Category Archives: Advice

Tackling the Common App Essay – with Libby Joson

According to Mitch Warren, the Director of Admissions at Purdue University, the Admissions team received about 54,000 applications last year. So, to stand out when applying to Purdue (or any college or university, really) your admissions essay is key. This is your chance to show off your personality and background. Dr. Harry Denny, an Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Purdue Writing Lab, says, “Don’t be afraid to tell your story, but be afraid to tell a clichéd story.”

Since Purdue’s admissions officers receive an immense number of essays to read through, you have to take advantage of this opportunity to express yourself honestly and genuinely. Tell your story as you would tell it to a friend, allowing your best and most unique qualities to shine through. Dr. Denny suggests finding the story that makes you a compelling fit for the college or university you are applying to.

For Purdue’s Common Application, there are seven essay prompts to choose from. These prompts range from discussion of your background or talent to reflecting on failures or ethical dilemmas to any topic you’d like. You must only write 250-650 words minimum to maximum. Be sure to use that small amount of space to your advantage by expressing your passions without babbling.

Tips & Tricks

Write first, edit later.

One of the best things you can do when writing an essay such as this is to just get your ideas out. You can always organize later. Both Dr. Barbara Dixon, the Associate Head of the Department of English, and Mr. Warren mention that misspellings or grammar errors are not the most important things unless there are a whole bunch of them, so focus more on the content.

Be original.

Dr. Dixon read common applications essays for several years, specifically for the Honors’ program. Flipping through about 100 essays a day, she looked for some kind of originality or a spark of creativity. When writing your essay, stay away from clichés, especially in the beginning and ending. Clichés are a turn off for admissions essay readers. If you really want to stand out, use your own voice. Your essay should sound like you, an 18-year-old, genuinely wrote it, not like your parents or a more sophisticated version of yourself. Be authentic. “The way you handle a topic, showing maturity and ability to look at an experience in your life outside of the bubble, is important,” says Dr. Dixon.

Know your audience.

Try to write about something that admissions essay readers have never heard of before. Students often write about being on a sports team, which can be “yawn-worthy” for readers like Dr. Dixon precisely because so many other people have written about that as well. What’s different or unique about your experience? She recommends thinking about your audience, those admissions officers sitting at their desks and spending hours reading hundreds of essays. You must keep them engaged!

Be detailed.

To make your essay stand out, you’ll want to bring the reader into the story, and let them visualize your experience. As a Common App essay reader, Dr. Dixon enjoys detailed glimpses into the writers’ lives, recollections of their experiences. For instance, your might write about what you learned from a positive volunteer experience, or even lessons learned from things that didn’t go so well. For his part, Warren enjoys essays from students who have overcome personal obstacles. This could even include something as simple as a struggle in a lab science course. “What did you do to overcome it? We really are just trying to get to know you. Honesty is important,” says Warren, “What was the realization you had and what did you do to change?”

Entertain (but don’t try too hard to be funny).

The Princeton Review recommends being cautious if you choose to use humor in your essay. It’s already hard enough to be funny around your friends, so you might not want to try a joke for the first time on an admissions officer. You definitely should never make assumptions about your audience, whether that be faith, politics, identity, nationality, etc. Dr. Denny says, “You just don’t know who is reading it. Don’t go out of your way to be a jerk or say something offensive.”

Keep it down to earth.

“We’re not grading it. Students often assume we’re looking for certain buzzwords, but that’s not true,” says Warren. Write how you would speak, and don’t try to show off. Similarly, Warren advises that students avoid using a thesaurus because the essay should be in your own words. Although you should have a parent or teacher review your writing, make it yours. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them (Carlotti).

Writer’s Block?

If you get stuck, you can try two free writing exercises, according to Dr. Denny. First, set a timer for one minute and write down anything you can possibly think of, without judgment. Or, find a friend to listen and take notes for you. Second, try a visual storytelling activity like “mind mapping” to chart and then organize your personal experiences. Mind mapping refers to creating a visual depiction of your ideas, with a key idea in a box or a circle located in the center of the map and other ideas grouped into categories around it. Concept (or mind) maps work best with “a focus question to which the concept map comes as a response” (Lang). This will allow you to structure your experiences around a central idea. If you have trouble drawing this out on your own, there are lost of free concept-mapping programs online for students to access.

