Posts Tagged ‘Meagan Phelan’

To Stand Apart in College, Engage

Writing Tutor for study skill developmentBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

Imagine you’ve made your college football team. Years of practice in high school and grueling summer training paid off, and you get the chance to play—even to start. When you step out onto the field though, you listen halfheartedly to the quarterback’s calls, sprint just enough to avoid breaking a sweat, and steer clear of tackles.

This may sound absurd. Who would work so hard to make a team, and then disengage, once on it?
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But the truth is, getting accepted to college is much like making a team and it is not uncommon for students to apply the same unenergetic approach to learning, once in the classroom. Perhaps this is because the opposite approach—an intentional, intellectually curious one—also takes hard work and practice.

When you get to college, be it this fall or in a few years, you’ll have a chance to take as much from your experience as your discipline will allow—and to stand out from among your peers in the process.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to think actively about what you’re reading when you’re doing work for a particular class. Read it aloud, if that helps, or break up the reading by tackling half a chapter and then asking yourself, “Why should I care about what I just learned?” Or, “How does this information advance what I knew about the topic?”

Chances are, if you can articulate the importance or novelty of the topic you’re studying, you are grasping the bigger picture. And if you are grasping the bigger picture, all the little details—the anecdotes in the chapters you’re reading, or the ones your professor will bring up in the classroom—will “stick.” You’ll be able to recall them later because they support an idea that’s familiar to you.

This kind of engaged participation is particularly key in the classroom; while your classmates may be tempted to snooze after a late night in the library, or text, if you can be disciplined enough to focus on the professor’s lecture, you’ll make your life much easier—and stand out. (I’ve personally had professors approach me and acknowledge that my attentiveness was noticed and appreciated.)

The more engaged you are in the classroom, the less you’ll have to fret about studying. That’s because staying engaged is a sure way to know what material the professor’s most excited about, including some of the deeper, more nuanced points that are likely to be incorporated on a test.

While your college classmates try to answer questions with filler material when in a pinch, you will be positioned to answer test questions directly, and again, to incorporate the subtleties that attention to the lecture revealed.

It takes effort to sit up straight, to hang onto a professor’s (most) every word, and to avoid distractions, but the benefits are a better relationship with that professor, a better grasp of the material, and more efficient studying. Though it could take time, you will also achieve recognition by your classmates as a leader.

Being engaged doesn’t apply merely to homework, reading, classroom presence and test taking. Students who stand apart also pay special attention to the notes and feedback professors take the time to write on their papers and projects. It might seem like extra effort to keep those materials and to take the time—amid all else you have on the go during college—to “study” those pieces, but adding them to your study repertoire will help you identify your weak spots, to avoid them going forward. In this way, you can make progress without the professor having had to call you out on your repeat errors, a process which can be discouraging.

As you go through all this, remember the instruction that ties it all together, the glue in the engaged student’s skeleton: Ask questions when you don’t understand. Whether it’s a professor or a teaching assistant, or even an older student pursuing the same major, find someone you can sit with and pepper with questions. And stand ready to do the same for the younger students who will follow you. Not only is this process important for an engaged collegiate experience; it’s one you’ll see over and over again in every aspect—investing, home maintenance, parenthood—of life.

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. Meagan is the Science Press Package Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

What other ways can you engage in college? Any other tips you’d like to share?

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August 19th, 2013
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Top Five Questions to Ask Yourself At Least Once A Week in College

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

The college experience is rich in choices. You could be a double major or pursue two minors. After class, you could go to soccer practice, drama club, debate team, or band. You might study abroad one semester—or maybe even two. You could also have a boyfriend or girlfriend on campus, begin mentoring younger students, or spend a lot of time with older ones, just hanging out.

What do all of these different activities hold in common?

They’ll command your attention—and a lot of it.

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In fact, it could be pretty easy to graduate just having enjoyed the college experience—and even having excelled at it—without looking beyond, to the next chapter, to contemplate the application of college to your life.

