How to Write a Recommendation Letter

Saturday, June 30, 2007 57 comments

Recommendation letters are letters written by professors who know you, assessing you capacity to meet the requirements of a program you are applying for. They're supposed to help decision-makers to get a better picture of your potential. The sure thing is, if you apply for a Master program, or for a PhD, sometimes even for a summer school, you cannot avoid them. Another part of the harsh reality is that due to different reasons, if you are a student in Eastern Europe you will often find yourself in the position to write these letters yourself. The professor will, in this case, only proof-read and sign the text. In case you belong to the lucky ones who don't have to write recommendation letters themselves, you should still read this section. You will find useful hints about how to handle properly this delicate part of the application process.

How to deal with them. Usually, recommendation letters have to be written on especially designed sheets of paper that come as part of your application form. In some cases, letters on letterhead will be accepted, if for some reasons, you can use those special pieces of paper. Read carefully what has been written in the application booklet about such situations. Fill in the fields at the beginning at the form that ask for your name, department, etc. Take the forms to a professor who knows you and is familiar with your skills or activity. Allow the professor as much time as possible (ideally 2-3 weeks) to write your letter. Try to make sure the professor is aware of who you are, what your interests are and understands what you are applying for. A small talk when you are handing the recommendation forms or a printed summary of all that that accompanies the forms can help to this respect. Try, with politeness and attention, to make sure the professor will write you a recommendation in warm terms. Recommendations tend to be, even though not always, somewhat bombastic in vocabulary. If you ever get your eyes on such a text, you might upgrade the opinion you had about yourself. Be prepared with envelope and stamps, in case the professor wants to send the letter him-or herself. You should also read the related lines from the application booklet about this point. Some universities prefer to receive the recommendation letters together with the rest of the application, while some would rather get them separately, sent directly by the professor who recommends you. It is usual practice that envelopes are signed by the professor over the lid, in such a way that one cannot open the envelope without deteriorating the lid. In order to increase the confidence the recruiters put in the letter when you have to send the recommendation together with the rest of the application, we advise you to request such a signature and/or an official seal.

Content. Sometimes, a busy professor will suggest more or less directly that you produce a first draft of the text that he or she will correct and sign. In other cases, this is the only way you can get a letter that differs from the standard text every student gets from that professor. Our goal is not to discuss the reality of Eastern European campuses here. Still, if you think you might be offended by the practice of writing your own recommendation letters, it is probably better that you do not read the rest of the text.

A recommendation letter ideally starts by stating the name of the professor who writes the letter and his/her title, together with the name of the student for whom the letter is written. The professor should also state since when has s/he known the students: year, class or other activity. It should in any case be clear that the professor had the opportunity to get to know the student well and assess his/her capabilities.

The assessment of the student capabilities should be made from a multiple point of view over the next 3-4 paragraphs. From a professional point of view, it should give account of the student knowledge, interests and capabilities, activities and results, work capacity, etc. Personally, it should assess the student personal characteristics, character, social skills, his or her relations with the students and professors. Same as in other application documents, the direction should be from facts/experience to qualifications, and from those, to value judgments. Especially those skills relevant for the desired program should be outlined throughout the paper.

The final paragraph should provide an overall assessment of the student potential to fulfill the requirements of the program, even though partial judgments can and should be provided in the body of the letter.

Some of the graduate study programs supply you with forms for the recommendation letters that ask the professor to ask a number of specific questions about your skills and qualifications. Sometimes, space for the answer is allowed after each question, and there is where the answers should be written, rather than on a separate sheet of paper. Other times, the questions come as a block, an in this case you have the option to answer the question still in the form of a letter. Should you chose this option, make sure the letter answers clearly every single question, preferably in the order in which they are asked on the form.

Don't forget to write the date and the name of the home university. The name of the program you are applying for should come out explicitly in the body of the text, in order to make clear that the letter has been written for that occasion. Unless the format of the paper on which the letter should be written makes this difficult, you can print the text. Even better, have the text on a disk with you, in case the professor will consider any changes necessary. Be ready to give the professor time to read your draft and make those changes.

