The “STAR” Approach to Writing Admissions Essays

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Confounded by that admissions essay? Don’t know where to start? Just remember that you have a story to tell, and this is your chance to shine: be a “STAR!”

 

S – Situation

T – Task

A – Action

R – Result

 

It’s all about telling a story. Remember the last dramatic movie you watched? Very likely there was an opening shot to establish what the story was going to be about–the situation. Soon after that, the hero or heroine made an appearance and it became clear exactly what kind of challenge might be confronting him or her in the course of this film–they had a task before them. And then–Action! The heroine made her moves, did her thing, and moved the story forward, until finally the original situation was resolved and there was some sort of closure. In the end, the audience knew the result.

The Situation

This is the set-up of the story, giving TIME, PLACE and CONTEXT. It could be a general setting, but it might also include the broader challenge or conflict that you or your organization faced.

 For example an applicant might write: “Last year, I volunteered to chair a fundraising committee for cancer research at my company, where we were challenged to meet a fundraising goal of $10,000.”

 This answers the question: What was the situation that I (or my team) faced *before* I started taking action? 

The Task 

This is your role in the story. It often takes the form of a GOAL, an OBJECTIVE STATEMENT, or an IMPORTANT DECISION to be resolved. It’s important to highlight your collaboration with others, but remember that for purposes of the essay, you are the star of your own story.

For example: “My main functions were to assign specific jobs to committee members, check on their progress, and help establish and meet deadlines for obtaining donations.”

This answers the question: What specific challenge did I face, given the aforementioned situation? 

The Action 

Here’s the heart of the story: admissions officers want to know how you work in action. Offer the highlights and don’t get bogged down in too much detail. This could be in a team context, but remember to show how your actions made a contribution.

For example: “I motivated the team by having them meet recovering cancer patients. I assigned tasks and checked in regularly, and successfully mediated team disputes. I led the team to visit 20 local businesses and ensured that deadlines were met.” 

This answers the question: What actions did I take to resolve the situation and advance toward my (our) goal? 

The Result

It’s very important to show that there were indeed concrete results and that your actions made a difference. Specific details count here, and you should quantify your results.

For example: “My team convinced 25 businesses and 18 individuals to make donations, directly helping to raise $15,000 for the organization and exceeding our fundraising goal by 50%.”

This answers the question: What was the impact of my actions, and what was the final resolution of the dilemma outlined at the beginning of the story?

If this is ambiguous, muddled or uncertain, then you may want to go back and re-frame the situation or pick another story to tell altogether. On the other hand, a positive outcome and happy ending will make your story more powerful and establish you as its star.

Using the Active Voice

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by Ellen Smith (Senior TopAdmit editor)

Admissions committees are always on the lookout for confident, capable applicants. One of the best ways to demonstrate these qualities in an essay or personal statement is through the use of the active voice. By using the active voice when sharing personal stories, goals, and future plans, your essay will take on an assertive, confident tone.

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Active versus Passive Voice

Simply put, whether a sentence is written in active or passive voice depends on the subject. When the subject of the sentence performs the action, the sentence is written in the active voice. For example, “I led a campaign to end world hunger.” In this sentence, the writer led the campaign. However, when the subject of the sentence receives the action, the sentence is written in the passive voice. For example, “A campaign to end world hunger was my first leadership experience.” The emphasis is on the campaign rather than on the writer’s leadership.

Why should I use the active voice?

Using the active, rather than passive, voice is most common in English writing and speaking. The active voice is generally more straightforward and gives the writer a more confident and assertive tone. It’s especially effective to use the active voice when you are sharing stories from your personal life, explaining your goals, and naming your plans for the future. Below, we’ve included examples that show how using the active voice can make a big difference in conveying confidence.

Sharing personal stories
When giving details about your personal experiences, using the active voice can help you emphasize that you used the experience to learn and grow. Look at the difference between the examples below.

1. ACTIVE: As a young child, I was impressed by my father’s work ethic.
PASSIVE: My father’s work ethic impressed me as a young child.

2. ACTIVE: When I was an undergraduate, I saw a shocking example of social injustice.
PASSIVE: An example of social injustice shocked me when I was an undergraduate.

As you can see, the examples written in the active voice focus on the writer’s experience. These statements set the expectation that we are going to learn more about how these experiences shaped the writer’s goals and motivation. The examples written in the passive voice make less of an impact.

Explaining your goals and future plans
The active voice is also appropriate when explaining your plans for the future. Using the active voice is a subtle way to emphasize that you are taking control of your future and setting goals for yourself. Look at the difference between the examples below.

3. ACTIVE: I plan to start my own business and positively impact the community.
PASSIVE: Starting my own business and positively impacting the community is my plan.

4. ACTIVE: I hope to make connections at my internship site and continue working in the field after graduation.
PASSIVE: Making connections at my internship site and continuing to work in the field after graduation is my hope.

