Got frame? Why admissions readers skim your essay, and what you can do about it

I believe that admissions officers read applications from (at least) three perspectives: professor (can she do the work?), hiring manager (will this degree advance her career?) and classmate (what can I learn from her?). With that in mind, I encourage applicants to organize and frame written application materials in ways that will address possible concerns. My successful clients tell me that one of my most effective methods in advising their admissions process has been helping them frame their stories. Please read the below tips to learn more about how I use framing to help clients succeed. 


WHAT IS FRAMING?

Clients often ask, “How can I tell my story in as few words possible?” It is all about framing. Are your topic setences working hard for you? If adissions office readers skim your essay, will they understand what you want them to understand? 

If you frame your story with clarity and concision, you increase the chance that your readers will think what you want to them to think. 

So, what is framing? Perhaps this article explains it best: "Systemic Causation and Syria: Obama's Framing Problem"

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/systemic-causation-and-sy_b_3916092.html


 

Why does framing matter?

I believe that many admissions readers skim applications. Given that they only have about 20-30 minutes to complete a first read of your entire file, admissions office readers are probably not subvocalizing (saying words in their heads while reading). Put yourself in their shoes. You have a huge pile of stuff to assess. The faster you get it done, the sooner you can see your family, or hit the gym, or eat something. Don't get me wrong. I respect the work they do. I also empathize. Fully.  That is how I know that they are incentivized to skim. They are not motivated to linger over your unstructured pile of thoughts and feelings.
 
But here's the good news. Admissions readers do, I believe, AT LEAST subvocalize topic sentences. That is how I was taught to speed read in the mid-1980s. And even if I am wrong, and I love to be wrong when it matters, and every single admissions reader assigned to your file reads every single word you wrote, you STILL need to tell your story in as few words as possible. 
 
 

Use framing to make your story concise, clear, and convincing. I assume even the busiest admissions office reader absorbs every topic sentence carefully. Therefore, I encourage you to dedicate extra time to make sure these few sentences carry the weight of your entire written structure (and superstructure).
 
You can also use framing to check yourself. Once you remove everything except opening paragarphs, topic sentences, and concluding paragraphs, you can review your "frame" to confirm if all the ideas are clearly explained in only those elements. If something is missing, take time to improve your frame. Then, when you "add back" sentences, you can be mindful of only adding new details that are not already clearly outlined in your frame. 
 
Alright, we can do this in just three steps. Are you ready?
 

 

STEP ONE

First, deconstruct. As an exercise, strip your essay down to only the topic sentences. What is a topic sentence? In Western, or more precisely, New York / Boston logic, it should start every paragraph.
Still, I suspect that many of you have “buried the lede,” which means you hid your main idea in a land far far away from the headline. What are you afraid of? Take ownership for your ideas. Who else do you expect to do it for you?
Please remember -
First and foremost, a topic sentence is a piece of analysis, NOT summary. Every topic sentence represents your original interpretation based upon the facts of your story.
(found at http://www.essayedge.com/academics/writingadvice/course/lessonthree.html; accessed 2011/09)
 
In TOEFL or AWA classes, you might have been told that it is sometimes OK to write a flat summary of your topic. Yes, that is true. But not if you want to stop a reader dead in her tracks to say, “Wait a minute. This person is GOOD!”
 
The first of the following examples illustrates a statement of fact, rather than an argumentative topic sentence.
  • Weak Topic Sentence: "Two years working in my present position has allowed me to develop technical, analytical, and interpersonal skills”
  • Improved Topic Sentence: "I now feel ready to share my accounting, new business development skills, and team building skills with my Wharton peers.”
    • BTW, my improved version still has a long way to go…
 

 

STEP TWO

Read these topic sentences, and ONLY these topic sentences, aloud (or at least, aloud in your mind — subvocalize :)
 
As you read, ask yourself:
  • Does my story make sense?
  • Will a non-expert be able to understand me?
  • Most importantly, will a complete outsider, who is PAID to find a reason to love or hate me, think what I want them to think as they read my words?
 
I know that last one is hard to imagine. So, to be more concrete… as you read, ask yourself:
  • Do I appear as a character, actor, agent, entity, thought, etc. in my own topic sentences?
  • Am I the center of attention?
  • Even if you are an introvert like me, remember: shyness does not sell shoes (nor HBS admit letters)
  • In your next draft, work to put yourself at the center of the action, or at least as the owner of your hypothesis
I think
I believe
I feel
I know
I learned
I care about this idea because
This concept matters to me because

 


 

STEP THREE

Finally, focus on mechanics as you edit for concision. As you read, ask yourself:
  • Do my verbs convey power? Will my readers feel them in their bones?
  • Are my nouns precise and easily imagined?
  • Are there a few, well-chosen adjectives, and are they well-placed?
 

