Monthly Archives: February 2012

Stagnant Work Spaces

When I was younger, I did my homework all over the place. In school during a free minute, on the bus, at the kitchen table, on the family computer (which started in my mom’s room and then moved to the kitchen), on the living room coffee table… it didn’t seem to matter. During my undergrad, I always started the semester insisting that I wouldn’t do work in my bed, but slowly my desk would become more like another shelf and I would be sitting in my bed, laptop on hand, books spread over the comforter. Now that I have my own apartment, I’ve managed to mostly avoid doing work in my bed, which leaves me with my desk or my couch.

Working outside sounds like a real treat in the middle of winter! (Image Credit:

Living on a small campus during my undergrad meant that it was only  a short walk to the library or to an academic building with plenty of work space. Now, however, I live a 15 minute drive from my campus, and finding parking is not always easy during the day. So I’ve stopped going to the library for the most part, other than to pick up books. While in the past I’ve advocated for having a special space set aside just for homework, I’m starting to think that sometimes, it might be nice to move around.

Sometimes, a change of scenery is exactly what I need to break through my apathy. Packing up my homework, books, and laptop feels like a commitment to actually getting work done– something that’s hard to replicated in the home. Doing work outside of my apartment has mixed results. Most of the time, I’m fairly productive and manage to get done what I planned. Occasionally, however, I get distracted out in public and my frustration when I don’t get work done increases.

What are some of your favorite spots to get work done? Can a change in work space lead to more productivity and creativity?



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Less Is More

I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon in my life. The more I know about something, the less confident I feel presenting on it or teaching it. Maybe it’s because the more research you do, the more you realize that it’s impossible to know everything about any one topic. It’s the same phenomenon I’ve noticed as I get farther in my education. In high school, I was pretty sure I was a genius. In my undergrad, I realized I was not a genius. By my grad program, I was convinced that I had the intellectual capacity of a slug.

Have you ever noticed that the more you know, the less you feel like you know? How do you deal with that feeling? Perhaps I should follow minimalistic approaches?


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Working and Working Out

Everyone has things that they willingly put on the back burner when they have a lot of work to do. For me, the first thing that’s sacrificed for the sake of school work is exercising. During high school, I had the built-in PE class for two or three periods a week to keep me in shape. After school, I participated in the marching band and spent hours marching around twirling a flag for color guard. During my undergrad, I tried to go to the gym. I only made it up the hill occasionally, though. The two semesters that I spent the most time in the gym was when I took my two required PE courses.

Fast forward to grad school, and I seem to rarely have “time” to work out. If you’ve read my previous blog post about my ridiculously wide-open schedule for the semester, you might be rolling your eyes here. What you don’t understand is that when I’m at home, there’s always the potential that I’ll get work done. Taking deliberate time out to go to the gym means that I won’t accomplish any work during that time. Of course, my logic is skewed. Instead of working on my presentation I watch an entire season of Downton Abbey. I take an afternoon nap out of boredom rather than necessity.

Pumping iron can also help pump up your brain power! (Image Credit:

So I’ve made myself a promise: I’m going to start going to the gym. Well, it doesn’t have to be the gym. But I am making a commitment to move each day. Saturday, I did pilates at home. Sunday, I went ice skating and realized that your skates should be so tight you can’t feel your foot. Today, I hit up a free Zumba class at my university gym. Sure, my muscles are sore. I didn’t have as much free time to get work done as I normally do. But you know what? I’m going to get the work that I need to finished by the time it’s due. Making physical activity one of my  priorities will hopefully help me be a better student. There have been plenty of studies testifying to that fact, after all.

Do you prioritize working out? Do you have a hard time working physical activity into your schedule? What are some of your favorite things to get the blood pumping?

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Writing a Statement of Purpose

To gain admission into some programs, you need to write a statement of purpose. I’ve had to write three–one when I wanted to study abroad, another when I applied to Teach for America, and the third when I applied to graduate school. What’s the point of a statement of purpose? To make you stand out. The statement of purpose can often be your only opportunity to let an admissions committee or hiring committee see your personality. Grades don’t necessarily communicate anything about you as a person other than how you performed academically. A statement of purpose that’s well-crafted can help support your already outstanding grades or can help make up for grades that are less than impressive.

So what should you put in your statement of purpose? Well, the first thing you should do is make sure that your statement of purpose is finely crafted towards whatever your end goal is. If you’re applying to grad school, you want to show them that you have the traits necessary to excel in their program. If you want to explain that you overcame difficulties in your undergrad, then do so. However, you have to relate whatever you say about yourself to your goal. Don’t just tell the committee that your aunt had breast cancer in the hopes of gaining pity points. Graduate committees and hiring committees aren’t interested in pity. What they are interested in is what makes you a good candidate. So go less for pity and more for overcoming obstacles.

Be positive and upbeat in your writing, and your statement of purpose will really stand out! (Image Credit:

In the same vein, make sure that your statement of purpose is upbeat. Show your reader that you are positive, that you thrive on challenges and that you are excited to have new opportunities. While nobody is positive all the time, when you’re in an application process you certainly want people to think that you’re positive at least most of the time. Be enthusiastic about your past experiences and the benefits that you’ve received from them, and be excited about whatever it is your applying to. Make some specific reference to whatever it is your applying to. For example, say, “I appreciate that your department is small and will allow me to foster strong relationships with the professors and the rest of my cohort.” Show them that you’ve done research and have made a thoughtful decision to apply.