In the examples that use the active voice, the writer appears proactive and confident. When the same sentences are rewritten in the passive voice, the writer appears more tentative and wistful.

Confident-Pose

While the difference between active and passive voice is a matter of grammar, the impact of using the active voice is a matter of confidence. Particularly when sharing examples of personal experiences, goals, and plans for the future, using the active voice conveys a positive, proactive attitude. For admissions committees looking for the best applicants, a self-assured tone can go a long way.

Obtain a scholarship easily!

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scholarshipOften the main reasons that you forgo your overseas studies plan is due to the expensive tuition and= fees. Especially in the U.S and UK, where private schools dominate, enrollment in a prestigious school involves even higher costs. Therefore, an important strategy for you to realize your dream of studying abroad will be to use your edge to obtain a scholarship!

Before discussing the scholarship strategy, you should be aware where to find information about scholarship availability or education grants at a college or university. As a matter of fact, the most important source would be the Admission page! Regardless of the different webpage designs or setup of each school, you will basically find such information on the admission page for it is where information is provided regarding the registration, application process and any help you need before applying.

Other key words you may use during research is “financial aid/fund”, which will normally be seen in the application section if such aid/fund is available. You don’t have to worry that very few schools provide scholarships. Let me tell you, America values talents. Therefore financial aid is available at most renowned schools. But please be aware that such financial aids may be provided under different requirements and circumstances, it may not necessarily be the full amount, or it may be in the form of a subsidy for your living costs or tuition. Some will have to be applied together with your application during enrollment, some will be applied after your admission is confirmed. Clear descriptions concerning such matters should be provided on the admissions page. If you are not well informed or have some concerns, remember to contact the person in charge of registration. You should write courteously, and elaborate what you are concerned about. According to my experience, given the time differences, you will get a reply overnight!

If you have checked the in-need-of financial aid option in your application, you may request for financial aid. If the school doesn’t require you to provide additional materials, then you basically don’t need to make any extra preparations, however, it would be a good idea to emphasize in your PS or resume in response to the features of the faculty or department (as described in detail below) about requiring financial aid. If you need to submit other materials, you should consider the following strategy more carefully in order to find out how to show yourself in response to the preference of each program.

If you are applying for an undergraduate program, then you stand a better chance of obtaining a scholarship than a research institute program. Especially some first class universities place a great amount of resources on undergraduate students, so you will have less difficulty in getting financial aid if you are in need. Whereas doctorate programs, which focuses on a single area of studies, where doctorate students are usually able to obtain full scholarships under a good research projects, a research institute on the other hand, normally offers limited chances of scholarship (mostly partial scholarships). The main source of income is the opportunity of working as assistants to improve your abilities while making some money. (Though such income can basically cover most of your expenditures. And detailed terms of scholarship and your responsibilities are stated clearly on the admission page).

Now let us talk about how to best present yourself to persuade the school to invest in you!

A. Write an impressive Personal Statement!

1) Demonstrate a clear structured plan of your life

Like what we talked about PS last time, many people feel that the personal statement is to show yourself to the best of their ability. This is the right approach, but to some extent it is not. Think about how those impressive ads are created, do you just remember their best parts and messages? Focus, completeness, clarity and liveliness are their common features. Therefore, the key part of your job is how to narrate the joys and sorrows, highs and lows of each story and experience vividly. How to describe that you have discovered what you are looking for, your destiny after going through such pains and hardships. Remember, you don’t have to tell everything, the key is to impress with each paragraph written.

2) Focus on your specialty

Don’t overdo it. The most challenging but valuable part of the essay is writing appropriate and engaging content. I mentioned under point number one that you need to impress by showing how special you are. But now I say to stay focused on writing content relevant to your specialty major, which means that you should not highlight only features of your personality blindly. Personality does impress, but it does not contribute to your chances until it perfectly matches the program’s features and requirement. In a perfect PS, you have to make the adcom committee feel your strong motivation, have them moved by your passion and your story, and have them convinced that you are fully prepared to complete your studies under that specialization.

B. Extra-curricular practices and work experiences

Famous schools in the U.S. value the quality of their students not only in terms of academic performance but also their expectations of a well-balanced personal development. As mentioned previously about higher probability for scholarships in a research institute, more chances are given to working assistants. Therefore, it is especially important to prove that you can implement into practice the knowledge you have learned.

Successful applicants for good universities or challenging programs must be very strong academically. However, solid work experiences and extra-curricular activities will help you make a difference. Meanwhile, detailed, specific and impressive descriptions of your growth out of those experiences will greatly increase your chances to win a scholarship

C. Maintain contact with professors and the school

At the research institute each person has his or her mentor professor. For many projects, whether or not you can get a scholarship is at the discretion of the professor. On the official website for the program application, you can see who your future mentor professor is and the area he or she is specialized in. If you are really passionate and ambitious about the program, you are recommended to spend some time reading the works of your mentor and express your enthusiasm by writing and email and discussing with him or her what you are interested in.

