Jun 062019
 

Why write my essay now?  It’s summer!

What rising high school senior hasn’t asked this question at the end of the highly pressured junior year?  Completing high level courses, perhaps AP or honors, taking ACT or SAT tests, visiting colleges… add in a sport or school play, community service:  this has been a busy year.

Can’t I take a break?

Of course, a breather is important and should be part of a college-bound student’s summer.  Spending some time with friends and enjoying a break from schoolwork are necessary to recharge a student’s batteries.

But targeting the brainstorming, organization and writing of the Comm App essay and the supplemental essays should be part of a rising senior’s summer activities, — even if it’s done under a beach umbrella with a cold soda.

As I mentioned in two previous articles (see below) the essay on the Common Application can make a critical difference in a student being admitted to college:  college admissions officers do read these essays.  This is an opportunity to stand out and become a singular individual, much more than grades, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities.  A student who reveals his/her thoughts, beliefs or personal history in an essay becomes more than the numbers on a transcript.

Crafting a personal essay in a thoughtful, creative way takes time:  time for reflection, brainstorming, writing and careful editing.  Trying to cram the Comm App essay and the supplemental essays into the fall of senior year will likely add pressure to a generally hectic time.

The age-old adage “the early bird gets the worm” really applies in this situation.  Completing the major essay and supplements during the summer frees up the fall for college visits, early admissions or rolling admissions — and can make the critical difference for a student finding a place in a college of his/her choice.

Write the essays this summer and increase your odds — maybe even win the jackpot!

Do College Admissions Officers Really Read the Common Application Essay?

Finding the “Authentic” Voice in a College Admissions Essay

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Nov 092018
 

Last summer PBS launched an initiative called THE GREAT AMERICAN READ,  a six month poll to find the novel most beloved by Americans.  They invited 7,200 people representing a geographical cross section of America to nominate their favorite novel.  The public was invited to cast their ballots for their most loved novel, perhaps one they have read and re-read.  Participants could vote for one book, once a day, as many times as they liked.

Four million votes were cast in a six-month period!

For the critics who say that “no one reads anymore”, or “technology has wiped out the readers in the world” the response to this project provides a boost to the reading community.

While it is true that technology, in particular the internet and social media, has captured the time and attention of millions of people worldwide, there still seem to be vast numbers of readers — of all ages!

And why books of fiction?

The books nominated may be works of a writer’s imagination but often they reflect the experiences and influences on a writer.  In many cases, they appear to be deeply autobiographical but written as fictional novels rather than straight memoir.

What need does reading fulfill?

Over and over again, the participants interviewed for the PBS series spoke about a book that described  their own world, characters they identified with and provided an outlet for their own questions, worries or fears.  The characters of these novels presented models, echoing these readers’ concerns, perhaps validating their own feelings or experience.

For some readers, a novel opens a world far different from their own. Through reading one can take a voyage to a distant part of the world, or understand how people from a different time and place interacted with the world and struggled through timeless problems.

What value does the reading experience provide?

Reading allows us to understand how other people think, feel and react, sometimes people very different from ourselves.  Yet the best books reveal universal truths about human behavior.  The obstacles, human errors, struggles and sometimes the happy endings, can give inspiration.

In a world with more challenges and questions than definite paths and answers, reading about people’s histories, failures and successes provides comfort as well as direction.  Don’t we all need hope?

If you loved reading as a child, or even if you didn’t, pick up half a dozen books at your library, download samples on your e-reader or browse in a local bookstore and perhaps you’ll find one that will change your thinking — maybe even change your life.

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Jul 102017
 
  • Isn’t the essay on the Comm App just a formality?

  • Admissions officers can’t possibly read the essay on every application, can they?

Many students and their parents believe that the most important criteria for admission to college are grades and standardized test scores, SAT or ACT.  These are still the most important factors considered by a college admissions office, but more and more students have high grades and strong test scores, the latter thanks to standardized test prep services offered by high schools and private services.  What distinguishes one good student from another?  Extracurricular activities?  True.  But perhaps more importantly, the essay a student writes can grab the attention of a college admissions officer and make the critical difference.

I wrote an earlier article about capturing the authentic voice in a college admissions essay: Finding the”Authentic” Voice in a College Admissions Essay. In that article I quoted an external admissions reader for the University of California at Berkley who wrote about being told to find essays that “express a sense of self and character.”