Final advice?

“Don’t stress. It’s only one part of your application; it’s really just an attempt to get to know you,” says Warren.

Resources

There are many resources you can utilize when writing a college application essay:

  • Libraries often have writing groups and, if you live in the city, community centers might offer some help as well.
  • For more help writing your essay, see the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL):

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/undergraduate_applications/undergraduate_application_timeline/advice_for_writing_application_essays.html

As a reminder, the Early Action, financial aid, and Honors College application deadlines are all November 1st while the Regular Decision application deadline is January 15th. One of the biggest mistakes students make is missing the deadline.

Works Cited:

“Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay.” The Princeton Review, https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/college-essay.

Carlotti, Paige. “9 Essay Writing Tips to ‘Wow’ College Admissions Officers.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 23 Oct. 2014, https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2014/10/23/9-essay-writing-tips-to-wow-college-admissions-officers/37397979/.

Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Libby Joson is a sophomore majoring in Professional Writing at Purdue.

Chill Out. You’ll Get a Job.

Liz Walker, graduating senior in English Literature and Professional Writing.
Liz Walker, graduating senior in English Literature & Professional Writing.

ADVICE FROM A GRADUATING SENIOR IN ENGLISH

Coming into my senior year, I was convinced I would be living in my parents’ basement after I graduated. After four years of hearing, “English majors become baristas,” and being asked why I chose my major, I had become discouraged and resented studying something “impractical.” It wasn’t until I took the course ENGL 399 with Professor Pacheco and went to the SMEF career fair in February that I realized I was employable, and that my English degree prepared me for my life after graduation more than I could have hoped for.

It is easy to get discouraged in the college of liberal arts at a big, STEM university. But fear not. I have made plenty of mistakes over my four years, but I have also had many victories. If you’re scared of the future or starting to question why you chose your major, I’m here to tell you what I wish someone would have told me sooner: chill out. Keep these three things in mind and you’ll be fine.

Know Why You’re Studying English

In almost every interview I had, I was asked, “Why English?” It wasn’t a dig at my major or a questioning of my qualifications; it was genuine curiosity. Employers don’t see many English majors. Heck, English majors don’t see many other English majors! Because of this, when a recruiter sees “BA in English Literature” on a resume, he or she definitely will want to know why. At first, I was scared to answer this question because I thought it set me too far apart. But then, I came to embrace it. It was fun recalling why I chose this major in the first place, why I still love it, and how it has prepared me for the future. Know your own personal English story and know how to tell it well. If you are passionate, recruiters can tell, and passion justifies any major.

In addition to knowing why you’re studying English, know how your studies apply to the jobs/internships you are applying for. Employers will ask you why you are qualified for the specific job, especially if the degree seems like a “stretch” for the position. English majors have many skills outside of writing—analysis, design, team-building, and persuasion are a few I can think of—and you want to figure out which ones you possess to capitalize on them at the interview.

In one interview, a recruiter asked me, “As an English major, are you intimidated that the other students you will be working with have more experience in this area than you?” I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to answer, “No. My English degree has prepared me in so many ways. Let me tell you about them.” Always be prepared. And never apologize for your major.

Explore Until You Find What You Want

One of the most liberating and the most daunting things about a degree in a liberal arts field is that it comes with no prescribed career path. After graduation, it seems that all that waits for you is a big question mark. If you don’t know what you want to do after graduation, this can be pretty scary. But this also means you have a lot of exploring to do, which can be fun.

Do not waste your time while at Purdue just because you don’t have a set career path. Let your time at college be a time of exploration of all opportunities—there are so many out there. Even if you are a senior, there is still time to explore. Interview professors and professionals, go to networking events, shadow different individuals who work around Lafayette if their careers potentially interest you. Take classes in different disciplines, just to see what you are good at and what you like. College is your one opportunity to try and to fail with little to no consequences.

