Copy with understanding

My mind often gravitate back to my school days. I did spend almost 20.5 years in school or something kind of education institute so my schooling life still constituted more than half of my lifetime so far. I wonder if the memories get more faint as you progress along. While I think the greatest lessons I learnt were outside the classroom, it was still largely the school days that were so formative, it helped produce ideas and principles that underpin how I thought about things.

It could also be some kind of survivor bias because the values or ideas that I subsequently discarded after going through the test of time. One of the values that I acquired over time in school was to ‘copy with understanding’. Basically, when you copy something – especially homework for school – you want to do so to save effort but you should at least spend some effort understanding why an answer is the right answer. At least for the particular question. Think about how the answer connects with things you’ve been taught or learnt. Consider how the question was asked and what the answer might be if the question changed, just by a little.

I learnt this value both ways, when I was copying the homework of others and when I dished out my homework for others to copy. I am glad I was in one of the more ordinary classes in school, where I had classmates who didn’t do homework and needed copying; and most were happy to collaborate and “distribute the work”. There were better classes where students mostly kept to themselves and classmates were individualistic and competitive.

Sometimes you look back and by the sheer force of time, things you thought were bad, turned out to be great after all.

The Scholarship Interview

I think interviews are rather artificial settings; they surround a poor candidate and then bombard him/her with questions. Yet one should remember that an interview is not interrogation and the whole point is for the entire thing to become a natural interaction rather than an artificial, forced conversation that tells no truths. This is a rather short piece on the contents of a scholarship interview, not an article that tells you what to wear, how you should shake your hand or smile at your interviewers.

Questions to Ask
Although you usually start out being asked questions, you should be preparing stuff you want to ask the interviewer beforehand so that you are not caught off guard when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for him/her. These questions should be genuine questions so don’t bother to ask if you already know the answer because your face would tell that while you’re listening to the reply.

There’s a couple of areas you might like to ask about; in particular Scholarship selection procedures, life of a scholar, and the work of the scholar in the organization. For selection process you might like to ask “How many rounds of interviews will you be put through?” or whether there is “any other sort of assessments (like test/essay to do)?” Some organizations would have a psychometric tests, others have workshops that are sessions to assess their candidates.

On life of a scholar, ask if there’s any internship or attachment for scholars? And how will they be related to the work scholars eventually do at the organization? Related to that, is the work a scholar is going to do upon graduation; ask “What sort of work do scholars do after graduation in the organization?”, check if there is job rotation, and “How long is each cycle?” as well as “What functions will scholars be exposed to throughout the career/bond period?”

Depending on how you’ve set the tone of the interview, you should preferably be able to ask some casual stuff like how long your interviewers have been with the organization. Ask about their work if you don’t know their positions yet and see how they like the organization or if they face any particular difficulty/challenge in their work in recent times. This would help make the interview a more natural conversation rather than one that is zero-ed in on ‘work’.

Questions they might ask
Now for the more important questions, the ones they will be asking you. There are very general ones like your aspirations, reasons for choice of your course, how they tie up with your interests, how you’re coping in school right now (or how have you coped with school in the past).You should also be expected to share your experiences in school with leadership activities, or team activities.

Some organizations like to pose scenario questions like ‘talk about a time when you had disagreements with a teammate’, ‘tell us a situation where you had to overcome a huge challenge’, ‘tell us your most difficult time in life so far’. Otherwise, the open-ended tough questions like “What have you done in life so far that tells you that you’ll be suitable for our organization?”, “Can you tell us why you deserve this scholarship?”

Prepare to explain your present commitments as well: “What are you doing now?”, “How do you spend your vacations?”, “What interest do you have besides your studies (and work)?” Knowing some current affairs would help especially when they are related to the organization that is offering the scholarship: “What do you think is a challenge facing our industry/organization?” “Do you think there’s anything about our organization that we should change or need to change?”, “What potential markets have we overlooked in the course of our expansion?”

Other Tips & Advice
Try to remember your responses to their questions and also their answers to your questions because it’ll serve you well to remain consistent throughout your rounds of interviews; you’ll realise that some questions comes to you over and over again posed by different interviewers because they never heard your reply to these questions, so it’s also important to maintain that consistency.

Remembering their responses to your questions shows that you’re paying attention and not contemplating what to ask next or how to respond while they are answering your question or explaining stuff to you. If possible, jot down their responses to your question somewhere right after your interview (perhaps type a note in your handphone or something)

Remember there is no right or wrong answers in an interview so never look as if you regretted something you just mentioned (if you really do, please correct yourself immediately on the spot) and in many sense, as long as you are sure what you’re saying, you’re giving the right answer.