Contemplating what college will mean for you in your mid-twenties, thirties, and beyond might be an idea that seems fairly hazy right now (after all, many of you reading this blog are just doing the hard work to get into college—a major feat in itself). So I’ve thought of five questions you could ask yourself throughout the course of your college career—from day one ‘til your last—to help make this thought process relevant now.

Here we go:

1) What industries are booming now, and which ones are saturated?

Forbes Magazine is a great source for information like this. A quick look at the fastest growing industries may reveal some, like manufacturing or cattle ranching, for example, that you’ve never considered. But these businesses—like most—require communicators, leaders, technicians, and people of all kinds to think outside the box and keep them connected and stable. You wouldn’t need a background in manufacturing or cattle ranching to make a significant contribution. You would need a strong set of skills in one of the abovementioned fields and awareness that these industries are hungry.

It’s equally important to know which industries aren’t as open to job applicants. If you’re planning to pursue one, contemplate what skills to develop to set yourself apart.

2) What are three different types of jobs people who pursued my major have done, or are doing?

Get to know some of those people. Ask if you might email or call them from time to time to understand how what they learned in college is helping them in their current role. Ask them what gaps they had in their learning. Maybe you could take one of the classes they wished they’d taken.

3) What is my elevator pitch?

Can you explain your interests and strengths—and even how you want to apply them to your tentative career goals—in the time it’d take you to ride the elevator a few floors?

You’ll often need to present a similar pitch in job interviews, but more importantly, stating your intentions for your career aloud forces you to clarify them in your own mind. Thoughts that floated around comfortably in your head may come across as phony once spoken.

Sometimes the results of this exercise are surprising, particularly if you let people who know you well weigh in on what you say.

4) Where is the nearest business that’d let me shadow for a day?

Even if you don’t yet know what line of work you’d like to pursue, just getting out of the classroom and into a working environment offers important lessons, including the roles communication skills and thinking ahead play in successfully managing people. You might also learn about new cross-industry technologies that businesses are using—and hope their employees will walk in the door knowing.

Check out a previous post, here, for more details on the values of shadowing: The Importance of Internships & Work Experiences While in High School

5) What are my friends thinking of doing after college?

Though this question could make your friends a little uneasy, it’s ok to ask it. For starters, you’re all most likely in the same boat, especially in the first year or two—without a clear cut vision of just what you’ll do with your college degree. Secondly, hearing your friends think through the process of how they will apply what they will learn may give you some ideas.

Lots of people talk about questions to ask before you get to college—and these are important questions to consider. You want to find a good fit for your four-year journey.

But I propose staying just as inquisitive during your collegiate experience. Doing a little each week so you get comfortable with the hard parts.

Evaluating your efforts regularly as you make your way to graduation will mean you’re not nervous when you get there. You’ll be able to celebrate both the closing of that chapter, and the beginning of the next.

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.

What other questions should you ask yourself while at college? Any other tips you’d like to share?

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February 19th, 2013
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Mental Preparation: Preparing for Your First Year at College

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

It’s December, and if you’re a high school senior, you might be beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. This is the time of year when the college application process is winding down. All the work you’ve done—taking AP courses, studying for the SATs, visiting campuses, applying for financial aid, writing personal statements—is done. Now all you have to do is wait for that acceptance letter, right?

Well, not exactly…

There is something missing from the list above—a subtler effort that could easily be overlooked after the essays are written and scores are in. I’m talking about mental preparation. After all, high school—the place you’ve spent the last few years—is very different from college. Taking some time to anticipate that transition and develop a good attitude will put you heads above the rest as you embark on your college journey.

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Consider this, for example: in high school, your parents, teachers and even guidance counselor may have checked in on you to see how your work was going. It probably just seemed like a natural part of the high school process. It also meant that any problems you might have had in a particular class couldn’t grow too big; they were spotted first—and you were helped to overcome them and navigate to success. You may have received affirmation regularly, too, as part of this process.
In college, you’ll be living on your own. In this setting, you’ll be expected to look after yourself—and your work. Your professors may have 20 students per class, or 200. Though it is their responsibility to teach and even inspire you, they cannot look after you individually, nor ensure you pass. They may not also be able to give you the feedback you are used to receiving unless you seek them out (at office hours, for example).