I took advantage of exploration opportunities through internships, volunteering, and classes. I took an internship in market research with an organization I am involved in on campus just because they needed interns. I had no idea what market research did, but I was eager to learn. After that summer, it turned out market research was something I was good at and something I enjoyed, which opened doors to another internship in marketing and made me consider a career in it.

Similarly, I volunteered at Indiana Legal Services to see if law was a path I wanted to pursue and quickly found out that it was definitely not. This semester, I took the class “Boiler Communication” (COM 491) which acts as a student-led public relations firm. It is a class that is extremely practical and gives real-world experience. One semester of the class is the equivalent of half a year of professional experience. All of these things helped me figure out what different careers look like, and where I potentially fit into the professional world.

Explore your options until you find what you want. And once you find what you want, run with it. Get as much experience as you can. Practically, these experiences will help decide what you want to do, as well as provide you with stories to tell in interviews. Don’t let the unknown future scare you—embrace it with open arms!

Don’t Freak Out

This is the most important tip I can give you and the hardest one to put into practice. When the engineers of campus are buzzing around by the third week of school getting full-time job offers and internships while you’re just hammocking in the trees reading William Carlos Williams, it’s easy to think you’re doing something wrong or that you’re late in the game. You’re not. Breathe. Chill. That isn’t the timeline for us, so there is no reason to panic.

The biggest and best companies want to secure the brightest students for their engineering, science, and technology programs before any other companies can. For this reason, their job hiring process is much quicker than in the fields liberal arts majors (usually) pursue. The timeline for many job openings that fit us (project management, marketing, public relations, technical writing, etc.) is in the spring semester, as late as April. While that means your future will be uncertain for longer than other students, it does not mean you are not a qualified candidate or an undesirable potential employee. The companies usually just don’t need to hire months and months in advance—these positions are more immediate placements.

While you’re waiting for jobs to begin to open, use your time wisely. Spend your fall semester figuring out what companies you like, strengthening your LinkedIn presence, building a portfolio, and networking wisely. Don’t let our slower timeline become an excuse for you to be lazy—don’t stress, but be strategic.

At the career fair in February, I got interviews with every single company I talked to. I got invited to recruitment events by companies in the big leagues, like Sales Force and Oracle. And I ended up getting an awesome job with an awesome salary in an awesome place. All because of my major and what I was able to do with it at my time at Purdue.

Chill. You’ve got this. If I could do it, trust me, you definitely can too. I believe in you.

Tutoring in the Purdue Writing Lab: Empathy & Expertise

Interested in helping students improve their writing while simultaneously sharpening your own? Working as an undergraduate tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab might be the perfect job for you.

Portrait photograph of Harry Denny, Director of the Purdue Writing Lab.
Harry Denny, Director of the Purdue Writing Lab

Prof. Harry Denny, Director of the Writing Lab, describes it as “a space where we work with writers from across the university…on any aspect of their writing, from getting started, to revising, to editing. You name it, we do it.” Tutors work with undergraduate and graduate Purdue students from all disciplines on every form of writing. From essays and research reports to resumes and graduate school applications, no genre is off limits.

The Writing Lab offers one-on-one, in-person writing consultations or e-tutoring sessions, while its world-famous OWL provides a treasure trove of online resources. In 2017-18, the Writing Lab saw approx. 6,000 visits from Purdue students. The OWL had 515M page views from around the world.

Perks of being a tutor

All employment with the Writing Lab, whether in the form of tutoring or research, is compensated; however, according to Prof. Denny, the biggest perk is the “opportunity to work in an environment that truly values learning and collaboration.” The Writing Lab promotes an atmosphere of innovation and strongly encourages tutors to explore the impact writing has in real life settings.

Companies like employees who can write clearly, but they especially like those who can help other people to write better too. Tutoring with the Writing Lab gives you a chance to practice both. Interacting with Purdue students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds also provides experience with intercultural collaboration. In survey after survey, employers list writing and collaborating as their most desired skills, ahead of technical expertise. 

Writing Lab tutors and staff also write all of the material found on the OWL. A section of the site is even devoted specifically to research conducted by lab personnel. Undergraduate tutors are welcome to add to this growing body of writing center research.