When a selective college receives applications from many equally qualified students, what will tip the scale for admission?  If you come from a rural community in a less populated state, you may be more appealing to a college seeking geographical “diversity” in its student body. However, given several good students from a concentrated pool in the same geographical location, an admissions officer will try to find mature, committed students who can succeed in the college experience. 

Admissions officers do read the essay on each Common Application, as well as the supplemental essays their school may require, especially when a student has good grades and scores.  

How else will they be able to make a decision between the many qualified students who apply to a select number of well-rated schools? The personal “voice” in the student’s application essay can be the tipping point for admission — as well as financial aid.  

The more similar a student’s profile compared to others in the same geographical area, the more important the Common Application essay and supplements become in the selection process.

For students who may not have the best grades across all subjects or slightly lower standardized test scores, the essays can become the critical factor to draw attention to their personal history, obstacles they may have faced in their lives, as well as their other talents.  Convincing an admissions reader that you can succeed at college and become an asset to their institution may hinge on the “authentic” essay you write.

Far from being a mere formality, a well-crafted, authentic essay can become the key to admission.

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Jun 012017
 
  • Isn’t listening easier than speaking?

  • Aren’t listening and paying attention the same?

Most people will answer “yes” to these two questions.  But listening is actually more complicated than most people realize and in some ways, as difficult a process as expressing yourself.

While you must be paying attention in order to “listen” there are actually two types of listening: active vs. passive listening.

  • What is the difference between active and passive listening?

Passive listening involves acknowledging that another person is talking and following the speaker’s line of reasoning.  What’s missing are two critical steps that transform “passive” listening to “active” listening: assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is the process of hearing information and comparing it to your own knowledge, the first key to making the transition to active listening.  The next critical step is accommodation acting on the information by responding to it in some way, which might be finding an example from your own experience that illustrates what is being presented.

For the student in class this can mean listening to the teacher, copying notes from the slide or blackboard, acknowledging an understanding (assimilation), then adding a personal observation to the teacher’s idea, either by jotting it to his/her notes or sharing in the discussion (accommodation.)  The process of accommodation extends the student’s thinking beyond what has already been written or spoken.

In an interview this can be illustrated by listening to the interviewer’s question, understanding the question (assimilation), then taking into account the other person’s point of view and deviating from the response you had prepared to answer a specific question (accommodation.)  The prepared, personal “elevator” speech that does not address the topic or question posed can destroy your chances of being hired, making a sale or achieving a promotion. 

If you answered “yes” to the two questions at the beginning of this article you may be practicing “passive” rather than “active” listening.  If your interactions with others involves more of your own speaking, you may be employing only assimilation by following your own line of thought rather than going to the next step, accommodation.  Transforming what you expect to say to actually responding to the other speaker’s words or questions requires “active” listening.

Consider how much this can affect you in your personal as well as your professional life.  Problems of miscommunication between individuals frequently occurs because one person is employing “passive” listening only, not thoroughly engaging with what someone else has said.  This can be illustrated with the famous words, “I thought you said…” The problem of not assimilating and accommodating another speaker’s words and ideas often lies at the bottom of misunderstanding between individuals.  “Active” listening opens up stronger lines of understanding and communicating.

Being an “active” listener can be the key to success in school, business and personal life.

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Apr 252017
 

“The eyes are the window of the soul.” Old English proverb.

Beyond the power of words, the way you speak conveys what you mean.  In the face to face conversations between human beings, the eyes and facial expression transmit at least half of the message.  A person’s eyes communicate interest, care, anger, distrust, sincerity and a host of other mental states.

In the age of email and texts, so much of the potential for direct human exchange has been diluted.  The opportunity of establishing dialogue between individuals diminishes when so much interaction takes places electronically.  While opportunity may diminish, the importance does not.

Why is it important to establish dialogue?

When people speak to each other face to face, an expectation exists that one person wants to convey information and establish rapport.  From the mundane activities of daily life to professional interactions, speaking effectively to someone else requires establishing a direct connection to an individual, a dialogue.

How important are the eyes in dialogue?

When we speak with someone our first instinct is to look at the other person’s eyes.  Interest, mood, trustworthiness are some of the key features signaled by an individual’s eyes.  Maintaining eye contact remains one of the universal fundamentals in establishing a relationship, whether meeting someone for the first time, interviewing for a job, or making a presentation.

What else besides the eyes is important? 

