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By Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
Your parents taught you to say thank you—and perhaps even to write thank you notes, but in an age when we whip off emails, texts, and tweets at lightning pace and everything seems instant, how important is it to put pen to paper to express gratitude?
Well… Cicero would say, very. He claimed that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Accordingly, overlooking an opportunity to fully express it to someone who has helped you or given you a gift seems equivalent to forgoing an important discussion with that person. Put a bit more harshly, it’s like saying, “I don’t care about my reputation.”
When you receive assistance from a teacher on a special project, or time from a college admissions counselor during your first campus visit, or a gift from an uncle, you should be thinking about thanking these individuals with a note. Now, you may wonder why I’m writing about thank you notes on a page geared toward high school students contemplating strategies for academic success. I’ll tell you.
First, as previously discussed, thank you notes reflect your character; you’re someone who is cognizant of the sacrifices of time or money others make on your behalf. And character so-shaped is something colleges and employers actively seek. (Think about it: after a while, even the most competitive resumes begin to melt together, but the integrity with which the executive who interviewed you recalls you stands out). Along those lines, the pause you give when writing a sincere note—particularly for something intangible, like inspiration throughout a difficult project—provides space for you to actively consider the role those around you have had in your successes. In other words, it fosters humility, a character trait in leaders who truly garner the respect of those they lead.
Writing thank you notes also gives you practice communicating; even in this digital age of speedy chatter, the written word is important—an extension of your ability to critically think. If you cannot communicate well, your appeal will be limited. It’s one thing to tell the business executive who interviewed “thanks a lot;” it’s another thing entirely to communicate to him that you will apply the advice he gave on getting experience in a particular field, or studying a particular skill—and that in the future you’d be honored to work for him. (Aside: when writing to teachers or employers, keep it brief and professional. You can wax poetic to family and friends.)
Thank you notes are also important because, when it comes down to it, people like being appreciated. You give the gift of acknowledgement through your note, nurturing your relationship with that individual. (In this way, it’s a bit like networking).
Finally, expressing gratitude will also make you happy; it’s a little “time out” you take to recognize what you have, what you’ve learned, or to what lengths another individual has gone to help you succeed. Even when you are striving for goals you’ve not yet attained, it’s important to take time to consider how you’ve been helped in the process so far. It will make your more thoughtful (and even happy) as you pursue additional assistance. And you’d be amazed how much a cheerful persona eases interactions!
After having written your thank you note, you’re not done (exactly). John F Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” In other words, take what you write to heart (just as you hope the recipient will)—and try to live up to it! (If you thank your tennis coach for extra time spent the past few weeks helping you on your serve after practice, be sure to recall the lessons she gave you every time you step up to the line to launch that ace. Show her you’ve truly absorbed the teaching.)
I may not do everything my parents taught me (I really should dust my apartment sometime [for the first time]), but I rarely neglect writing a thank you note.
Meagan Phelan holds an M.A. in Science Writing from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. She has freelanced as a science writer and is a Fulbright Scholar. She currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe risk modeling firm based in Boston.
Do you send thank-you notes after college visits? When is the last time you’ve written a thank-you note?
Post your tips/comments below.
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I have a little blue notebook—nothing special to look at—that’s worth its weight in gold.
Why, you may ask?
Because it’s full of the names of dozens of people I’ve meaningfully interacted with since I started thinking about getting a job (and I started thinking about getting a job in the 10th grade, when I did an internship with a local radiologist. His name is one of the first in my little book).
A skim through the book’s pages is like a walk through my academic and professional ride. I note the names of high school teachers I talked to about college entry; college professors who are also science writers, and who gave me direction as I pursued science writing (and who continue to give me direction today); a grad school advisor whose very presence inspires me to keep writing in new and challenging ways (that’s been important over the years—not to stagnate); numerous professional writers, themselves connected to other writers, and with experience working at different media outlets around the country (and the world); scientists who would be happy to help with a story; travelers who can suggest the best sights in Australia; and seasoned veterans of life who could offer wisdom about anything under the sun.