Most recommendation forms contain a certain number of fields, the multiple-choice kind, where the professor has to assess, by checking cells, your abilities. Make sure those fields are checked and insert the text in the place left for additional remarks. We strongly suggest that you do not leave blank that portion of the form, but use it instead as a self-standing recommendation letter.

Good luck.


How to Write a Structured Essay

Friday, June 29, 2007 0 comments

During your academic work, or even as part of your application, you will have to write essays on different topics. It is well to know that the generally accepted way of writing these essays demands compliance to a number of «academic writing» rules, mostly related to the structure of the essay. Some of these rules are outlined below.

Even when assigned, the topics on which the essay should be written are generally quite broad, allowing the narrowing of the topic. You should first do some research and try to get an idea about what has been written on the topic so far. Most often, your essay will build on, analyse or criticize one or more pieces of work, while building an own position.

In the introduction, you should clearly state the subject you are going to deal with, the narrowed topic, if any, and the position you are going to take. Specifying the position (thesis statement) is one of the most difficult parts of writing a structured essay. In the end, you should be able to state in one phrase what your thesis is. It should be narrow, specific and clear. You should not promise to analyse, review, interrogate or examine a problem, but to find and defend a specific side in the debate. As an example, a good thesis sounds like «I will argue that the differences in economic status between the countries in transition are the result of economic policy options made at the beginning of the transformation process», rather than «I wish to analyse the differences in the economic well-being of countries in transition». Version A takes a stand, defends it and by introducing a new idea, contributes to the debate, while version B merely points to some facts. The thesis statement is one of the few places in the essay where it is acceptable to use the first person writing, while most of the rest should be written in the third person. Announcing the organisation of the essay is what follows the thesis statement in the introduction. Depending on the size of the essay, you will develop a number of arguments to defend your thesis. It is advisable to enumerate those arguments in the paragraph following the thesis statement. « Three arguments defending the thesis will be presented. First, it will be pointed out that ... . The second argument developed will be that ... . Finally, it will be proved that ... »

The body of the essay should discuss the arguments you presented, preferably in the order that you have announced. Each chapter/paragraph starts in a well-written essay with a «topic sentence», restating the argument and the author's position to it. In case you use chapters, give them names that respect the structure and make the lecture easier. The discussion should follow the statement of each argument in a manner resembling the overall organisation of the essay: facts, ideas, and opinions of authorities in the field, as well as own reasoning should be brought in the discussion one by one. In the end, it should be examined whether the argument survived the debate or not, inside a conclusive sentence/paragraph.

Conclusions. When all the arguments have been presented and discussed, the essay closes the end, and you should be able to present the conclusions. If the essay has been well written and organised, the arguments have been proved and, together, they prove your thesis. You only have to show that, note the progress that has been made in the research of the examined subject, mention its possible implications.

A possible, but not mandatory section, usually met in academic papers on more important dimensions, is the limitations. Here you can note the limitations of your reasoning, assumptions held true, but which if proved wrong could invalidate your conclusions, aspects that have not been brought under scrutiny, possible conditions that could limit the impact of your conclusions, etc.

The specified size of the essay is, unless otherwise stated, under the +-10% rule. That is, the entire text should not be shorter or longer than the suggested size with more than 10% of that size. Ex: for a 3000 words essay, it is acceptable to write 2700-3300 words. Use the Word's Word Count function to see the size of your essay measured in words.

In some, very very rare cases, it is very difficult to reduce your position in the essay to a thesis. It is acceptable in such cases, for reasons of clarity, to replace the thesis with a research question, that should meet the same requirements, with the exception of the fact that the author postponed taking a stand until the end of the paper. We do not recommend such an approach; still, if it happens, make sure you directly address and answer the research question in the closing of your essay. The reason we support these strict rules that, we admit, make writing rather boring, is simply put, quantity. Think how many essays will read the examiner or university recruiter, essays that have to say more or less the same thing. You surely want under these conditions, in order to increase your chances, to make the lecturer’s mission as easy and pleasant as possible, don't you? This is why we recommend you to enforce those rules.

