RBOCollege Applications

  • DC1 spent some time listening to Yale admissions podcasts about what not to do in personal essays and went to a Pomona webinar that directly contradicted everything the Yale people said.  What’s in right now (but not at Yale) are essays that start with hooks.  Like the Pomona example of an excellent essay started something like:  “Watermelon.  I wasn’t to know that day that the pink-red and green fruit was going to change my life forever.”
  • DC1, DC2, and I had a great time coming up with ridiculous sounding hooks.  ‘”How did I get into college at all without an essay hook,” my mother wondered.’  or ‘”Perhaps this is why I didn’t get into Williams!” my mother gasped while reading advice on essay hooks.’  DC2’s suggestions were more off the wall and had a fish theme.
  • Eventually we gave up trying to help DC1 brainstorm and hired someone from Outschool to help brainstorm.  It seemed to be less painful for DC1.
  • I am of two minds about this– on the one hand, I never thought I would be one of those people who paid someone to help with college admissions.  I am a big believer in finding a good match for a school and DC1 is in a range where a good essay will help some places but a mediocre essay won’t kill hir chances.  It’s possible there’s some amazing essay that would make hir a shoe-in, but being honest, all hir life experiences are privileged White upper-middle class (but not like, directed a movie as a teenager kind of privileged like one of Angelina Jolie’s kids) and are mildly interesting.  On the other hand, she just seems to be doing the whole brainstorming thing we were doing before but with more knowledge about when an idea isn’t great (only she says it positively, DC1 notes) and without the feeling of pulling teeth.  Zie got more done in a half hour session with her in terms of just putting ideas out there than zie did in half a day with DH and me tag teaming.  (Although it did help that DC1 had done some of the exercises with us before– they’re commonly suggested on the internet/in how to write college essay books.)
  • It’s not even the writing that DC1 is having problems with.  DC1 just has a really hard time choosing or having opinions.  (This is a common theme with DC1– hir only big opinion is that we should always have sushi for meals, and never have raw tomatoes, but also zie would rather have me pick which sushi.) For the questions that are very specific for the State School application that zie has already turned in, zie didn’t really have that much trouble.  But this whole “you can write anything for the common app” is just too much.  Especially since hir first idea would be identical to HMC’s new essay prompt.  (This is the, “I know what I want my career path to be” style essay.)
  • After one session, DC1 had a much better idea for the HMC prompt that zie had already made good progress on, but was still stymied on the common app essay.  So DC1 asked for more sessions.  Which we will pay $50/30 min for once a week until DC1 feels comfortable with hir essays.  I feel #richpeopleguilt about this, but also I’m hoping it will save everybody’s time and my frustration.
  • The even richer economists I know hired actual people not from outschool to give full service college navigation.  So… we’re not really there yet.  (DC1 didn’t even do SAT coaching because I assumed zie wouldn’t need it, which zie didn’t.  Though zie did take some practice PSAT/SATs from previous years and brushed up on forgotten math based on those.)
  • It’s crazy to me how much DC1 hates introspection because when I was that age, if the internet had been more developed, I would so have had an angsty live-journal page.  (Actually I probably wouldn’t have because I was already super leery of aol chat and IRC– my roommate (not #2) hung out on channels that seemed to be mostly gross people looking for under-aged girls to sext. So I was pretty leery even then.)
  • Though to be fair, my common app essay wasn’t particularly introspective– it was about how implicit discrimination by K-12 teachers hurt girls and Black kids and how insisting that the teacher use a quantitative measure for my 4th grade math-pullout sessions (we had Wednesdays off to volunteer or do internships at my boarding school) added really smart Black and Hispanic girls to my group, and it was heartbreaking how they’d been overlooked before. And I wanted to study education and put in systemic changes to help kids like these girls.  In retrospect, probably too white-savior (but I was only 17! I can cut myself some slack!), but I did get into a top SLAC, even if it wasn’t Williams.
  • My sister’s common app essay was amazing.  It was about how physics informed her dancing and vice versa.  She’s still mad at me for her not applying to Stanford even though I suggested she do so.  She said that I was too negative about her chances because I’d seen so many top people not get in and told her it was all random after a certain level.  (Again, I was like 22, what did I know?  But I still stand by the, “it’s random after a certain point.” But even if I was wrong, she shouldn’t still be holding a grudge about it.)  Still she got into lots of amazing schools (all of the ones she applied to, including an Ivy) and loved her college experience, so …