 
That's it. Got it? Good. Now, let's make it happen!
 

 

NEXT STEPS

Try this exercise with your essay. Send me your frame (outline) before sending a full draft (or put your frame above your full draft). Include only your
  • opening paragraph
  • topic sentences
  • closing paragraph
 
Final tip: don't worry about the opening paragraph. Once your frame is clear, the opening writes itself. 
 

 
If you are like me, you need an example. Therefore, I deconstructed the following article to including only the introduction, topic sentences and conclusion. Can you follow the main ideas without reading the full text?

EXAMPLE 1 

Frame 

Japan's Plutonium Problem

The country can't safely store its nuclear waste, so it should pay other states to take it.

By PETER WYNN KIRBY

Peter Wynn Kirby is a nuclear and environmental specialist at the University of Oxford.

AUG. 16, 2015

OXFORD, England

When Japan marked the 70th anniversary of Nagasaki’s obliteration by a plutonium bomb on Aug. 9, its own cache of weapons-usable plutonium was more than 47 metric tons — enough to make nearly 6,000 warheads like the one that flattened Nagasaki.

Japan, an industrial powerhouse but resource-poor, has long depended onnuclear energy.  

These reactors were shut down after Fukushima. But Japan still stores nearly 11 tons of plutonium on its territory (the rest is abroad for now), and stockpiling plutonium remains hazardous: There is seismic instability, but also the risk of theft by terrorists.

Yet just this week, Japan put one reactor back online, and another four have been approved for restart by the end of FY2015.

For this, one can thank a powerful network of utility companies, conservative politicians and bureaucrats in Japan, who peddle the notion that plutonium constitutes a sort of thermodynamic elixir.  

In practice, however, fast-breeder technology has been extremely difficult to implement.  

But Japan doubled down.  

The exhibit did not say Monju was a failure.  

In 1993 Japan also started spending a fortune on a reprocessing facility at Rokkasho, which would transform nuclear waste into fuel by separating plutonium and usable uranium from other waste.  

While Japan’s record with nuclear waste is abysmal, no other state has found a safe or economically sustainable way to reuse such substances, especially not plutonium.  

France, which is at the forefront of MOx conversion efforts, has also struggled and is expected to phase out its MOx program by 2019. 

By far the best way to handle plutonium is to store it in secure long-term repositories underground.  

Considering Japan’s many vulnerabilities, particularly seismic activity, nuclear waste should no longer be stored there.  

Britain already holds about 20 tons of Japan’s plutonium, and France, about 16 tons, under contracts to reprocess it into usable fuel.  

The Japanese government should also pay the United States to take the nearly 11 tons of plutonium currently in Japan.  

Handling Japan’s plutonium would be a great burden for receiver countries, and Japan should pay heftily for the service.  

The benefits of this policy would extend far beyond Japan. An earthquake near Rokkasho could trigger an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe; preventing such an accident is in the whole world’s interest. And by funding the construction of long-term storage facilities overseas, Japan wouldn’t just be solving its plutonium problem. It would also be helping other states mitigate their own.

(found at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/opinion/japans-plutonium-problem.html; accessed 2015/08)

 


 

EXAMPLE 2

Frame

Can you follow the main ideas without reading the full text?

INTRODUCTION

I DO NOT NEED you to tell me I am terrible at basketball. Elementary school took care of that. So did junior high, and high school after. Lead-footed and inelegant, I found myself exiled to the far end of benches, a garbage-time specialist with a jump shot that looked like someone flinging a canned ham out a window. I never made varsity. I never made anything. I believe I can count my career scoring totals on my fingers and toes. Maybe just my toes.

TOPIC SENTENCES

  • Still: I loved the game.

  • Call it hubris, or the amnesia of adulthood, but I'm convinced my youthful basketball ineptitude is reversible.

  • But I want to get better.

  • The trend has been building for years.

  • For my ugly free throw, the Journal outfitted me with the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball from a company called InfoMotion Sports Technologies.

  • The first step of any coaching process is stripping away the nonsense and figuring out what the problem is.

  • But over the course of a session, I got better.

CONCLUSION

The best part of the digital coaching trend? It's right there. Athletic improvement is not a daydream, a New Year's resolution that never gets resolved. It is useful information, unvarnished and direct, always available. And it instills hope. I am many years removed from the far end of the basketball bench, but I believe I can become better at the game. My shot will get prettier. Just don't ask me to play defense. That's for my next life.

source: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304403804579262151276937732

 

Full article 

I do not need you to tell me I am terrible at basketball. Elementary school took care of that. So did junior high, and high school after. Lead-footed and inelegant, I found myself exiled to the far end of benches, a garbage-time specialist with a jump shot that looked like someone flinging a canned ham out a window. I never made varsity. I never made anything. I believe I can count my career scoring totals on my fingers and toes. Maybe just my toes.