What professional qualities does tutoring cultivate?

In-lab tutoring session.
In-lab tutoring session.

Want to become a Writing Lab tutor but afraid that your writing skills aren’t good enough? No worries. While having a grasp of basic writing techniques is essential, no one expects you to be an expert. Part of being a tutor is learning with your client. Prof. Denny says that a good tutor isn’t someone who knows everything about writing, but rather a “person who is willing to say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s figure that out together’.”

While knowledge of composition and grammar is an asset, the most important quality for a tutor is strong people skills. For this reason, the Writing Lab looks for applicants who demonstrate empathy for students from all backgrounds and writing abilities.“We can teach you how to respond to student writing, [and] we can teach you the mechanics. The hard part is meeting such a wide variety of writers, meeting them…where they are, and being respectful of them,” says Prof. Denny. “The thing that I really care about when I am looking at undergraduates, is making sure…that we work with a whole, wide range of writing.”

It can be easy to forget that sharing one’s writing is a very personal experience; when someone judges our writing, it can feel like a judgement of us. Being respectful and connecting with writers on a human level creates a safe environment where students are free to be vulnerable. Only with trust can writers learn and improve. In this way, the role of a tutor is less like an instructor and more like that of a peer counselor.

“I think alot of times students struggle with writing because they have been shut down at some point,” says Prof. Denny. “I think people [should be] allowed to have a voice, and to cultivate their voice and their prose in an environment that’s not going to make them feel bad about themselves.” To demonstrate his point, he cites Steven North, an important writing center scholar: “We are about making better writers, not necessarily better writing.” Prof. Denny echoes this sentiment in his own words, “If you make someone feel more confident as a writer, effective writing will come along.”

Another important part of becoming a tutor is understanding how to help students within the parameters of the Lab. Like most college writing centers, the Purdue Writing Lab is not an editing service. A tutor’s job isn’t to “fix” students’ papers, but rather to give them the skills to revise their own writing, and to help them apply these skills to future assignments.

Tutors also learn to balance student needs with time restrictions. “We try and respectfully negotiate with a client, ‘What is realistically possible in 25 or 50 minutes?’” says Prof. Denny.

If a writing lab client has a 50-page research paper, it will be impossible for the tutor to read and give feedback on every page. Therefore, helping the client prioritize their needs and set a goal for what can be accomplished in one session is an important skill tutors learn.

How to apply to be an undergraduate tutor?

Tutors working in the staff room of the Writing Lab.
Tutors working in the staff room of the Writing Lab.

Until this year, the application process involved submitting a writing sample, a resume, and a letter of recommendation. To make the process less daunting, the application is now simpler. Students email the writing.lab@purdue.edu with a notice of interest. From there, they meet with Prof. Denny to discuss why they want to become a tutor and the skills and experiences they feel make them a good candidate.

The last step is enrolling in ENGL 390: Tutoring Practicum, a required internship course that teaches students how to work in the Writing Lab. Students learn writing center theory and gain hands-on experience with strategies for tutoring writing. If, at the end of the class, they seem like a good fit for working at the Lab, students become paid tutors. If students turn out to not be good fits, they still get course credit.

Some final advice

Prof. Denny’s advice for tutor applicants? “Be open to working with your peers. Be open to being challenged about how you learn and how your peers learn…. [I]f you want a really exciting environment where collaboration…reflection, and pedagogical research is valued, we are a cool place.”

The bottom line? Whether you are a tutor or a client, writers of all skill levels and backgrounds are welcome at the Purdue Writing Lab. No Pulitzer required.

Advice: Literary Awards Submissions

The deadline for the Purdue 2019 Literary Awards is fast approaching! All entries must be submitted by noon on Monday, February 25th.

Here are a few last-minute tips for submitting:

1. Check out the categories

Categories for undergraduate submissions include creative writing, literary criticism and journalism, interdisciplinary and CLA Awards, and Kneale Awards. There is an extensive variety of genres that can be submitted, ranging from plays and poetry, to essays and literary critiques. Whether you’re revising a class paper or working on a novel for fun, nearly any type of writing will fit into one of the award categories, so start digging through those old drafts!

