and capable of doing it because I have lots of experience. I think humanity should be saved because we are great.

For the last 10 years I’ve work with lots of humans to fortify my kingdom. I’ve never worked with Elves or Drawfs, but I think I can teach them alot. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Blah blah about details on specific projects I’ve been a part of Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Blah blah I’m qualified because I’ve taken these specific courses but I’ll give you course numbers instead of course titles cuz everyone uses the same course number. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

If you like I can send you my CV, but I have to write it first so I’ll need a few days.

Thanks,

Boromir Boer

These emails will be presented in tandem. I'll also write up a third fake but more realistic email that the club members and I will improve together from what we learned from these two sample emails.

For the personal statements I wrote a bad personal statement made from an amalgamation of ineffective personal statements that I've read over the past 5-6 years. For the good personal statement I'll be using one of my personal statements for admission into graduate school or for fellowship applications. Prompts for personal statements are usually along the lines of "please tell us what personal experiences have shaped your desire to pursue this path and how those experiences have prepared you." Below is the bad essay:

“Make sure,” I said, “to turn off all the lights before you leave any room.” I was talking to a bunch of 6th graders at Fake Name Elementary School teaching them simple things they could do to save energy and in turn save the world. Even though I’m not the type of person who people would normally think of when they think of environmentalism because I’m an Asian female and not your typical Caucasian male I love the outdoors and I want to save it.

Ever since I was a little girl all I wanted to do was run around barefoot in the back yard catching frogs. I loved frogs. I had frog clothes, frog bedspreads, frog backpacks, and frog books. I knew all the frogs there ever were by heart. Now I want to study frogs for my phD.

At first my parents were appalled that I would play with slimy creepy-crawlers but in the end they said what the heck she’s having fun. After that they encouraged me to be outdoors by sending me to camp where I learned about how most of the water for California comes from snow pack which feeds the rivers that can be dammed and turned in to reservoirs. But I later learned in college that dams can have horrible effects on the environment. They can make it hard for fish to swim up or downstream, they change the landscape, they create habitat for invasive species, and they take water away from frogs by preventing the natural flow in creeks! It just goes to show you that not everything your taught as a kid is true. That’s why I make it a point to tell the kids I teach all the facts about their environment.

But getting back to my parents. They have been great, so supportive. Not all Asian parents would let their let their innocent daughter play in the woods like my parents did. But they were so supportive it’s turned me into a strong woman who can do anything. I’ve traveled all around the world, to Thailand, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Germany. Everywhere I go I try to prove that Women can do anything and be anyone they want to.

For a while my parents wanted me to take over the family business. I tried but I just couldn’t stand being indoors. My feet need to be bare in the dirt and my skin needs to feel the sun. Sure I’d have it made working for my parents and I’d make lots of money, but the environment is so important to me that I want to be a graduate student.

I think I’d be great for this graduate program because I am a strong women from a unique background who can teach other women to be strong. Also being in graduate school will put me in a position of leadership where I can mentor underrepresented minorities and women.

Any comments to improve the good email or make the ineffective email and essay worse are more than welcome. Also, since we didn't get to cover it in class, please also post red-flags. Thanks for all your help today!

2 comments:

  1. Hi Ann! I still think it would be really useful if the third email you give them could be an actual introduction email from a student (with identifiers removed of course). It doesn't even have to be all that bad because after you've done the LOTR examples with them, they should have tools to improve the email somewhat regardless of how bad it is or isn't. Great job today! Good discussion. Thanks!
    Cassandra

    ReplyDelete
  2. The sample good and bad letters look great; a really nice way to launch the whole discussion. I think a progression into an example that makes several of the "red-flag" mistakes but starts off well / isn't obviously the bad one could be a good sequential example.

    Neat approach, I think through the examples your students will be able to distill the good from the bad in a more memorable way than the usual lists of do's and don'ts like ( http://tinyurl.com/y9rja78 )

    ReplyDelete