An academic essay necessarily contains a bibliography, where you quote all the sources used. Western universities tend to be very rigid with plagiarism rules. So quote every source you have used. In the body of the essay, avoid lengthy citation, use paraphrasing - saying with your own words what other guy said before. If you quote, make it clear, and give the source! In any case, referencing should be used only to start discussing an argument, never to end it.

In some essays, like those that you write when applying for an MBA, you have to answer question like « What would you do if you were the manager of a plant and why ?». In this situation, the rules explained above do not apply that rigidly. You should maintain a clear structure, but a bibliography is no longer necessary, since your answer will be more practical-oriented than theoretical.

Good luck with this one as well!


How to Write a Research Proposal

Thursday, June 28, 2007 5 comments

When you are applying for a research degree, like the PhD, you will very probably have to write a research proposal as a part of your application file. A PhD is awarded mainly as the result of your making a genuine contribution to the state of knowledge in a field of your choice. Even though this is not the Nobel Prize yet, getting the degree means you have added something to what has previously been known on the subject you have researched. But first you have to prove you are capable of making such a contribution, and therefore write a research proposal that meets certain standards. The goal of a research proposal (RP) is to present and justify a research idea you have and to present the practical ways in which you think this research should be conducted.

When you are writing a RP, keep in mind that it will enter a competition, being read in line with quite a few other RPs. You have to come up with a document that has an impact upon the reader: write clearly and well structured so that your message gets across easily. Basically, your RP has to answer three big questions: what research project will you undertake, why is important to know that thing and how will you proceed to make that research.

In order to draw the researcher's attention upon your paper, write an introduction with impact, and that leads to the formulation of your hypothesis. The research hypothesis has to be specific, concise (one phrase) and to lead to the advancement of the knowledge in the field in some way. Writing the hypothesis in a concise manner and, first, coming up with a good hypothesis is a difficult mission. This is actually the core of your application: you're going to a university to do this very piece of research. Compared to this, the rest of the application is background scenery. Take your time to think of it. When you have an idea, be careful at the formulation. A well-written hypothesis is something of an essay's thesis: it provides a statement that can be tested (argues ahead one of the possible answers to a problem), it is an idea, a concept, and not a mere fact, and is summed up in one phrase. In some cases, you will have no idea what the possible answer to a problem worth being researched is, but you will be able to think of a way to solve that problem, and find out the answer in the meantime. It's ok in this case, to formulate a research question, rather than a hypothesis. Let those cases be rare, in any way.

Another piece of advice when writing your hypothesis, regarding the trendy research fields: chances are great that they're trendy because somebody has already made that exciting discovery, or wrote that splendid paper that awoke everybody's interest in the first place. If you're in one of these fields, try to get a fresh point of view upon the subject; make new connections, don't be 100% mainstream. This will make the project even more stimulating for the reader. Imagine that you are writing about the trendiest subject, with absolutely no change in the point of view, and you are given the chance to make the research. Trends come and go, fast; what are the chances that, in four years' time, when your research is done and you are ready to publish your results, one of those well-known professors who dispose of huge research grants has already said whatever you had to say?

Remember how, in a structured essay, right after the thesis you would present the organisation of your essay, by enumerating the main arguments you were going to present? Same thing should happen in a RP. After stating your thesis, you should give a short account of your answers to those three questions mention earlier. State, in a few phrases, what will be learned from your research, that your project will make a difference, and why is that important to be known. You will have to elaborate on both of these later in the paper.

The next step in writing your proposal is to prove that that particular piece of research has not been done yet. This section is usually called Literature Review. Inside it, you have to enumerate and critically analyze an impressive list of boring bibliography. The conclusion you should - objectively! - reach is that your idea of research has not been undertaken yet. Even more, you use this opportunity to prove solid theoretical knowledge in the field, and build the theoretical bases of your project. One tip: don't review all the articles and books in the fields even if you mention them in the bibliography list; pay attention in your analysis to those you will build on. Another one: avoid jargon when writing your RP. The chances are great that the person(s) who will read your and another 1000 research proposals are not specialists in that very field - niche you are examining. If you are applying for a grant with or foundation or something similar, it might happen that those reading your paper are not even professors, but recruiters, donors, etc. And even if they actually are professors, one of the reasons busy people like them agree to undertake a huge, and sometimes voluntary, work, is the desire to meet some diversity, some change from their work - so maybe they'll read applications for another specialisation. The capacity to get your message across in clear, easy-to-grasp concepts and phrases is one of the winning papers' most important advantages.