2. Know the Rules

Read through the eligibility guidelines at least twice, then double check that your entries comply. Don’t be the person who spends hours perfecting a submission only to have it disqualified over a technicality.

Also remember that your entries must be submitted as PDF files and that your name should not be listed anywhere on your entries.

3. Get Feedback

Get fresh perspectives by sharing with friends, family, and professors. Having at least one other pair of eyes on your writing is a great way to correct errors or catch the little details that you may have missed.

The Purdue Writing Lab is another a great resource for feedback. Tutors are trained to help writers in every stage, and it’s free! If you can’t make it to the writing lab in person, consider trying their online or E-tutoring options.

4. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

You’ll want to surprise the judges with your creative genius, not your typos. Here are two tricks that make it easier to catch errors.

First, read your writing aloud. Hearing how your words sounded aloud gives you a much clearer idea of the pace and flow of your writing. Or, better, yet, read your work aloud to a friend (combine with # 3 above).

Second, change the font of your document. Changing to a different font than you have used for drafting will encourage you to read more closely, making it easier to spot problems.

Best of luck on your submissions!

Editorial Intern at Arthuriana

A portrayal of King Arthur.

One of the newest of the department’s many internship opportunities is with Arthuriana, an academic journal devoted to all aspects of the Arthurian legend from its beginnings to present day. You read that right: King Arthur, Merlin, Camelot, the sword in the stone —right here at Purdue. Our Department Head, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, is the editor of Arthuriana and oversees the journal’s production. Housed on the fourth floor of Heavilon Hall, Arthuriana’s graduate student Editorial Assistants are involved in the academic publishing process, from article submissions to copyediting. Undergraduate Editorial Interns for Arthuriana work closely with these graduate students on typesetting and proofreading articles.

Duties:

As with most editing internships, this is a grammar-heavy position. Arthuriana is looking for a strong proofreader with a good grasp of grammar; if you know a comma from a semi-colon, this could be the internship for you. Having a handle on the general principles of citation comes in handy, too. Because Arthuriana has its own in-house citation style (“Chicago-adjacent,” as Editorial Assistants Aidan Holtan and Adrianna Radosti describe it), the ideal intern has an eye for mistakes in articles’ citations.

Editorial interns also use Adobe InDesign to finalize articles, so knowledge of that program is a plus. But don’t worry—even though their InDesign skills mostly involve fist-shaking and prayer, the graduate students are happy to train.

Additional responsibilities include supervising “proofing parties” for graduate students in medieval studies, which spread the proofreading wealth. Arthuriana’s Editorial Intern would answer questions about articles, relay issues to the Editorial Assistants, and act as a go-between between the volunteers and the journal. The ideal intern would also show initiative in identifying projects that need to be done (like organizing the boxes of Arthuriana’s back issues that take over the office) and following through.

Perks:

Interns also have the possibility of attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies hosted by Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan every summer. Arthuriana hosts an exhibitor’s booth at the Congress, where they sell subscriptions, back issues, and other Arthurian and medieval swag. Students have the opportunity to attend panels and meet medieval scholars, as well as other exhibitors—an excellent professional development opportunity.

So if you have an interest in medieval literature and aren’t afraid of commas, Arthuriana could be the place for you to gain experience in academic publishing. Working closely with graduate students is helpful for those who may be interested in pursuing graduate school; plus, as you will be reading all the articles Arthuriana publishes, you are sure to learn quite a bit about all the cool and exciting new developments and discoveries in the field of Arthurian studies.

Perhaps the coolest part of interning for Arthuriana? Seeing your name in print on the masthead for the issue!

Application Advice:

Decorative

For those interested in applying, the most important part of your application is the cover letter. Since this position is mostly about grammar, make sure your materials are free from errors!

If you have questions about Arthuriana, you can reach out to the current Editorial Assistants Aidan Holtan (gaunta@purdue.edu) and Adrianna Radosti (aradosti@purdue.edu). They’ll be happy to help!

You can also book an appointment in the Writing Lab if you want help with your cover letter.