Don’t appear self-important but show the interviewers what you are willing to do to serve them and what you’re not willing. When you’re given the tough questions, ask for time to think about it. You could say, “Wow, that’s a big question, give me a moment to organize my answer” or something like that. Try to think about the tough ones beforehand so that you’re more prepared to handle them. Don’t bet on them not coming out.

Don’t hesitate to clarify their questions; if you don’t know what they’re asking, ask them questions to clarify; sometimes the question they’re trying to pose is more close-ended than it seems.

Ditch Digging Passion

I once read a book of letters and speeches written by Richard Feynman, compiled by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. In a letter he wrote to a college freshman, he shares some invaluable advice:

“Work hard to find something that fascinates you. When you find it, you will know your lifework, A man may be digging a ditch for someone else, or because he is forced to, or is stupid – such a man is ‘toolish’ -while another working even harder may not be recognized by the bystanders – but he may be digging for treasure. So dig for treasure and when you find it, you will know what to do. In the meantime, you don’t need to make the decision – steer your practical affairs so the alternatives remain open to you…. The man happy in his work is not the narrow specialist, nor the well-rounded man, but a man who is doing what he loves.”

– Richard P. Feynman

I came across this quote in my own blog, while trying to recycle some ideas for a university program application essay. I think it is natural for people to pursue the things they are interested or passionate about. Some may be naturally good at it, while others may not be as adept as others at it in the beginning; it is inevitable that sometimes our vision gets obstructed by the smoke and haze ahead.

Let Feynman’s words serve as a reminder for all of us.

The Personal Statement

Writing
Not another essay!

Your Singapore-Cambridge A Levels Results is just released, you scored pretty decent grades, enough to get you the course you want in University, so now what? The thing that stands between you and the offer to the course you want from the University is an application form (besides the tuition fees of course). And unfortunately the application form is not just about filling up your details and your results, it requires some information of your personality, aspirations and such. And they do this through a Personal Statement (or whatever they call it).

Usually a personal statement doesn’t offer any questions; at least UCAS works that way but they do give some sort of guidelines as to what to include in it. You should generally talk about your academic interest, the motivating factor behind your choice of course and some activities or achievements that is in line with that. Or if appropriate, you could talk about the kind of books you read. After which you can include some of your other interests and the reason for your choice of study setting. And depending on your preferences, you could end with an appeal for an offer.

Unfortunately, not all applications are that liberal with the stuff you can write. Some would restrict you with a question, which students might prefer at times. The most popular question that have been asked is ‘What are some values or beliefs do you hold on most strongly? Give evidence of how you demonstrated them.’ And to tackle this question, you basically have to choose some of these values and beliefs. They come across as pretty generic and the content would depend really on the story you have to tell about yourself. A good story is rare but would come strong; that doesn’t mean that ordinary tales about your life won’t stand out. You’ll never know. Here are some values that you might use and also guidelines as to what life story you can pick.

Discipline – How you managed to keep yourself away from temptations/distractions and pursue your goals (in studies and other endeavors of life)

Integrity – How you have been consistent in your thought, words and deeds (Maybe during leadership stints in CCAs, or what you’ve promised your teachers and friends)

Teamwork – How you might have dropped your own idea in support of a team activity and gone along with everyone (maybe in Project Work)

Compassion – How you’ve gone all out to reduce pain and sufferings of others (perhaps community work and such)

Hard Work – How you worked hard and it paid off (very cliche and overused value so I’m suggesting you don’t use it unless you’ve a unique experience to share)

Balance – How you’ve managed to juggle commitments and the lighter bits of life (once again, drawn from work and life)

Excellence – How you’ve insisted on the best from yourself and the people around you (probably in Project Work or your CCAs again)

There’s also questions that ask for an event or a person that has influenced your life; these usually end up being very cliche sort of writings but then if you know how to package it, even cliche writings can appear impressive. It is important that the influence is positive and powerful if not significant to your current attitudes towards life. This is especially true when your content has something original to offer within the cliche framework in the first place. I’ve seen the essay of a successful Havard Applicant about his mother’s influence in his life; he started out about how a cliche is one because it is often true and then about his mother who is a NASA engineer.