So far, you have proven you have a research idea, that you are familiar with the field, and that your idea is new. Now, why should your project be worth researching? Because it advances knowledge, ok. But is this knowledge that anybody will need? Maybe nobody knows for sure how the shoelaces were being tied in the XIXth century, but who cares, beyond two lace-tying specialists? Find arguments to convince the reader that s/he should give you money for that research: practical use, accelerating the development of knowledge in your or other fields, opening new research possibilities, a better understanding of facts that will allow a more appropriate course of action are possible reasons. Be clear and specific. Don't promise to save the world, it might be too much to start with. Even James Bond succeeds that only towards the end of the movie.

We approach now one of the most difficult parts of writing a research proposal: the methodology. In short, what actions are you going to take in order to answer the question? When will you know whether the hypothesis has been proven wrong, or has survived enough tests to be considered, for now, valid? Those tests and the way you are supposed to handle them to give rigor to your research is what is understood under methods. Methods divide in qualitative (interviews, questionnaires) and quantitative (statistics, stuff that deals intensively with numbers). For some projects qualitative methods are more appropriate, for some quantitative, while for most a mixture of the two is adequate. You should pick your methods and justify your choice. Research methodology, however, is too a complicated thing to be explained here. And this is why it's so tough: not much attention is given to teaching it in Eastern Europe. Try, before writing your RP, to read a bit more about methodology - on the Internet you will find for sure some articles - and decide which methods suit your project best. Don't forget: reading theoretical pieces of your work and providing a critical analysis of those is also a kind of research. It's fine to provide a rough schedule of your research; some grant programs will also require a detailed budget, even though for scholarships this is unlikely.

Conclusions: After working your way through the difficult methodological part, you only have to write your conclusions. Shortly recap why your hypothesis is new, why it advances knowledge, why is it worth researching and how, from a practical point of view, are you going to do that. Overall, the capacity of your project to answer the research question should come out crystal clear from the body of the paper, and especially from the conclusions. If this happens, it means you have a well-written RP, and you have just increased you chances for having a successful application.

One last word: how big should your RP be? In most cases, this is specified in the application form. If it is not, we suggest that you keep it at about 1500 words (that's 3 pages, single-spaced, with 12 size Times New Roman). In fewer words it can be really tough to write a good RP. With more you might bore your readers. Which we hope will not happen.

Good luck!


How to Prepare for an Interview

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 31 comments

Whether applying for a job, or for a scholarship (yes, even here! J ), an interview shows up in the way of your desire to get what you applied for. Scholarship interviews are included in the application process in the programs administered by the Soros Foundations (Open Society Network) and are also used by most American universities, at both undergraduate and graduate level. What's an interview about? Well, being invited to one means you look good "on paper" (your application documents are all right) and that you made it over the first part of the application process. It also usually means that you're in a "now or never" kind of situation. Hard but true, screw the interview and you're out, no matter how fine your application is. This is why you definitely SHOULD PREPARE before the interview. Before going any further, please note that the rules and recommendations below apply for both scholarship and job interviews, unless otherwise stated.

If you're after a job, an interview is normally expected if your application awakens the employer's interest. In the case of scholarship applications, if interviews are part of the application process, than this is normally stated in the application details you receive together with your application form. The part below deals with what you should do if you receive an invitation to an interview, both before, during and after it.

Before the interview

Preparation before an interview IS A MUST. Before stepping the interview room, you should document in detail about the program you are applying to, the kind of question you expect to be asked, how much the interview will last, etc.

While an interview is clearly a testing situation, and you should be prepared accordingly, you're not facing the Inquisition there. The goal of a Western-style interview is to put you in the best possible light. The interviewer wants to get an impression about what kind of person you are, to complete the image s/he has from the application documents with things that cannot be put on paper. Therefore, you should expect a formal, but relaxed atmosphere, in which you will do most of the talking.

