29 April 2007

Writing a personal statement: Part 1

For our REU program, we asked applicants to submit a personal statement. For the benefit of those of you who might want to apply next year, here are some tips.

Step One. Look innocuous.

"But wait," I hear the cries. "What about all those workshops and books that say they can tell you how to write a resume that stands out?" Let me refine that: Your personal statement's first task is just to get past the first round of inspection. Don't draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons.

"Usually the first task in reviewing job applicants to reduce a large pile of resumes to a small pile--that is to begin to look for quick rejects. So avoid supplying gratuitous reasons for rejection--such as typos, spelling errors (its/it's, for example), unexplained long gaps in employment history, weird designs, statements about "my objective", no contact phone number, email addresses of the form plaigarist@wildthing.enron," wrote Edward Tufte on his forum.

Tufte mentions a personal bugbear above. Quick! Which of these are real words? Its'. It's. Its. The last two are. Now, for the bonus round, which of the last two is a possessive pronoun and which is a contraction? Seth Godin put it well here: apostrophes exist "to expose apostrophe ignorance."

For you biology students, species names are like apostrophes: they expose ignorance. Learn to format species names correctly.

Humans, for example, are Homo sapiens or H. sapiens. Not Homo Sapiens, H. Sapiens, Homo Sapiens, H. Sapiens, Homo sapiens, or H. sapiens.

Species names are always italicized. If it isn't italicized, it's wrong.

The genus name (first word in name) is capitalized, and the species name (second word in name) is not. This is important to recognize, because some word processors want to capitalize anything following a period, because a period normally signifies a new sentence, and the first word in new sentences are capitalized.

Formatting species names incorrectly screams "amateur hour" and can be a fast way to drag an application to the bottom of the pile. And not being able to write a species name correctly has been known to drive some biology instructors into dangerous berserker rages of the sort depicted.

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