November 2010 Archives

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To begin writing his winning essay, Daniel Mills, a geosciences undergraduate, jotted down a few questions:  "The biggest question I have is why do humans even care what's out there in space? Why do we want to find Earth-like planets and extraterrestrial life? How will these potential discoveries change our perception of ourselves?"

These questions became the major points of his essay that was chosen by NASA's Kepler Mission and the SETI Institute as a finalist in their national essay competition. Essayists were invited to submit writings inspired by the imagery of an excerpt from Carl Sagan's, The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (1980).

Early in his college career his curiosity to answer these questions was spurred by reading Sagan's description of how all the heavy elements in the universe were forged in ancient stars, and that "we are all star stuff," says Mills. "After reading Sagan, I was so excited to go to class, to learn about the stars and the evolution of the earth. It may sound trite, but I simply wouldn't be studying geobiology and astrobiology if not for Carl Sagan's books. I wouldn't have known these fields even existed."

For the past four years, in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Mills has developed more specific knowledge. He has studied biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology and is currently writing his senior honors thesis on the co-evolution of life and the earth's atmosphere and oceans. "I'm interested in life's role in maintaining earth's habitability," he says. He will present his poster on his thesis at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December 2010.
 
Also, this year he came in first place for best undergraduate poster presentation at the 13th Annual Environmental Chemistry Student Symposium at Penn State and was awarded the Donald B. and Mare E. Tait Scholarship in Microbial Biogeochemistry.  He is the third author of a paper accepted in Applied and Environmental Microbiology and was a finalist in the EMS Grundy Haven Paper Competition. He graduates in December and plans to go to graduate school to become a research scientist; he wants to follow the model of Sagan and communicate his science to others.

"Sagan was a scientist, but one that tried to really connect with the public at large. He was brilliant, just a sharp thinker and elegant writer and speaker. He was also very progressive politically and an advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament. He was imaginative and creative and didn't limit his talents to science alone," says Mills.
 
He would like to see more scientists follow Sagan's example.  "Musicians wouldn't be very popular with the public if they only shared their work with other musicians. If you're passionate about something you understand very well, then you have a responsibility to share your knowledge." To read Mills's essay,  "Charting the Islands of the Cosmic Ocean," visit NASA's Kepler website at http://kepler.nasa.gov/education/sagan/ online.


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From Superman last week to Batman & Robin this week, your superheros are coming to your rescue to get you out of a jam. This week, you're heading into the final stretch of completing your statement, and you need to complete the meticulous process of proofreading and editing. Use this checklist to help guide you.

Checklist for Personal Statement
Length requirement (preferably one page; no smaller than 10 point font)
Attractive & Professional (header, paragraphs of expected lengths, one-inch margins)
Truthful and ethical information
Engaging introduction
Effective organization
    Forecast (thesis)
    Topic sentences
    Transitions
    Paragraphs
        Unity
        Cohesion
Well-supported and developed (specific examples)
Avoids cheesy clichés
Includes interesting analogies and creative comparisons
Uses vivid word choice
Effective tone (confident but not arrogant)
    The "I" Problem
Balance of formal and informal
Concise
Avoids unnecessary duplication
Answers the questions (what makes you unique; why this program)
Demonstrates knowledge of the specific program (Win/Win format)
Conclusion (ties together parts and leaves reader satisfied)
ERROR-Free    

To maximize the success of your proofreading and editing process, step away from your personal statement for at least a day. Then read it aloud--very slowly, paying attention to places you stumble. Underline them, and after you've read the whole essay, come back to the problem areas and fix them. Use spell checker, but don't rely on it to find your errors. (If you do, you could intend to write "regards," and end up replacing the "g" for a "t," resulting in a BIG miscommunication.) When you think you're completely finished proofreading and editing, print it. Look at it again with the same critical eye.

Finally, have a trusted side-kick such as Robin (i.e., your writer-in-residence) read it and give you feedback.


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To apply to graduate school, an internship or other professional experience, you may have to write a personal statement. Think of this as an opportunity for you to introduce yourself by writing a concise narrative where you are the main character. You don't have to fear the personal statement. Yes, it takes time and effort and should be given a lot of attention, but admissions folk don't expect you to write like Charles Dickens or Will Shakespeare. In fact, one of the most important qualities of your personal statement is to sound like yourself--your authentic best self! Here are some pointers.

Start early. Give yourself time to think. Reflect on your experiences and your special qualifications. Think about what makes you unique.  Research the school or company. Become knowledgeable about the program, professors, facilities, and the culture. Know why you are a good fit. Mull over what you'd like to write. Jot down a few sentences for several prospective essays, and let them percolate. Remind yourself that you are in the best position to write about this topic because YOU know the answers to these questions the best. You just have to take time to think about them.

Put yourself in your audience's shoes. A personal statement is at its core a persuasive argument. You want your audience to accept you for the position, so you must think like your audience. Here are the questions you must address to be convincing:
•    Do you have the necessary education? Experience? Qualities?
•    Are you conscientious, hardworking, and unlikely to drop out or leave?
•    Can you work under pressure?
•    Do you adapt well to new environments?
•    Are you genuinely interested in the field, university or company?

Avoid trite and broad narratives that fall into one of these categories:

•    the big trip where you learned it's a small world
•    random childhood memories with no particular purpose (focus on more recent experiences)
•    the athletic event where you learned it doesn't matter whether you win or lose
•    the amazing defining moment that's mostly about someone else (e.g., your mother, professor--Admissions counselors tell me that after they read this type of essay they are inclined to let your mother or professor in instead of you!)