Although this may be a given, you definitely want to make sure that your statement of purpose is error-free. Even if you have a 4.0 GPA in your undergrad and were involved in tons of extra-curriculars, if your statement of purpose is lackluster and full of errors, your chances of getting in diminish significantly. Remember, the statement of purpose is all about how you present yourself, and if it isn’t polished then you’re showing your reader that you aren’t particularly concerned about performing well or that you don’t take pride in your work.

Finally, be specific. Rather than giving a total overview of your entire life, try focusing in on one or two major experiences that have made you a good candidate for the position. When applying to grad school, I focused on three different ways that my study abroad experience made me a good candidate for grad school. Finding one experience that has multiple benefits can be a helpful organizational tool, and if the experience is something that helps you stand out all the better. Your experience doesn’t have to be volunteering at an African orphanage; it can be something as simple as babysitting your next-door neighbor who has autism or taking a hiking trip. It’s all about the presentation.

What are some other tips you have for writing a statement of purpose?

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Grade Troubles

As a former student teacher and a current teaching assistant, one of my least favorite parts of teaching is grading. I hate grading. I hate being graded. I hate being the grader. Everything about grades makes me uncomfortable.

Even with the use of rubrics, which I highly recommend, grades can often feel arbitrary. The difference between an “outstanding” and an “acceptable” feels subjective, and knowing that the recipient of the grade can be heavily impacted by that small difference is uncomfortable. With the most recent assignment I graded, I spent hours agonizing over the twenty-eight papers I had to grade. With each paper being at least five pages, I had at least 140 pages to read, assess, and  return within 14 days. After spending so long on the grading process, returning the papers felt like a relief. I reviewed my grades, making sure that none had suffered unfairly due to a bad day, and sent them out.

Then came the fallout. Grading as a TA is different than as a professor, in that students often feel more comfortable appealing grades. Almost immediately, I received two e-mails requesting re-evaluations. Two more followed. In total, four students asked for their grades to be reconsidered. BAM. Talk about an awful feeling.

The difference between "excellent" and "very good" is sometimes not clear...even to the grader! (Image Credit:

It’s well within your rights as a student to appeal your grade. But before you begin bellowing for a better grade and insisting on a re-evaluation, take the time to read your initial evaluation. That way, when you have a meeting with the person who graded your work, you can have an informed conversation rather than just insisting you did better than a B-. In a grade appeal meeting, you should also be respectful of the person who did the grading in the first place. After all, he or she spent a lot of time determining the original grade, and so reconsidering can be difficult. While you should certainly point out why you believe you should have received a higher grade, you also have to be wiling to listen as the grader explains why you received the grade you did.

What do you think about grades? Love ’em or leave ’em?

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Essay Writing: The Body

When it comes to writing, the body of your essay is where you support the claims you make in your introduction and conclusion. Each paragraph should have its own miniature argument, and each paragraph should relate back to the major argument of your paper.

For example, if you’re writing a paper that argues the war on drugs in the United States has been ineffective, you’ll state that idea in the introductory paragraph. Your body paragraphs may focus on the rise in drug use since the war on drugs started, the increase in prison sentences, and street violence. However, not every paragraph has to support your argument. By admitting weaknesses in your argument and addressing them, your argument will become even stronger. For instance, the war on drugs may have decreased the amount of people who die of overdoses, but you could argue that this is due not to the war on drugs, but better medical care available to people who overdose.

The stronger the individual blocks, the stronger the tower! (Image Credit:

Your body paragraphs should also transition into one another  as smoothly as possible. Try to make the last sentence of each paragraph link up to the first sentence of the next paragraph. Using transition words is an easy way to do this, but try to mix up your transitions so that they don’t become stale.

Think of each paragraph as its own essay. In fact, each body paragraph serves as a building block to your larger essay. The more care you take with each individual piece, the better your overall argument will be.

For additional insights and writing support watch our blog entries. Another great resource is the Purdue OWL.

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Essay Writing: Knowing Your Audience

When writing an essay, it’s important to keep your audience in mind. When writing for school, different teachers often have different expectations for writing. While you should always look to the information your teacher gives you first about writing (such as assignment sheets or rubrics), here are some general tips for writing in each of the subject areas.

The biggest thing about writing is to clearly communicate your message, no matter the subject area! (Image Credit:


History teachers tend to look for facts, dates, places, and people in your writing. Because history is a lot about trying to be as accurate as possible, make sure that what you’re writing is factually based.


English teachers like to see references to the text, whether it’s an actual book or poem or a film. Direct quotes can often help boost your essay in an English teacher’s eyes, but try to incorporate the quote into your writing rather than just sticking it in. Although all subject areas are concerned with grammar and spelling, English teachers often have an eagle eye for such things, so make sure your papers are well-edited.


A lot of science writing is based around lab reports, which are a very formulaic form of writing. Science is all about detail, organization, and facts, so when you’re outlining the steps you took in an experiment you should write them out as accurately as possible so your experiment could be replicated and your findings tested. Make sure that any numerical data you have is as specific as the teacher requests. Did she ask you to round to the nearest tenth, or does she want it to the nearest thousandth?


Math tends to not have a lot of writing, but solving a multi-step problem can be like writing. Make sure that you are as detailed as possible, clearly showing your teacher the order of the steps you’ve completed. There should be a logical flow in your work, and it’s your job to make sure that’s clear to your audience.

For additional insights and writing support watch our blog entries. Another great resource is the Purdue OWL.

What are some other tips you have for writing in the major subject areas?

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