Some summer writing stuff for DC1

DH pointed out to me that DC1 will allow hir work to expand to take any amount of time allotted for it.  A lot of this is wasted time or hidden goofing off (something I am prey to as well).  Basically during the school year zie steals little bits of time to websurf and forum chat etc. and never has large pockets for things that are actually fun like composing or video games or movies or even books.  We talked about why that might be and came up with the fact that whenever DC1 looks like zie isn’t busy we always have suggestions for things to do (usually stuff zie should be doing anyway, like hir laundry or emptying the dishwasher, but not always).

It also has become very apparent during the last year that DC1 hasn’t been taught any writing skills since fifth grade when we were living in Paradise.  Zie just hasn’t had to write.  And hir first draft isn’t generally that great.  (We only noticed this in the last 6 weeks because prior to that there were few writing assignments and what writing assignments there were, DC1 would work on verrrrry slowly and not get a draft done that zie was willing to show us until they were actually due.)

Sidenote:  some college applications have the option of turning in a graded essay as a writing sample.  DC1 does not have a single thing zie could turn in.  The most writing zie has done (other than lab reports that “don’t count”) were FRQs (aka practice AP test writing) from hir history classes.  I wouldn’t trust hir own English or History teachers to be able to write anyway (with the exception of the late AP US History teacher who was writing rec letters from the hospital before his death).  Hir racist World History teacher wrote a terrible rec letter for my friend’s son which was both badly written and made him sound like a jerk, which he isn’t.  (She started with basically, “He may seem like a tyrannical leader” and then had kind of word salad and ended sort of, but not clearly, saying but that would be incorrect?  It didn’t say what she thought it said.)

My friend’s kid who is going to Brown next year has perfected putting things off to the last minute and then doing a reasonably good job on them in a short amount of time.  DC1 does not have that skill.  My friend’s kid also put off doing college essays to the last possible second which caused my friend a lot of stress (though zie still got into Brown, so…)

So we decided that this summer DC1 will practice personal narrative writing in the form of college essays.  Zie will learn how to brainstorm and how to write a first draft quickly.  And, this is important, once zie has a good essay, zie is done for the week (other than picking out the next week’s question).

We started off small with a short Harvey Mudd Essay about the ideal humanities/art class.  Brainstorming was a little painful– zie still seems to have a bit of that perfectionist streak.  But in the end we got some ideas on paper.  I gave hir I think an hour to get a first draft from the brainstorming.  The first draft was ok, but it wasn’t very punchy and there were a few items that were obviously clear to DC1 but not to the reader.  DH and I went through and cut out repetitious parts, suggested different ways that sentences could be moved around to make the narrative punchier, and requested clarification for the parts that weren’t clear.  The second draft was perfect.  And we were done for the week.

I’m hopeful that this trend will continue as we get into more obnoxious essays (zie has been looking at the Amherst page– the essay prompt back in my year, “Barbra Streisand sings that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, but Sartre says that Hell is other people, which do you agree with and why?” was so sickening that I ended up choosing not to apply; it looks like in 2021 they offered some choice, though I’m deeply offended by the anti-math prompt from a physics professor).

There are a lot of guides for writing essays out there, but these essays have kind of an almost flippant tone that neither DC1 nor I like.  There’s a sort of sameness to them.  I told DC1 that zie doesn’t need to emulate them, but zie does need to have hir own voice come out.  Narrative essays (blog posts, essentially) are not the same as technical writing.  I’m not sure how good my advice is.  My sister’s common app essay, in retrospect, did kind of emulate these essays (she talked about destroying my stuff as a kid and how dance and physics intertwine) and she got in everywhere she applied while mine was more of a “here’s a social problem illustrated by my experience volunteering” and I didn’t get in everywhere I applied.  But… my sister had a better overall application than I did (team captain for award wining all-girls poms and math teams, knew she wanted to do mechanical engineering, etc.) so I can’t just blame the essay.