First, try to read as much as possible about the company/scholarship program you have applied to. If you haven't done this yet, this is a proper time. If it's a company, find out exactly what they do, how successful they are, what is their market position, what they and others think about their corporate culture, what somebody with your job does there, how a usual day looks like. If it's a scholarship, look at what subjects you'll study, how many will they be, how much freedom you have in choosing the subjects, how your work will be assessed, professors, the size of the department, student/faculty ratio, accommodation, extracurricular activities, cultural life. In short, try to get an as exact as possible image about what you'll do if you get the scholarship/job. Write down whatever is of interest to you, what is not clear, or what you'd like to find out more about. During the actual interview, there's almost always a time when it's your turn to ask question and you'll want to have some useful questions to ask.

Second, re-read the announcement. Examine the requirements, think of reasons and examples that prove you can meet those requirements. Very probably, you'll be asked questions about that during the interview. Attention: don't exaggerate, you'll seem overqualified, and don't lie: it may sound paranoid, but you never know how will "they" J be able to double check what you say. Look at the job/scholarship description: what recommends you for that thing? That's another probable question. In some interviews, the question will be even more direct: why are you the best for that place? You'd better have some answer here. And be convinced you are the best: it will show during the interview, and help increase your chances. Attention: there's always a thin line between self-confidence (the good thing) and arrogance (should we say, obviously, a bad thing J).

Third, try to find out how much the interview will last, who's gonna be your interviewer, even, if possible, what topics are of most interest to him/her and will show up during the discussion. Of course, that is easier to do if you get the invitation by phone, but there's always a second option: do some digging in their website, some useful material may show up, or get in contact with persons who have been through the interview before you.

Fourth, there are a few common questions which show up in almost any interview. Prepare answers for them and ask a second opinion on those answers from a friend. While specific questions appear in each interview, take a look at the list below - you'll meet some of these questions for sure:

1. Why are you good for... what recommends you for...?
2. Mention 1 or 3 personal qualities/downsides.
3. Why this program/job?
4. In what way do you meet the requirements for...?
5. How do you see yourself in five years' time/ what is your career plan?
6. Tell us about a situation where you have proven to be a leader/innovator/person with initiative.
7. Don't you think you are too young/too old for...?
8. How are your studies/your background fit for...?
9. For a scholarship interview: How will you use what you learn later?
10. How does this scholarship/job meet your future plans?

We're sure you'll be able to think of a few other, more particular questions that fit your situation and are likely to show up during the interview. Fin answers for those as well. When you're done with all this answer finding, have a rehearsal or two. Get a friend who will play the interviewer and ask you questions. Do this in an atmosphere as interview-like as possible and, of course, in the language in which the interview will take place.

Here's some hints on how to answer the questions above:

1. Link the requirements of the position to your background, showing how your previous experience and knowledge will help you manage this task successfully. Interviewers look for a clear progress from one task to the other, in your past, in order to show growth potential. Be sure you can prove that with examples.
2. Enumerate those of your qualities relevant for the job/scholarship you want to get.
3. While the downsides have to look like downsides, show they have some kind of potential of turning into something positive that can become and advantage in some sense. Here's an example: stubbornness is something bad, perseverance is something good, but can you tell the exact difference? Guerrilla troops on the side of war winners are partisans, those on the side of the losers are terrorists. This kind of game should you play with your minuses and their potential of turning into something positive.
4. In general what makes you good is your background and particular interests and knowledge, all of which match exactly the requirements of the job/program. Even more, your personal characteristics and your pleasant way of being make you a more valuable candidate. This is the message you have to get across.

During the interview

The evening before the interview travel to the actual place of the interview, especially if this is not a route you know well. See what transportation you need and how much time is necessary - add some more if you'll have to travel during rush hour. One of the worst things you can do at an interview is to be late. Arrive a few minutes later and wait outside, rather than later. Still, punctuality will look best.

On the day of the interview, bring with you a copy of all your application documents (not recommendations, of course J ), and an updated CV. The interviewer will very probably not accept new documents and have its own copy of those files, but you never know when an extra copy is needed during the discussion.

