The Letter of Reference

Deadlines are fast approaching! For many graduate programs, the deadline is early February or March. That's why I've been so busy lately. No, I'm not applying to get into grad school. Been there, done that, got the degree(s). I'm busy because I'm writing letters of reference for students who want to further their education--grad school, rehab med, med school, and even law school.

It's a good idea to prepare yourself long before your application deadline--years before. This includes thinking about who you will potentially ask for a reference. Here are some tips:

  • First, what kind of class did you take? A small lab class? That instructor would be able to say things about your hands-on research abilities. A class with a lot of written assignments/papers? In that case, your ability to structure your ideas and communicate them effectively could be described. A class with multiple choice exams only? Um, this is what you'll get: "Dear Institution: This person apparently took my class and seems to have gotten a grade of X. Cheers."
  • Request a letter of reference from an instructor who knows you well. That is, did you just go to class? OK, that's great, but unless you asked a lot of intelligent, insightful questions in class--and mentioned your name a lot--that's not enough.
  • Did you make an effort to go to the instructor's office to ask any questions you had? Your extra effort in traipsing all the way to some office out in the armpit end of campus will be noted, and remembered.
  • Oh yeah--one more: Did you get an excellent mark? Like, at least an A? (That goes without saying, I hope.)
I won't write a letter of reference for just anyone. My criteria are spelled out in my FAQ. The periodical University Affairs has a good articles on letters of reference, including How to Ask for a Reference Letter (this one is about letters of reference for jobs, but the general advice still applies). There are also articles on how to write them, and How to Properly Turn Down a Reference Letter Request (in case you're wondering why someone might say no).

The best part for me (and, okay, for students too, I guess) is hearing that they were accepted. That makes me happy--that I've been able to help someone on their way, just like others helped me. Getting presents--like the one in the photo--upon getting accepted is definitely not required. (But thanks anyway, E.H., the cookies are yummy--and congrats again!)

Gotta go finish up one more letter of reference now...

Why aren't you studying?

The Cover Page

In my Perception class, students are allowed (actually, encouraged) to decorate the cover page of their lab assignments. My TA and I pick out the best two or three, and I hand those back personally in class. (Last term, the class even clapped for the chosen ones.) If your cover is chosen, you won't have to rummage through the piles of labs to find yours--it's hand-delivered to you in your seat. Like you're in a luxury box at Rexall Place or something. Hey, you earned it!

For those that aren't chosen, however, there still can be a benefit. If your cover really stands out, that makes it a lot easier to find among the sea of plain white cover pages. And, as an extra side benefit, this is an application of the visual attentional phenomenon of popout. Eh? Eh? Clever, huh?

I promised my class this term that I'd post some photos of the best cover pages from last term. Some recent covers were so memorable that I took pictures of them with my phone. My dumbphone. Because it's not a smartphone, see? Plus: I'm mad at my dumb dumbphone. I don't have any pictures to show because my 0.3 megapixel dumbphone took the world's worst pictures of cover pages. No, really--some of them were so blurry even I didn't know what some of them were. Me, photoshopped to look like Han Solo? Actual Halloween candies taped to the cover? No, maybe it's a LOLcat. So, sorry about that.

Anyway, here are some dos and don'ts for cover pages:

  • origami: it's just going to get squashed and ripped--forget it
  • macaroni: frowned upon--what, are you still in grade 2?
  • fusilli: ah, now you're talking--can you make a fusilli Jerry? (no bonus marks for that)
  • glitter: past TAs have nixed glitter and sequins--glitter glue may be okay, but ask first
  • $5 bills: no, no, no--the university says that money must not be submitted with assignments (just drop it off at the Provost's office)
  • drawings/sketches: if you have the time, patience, and ability to actually draw something, well, I've got a soft spot for that
Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Christmas holiday

It was, as usual, a busy time these past couple of weeks. At the end of December, I tried to blitz through my marking as quickly as I could, to get final grades submitted before everything shut down for the holidays. Then there was Christmas: made a turkey, the kids went crazy ripping their presents open, and my wife still hasn't opened the iPad I got her (it...scares her).

Then there were a bunch of furlough days, when I was not supposed to be working. So, on my furlough days, I did some work. Waitwaitwait--nothing related to the University (of course), but my contract work for Nelson Education. I'm a consultant for their higher education division, working on the websites for their Canadian (or "Canadianized") psychology textbooks. (Full disclosure: yes, I do get paid for this. And yes, I do use Nelson textbooks in two of my classes But I do not get a single cent in kickbacks for choosing their textbooks. And the textbooks I've chosen are not Canadian ones, so my consulting work has nothing to do with those books.)

In between furlough days, I also started planning out a research study. Because of my good relationship with Nelson, I got a very nice offer from them. Susan, the publisher's local representative (we call 'em "book reps"), and her manager offered to give students in my perception course free access to their integrated online etextbook/study guide/online lab called CengageNOW. It's a bit surprising to hear about publishers giving anything seems to good to be true. There is one catch: they're not doing this to show that they really are a sweet, generous, kitten-loving company; they're doing this to get some direct feedback from students on CengageNOW. And there's another catch: they only had 60 free access codes to give away. We decided that the fairest way to distribute them in my class of 214 students was random selection. Those are pretty good odds: a 28% chance of getting a free textbook. You're welcome! Oh, and my research part? I don't want to say too much, so let me just say that I want to see how well students do. That's all for now.

I also let myself have a little fun. A favourite activity that my girls like to do is bake pretzels from scratch. Because they're only 6 and 2 years old, that means I have to do most of the work, while they just try to roll out a few balls of dough and sprinkle way too much salt on them. But that's OK--I don't mind eating these misshapen, overly salted pretzels because they're made with love (sniff). Um, also, the pretzels taste really good after you've been outside shoveling a mountain of snow for (I kid you not) three hours. Oh, I had help--from a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old armed with a princess snow shovel and a Dora snow shovel, respectively. (As you can see from the picture above, I'm rockin' the snowblower while my crew takes yet another coffee break.)

Please tell me your holiday was more exciting than this. Please!

Why aren't you studying?

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