We convey information about ourselves through facial expressions, body language and vocal features.  How we say our words communicates almost as much as what we say.  People expect to be “spoken to, not at.”  Sometimes more meaning is conveyed in face to face interactions by how someone speaks, rather than the words spoken.

Can we lose the ability to speak to other people?

As a society, can we evolve to becoming poor communicators? With limited practice and opportunity, many teenagers and young adults today are less comfortable and capable of speaking with others, especially adults. 

In my practice I have worked with students who think they interact well with their peers but have little skill in interviewing for jobs or presenting themselves in an articulate, mature manner.  The first skill they need to learn is the importance of looking at another individual in order to create dialogue.

When we speak to people, if we want to express truth, sincerity and concern, we need to remember that we speak through the eyes as much as the mouth.

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Jul 012015
 

TRUE OR FALSE?

  • Writing reports and essays are just requirements for school.
  • Emails don’t count as writing
  • All the grammar and punctuation you learn at school doesn’t apply in today’s technological world.
  • Computer programs and apps can correct mistakes in my writing.

If you believe any of the statements above are “true”, you’re in for a surprise.

Even though a great deal of  business correspondence takes place in the form of email, the fundamentals remain unchanged from the way things have been done for more than a century.  In today’s “real” world, resumes, letters and the traditional forms of business communication that previously took place by snail mail still remain the means for job application and information sharing.

If you apply for a job through an online portal you still need to write a convincing cover letter that makes you a desirable candidate to a potential employer.

If you write a report and email it to your boss, a clearly written document, proofread and without errors, remains the gold standard.

Spell check and grammar check frequently miss errors because the programs fail to identify “real” words (homonyms or homophones) that do not fit appropriately in a particular context.  For example, “There” is a real word, but you may mean “their” and spell check will not make the substitution for you.  The contraction “it’s” is not the same as the possessive pronoun “its” but an app will not catch the error.  Many Android and iPhone users of word prediction can relate embarrassing stories of sending an email that conveyed an entirely different meaning than intended because they didn’t catch the word the app inserted.

Fundamentally, technology functions assistively but computers do not infer a writer’s intention or the logic of an argument.  No computer program creates the sentences that describe a person’s experience or the results of a piece of research.  Technology may even sabotage a well-constructed sentence or paragraph by applying a generic form of spelling or a grammar principle that does not function appropriately in your writing.

In the end, there is no foolproof tool for standard spelling and grammar rules or an assistive device to carefully proofread a document.  Whether mailing a letter or hitting the “send” button, all those sometimes tedious rules of grammar and spelling still count.  In today’s highly competitive world, they count even more.

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Dec 122014
 
  • Can improving your skills for public speaking make you a better writer?
  • Can improving your writing skills make you a better speaker?

Surprisingly, the answer to both of these questions is YES!

Leaving aside the vocal features and body language critical for public speakers (I’ve written about this topic in previous blog articles), the choice of material, organization and pacing of a presentation — the core of a speech — can be significantly improved by developing one’s writing abilities.  Surprisingly, the reverse is true as well. Becoming more proficient in one aspect of communication can impact positively on another.

The reciprocal gains from this process were tangibly demonstrated to me by a client I’ve been working with for the past year.  In fact, he suggested I write this article as a case study in the crossover effects of improved skills as a speaker and as a writer.

When I work with clients to improve their public speaking, I begin by emphasizing the need to consider the point of view in a speech.  Every presentation (even a report) should forward the speaker’s argument.  A presentation that captures and holds an audience’s attention contains a persuasive  viewpoint.  Good speakers never lose track of their goal and continually ask themselves, “What is the main idea I want to convey?”

Similarly, when writing an article, report, or letter of application, a good writer begins with a “thesis statement.”  As a writer you should be able to answer the question, “What is the theme of my writing — what do I want the reader to learn or understand?”  Following this theme (usually in the first paragraph), every paragraph that follows should be a notch that fits into the whole framework to complete the writer’s thesis, or in other words, the writer’s persuasive argument.

Too many speakers and writers lose this key perspective and never fully develop their speech or piece of writing.    What’s the result?  The audience loses interest and tunes out, while the reader either scans the rest of the piece or stops reading.  In either case, what you have to say or what you’ve written does not succeed.