To avoid the cliché, zoom in on the unexpected. Consider a smaller "canvas." Make sure to give examples; cite instances by which you exhibited the skills they are seeking.

Write your story. The basic structure of a personal statement is a story, so you need a good first sentence to engage your audience. Think of this as the hook. Compare these two examples:
•    I am applying to the Master of Science program in ________ because
     I believe my skills will be enhanced at your program since it is a place
     where I will be challenged, and I can hone my research interests.


•    When I was eleven, my great aunt Matilda passed away and left me
     something that changed my life: her rock collection. As a child, some
     of my best days were spent with my rock hammer and my magnifier.
     My interest in geosciences began in my early youth, and it continues
     to develop and become more focused with each experience.

Notice in the first example, the admissions committee knows you're applying to their MFS program because that's the stack of applications they are reading. They also know that your skills will be enhanced because they like their program. And they know you'll be challenged--all new students are challenged, no matter how well-prepared they are. You've just used 39 words and none of them are useful.

Instead, use this as the basic structure for your personal statement.
•    Engage; passionate hook
•    Forecast (thesis; promise to your reader)
•    Background (why you want to go)
•    Qualifications/Experience (why you're a good choice--specific classes and professors;         related extracurricular activities/publications; explanations--if needed)
•    Good fit (more about the specific University; name specific areas, features, professors)
•    A satisfying ending (style)
 
Demonstrate your intelligence and effective communication by paying attention to organization and conciseness too. If you veer off on tangents and write a disconnected personal statement, you'll give your reader a headache. Cut every word that you can. Carefully proofread and edit your draft. Read it aloud slowly to find the problem areas.

Think of yourself as Superman: you may not be able to LEAP tall buildings in a single bound--but you can liven up the moment of those poor souls trapped in a room with 5,000+ applications to read!

(Next week: Checklist for personal statements) 

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Getting started, particularly if it's the opening for a cover letter, can be tough. Here are five ways to start a cover letter in an engaging manner.

1. Use a network contact.

Example: Bob Cratchet, your regional vice president and my next-door neighbor, suggested I apply for (name of position).

2. Use information found on the company's website.

Example: I recently read on your website that you are a community of scholars and practitioners that values collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. I share your values and would like to be considered for the position.

3. Use research you've done on the company.

Example: I've been researching the telecommunications industry, and IBEX keeps coming up as a respected company that is on the cutting edge of technology.

4. Use your measurable accomplishments.

Example: I have three years of experience in (field) and have been able to (measurable accomplishment) for my (name of current employer). I would like to bring my expertise to your recently advertised position of (name of position).

5. Use information found in the job description.

Example: Because your ideal candidate needs to have two years of related experience, the ability to perform detailed record-keeping in Excel, and to work well under time constraints, you will be interested in my background.

Using a network contact is probably the most effective, but if you don't have one, you can still write an effective cover letter--just choose from examples 2-5. Don't worry if your first paragraph is short. It's supposed to be. Remember the recipe for the introduction calls for only three things: engage your audience, state what position you're applying for, and tell where you found out about the position. Getting started can be difficult, but using one of these ideas will help get you out of the dark.

crops.jpgFive EMS students are participating in the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) this year. Ask the new PLA recruits, sophomores Marla Korpar and Kirsten Guelly, what they've learned in the highly selective program taught by President Spanier and be ready for an earful. "I have only been enrolled in PLA for a few months, and I have gained a wealth of knowledge. Our critical thinking seminar held once a week with Graham Spanier prompts me to think about current issues that I probably wouldn't consider," commented Marla, an Environmental System Engineering major. Marla also has leadership roles in the College's THON committee, Energy and Running Clubs.

Kristen Guelly, Energy Business and Finance, is also new to the Academy. She is a member of the Penn State Women's Swim team and serves on the Morgan Center Student Athlete Advisory Board. This fall in PLA, she participated in talks on corporate responsibility, piracy of intellectual property, national security, and the grey areas of complex issues. She's also made an important discovery about leadership: "A leader doesn't work alone. He or she must be able to efficiently allocate duties to others to get the job done."
 
Last year, the inaugural PLA class included three EMS students: Daniel Conner, Energy Engineering and Energy Business and Finance; Katrina Kumpf, Materials Science and Engineering; and Thomas Rauch, Energy Business and Finance. These three juniors are quick to point out that the field trips they take and the people they meet are the best parts of PLA. They've gone to New York City, Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, and Pittsburgh. They'll be going to New Orleans and Pittsburgh this spring.

They've meet leaders in business, banking, national security and additional industries. "In New York we had breakfast on the 30th floor of 1 Wall Street in the Bank of New York Mellon Building, and we met with financial leaders responsible for the response to the recent recession," said Daniel. Meeting and greeting top executives has helped him develop "some of the intricacies of professional social interactions, such as the art of small talk!"
But it isn't just about meeting people outside of Penn State. "The friendships with fellow students I've made through PLA are definitely the most enjoyable aspect of this program," said Katrina.

In agreement with this sentiment is Thomas. However, he's also already thinking about how to tweak the PLA experience and make it even better. "PLA is very young and it has a lot to offer, but it's up to all of us to make sure it produces relevant and useful results. I guess the proof will be what PLA members do with the experience." Given this crop of talented, poised and intellectually curious students, the harvest seems promising.


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