Other questions could simply ask for what you’ve done in your last summer vacation or what you will be doing before entering the university. These are easy for those with exciting experiences like touring around the world or working at an interesting job. For those involved in mundane jobs and boring work, try your best to extract lessons learnt from your workplaces and experience that could be applied to university life or the course of your interest. It could range from making calls and interacting with customers to researching on the Internet for some information your employer have asked you to put together.

Some other general pointers about this writing is to stay humble (humility, incidentally, could be used as one of the values) and to keep description of your experiences simple and free from unrealistic adjectives. Use plain English with more sophisticated sentence structures rather than bombastic words to impress readers. That way, you exhibit maturity of thought rather than a childish urge to flaunt your vocabulary. Finally, paragraph your writing properly and it would be best to get a tutor or teacher to go through it for you. They are experienced and have seen the statements by many other students so would be in a good position to offer advice for improvement.

Search and Research

Research
Looking Up the Web

It has been a long time since I wrote something about handling school work and such. I’ve been working on a couple of articles for some external parties and doing quite a lot of research and writing. The experience can be frustrating and tiring as I plow through loads of data, informative material and readings and then get lost in bits of thoughts here and there, never settling down to write. Such is research, you ask a few simple questions that you expect could be answered with a sentence or two but end up having loads of related answers and information that leads you to the fact that answers you’re looking for is way more complex. Then you realise you have got to put together evidence for each of your claims and explanations. People were asking me how I manage all that stuff, I told them that you’ve got to work out a plan somehow.

So in this article, I’d be discussing my method of planning writing and research. It’s by no means a definitive answer to managing your research or school projects but it might be an option you’d like to choose. I’m writing very generally about the kind of information research that leads to writing a paper/article; the sort that doesn’t require you to don on a lab coat and hold up test-tubes.

Google
Ultimate Tool

I recommend that before you start using Google, lay out some fundamental questions your paper/article would answer or specific information it will provide. It can be as general as an overview to a topic, or as specific as the number of petrol kiosk in a particular town. After listing them out, mark out the more specific questions and then hunt for the data first. These are usually the data sets you are going to use to introduce a particular claim or to support your theories. If there’s no such data available then you can find other proxy indicators or try and switch the type of evidence. It is important that you start off checking for the availability of the data you need or whatever you’re going to write would be groundless anyways.

After gathering the data you need, hunt for general articles on the topic that you are working on. These are the articles that refer to other more specific sources for information, or sites like Answers.com and Wikipedia. They serve as a directory for the topic and also to alert you or anything about the issue/topic that you might have overlooked. Often, these can also be blog entries that link up articles of related topic, much like the ones on ERPZ. When you’re clear you have a general idea of the topic and know briefly the issues involved, start planning your writing, listing the arguments, the progression of arguments and the sequence you present information to make your case. Often, some information you will need to provide are things you are not necessarily aware of, perhaps the revenue of a particular firm, the market share in an industry, or the response of a CEO to a recent affair. These are the stuff you didn’t initially set out to include but subsequently find rather significant.

Armed with the plan, start searching specifically for the information you need and formulate/sharpen your arguments according to these information. Unknowingly, you have actually slashed down the amount of content that you’ve read. By using general articles as signposts for your planning, you have drawn up the parameters of your research, something difficult when you’ve not read up anything or done any research. This explains the preliminary research into key and essential data you need as well as the general articles to get you started. The rest of your writing would build around these anchors that you’ve found in the beginning.

Then, follow through your plan as you write. This works for any volume of research, those that takes days to weeks and possibly months. For the ones where data sets have to be built from scratch either through ripping apart official statistics or carrying out your own surveys, the process would be placed between preliminary research and the ultimate planning. So happy searching and re-searching!

Maths Moment

I was desperate to check the sample correlation coefficient (r) of a list of sample that forms a scatter plot. I was aware that my graphing calculator could do that but when I finished keying in the information and then applying the LinReg (a + bx) function, I realised I could only obtain the ‘a’ and the ‘b’ constants of the regression line and not the coefficient. Thanks to my JC notes, I manage to learn how to get it to work.

So just a reminder for JC kids how to allow the LinReg function display the r and r-square figures: go to Catalog>DiagnosisOn. This is probably the only time you have to go to the Catalog menu in your entire JC H2 Mathematics life.

As for those interested to explore the capabilities of your Graphing Calculator for Chemistry, you can check out the last part of my Chemistry notes.