In the process of working on my client’s presentation skills, the link between gaining proficiency in speaking and writing became evident to him.  I’m pleased to say that he’s received extremely positive reviews on his presentations and numerous invitations to write articles for publications within his field, both of which continue to advance his career.

Some good speakers, as well as good writers, may be born that way, but most of us have to work at perfecting those skills.  Luckily, this seems to be an interactive process!

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Apr 232014
 
  • To become a good speaker, develop your listening skills

So many people believe that a good presentation or interview depends solely, or almost entirely on, how they speak.  I advise my clients, individually and in workshops, about the importance of creating a dialogue when they speak.

  • Communication is a two-way process — always.

Too many people put an emphasis on “telling their story,” forgetting that they need to make a connection with the individual or group listening.   One of the keys to being an effective speaker is engaging your audience, whether it’s a one-to-one situation, group or large gathering.

If you’re making a presentation where dialogue isn’t possible, you still need to engage your listener.  Make eye contact.  Consider your body language: maintain a good posture with relaxed arms, using your hands for emphasis where appropriate.

  • How Listening Makes a Difference

When the situation allows for active give and take, listen to the individual speaking and respond to comments or questions.   This becomes critical in an interview where many people have carefully planned what they think they should say and don’t deal with a change in “the script.”  Allow the interviewer to describe the job and respond to this information, even if it means deviating from your original plan.

Developing the ability to listen and respond to questions, to engage in active thinking, remains one of the most valuable tools for effective speaking — and succeeding in today’s competitive job market.

  • Is listening an art or a skill?

It may be a bit of both, but it’s definitely an ability anyone can develop.  Just as becoming a good writer takes practice, focus and training, so does listening.  While some people have what appears to be natural talent as a writer or speaker, many learn to exercise these skills by working at the process.

Becoming a good listener, and in turn, a good speaker, is not a mystery.  Listening is an ability that can be developed.  It will serve you well as a valuable tool for personal and professional success.

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Feb 142014
 

My voice fades out when I speak in front of an audience.

I feel tightness in my throat when I give a presentation.

I lose my voice by the end of my speeches.

I feel as if I’m running out of breath when I speak in public.

In my work as a communications coach and speech pathologist, I hear many concerns like these.  Let’s assume  you’ve organized and written your notes,  you have your visuals or handouts,  and you think you’re ready to present.   But have you considered the optimal conditions for your voice, the vehicle that will deliver what you want to say?

One of the critical elements for a strong presentation voice is reducing vocal strain and using your voice properly.

Before you begin :

  • Be sure to hydrate: drink plenty of water beforehand so your throat isn’t dry when you start and have water handy while you’re speaking.
  • Arrange for a microphone if you’re in a room larger than a regular classroom.  If you’re using a mike, get there early, check the sound levels and be sure you know how to speak properly into the mike.  Do a sound test with a technician or someone who can tell you if you’re audible at the back of the room.  There’s a tendency to force the voice to project when speaking in a large space so proper use of amplification can make a critical difference in reducing vocal strain.
  • If possible, go to a quiet place and stretch, especially your upper body.  Do some vocal warm-ups and take some deep breaths.  These are the techniques used by actors and singers who are professional voice users.  If necessary, warm up at home or in your office before you present.

While you’re speaking:

  • Keep your voice at a steady volume and pitch in order to maintain a natural voice.
  • Monitor your rate.  Many people, especially those who aren’t professional voice users, tend to speak too quickly — usually because of nerves, but sometimes because they’ve prepared too much material for the time that’s available.  This is where planning and organization become a key element in making an effective presentation.
  • Don’t forget to breathe.  Controlling your breath while speaking is one of the keys to reducing the strain on your voice.
  • Take sips of water as you speak, before that dry, strained feeling in your throat begins.  It’s fine to pause and take a sip; your audience won’t start to fidget if you give them a few seconds to process what you’ve said (and it gives you an added bonus of thinking time.)

I’ve discussed aspects of these tips I recommend to my clients in previous blog entries on effective speaking, including, “The Two P’s for Effective Speaking,” http://lazarspeech.com/2013/04/30/the-two-ps-for-effective-speaking/,”Where Did My Voice Go?” http://lazarspeech.com/2013/05/28/where-did-my-voice-go/ , “Will I Ever Enjoy Giving A Presentation?” http://lazarspeech.com/2013/11/01/will-i-ever-enjoy-making-a-presentation/  You might like to scroll down and read more about effective speaking skills and preserving your voice.

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