In college then, it is very much up to you to chart your course, and the efforts you make—choices about how much to study, when to seek help, and how creative to get with your projects and assignments—will determine your success. This is both a liberating and exciting prospect, and one that will test your responsibility. To understand its real-life implications better, you might touch base with friends currently in college and ask how they are approaching their day-to-day workload.

Here’s another thought to consider as you prepare for the transition to college: you may have to study more than you did in high school to get the same grades. A lot of young people think about college as an exciting new experience ripe with opportunities for socializing and meeting friends; this is absolutely true, but be prepared for the fact that you could have less free time than you did in high school. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t have time to take part in every mixer or event on the quad. There will be plenty more; trust me.

Speaking of free time, just as you’ll have less supervision in your academic life, you’ll also have less of it in your time outside of class. Nobody will be stopping you from joining 8 clubs, opting not to proofread your paper, forgoing office hours (or class), or making Wednesday night the first night of your weekend. Much of this is true even if you live at home while attending college. I suggest trying to develop some routines—and keeping some basic ideas in mind. As simple as these may sound, they’re key to helping you stay healthy and productive.

1) Eat three times a day.

Let’s face it: the “freshman 15” happens. You’re going to be surrounded by a lot of food at college (at my school, the food was ranked 3rd best in the nation!)

Alternatively, you may feel pressure to look a certain way—tempted to skip a meal or two. Here’s the truth: you cannot think, let alone study, if you do not eat. And thinking and studying is what college is all about! Plus, if you hit three squares, your metabolism will be firing on all cylinders! So make time for meals. (Eating at the college cafeteria is also a great time to meet people.)

2) Join clubs. But don’t overbook yourself.

One of the most exciting aspects of college is the different array of activities available. (My freshman year, apart from cross country and track, I did dance, wrote for the school newspaper, joined the Skeptical Chemists, and participated in a service fraternity. It was a blast; I felt like I was getting to know so many of my strengths, but in the end, with school and sports, it was a lot. I backed down to two extracurricular activities and dug into those with a passion. I still met loads of people and felt a satisfying balance between academics and outside activities).

3) Find your professors’ offices.

Put their office hour schedule in your phone, and check in now and then. And definitely check in if you’re feeling foggy about your work. Professors aren’t just teachers; they are life-long friends and advisors. I still correspond with many of mine today. That time at office hours was a great place to get to know them.

4) Prepare to be a roommate.

It may be trying at times; you could have a roommate who doesn’t share much in common with you (including a sleep schedule)—or dorm members who think your room is the best place to hang into the wee hours of the night.

Few experiences challenge your people skills and personal development more than living with a roommate. Think about how you’ve handled compromise in past (you’ll likely have to do it again with the person sharing your room). Prepare to do it in this situation, and don’t be discouraged when the need to compromise arises; it’s part of the college experience. (And you’ll certainly encounter people with whom you have differences later in life, including possibly your spouse!)

5) Find a quiet study place.

This may or may NOT be your dorm room.

6) If you feel peer pressure, you won’t be alone.

This is common on college campuses. And as cliché as it sounds, if something feels really wrong to you, don’t do it. Opportunities will abound for you to get out there, explore, and find your niche.

Amid it all, keep this in mind, college is perhaps most exhilarating in the sense that every day you’re there, you are shaping your future; every class you choose and club you attend is building your knowledge and your network. Because you are in the driver’s seat, you need to step back and think “big picture” now and then. It’s your job to ask yourself if your approach is leading you in a direction, towards a career, where you want to go. And while there’s a lot riding on the way you spend your time, I wholeheartedly believe you can have a great time—socialize, go out, take part in Greek life—and still be on top of your academics.

As you gear up for college then, recognize that it will feel very different because it is very different. Make the conscious decision now to keep your head on your shoulders and to be mindful of how your choices could shape not just your week, but your life. In the end, I guarantee it’ll lower your stress level during your first year, and mean you have had a really rich experience by the time you collect your degree.