Best ballpoint pen for someone who loves to push hard? Ask the grumpies

Heavyhands asks:

Do you have a favorite kind of pen?  I am tired of using cheap Bic work pens that get blobs of ink all over my fingers and smudge all over the page.  I have some Pilot G2 when I want to write in colors, but I really like ballpoint pens [ed: the kind with tacky ink] better, except they glop all over my hands!  I read some good reviews about the uni jetstream and bought them, but I’m not liking it so far.  Yesterday I suddenly realized, “why am I using these pens that glop ink everywhere?  I can afford to buy pens,” but I don’t want to keep ordering random pens and not like them.  I can’t afford that!

NY Magazine thinks my crappy work Bic pens are good.  (The Bic roundstic)– how can I ever trust anyone?  They get globs of ink everywhere!  But… I do trust your readers.

Does grumpy nation have any advice for me?  I think I prefer ballpoint to rollerball [ed: this is what I would call flowing ink like the G2 or my favorite Tul] because I push really hard with my pens.  I also am ok with gel pens, but I’ve only used them for fancy things like writing cards.  Since I push hard with the pens, there’s less friction with a ballpoint than with a gel pen or a rollerball pen.  I think I wreck the tips on rollerballs.

I would love to hear people’s pen recommendations?  What’s your favorite pen?

Oh gee, we both have light touches with pens.  #1 prefers rollerballs and definitely has a lot less friction with a rollerball or gel pen than with a ballpoint.  #2 prefers marker tip(!)

I think my favorite was the uni jetstream 101 (the kind you get 12 to a box, not the retractable kind), but that advice is probably not at all helpful to you since we have such different writing styles and you didn’t like the uni jetstream that you got!

This article recommends the uni-ball signo 207 premier gel pen and the Pilot Dr. Grip Ballpoint.

DH loves his space pen, though I cannot imagine spending that much ($22) on something I would invariably lose.  (DH has not lost his, though it has gone through the wash a couple of times, since it is always kept in his pocket.)

Grumpy Nation, can you help Heavyhands out?  What are your favorite pens?  Do you press heavily or lightly?

February snuck up on me: February Challenge, gotta get some stuff out

I am so far behind on everything, Grumpy Nation.

But… for the first time since NOVEMBER, my computer desktop at work is finally fully functional.  Like, I can use dropbox and WinSCP and not get a BSOD 5 minutes after logging in.  So… that’s a miracle.

February is the best month for challenges, even if there’s an extra day this year.

I’m going to combine two previous annual challenges:

1. 2018’s No Devices In The Morning Challenge

and

2. 2017’s Write Every Morning Challenge

I will be taking one weekend day off for the write in the morning challenge, which is good since I didn’t realize February 1st was February 1st until Saturday afternoon.

Everything I said in that 2017 post is 100% true this February as well, up to and including the 8am office hours one day a week.

Ask the readers: How do I teach my middle-schooler writing?

While we have been impressed with the math and orchestra teaching in public schools where we are, we have been less so with the humanities.  DC1 is not learning how to write.  Zie is not getting many writing assignments, and the one that zie gets are completed in-class with minimal feedback and are mostly creative writing or opinion.  (Add to that the ELA teacher doesn’t exactly show great writing skills in hir own written communications… though I suppose my blog writing doesn’t show the same level of quality as my professional writing so I shouldn’t throw stones.  Still…)

Looking online most of the recommendations seem to be “let them read a lot and write a lot”… well, DC1 already reads a lot.  And, having looked into the “research” that claims that writing cannot be taught, I am less than impressed with the methodology.  I can believe that writing cannot be taught in a single semester, and that grammar instruction without  combined writing instruction doesn’t transfer, but I have a bright 10 year old with a growth mindset for at least another 6 years of instruction, not a fixed-mindset college student for a semester of remediation.   I have to believe that there’s something more systematic that can be done than just having DC1 write about a wedding zie has attended.

I am most interested in teaching DC1 technical writing, especially given that technical writing seems to be completely neglected in hir classes thus far.  As I’m grading my college students’ policy briefs, I find I worry that DC1 doesn’t know how to use topic sentences or craft a paragraph that supports such sentences.  I want hir to learn outlining.  And have the ability to skim an article that has been written with topic sentences and an outline.