Some of these individuals, I encountered through my coursework or through mutual friends. Others, I sought out (I will go to MIT and speak right to the source when crafting an article on a new technology, for example). All of them can provide a tremendous array of insight into any professional opportunities I might consider along the way (or have considered). They can also speak to the benefits of making decisions to do things like freelance or work for a company. They’re also just plain fun.
Over the years, as I’ve been in different settings, academic and professional, I’ve made it a point to ask people questions about how they got to where they are; I find the resulting stories fascinating. (One fellow I know with a background in aerospace studies, for example, is now building crop loss predication tools for farmers). The way people get from what they were interested in when they were young, to what they studied, and ultimately to the work they have ended up pursuing most passionately is inevitably a great story—and one that can reveal ways in which to use knowledge you may previously not have contemplated. (Did you know you can use a background in math to help to map out advertising campaigns?)
So I keep asking people: how did you get here?
I also like to touch base with these people I meet, as the months move on, and hear about their work.
One way to describe this activity could be “networking,” which Wikipedia defines as groups of like-minded businesspeople recognizing creating, or acting upon business opportunities. It’s true that great opportunities—including my current position, as well pursuit of a Fulbright scholarship in Spain—resulted from my knowing different people whose names are in my little blue book. But I realize I think of knowing them as more than that, a warm, wonderful and informative web that’s given scope and shape to my life. It’s wonderful. And I’m farther along—and looking farther out—because of it.
My recommendation to you: keep a little notebook, too. Jot down the names of individuals you meet who are making great strides. Seek out more such individuals and ask them how they got to where they are. Your own possibility will be magnified for it, and in turn, someday, you’ll magnify that of others, too.
Do you think networking is important for students and young adults? How do you network in your daily life?
If you have watched Jay Leno go “Jaywalking,” you are probably aware of a remarkable truth: lots of grown-ups today lack a good grasp of even basic facts, like the name of the first man to land on the moon, what photosynthesis does, or the party affiliation of the current Speaker of the House.
You may ask, “What’s the problem here? I can Google facts like these on my smart phone in a pinch.”
But—and here’s where the danger lies—do you? Often times, you are in situations (say, in the classroom, at a job interview, or in discussions on a college campus) where you have to use just what you have in your head. You must answer questions or speak to important topics using only the resources immediately at your mind’s disposal. There’s no time to look anything up.
If the library of your mind is low on facts, how will you successfully engage in critical thinking? If your history teacher did that, if he had a vague idea of the events that lead to the Civil War but things got really murky when it came to just which states fought for the Union or the Confederacy, it would give his students’ a shaky foundation, one that could hinder every future discussion they might have regarding this critical period in American history.
So here’s the point.
Reason suggests that first we learn; for example, we learn historical facts (and this, instead of relying on our pocket gadgets to output the facts for us). Then we can do what our history teachers and great thinkers have always done—think thoughtfully about those facts.
Before you graduate high school, there are certain facts you should know. (Note: certainly, there will be some open spaces on the shelves in your mind’s library, but even having a sense of what should go there gives you awareness enough to do well in the scenarios listed above.) You probably have a good sense of what these might be—they fall under the same well-rounded umbrella reflected in your high school curriculum (i.e., geography, history, economics, a smattering of math, key moments in literary history, etc.)
For example, how many times have you had to use the quadratic formula this year? Depending on your major, multiply that number times at least 300; that’s how many times you’ll need it in college.
Do you know your state representatives? This information is easy to find and important to know if you’re going to engage, compellingly, in political dialogue.
Do you have a good grasp of Spanish verb tense endings? (In my own experience in college, being able to whip out all these endings from memory saved me loads of time).
How about the chemical equation of photosynthesis?
Knowing some of this information will help you directly—to do your work more quickly. Having other facts at your immediate disposal will ensure you have the context to dig into larger works; to skip beyond doing basic research and dig right into more meaty lines of inquiry when you’re answering homework questions or working on group projects. Finally, knowing other facts will inform both conversation and standout writing in the academic setting.