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.

How did you get yourself mentally ready for college? Any other tips you’d like to share?

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December 6th, 2012
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Selecting a College Major

 

 

How to select a college major

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

When you’re college-bound, here’s one question you can be sure to hear.

“What are you planning to study?”

Questions about your major will continue when you enter college—deviating slightly if you’re undecided (“Ok, well, which way are you leaning?”), and becoming more persistent if you remain undecided through sophomore year (“Have you at least narrowed it down?”)

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The questions don’t stop after you’ve obtained your degree; in many a job interview, the topic of your major surfaces, and early. And even at social gatherings, “What did you study in college?” is a common line of inquiry for people getting to know one another.

In short, the choice of a college major is one that society, and employers, find defining. It is your commitment not only to a particular area of study, but also to a relevant career, and it says a lot about you (perhaps even more than you’d say about yourself).

If you’re a high school junior or senior, and you’re not yet confident about what area of study you’d like to pursue in college, don’t fret. You have plenty of time. (In fact, some would say declaring your major early, at the time of college enrollment, limits your opportunity to experiment and explore different fields, including ones about which you’ve never heard).

On the other hand, just because a college major is a college pursuit doesn’t mean freshman year is when you should get serious about contemplating the field of study you’ll make your own. You can start now.

How, you might ask?

Contemplating your interests in terms of a career is a great place to start. In a previous blog post, I talked about how high school is a valuable time to shadow professionals in different fields. If you’ve had some of these experiences and know, for example, that you’re interested in engineering, talk to individuals in this profession. Ask them which major they pursued. (Note that the link between college major and career path is not always direct. Engineers, for example, often pursue majors in specialty areas, like mechanical or civil engineering. But in some cases, they may have majored in seemingly unrelated topics, recognized they were good problem solvers—a huge part of the job of an engineer—and gone on to pursue engineering-focused coursework either as part of their college experience, or after. The path to arrive at a career can vary, but it will undoubtedly contain certain key elements. Get to know what those are by talking to people in the field that interests you about their education.)

Stepping back a bit, if you haven’t yet established your interests in terms of a career, take the opportunity to be proactive. Bear in mind what you’ve enjoyed, and think critically about where you’ve excelled. These experiences provide a guidepost; you will undoubtedly do good work if you enjoy what you are doing—so incorporate established interests in your freshman class schedule.

Meanwhile, because you often don’t have to choose a major until the end of your sophomore year, your coursework during this time can comprise a diverse range. Carpe diem! And as you take a variety of classes, don’t fret that you’re “wasting” time; you’ll earn credits that count toward your degree, no matter your major. (Do keep in mind that some majors—like biochemistry—require numerous courses taken in a specific order. Embarking on one these after your first year might mean you’ll take a little longer to complete your degree. However, even before you formally declare what you plan to major in, you can begin taking classes in a particular field.)

If you sign up for a schedule that is jam-packed but you’d still like to slip into that finance course to see if the material sparks your interest, be open to auditing; ask the professor if you can sit in—without doing homework, taking tests, or getting credit, but giving yourself a chance to hear course discussions.

The key throughout this process is to be hands-on; sign up for classes you know you’ll enjoy, as well as classes that may be completely foreign to you. Go the extra mile to have additional academic opportunities. It’s all about collecting the information you need to help you make your choice. One thing to consider as part of this process is that those who don’t seek immediate satisfaction tend to find lasting satisfaction; some courses (say, statistics) might not excite you at first blush, but the overall degree they will earn can open the door to some pretty exciting careers.

Lastly, recognize that if there is a course of study you’d really like to pursue but it is not available as a traditional major, you might be able to work with college faculty to create an individualized one. In this scenario, you select a theme and then develop it with courses from a number of different traditional major tracks.

