Posted on 29-11-2009
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

Around 12 years ago, I tried to put the key into my office door only to discover that someone had put glue in the lock. That someone was a student who had failed my Introductory Psychology class. (She had scribbled an angry note.) She had really wanted to stick it to me, and it worked. I was very upset.

You might hate a particular professor because he or she is a tougher grader than your other professors. You want revenge, but you feel so helpless. They have all the power over your grade. Why can’t they just be more generous?

Maybe it would help if you understood why any professor would give tough grades. It’s typically because they are trying to help students learn more and help their university maintain high standards. I once visited a psychology department where the top students told me that they were ashamed of the low standards and easy grades of their major. They wanted tougher grades from their professors!

If you want to share your experiences or feelings about a too-tough professor or one you want revenge on for any reason, please post your comments!

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Posted on 25-11-2009
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Hey. I’m posting early this week. It’s not because I’m worried that too much Thanksgiving Chardonnay will soon keep me from putting two thoughts together. And it’s not because The Beast will be home from school all day Friday. Nope. It’s because I know you need some advice right now on how to write a terrific statement to your dream graduate program. So here it is:

Before you start writing, read what each school wants in its letter and plan on modifying your letter accordingly. Most have the same critical elements, and so you can write the same basic letter for most programs. Consider these steps for your 2-paged, single-spaced statement of intent for a doctoral program:

1. Structure the opening paragraph to let the reader know that you will be outlining your relevant research and professional (and possibly classroom) experiences in the paragraphs to follow. Mention that these experiences have both prepared you well for graduate school and fueled your desire to continue your studies. State loudly and clearly in this opening paragraph that your dream would be to become a professor in your chosen field (i.e., specify chemistry, biology, psychology, or whatever the field is).

However, only say this if it’s true. If it’s not true, then say how much you love research and how important research is to your career goals. (Surely that’s true if your trying to get your PhD.) Then state your career goals. Never say that you are interested in professional private practice. That sounds exactly like you said that your goal is to make money, which might be sufficient to eliminate you from consideration. But that won’t happen to you!

2. The body of the letter should describe in detail what your research and professional experiences have been. Mention when and where you did these, and who your supervisor was. Indicate all the responsibilities you had in each position. If you got to present your research or publish it, definitely mention these facts. As you write, do your best to express enthusiasm for your research projects and excitement for future projects.

3. As you near the end of your letter, you need to make a case for why that particular program is a perfect match for you. Mention the particular professor or professors with whom you would love to work. Indicate what it is about their research that so fascinates you. State why working with them would offer the ideal training and preparation for your career.

Notice that now you’ve come full-circle, ending your letter with a clear statement of your career goals, just as you did at the start of the letter. However, often at the end of the letter, applicants will write something like, “In closing, I believe that I am ideally suited for your program because of my intelligence, work ethic, and dedication to the field.” Then they will be vague about their career goals. That is an awful combination.

Why? Because it never sounds good to brag about yourself, and it doesn’t give the reader any valuable information about you. Throughout the letter, be careful to demonstrate your readiness through your experiences, rather than simply saying how qualified you are. Leave it to your recommenders to do all your bragging.


The bottom line is that if you really want professors drooling over your application, give the impression that you are the ideal person with whom they can collaborate on research projects and publish together. Show them that you are well trained and that you’ve read their stuff, are fascinated by it, and would like to conduct research projects on the exact same topic. For some professors, the statement of intent is the most important piece of information in your whole file. So make it the best letter they will see that year!

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Right now, many of you are getting your courage up to ask 3 of your professors to write you letters of recommendation for graduate school or for some other program next year. Don’t be bashful! Writing letters of recommendation is part of your professors’ job. It’s something we must do for students. However, we are not required to write you a strong letter, of course. That’s why I encourage you to ask your professors directly if they can write you a strong letter. If they say no, then you can simply thank them and politely let them know that you will ask someone else.

Also, I don’t recommend setting up a meeting with your professor to ask for the letter. Just ask them in person after class. Emailing them your request is fine, too. The reason is that if your professors met with every student they recommended, they would have little time left to get to the submissions. Try to give them 4 weeks advance notice before the first letter is due.

Here are a couple of key things to consider to maximize your chances for a great letter:

1. Ask someone who knows you really well. Yes, it’s nice to have someone famous or high on the faculty totem pole write you a letter. But you need a long, detailed letter for it to be good enough to compete with the other amazing letters of recommendation out there.

I felt bad last week that I had to tell two students that I couldn’t write them a strong letter because I don’t know them well enough. I used to be able to fudge a bit for students I didn’t know that well and still write them a pretty good letter. But nowadays letters get submitted online. Thus, recommnenders are required to rate how mature, reliable, creative, independent, insightful, intelligent, and interpersonally skilled you are compared with your peers. Plus, we have to comment on your writing, leadership, and oral-expression skills. If we put NA (not applicable) in those fields online, your letter will not be a strong one.

2. Ask a professor who has never seen you fall short of your standards on any dimension. When recommenders rate you online, we have to put these ratings in percentiles. So if you have missed even 3 unexcused seminar days this semester, these absences could put you in the bottom 20% for reliability compared to your classmates!

3. Get your materials organized to make it easy for your professors. Give them a statement of when and in what capacity they have known you. Tell them your career goals. Give them a brag sheet of your key accomplishments, so that they will be better informed about how wonderful you are and can work those details into a letter about you. Give them a list of complete addresses for the sites that must receive a hard copy and a list of the names of sites that will be sending an email prompt. Make sure your lists are complete, so that your recommenders can check their list and see that they are finished with your submissions.


Okay, that’s it for now. I have a lot more to say on this topic in Chapter 12 of my new book, The Clever Student: A Guide to Getting the Most from Your Professors. But you won’t be able to order it through for about another week. So please, post your comments and questions now, and I will address them as soon as I can.

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Posted on 13-11-2009
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

What a shock it was yesterday when my large Psychology of Personality class pulled a prank on me. As I entered the classroom, a student yelled, “It’s really hot in here. Could you turn on the air conditioner?”

Thinking nothing of the request, I opened the small closet by the chalkboard to pull the AC switch, as I had done hundreds of times before. Inside the dark  closet, a super-tall man dressed in black wearing a Scream mask was standing there facing me. He moved his hands, and I screamed. My reflex was to  think, “Oh my God! Here is another Virginia Tech about to happen!” It was too late for Halloween, so what was up? Some students started laughing, so I realized it was a prank. What a relief.

Later I told one of my colleagues about it, and he said I should have called campus security. It had never crossed my mind to do that. I tend to be very open and casual with my lecture style, so I understood why my students thought that was funny.

But the incident does bring up the issue, Did my students cross the line? More important, have your professors crossed the line with you as a student in their class? Please let me know what you think!

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Posted on 06-11-2009
Filed Under (Handling excuses) by Anita Kelly

Students sometime tell me after they’ve taken my exam that they needed a make-up exam because they were sick. I feel bad when that happens because it’s too late after they’ve taken it.

Here’s what goes into a good excuse:

1. You tell your professor as soon as possible that you will not be able to take the test.

2. You provide documentation for why you can’t take it.

3. You express remorse that you can’t take it on time.

4. You express gratitude when your professor tells you that he or she will give you a make-up exam.

Please let me know about your good or bad experiences in handling excuses for exams you’ve had to miss.

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