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

Xmas Economist

Xmas Sock
Merry Holidays!

This boxer day came with reads as well, ERPZ decided not to rest on the day after Christmas so here’s your reads for this holiday weekend, almost all from The Economist’s latest double issue’s Christmas Specials.

We first have Arguing till Death, a lesson for America from history’s greatest Western Philosopher, Socrates’ life. I got introduced to Aristophanes’ The Clouds through the article and is pleasantly surprised by the sort of humour ancient Greeks were capable of.

Hi There discusses politeness and courtesy in the English Language and the effect of this spread of English Language on the world today. The other talks about the virtues and motivations of being a foreigner in the world today and on the same issue is an article, A Ponzi scheme that works that looks into the migrant society of America today and the allure of it.

For viewing pleasure, How to make a splash in social media by Alex Ohanian. It’ll only require about 4 plus minutes of your attention; a short time before you dash off to the next party. Ohanian really gives a strong message about how the Internet works and how you might be able to ride on it to help you with a cause, but like what he says in the end, ‘you are not going to be in control’.

Chemistry Notes!

I’m not sure if this is long awaited, but ERPZ finally started a Chemistry Notes Section! I guess everyone would be more grateful if this was up a couple of months back when people are preparing for A Levels. Well, I haven’t found Zhuoyi’s website then and I was unsure about my handwritten notes then. So now, there’s only 2 sets of notes available, one kindly shared by Zhuoyi, which I’ve consolidated and reformatted into a single document. I might soon put up individual links to each set of Zhuoyi’s notes if readers are interested.

The other set is by me; it’s mostly handwritten with typed pages here and there. For those who might be interested, I’ve added a set of handwritten instructions on how you can make use of your Graphic Calculator’s statistics functions to perform calculations for reaction kinetics at the last few page of the document.

Enjoy Learning!

Making Judgments

Go on and strike!
Go on and strike!

Just a few days back I was discussing how we have to hold contradicting ideas as social science students; and it dawned on me that some students after training themselves to do just that, fails to make a judgment using the ideas. To them, it seems that everything is equally right and there’s no quantitative means of assessing which side is better. I hate to say this but then you actually have the power to decide what is right. After all, politicians, social scientist, economists and such are always at loggerheads and as I mentioned in that earlier post, no one is exactly right – at least we’ll never know what is truly right. We can only be sure of approximations to the right thing but then again there are high estimates, low estimates, depending on how things turn out.

The fact is we all make many decisions these way. There’s no way to know for sure that a plan will carry through and we have default positions, knowing all well what they rest upon and how they might change. We might wake up at 10am every Sunday Morning but then we adjust accordingly when we have appointments around that time on that day. You know that your priority is with the appointment and not with sleep; so unless your priority is the other way round, you’ll compromise. Likewise, when confronted with the question as to whether a Monopoly is harmful to consumers you might have to consider your priorities. You might be concerned with net transfer of wealth from consumers to the monopolist and thus against the theoretical supernormal profits. In that case you’ll argue that while the firm might be a natural Monopoly and the only one serving the market, it is harmful as long as it’s not taxed such that it only earn normal profits (with the tax revenue redistributed to the consumers).

On the other hand your sympathy might lie with consumer choice and welfare so you believe that as long as the monopolist exhibit some sort of dynamic efficiency, innovating and proliferating the market with variety then you’re fine with the Monopoly. After all, it is giving the consumers what they want that earn them the profits. But in an event when it becomes complacent and exhibits some sort of inefficiency (not in the P=MC sense though) then it needs some competition injected. Following that line of argument, some might choose to take side with competition right from the start and argue that as long as the market is a rather contestable market, with huge players ready and able to enter anytime (despite high barriers to entry), then the Monopoly need not be too closely regulated. The above arguments would all make sense and they could well be right answers for economics essays but then the question is whether you’ve presented your case convincingly by showing what are your priorities or principal considerations.

In other words, you do not make judgments when you’re analyzing or dissecting the ideas but when called upon, you’re able to demonstrate your principal concerns and judge the ideas in accordance to them. You should be comfortable with changing your stand when you adjust your judging guidelines and not cling on too hard to your positions. Karl Albrecht, author of Practical Intelligence believes that the open-mindedness so essential to learning and the path towards intelligence require this ability to see opinions/positions and separate from ourselves. So learn to pick up opinions from making judgments but readily drop them and learn to justify what prompted you to do so (new information input, changing circumstances, difference in judging guidelines).