I vaguely remember learning in 3rd grade about topic sentences, diagramming sentences in 4th grade, and outlining in 5th grade.  (My juvenilia is actually pretty good… at least compared to the writings of many of my college students…)  A high school history teacher taught the art of transitions (though in college I learned that not all disciplines appreciate them, so I have stopped doing that final step except when writing in more historical sub-fields).  My mom did a lot of teaching me how to fix my grammar, clarity, and so on.  #2 also helped form my writing (her mom is a professional editor).  One of my grad advisors taught me discipline-specific tricks for writing in my main field.

Students at elite private schools get a lot of technical instruction in writing.  The results are impressive.  And I can’t believe it’s just their socioeconomic status or a greater propensity to read that’s the cause of it.  My sister got actual technical writing instruction at the private school she went to for high school and her writing ability and writing enjoyment improved tremendously (despite heavy amounts of constructive feedback).  There are rules that can be taught.

So I’m asking you:  How do I teach writing to my kids?  Is there a curriculum that would be good?  A workbook series or set of prompts that would guide them through the basics of technical writing? A Kumon-style academy that does a particularly good job?  How did you learn how to write?

Please use more topic sentences

In your technical writing.  Please!

What is a topic sentence, you ask?  Since they no longer seem to cover that in third grade…

A topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that provides the main idea of the paragraph.  Essentially it introduces a paragraph and summarizes what the paragraph is going to say.  It isn’t, “Now we turn to Table 2”.   It isn’t, “[Author (DATE)] studies X.”  What does Table 2 say?  Why is it there?  Why are you talking about Author (DATE)?  What is the relationship to your paper?  Convey this information in the first sentence of each paragraph.

The topic sentence should tell you why that paragraph is there.  If you don’t know why that paragraph is there, then maybe it shouldn’t be.

This PSA brought to you by a grumpy rumbler who has had to do waaay too many referee reports recently.

Stocks and bonds, Writing and outreach

I had an idea.  Follow me, here:

For academic careers, writing is like investing in stocks.  Outreach and translational research are like investing in bonds.

Stocks and writing:  Get lots while you’re young.  You need to write prolifically enough to get tenure, and gain the national or international reputation you need for those outside letters.  Spread your name, become known in your field.  Start early.  Because the return is uncertain, put a lot of writing out there in the world (and buy stocks).  Stocks are a good investment when you have a long timeline until retirement; you have time to weather the ups-and-downs of the market and can have a higher tolerance for risk, in exchange for possibly higher returns.

Bonds and outreach/translation:  These are more effective when you’re older.  When you’re more experienced in your field, you have more experience and a reputation that you can leverage for influence.  Research-wise, you’ve got a better idea of what works and what’s worth developing further, as well as potential pitfalls and objections.  You also know people who can help spread your ideas.  You may have more time to devote to making the world a better place.  When you’re closer to retirement, you also want the safety and security of bonds: potentially lower return, but steady.

In financial investing, as in an academic career, you’ll need a balance and variety throughout your life.  You might want to be doing both of these things (and more!) at all times, but in varying ratios.  Diversify and rebalance your portfolio and life.

This idea: off the wall, or right on target?  Tell me, Grumpeteers.

How to write a power-point discussion (economics-specific)

The goal of a good discussion is to explain to the audience where the paper fits into the general social science/policy framework and to help the paper improve for the future.  The goal is not to destroy a paper but to improve it (see exception below).  Discussants are serving science!

  1. Frame question— why is it important?  (You can mention your own work here if applicable.)
  2. Briefly summarize paper.  If the presenter is great, you will be able to skip the summary or only go over what you see as the most important parts.  If the presenter is terrible, your audience will really appreciate figuring out what they just heard, so it’s good to be thorough on your slides if you don’t know a priori how good the presenter will be.  If applicable, here would be a great place to take the author’s work through a “sniff test”– Bridgette Madrian is one of the best discussants I’ve seen, and one of my favorite discussions of hers was where she took a person’s paper (on whether or not we need 70% of our income after retirement) and applied it to her own life with a spreadsheet and came to the conclusion that the paper’s thesis was plausible.  Sometimes discussants will call up experts in the industry to ask their qualitative opinion.  Really great discussants will sometimes replicate or extend with another dataset.  None of these things are necessary, but if they’re easy for you or an RA to do, they can really push you to be memorable (though being invited to discuss more papers is not necessarily something you want to do!).
  3. Constructively point out problems with the paper and suggest solutions (if any).  Don’t be a dick.  Frame these as questions to think about, how big a problem you think they are etc . Don’t use this part as a place to talk about why your work is awesome and theirs sucks.  If you do mention your work in this spot, use it only as a place to commiserate with standard problems and suggest solutions that could work for them.
  4. Extensions for the future, broader impact.  Here’s a place where you can talk up your own work if it is related and can speak to the paper you’re discussing.