Here’s a tip, along these lines: if you struggle to memorize certain types of information, say, information in equation form, try physically representing equations. Doing this can help you better understand the process the equation is trying to illustrate. Take photosynthesis for example; it’s not just a bunch of carbon and oxygen molecules floating around on the page. It’s the reverse of regular human respiration. When you or I take in a breath of air, we consume oxygen and mix it with our body’s glucose; then we breathe out water and carbon dioxide. By contrast, plants take in carbon dioxide and water (the stuff we output), combine it with energy from the sun, and create oxygen and glucose (the stuff we take in).
What facts are you stockpiling in your head? While sports stats, song lyrics and key moments in the life of your favorite actor are fun to know—and definitely contribute to conversations about our culture—you can do better.
Do we rely too heavily on the internet for fact-finding? In doing so, are we losing our ability to grasp, retain, and relay information?
By Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
I took four years of Latin in high school. I thought a good grasp of the language Julius Caesar spoke would help me decipher the meaning of words I’d never heard. (This proved true, particularly during the SATs). I also studied Latin because it is valuable for students considering careers in science, which I was. (Many terms for human anatomy, for example, can be traced to Latin roots.)
By my senior year of high school though, I was a bit envious of my classmates who’d studied French, German or Spanish. They could speak the languages they’d learned—both at school, and in our community. Meanwhile, older friends of mine were returning from college semesters abroad.
“Going abroad will change your life!” they’d say.
When I talked with those of them who’d traveled to non-English speaking countries, one element of their experience stood out: how much they enjoyed speaking that region’s language. Knowing it had opened doors to them…whomever they wanted to get to know—the local clockmaker, the elderly businessman, etc.—they could.
I began to wonder what it would be like to get off a plane in another country—so different than my own— and move easily through the crowd, safe in knowing I could speak the country’s language as I navigated new streets and towns. It was thrilling.
My senior year of high school then, I started Spanish, a language I’d always been interested to know. Having been exposed to the basics of modern Romance languages in Latin, Spanish was a pretty quick study. When I got to college, I continued with Spanish classes, even making Spanish my minor. I learned I could travel not only to Spain through available study abroad programs for Spanish speakers, but also to South America and Mexico. (I went to Spain and learned to flamenco. I ran Seville’s streets. I did not run with the bulls.)
Traveling abroad, while academic in nature, is a very personal experience. Whether you choose to go often comes down to how well you believe you can do away from home and in a place in which many aspects of daily life are completely different. Indeed, some cultural differences are even more striking than others. (My own experience living in Seville, Spain, required less adjusting than one of my French-speaking friend’s experiences in Morocco).
If you are thinking study abroad will be right for you, you may want to start thinking about where you’d like to go.
If you are studying a language now, where it is spoken? (Did you know French is spoken in Africa? And German in Austria?) Go online (most college websites have a dedicated study abroad section) and see if the locations you’ve identified are available to you as a study abroad student, through pre-established programs.
Would you want to travel to these locations?
If you have a strong urge to travel to non-English speaking locations other than these, is that reason to consider studying a different language?
Bear in mind that most colleges require a certain level of language proficiency for students considering study abroad. What’s more, they often suggest that students travel in their junior year; beginning language study in high school makes it more likely you’ll acquire the requisite language proficiency by the time you’re a college junior.
Meanwhile, if you choose to study abroad in college, know that your experience may be different than your fellow students’ depending on your major. For some college students, incorporating study abroad time is a bit more straightforward. If you are a French literature major, for example, spending a semester in France likely already has a pre-approved stamp of approval from the college’s French Department.
If you are majoring in physics, however, spending a semester away from any lab courses and the long list of prerequisites you must complete can make your four years challenging to schedule. Never fear, though, I was a biology major, and I did it. Ways to work around academic difficulties exist (consider summer study abroad programs if you can’t study abroad during the academic year, or programs in countries like England and Australia, where you could take science classes in English, all the while having an awesome study abroad experience in a totally new culture).
If you’d like to know more about study abroad, and where the language you are studying as a high school student could take you, contact a campus study abroad office at a local college. Don’t forget, too, that just as you can create your own major at some colleges, you could even work with a different college—one other than that which you will attend—to shape your own study abroad program.
Are you considering studying abroad? If so, where? Please share your experiences.