As you demonstrate your wisdom, humor and passion in your communications with the professor, and the professor comes to understand who you are and gets along with you, you surely have a much bigger chance of winning a scholarship.

D. Avoid hot in-demand programs

If each specialty provides the same number of people with scholarships, you have a better chance to win if there are fewer applicants under your program. But never choose a less popular program that is neither in your interest nor to your liking just because of the chance for a scholarship. I just want to tell you that the current hot programs will not necessarily mean a hot career in the future. Why not choose a less popular specialty if you like it? Perhaps it will be in-demand in ten years. Find the main theme of your life, choose what you love most, and your passion will drive you through the end. In case you don’t have any specific preferences, then consider your financial strength, area of studies and interests, and you may find some less popular programs which offer scholarships as a good choice.

Of course, there is no 100% guarantee that you will win what you are striving for, to some extent luck plays a part. Nonetheless, make sure you stand a higher chance by preparing yourself better when pursuing studies overseas. As it is evidenced by the law of attraction, when you are fully determined, you win support from all! I wish you good luck in your entry into a first class school!

Conquer TOEFL by yourself! Part I

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WHAT IS THE TOEFLtoefl

TOEFL is an English aptitude test designed by the American nonprofit educational institution ETS, and it is an ability test especially targeted for those who are non-English native speakers and have not attained a degree in a classroom where English was the primary language of instruction. Initially, TOEFL was separated into three distinct types, including the PBT (paper based test), CBT (computer based test), and the iBT (Internet-based test). Presently, most universities accept the iBT, and in most countries, test takers can only take the iBT, in which the test is given online, and the total score is 120 points.

In a general sense, a score of 80 in the iBT is the minimum requirement for exchanging or applying to an overseas university, and 100 is the lowest entry requirement for graduate studies (nevertheless, better schools will have higher requirements). However, what is worth mentioning is that the results of this test are only valid for 2 years, and the duration begins on the test date (for instance, if your test was on March 10, 2015, your scores would be valid until March 10, 2017). Hence, when deciding when you will be needing the TOEFL and scores, you need to decide whether you will be in line with the expiration date (and also remember that this test is not something that you take once, and you’re done with for life!).

Furthermore, since in recent years the local online forums and cram schools have gotten more and more skilled, and they strategically answer and systematically crack the test questions, there have been more and more students who receive very high scores. This has prompted the US institutions to raise their TOEFL requirement for entry on an annually basis. This is what we call an unsustainable effect that hurts those that come after us.

Registration method

Since iBT is Internet-based, registration for test is done online. First, you need to register for the TOEFL test on the Ministry of Education’s website (http://bit.ly/1fJiIqI)

The online registration process contains the following four steps:

    1. Register to become a member, and construct your personal file (just as you would for other account setups).

Attention to name (Chinese and English), gender, personal ID number, document number, and date of birth. Please double-check to make sure they are correct, as these basic important information cannot be changed later on. As for the other needed information, I believe that those who have established an account would understand, and so I will not repeat.

2. Pay for your test fee online. 

There are many forms of payment accepted for your iBT test which includes: Credit card, e-checks, Paypal and e-checks. The forms of payment NOT accepted are: cash or demand drafts, post-dated checks, receipts of bank checks, and UNESCO coupons. Also please pay special attention that only the British Pound, Canadian Dollar, Japanese Yen and Euro currencies are accepted. In addition, here’s a list of important fees related to the test:

toeflfeetable

 

3. Register for a test. 

Normal registration period is up until 7 days prior to the test date, and if you register within 7 days from the test, you will need to pay an additional fee for late registration. What’s worth pointing out is that, you need to be very selective about your testing spot at this stage. However, January and July through September are the hottest time for testing, and in a big city, it is difficult to find an ideal testing spot if you don’t register four to six months prior to the test. At this point, you may choose to take the test in a different city (or if you have a chance to participate in exchange program abroad, you may also take the test there).

Often times, there are several different ways for testing spots to be released:
A) NEEA will release a large bundle of testing spots several months before the test, which may include spots in the upcoming six months. (Mostly before October)
B) Several days prior to the test, there will also be a release of testing spots in different provinces and cities. But whether a particular city will release a number of spots on which date and time remains unclear.
C) To cater to the large number of test-takers, NEEA may spontaneously decide to host more test sessions. But this also remains undecided.

Therefore, the most important thing would be, to plan for your test date early after you have established the score you need, and to schedule a testing spot six months before you take the test!

4. Fill out background information questionnaire. 

After you finish this part, you will have just made an important first step toward taking the TOEFL test! In my own experience, most people are plagued with laziness, and although we know that we must take the test, it is hard to focus until we actually have to do it. Usually, it isn’t until a test-taker has finished registering that he/she becomes motivated and starts planning out a schedule for studying. Hence, why not register early and make up your mind early so that you can attain the best date and testing spot, and have sufficient time to study toward getting a good score!