Still: I loved the game. I love it today. I try to play when I can, in pickup games and one-on-ones and three-on-threes and awkward games of H-O-R-S-E that I almost always lose. For many winters I played in a regular weeknight game full of guys who played like I did: slowly and poorly. It was a blast.

Call it hubris, or the amnesia of adulthood, but I'm convinced my youthful basketball ineptitude is reversible. If only I didn't have a job, or a family, or hate the gym, or like to eat tacos at 10:30 p.m.—I could really be the next Kobe Bryant! My jump shot doesn't have to be the kind of grotesque knuckleball that makes people laugh on the court (people have laughed; I'm not kidding). A couple of years ago I went so far as to hire a professional instructor to help me improve my technique. He spent an hour working on my elbow, my knees, my backspin. We started two feet away from the basket and worked our way back to the three-point line. My shot looked solid. I left the gym feeling like a new player. Then I promptly forgot everything he said. It was back to flinging canned hams.

But I want to get better. I know I am not alone. Whether it's your jump shot, or your putting stroke, or your squirrelly tennis backhand, there is always room for adjustment and improvement, no matter your age. What's exciting is that there's now an avalanche of new technology—"digital coaching"—designed to teach you whenever you want to learn. That smartphone in your pocket is now a patient instructor who doesn't mind if you want to go out to the driveway and shoot free throws at 2 a.m.

The trend has been building for years. Sport tech is no longer the expensive domain of professionals. By now a lot of us have experimented with heart-rate monitors, pedometers and other gadgets; I still wear a wristband that tells me exactly how much energy I expend walking from the couch to the kitchen to locate the cookies. Maybe you've had someone videotape your golf swing, break down your mechanics. Two winters ago, I went to tennis camp with my brother, and the instructors videotaped our serves. It was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy.

For my ugly free throw, the Journal outfitted me with the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball from a company called InfoMotion Sports Technologies. It looked and felt exactly like a basketball, except that its bladder is outfitted with sensors that measure things like arc and spin and acceleration. This is a fancy way of saying this is a basketball with a very blunt teaching style that tells you, through your smartphone, exactly what you are doing wrong. You download the app to your phone, pair it to the ball via Bluetooth, enter some information about yourself and you're good to go. Phil Jackson is in your hand, and it doesn't cost $10 million a season.

The first step of any coaching process is stripping away the nonsense and figuring out what the problem is. My jump shot has two fundamental issues: It doesn't have enough backspin, and it has very little arc. It's basically a line drive. It resembles a hostile act. The 94Fifty ball made this clear within seconds. Its skills-training program suggests a looping arc somewhere between 42 and 48 degrees. Many of my shots were in the flat range of 30 degrees. The app's digital voice, which sounds exactly like a tough-love high school coach, beckoned. "Get that arc up." I bent my knees, pushed up and under the shot, tried to create spin. I was surprised by how unnatural doing it correctly felt. All my bad habits were so ingrained. The right way was an entirely different way. "Get that arc up." I'm trying, dude!

‘That smartphone in your pocket is now a patient instructor who doesn't mind if you want to go out to the driveway and shoot free throws at 2 a.m. ’

But over the course of a session, I got better. Modestly. Incrementally. No one is going to mistake my shot for Ray Allen's ethereal jumper. I played around with the 94Fifty's dribbling programs. I actually thought I was a reasonably good dribbler. The 94Fifty disabused me of this idea. (I gave it to a friend who actually is a good dribbler, and was amazed to see how much better he scored.) There are opportunities for head-to-head competitions and social-media challenges. I am not yet ready for a public showdown. I need more time. Give me 2,000 years.

The best part of the digital coaching trend? It's right there. Athletic improvement is not a daydream, a New Year's resolution that never gets resolved. It is useful information, unvarnished and direct, always available. And it instills hope. I am many years removed from the far end of the basketball bench, but I believe I can become better at the game. My shot will get prettier. Just don't ask me to play defense. That's for my next life.

 


 

MORE WRITING TIPS

One of my writing gurus is Professor John Cochrane at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His "Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students" contains good advice for any writer. Here are some highlights from his article

  1. Use simple short words not big fancy words. “Use” not “utilize.” “Several” not “diverse”.

  2. Keep down the number of clauses in your sentences, and the number of things kept hanging.

  3. Every sentence should have a subject, verb and object. No sentences like “No sentences like this.” 


 

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- Updated by Vince on Sat 31 Dec 2016 


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