When choosing a major, not only do you have to contemplate your interests and strengths (something you can begin to do in high school), and put yourself in fields of study that inspire you to learn. It could also be helpful to think a bit farther ahead—to critically evaluate job needs today, in this country, and abroad. It’s equally important to contemplate challenges you might face once you’ve got gotten your degree and are pursuing a certain job (something those in your field of interest could speak to). For example, it may be that more and more hospitals are looking for doctors who specialize in a particular area, or speak a particular language. In identifying job needs and challenges early on, you can work to equip yourself with a desirable skill set—one that will make you truly competitive.

I would also note that a college major does not align directly with a particular job. A history major could run a business, just as an historian could have studied physics, for his/her major. But in the end, the intensity you put on certain studies will dictate your appeal as you apply for jobs.

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.

What was your major in college? Did you pursue a related career with that major?

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November 16th, 2012
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An Actual Thank You Note’s Worth a Thousand Thank You’s

Writing TutorBy 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.”

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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?

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September 29th, 2012
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College Visits: How to Prepare for Thoughtful Questions You Might Ask—and Be Asked

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

A tour guide in a bright t-shirt walking backwards, nimbly navigating libraries, gyms, and sprawling lawns; this is the image I conjure when I remember my own visits to college campuses.

If you are a junior or senior, you’ve probably been on several such visits, with more in the queue. How much time do you spend, on average, preparing for these?

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If your answer is, “I review the school’s website, talk to others who went there, and get to know its core curriculum requirements,” that’s a good start. But you could be doing more—additional preparation that would make you standout to busy college admissions counselors and advisors you might meet.

Let’s face it; admissions counselors and advisors meet dozens of potential students a year. In the end, those who will stand out to them are very likely those that reflect a passion—and can tell a coherent story about how they arrived at that passion. To maximize your opportunity to discuss this meaty and memorable topic during the brief interviews you might have, or during university functions for prospective students, try to avoid asking questions you could know the answer to simply by studying the school’s website (or course catalog). Questions like whether you have to take SAT II subject tests or four years of a foreign language; the school’s average SAT score; majors, minors, or concentrations offered; and information about study abroad programs.

Taking time to study the information above will mean you won’t have to spend time asking questions about these topics—and can instead focus on more qualitative queries that burrow more deeply into what it’s like to be a student the school. Here’s an example: “How has the head of the biology department’s emphasis on science majors understanding how scientific study results are perceived in the world at large influenced the number of science majors who are adding English/media courses to their curriculum. And/or how has it influenced the possibility for students to pursue independent majors with a science communication-related focus?”

Answers to qualitative questions like these can be different every time, depending on the college staff person you ask.

Not only should you be ready to ask thoughtful questions; you should be ready to answer them, too. College staff may ask prospective students, directly, “Why do you want to attend this school?” If you’ve not yet articulated the answer—but just had warm, fuzzy feeling about the place, or if you like it because your parents both attended—you might want to take some time to think about the features of the institution that have really captured your imagination.

College staff may also ask about your interests—books you have read, or thoughts you have on particular topics in the news. Each question gives you a chance to speak to your interests. In turn, it gives the person asking it a chance to get a sense of who you are. The opportunity to interact in this way can be missed when you spend your brief college visit simply asking the basic questions—about course curriculum, etc.—outlined above.

If you are thinking, “This sounds good, but I’m still fleshing out who I am, and I’m not quite sure how I’d answer these questions,” that’s ok. There are numerous opportunities to pursue interests complementary to (and beyond) your current course curriculum in order to identify areas in which you are passionate.

Do you play high school tennis? After your season is over (because undoubtedly, you won’t have much extra time during the season), consider teaching tennis to local youth. This would not only provide a way for you to engage with your community—an activity sure to impress college admissions staff, and one they like to see students in college continue—it’d offer you a chance to see how you do in a coaching (or leadership) role. Colleges look for leaders among those they accept.

Maybe there is a field about which you already feel excited, like politics. Dig deeper! If talking about tax cuts fires you up, contact your local Congressman and see if that person would be open to you shadowing, or providing write-ups for a local political blog. If you love literature and find you have an appetite for it that extends beyond the courses currently available at high school, investigate courses available at your local community college; they typically offer high school enrichment classes. Colleges love to see high school students taking steps like this, to get real world experience, feed their brains and get ahead!