DRESS FORMAL. Even if you're one of those lucky programmers about whom nobody really cares how they dress when go to work, still wear a suit during the interview, or at least matching trousers and blazer, and of course, a shirt and a tie. Have your mom or room mate check they go fine with each other J. In many cases, the interviewer will be less formally dressed then you. Never mind, you're the one expected to make a good impression, s/he's trying to look relaxed and not stress you. If you feel/think you look too stiff, unbutton your blazer during the interview, but mind your appearance and position on the chair all the time.

The discussion will usually start with some informal chit-chat, meant to warm the atmosphere and to make you look less stressed. Smile when you enter and while saluting. Enter the game of chit-chat, while remaining polite and relaxed. The serious questions will start arriving soon. Towards the end of the interview, you will probably be asked if you have any questions of yourself. Remember, you have those prepared already. At the very end, as the last question you have, ask for feedback on your performance. Not only because it looks damn good J in the eyes of the interviewer, but also because you wanna know what you did fine and what not, and what could you do better next time. Don't expect any hint towards a decision in your case. You will never get one, if you have to deal with a professional interviewer. S/he has some other interviewers to conduct and review before reaching a decision. Never mind what you think about your performance, stay polite, relaxed and self-confident until you walk out the door. Your impressions don't necessary coincide with those of the person taking the interview and therefore you should play your chances until the very end.

Here's some dos and don'ts during an interview:
1. Try not to dominate the discussion by speaking too much or too loud. Let the interviewer have the initiative but when talking take enough time to make your points clear. Also pay attention in order to avoid a dominant body-language.
2. Don't criticize colleagues, friends, competitors for the same thing, current university/workplace, etc. The reason you should get what you're after is because you are very good at it and not because the others are bad. Criticism will decrease your credibility: what will keep you from criticizing the same position you are now after?
3. Don't bring financial aspects into discussion yourself. In the case of scholarships, the sums are fixed and clearly stated from the beginning, there's nothing to negotiate. As for jobs. Don't ever be the first to call a wage, even if you are directly invited to. Avoid politely and see what the employer thinks you're worth. If you ask too little, you might end up underpaid, if you ask too much, you may not get the job.
4. Unless there's a scholarship for minorities or disabled persons, don't bring personal aspects into discussion. The interviewer cares less about where you sleep, and more about what you know and can do.

In some cases, the interview will not look at all like what you have imagined. This is the case mainly with job interviews and it materializes into two most often situations. Either the interviewer sits back relaxed in the chair and says: tell me about you, never to make a word for the next 30 minutes, either s/he's straight forward, putting pressure on you, not letting you answer, sometimes going as far as being disrespectful and talking down to you. We personally wish you this never happens. Still, interviewers are people themselves, not always perfect for the job. In other cases, they think they're more professional if they do so - that's especially the case with the second alternative, the more difficult one. Or, the job you're about to take requires somebody that does not go under that easy, and it is all a test about how well do you manage in conditions of pressure. No matter what the case is, you should not lose temper and remember you are still very well prepared for the interview. Bring in front what makes you good for the job, mention your qualities, your background, your knowledge, bring examples. Stay polite and try to state when you answer is finished. If it's a test, that's how you'll pass it. If the interviewer is an asshole turned Master of All Knowledge when confronting you, ask yourself: do you still want to work for the company that hired such a person on such a job? After all you're good and unless this is not 100% the chance of your life, you can do better anyway. But do this after the interview; during it there is a time for making your best, staying polite and as relaxed as possible. And above all, these are rare cases that we hope you'll never meet.

After the interview

If you have the e-mail or mail contact of the interviewer, write a "thank you" note. That's a good occasion to:
1. thank the interviewer for his/her time and the interesting discussion you had.
2. Make him/her remember you better than the other 20 people s/he met that day.
3. Outline those things that, even though mentioned during the interview, did not make it to the front line of the discussion, but are still an advantage for your application. This is a bad moment, however, for bringing in new arguments: it will make you look unfair.
4. Remember the most important elements that make your application so valuable.

You should do that on the day of the interview, and in not more than 3-4 paragraphs.

The interview would not be such an stressful event, should you have the occasion to go through, say, 200 of them. Since this is not the case, intensive preparation will have to do. So do it carefully, it might be this interview that will get your future started.


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