How many slides do you want?  Fewer than the number of minutes you have to present.  It is better to go short than to go long.

Special cases:

  1.  The authors haven’t actually done anything yet:  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question and suggestions for future work.  (Also ok to use a chunk of your time talking about your own related work.)  Use the word “preliminary” a lot.
  2. The authors clearly haven’t addressed causality but causality needs to be addressed (or any other major elephant in the paper issue):  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question.  Talk about the problems of getting to causality and (if easy for you to do) what other authors have done and (if easy for you to do) the problems with what they’ve done (or if not problematic, then suggest these authors follow).  Gently mention that causality is something that these authors need to think about.  The audience will understand.  Then suggest future work (which will include really nailing down causality).
  3. You don’t get the paper to discuss until the night before at 3am:  Feel free to spend the entire time talking about your own work, or to come up with something off the cuff while they’re giving the presentation (it is AOK to note that you did not get the paper until the night before, but that should be the extent of your dickishness).
  4. The paper is poorly done and the results, if taken at face value, will do real harm to people, particularly those from marginalized groups:  In this case, it is ok to firmly and politely destroy the paper for shoddy craftsmanship.  You can do so in a professional manner in steps 2 and 3. You’re still not being a dick, but you don’t have to frame things as questions to think about but as real methodological problems.   It’s ok to throw around the terms “dangerous” and “needs stronger proof”.  It’s a shame that there are still guys (and the occasional woman) who write papers with sexist/racist agendas who ignore basic science in order to prove that wealthy white men are superior and deserve their privilege, but there are.  They shouldn’t be allowed to do bad science.

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

How to do a powerpoint presentation (social sciences, economics)

I LOVE me some powerpoints.

Think about what you want your audience to take away.  Use the rule of 3 to emphasize those points (say what you’re going to say, say it, then tell people that you said it).  Depending on how much time you have you won’t be able to get through every point in the paper, so think about what subset you want to present, what slides you want to keep in case of questions but not actually present, and so on.

Use the powerpoint as a guide to remind you what to talk about, so brief bullets/phrases instead of full sentences.  Do not read off the slides.

Some people will only want to read your slides, some people will only want to listen to what you say.  Make sure that people who do one or the other will still get the gist of your presentation.

Make sure your fontsize is big enough that the people in the back can see it if they’re wearing glasses.   My heuristic is to not go below 28 point Calibri if it’s something I want them to read.  (Table notes can go smaller)

Graphs are often more compelling than regression output.  (But keep the regression output as a backup)

Don’t use fancy wipes/fade-outs/etc.  Anything that distracts without a purpose is useless.

Development economists, behavioral economists, psychologists, antrhopologists, etc. use a lot of photos/pictures/drawings and occasionally movies.  Do that if it is common in your field.  If it isn’t, then only sex it up like that if it helps improve understanding.

DO NOT USE PREZI.  Or if you do, use it like you would Powerpoint or Beemer.  You do not want to give members of your audience migraines.

I have often found it helpful to have different versions of the same information in the powerpoint that I can skip over depending on how pressed for time I am.  So I will have a pretty chart, regression output, and summary bullets (or two out of the three) and I will use combinations of one or two of these depending on how much time I have left.  It is also helpful to know which sections can be skipped without losing the main themes of the presentation.

Practice your talk.  Know how the talk is going to differ if questions are allowed vs. no questions being allowed.

It is better to go a little under than a little over.  It is better to skip parts than to talk so quickly nobody can understand you.

Join us next Tuesday for:  How to write a powerpoint discussion(!)

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.

#2

I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?