If you’re still working to provide answers to the kinds of thoughtful questions college admission staff may ask—about how you’ve become who you are and what you want to contribute to the world—consider how you use your free time. Options abound for self-discovery.

Not only will the activities you pursue help you determine where your interests are really rooted—which is critical as you decide upon a career—they will also make for memorable stories when it comes to sharing your narrative with college admissions staff. To stand out in their minds, make sure your own interests first stand out in yours.

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.

What are some good questions to ask admissions officers? Will you ask thoughtful questions on your next school visit?

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August 29th, 2012
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Connections that Count

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

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).

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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.

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 think networking is important for students and young adults? How do you network in your daily life?

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July 25th, 2012
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Mind Wasters: Stop memorizing RBIs and Start Memorizing Log Functions

Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

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.”

Well, yes.

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.

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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.

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 we rely too heavily on the internet for fact-finding? In doing so, are we losing our ability to grasp, retain, and relay information?

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June 28th, 2012
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How the Language You Study Now Might Impact Your Tomorrow

Writing Tutor 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.)

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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.

Carpe diem!

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.

Are you considering studying abroad? If so, where? Please share your experiences.

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June 11th, 2012
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Well-rounded, or Lop-sided: What do Colleges Really Want?

Writing Tutor By Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

When applying to college, you’re likely to hear about “the importance of being well-rounded.” It seems to be common knowledge that colleges look for students who’ve shown interest not only in school work, but in other pursuits, like sports, theater, music, or volunteering. Y

The reasoning is clear. These endeavors challenge you in different ways than classwork does and help you develop sensibilities separate from those you can hone as a student. For my part, I know that four years on the high school cross-country, swim and track teams taught me that even the hardest workouts—the ones that exhausted me physically and taunted me, “you can’t finish!”—were doable; I felt more confident at critical moments, like job interviews, as a result. Hours of practicing the violin, meanwhile, slowly grew in me a reserve of patience developed nowhere else; that came in handy when big school research projects required my long commitment. And I remember my theater classmates, whose work on the stage translated to confidence in public speaking, which I greatly admired.

Colleges want bodies of students who reflect these qualities: determination, confidence, patience. So as you work hard in the classroom (which is indeed critical), remember that the work you are doing elsewhere—as a Scout, volunteer, or lacrosse player—is shaping you, too. Take a moment to reflect on the way in which these activities are impacting how you approach the world; could you sum it up in a sentence?

Deviating slightly, I heard an interesting discussion recently, with respect to what colleges seek as they evaluate student candidates. Though colleges want “well-rounded” classrooms, they do not want well-rounded applicants; that is, students who are “jacks-of-all trades” and masters of none. The advice stemming from this discussion was to focus on a specific extracurricular about which you are passionate in order to reflect your investment in it. (We often do this naturally anyway.)

But focusing on one area—putting all eggs in one basket—is still not the goal; rather, the remaining advice was to layer your passion in diverse ways that guide you toward a greater understanding of it. (For example, if your passion were water color, find a way to explore that interest in your local community, perhaps by leading a class at a local retirement home. Do you like to teach? If your passion were Spanish, get involved in translating websites for local businesses who require Spanish webpages. Do you enjoy applying your skills in the business world?)

Simply put, these kinds of effort in an area you love separate you from the next student.
As you work hard now, in high school, you are likely already taking steps to stand out. This is just another to consider; what’s great, too, is that it involves more deeply pursuing that which you enjoy.

And don’t worry; if you haven’t found your “passion” yet, pursue what you appreciate, whatever that may be. Your motivation for investing time in such activities will fall out naturally when it comes time to articulate who you are in a college admissions essays (or in the world beyond). And all the while, you’ll be cultivating aspects of your character that you will call on for the rest of your life!

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.

Is it more important for students to be well-rounded or to be a master of one craft? Do colleges look at both?

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May 18th, 2012
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