Structuring a Letter (Part 1)

 

Electronic means of communicating, such as emailing and text-messaging, may have long made letter writing passé, but the skills required to put together a letter remain relevant.

While vocabulary and grammar top the list of things that people most want to get right, not many give due consideration to a key component – structure. In some cases, the vocabulary may be precise and the grammar accurate, but the fact is that a letter without a clear beginning, middle, and finishing paragraph is likely to confuse the reader.

Although a one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work when deciding how to organise your writing, here are some useful pointers on what to include and in which order.

 

1. Begin with a suitable greeting

Opening a letter with a greeting is something that everyone does, but the beginning they choose may not always fit the context. How a letter should begin depends on two things: who the reader is, and just how well they know the writer.

A formal letter typical begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, unless you’ve already spoken or written to the recipient. In that case, begin with the full title and their surname (e.g. ‘Dear Prof Higgins’, ‘Dear Ms Jackson’, ‘Dear Dr Floyd’). Friendly letters, on the other hand, usually begin with the word ‘Dear’ followed by the recipient’s first name.

 

2. State the purpose

It’s best to make clear right at the beginning of your letter why you are writing to someone. The benefit is that the reader knows straight away what the context is, making it easier for them to comprehend the information that is to follow.

If it is a formal or semi-formal letter that you’re writing, you simply can’t go wrong when you begin with the phrase ‘I am writing to’. By comparison, friendly letters are quite chatty right from the word go, so begin with an informal phrase (e.g. ‘It’s been a while since we last met.’) before you get to the topic.

 

Remember, how well you structure your writing depends on how well you’ve planned it.

 

 

GLOSSARY

passé
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is no longer popular or effective
Example : I’m not surprised Pete’s film flopped. His ideas on film-making are so passé.

 

one-size-fits-all
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is suitable for all circumstances
Example : In teaching, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method that works for all types of students.

 

(right) from the word go
Form : phrase
Meaning : from the very beginning
Example : The band’s first performance was a disaster from the word go.

 

The View From Campus – Participating in New International Student Orientation

Image courtesy of Jirka Matousek via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

As the new academic year begins at many U.S. colleges and universities this month, we hear from Dr. Patriece Campbell, Director of International Programs, Millersville University (PA), on the very timely topic of the value of participating in new international student orientation on U.S. college campuses.

 

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A: Comprehensive, Safe, Affordable, Supportive, Suburban

 

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

A: Millersville University is recognized for offering a variety of programs with a great campus location and high return on investment

 

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?

A: – Undergrad-Applied Engineering & Technology Management, Biology, Business, Meteorology, Education, Music Business Technology, Education

– Graduate – Education, Clinical Psychology, Innovation and Technology

 

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college/How international is your institution?

A: China, Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia

 

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?

A: We currently accept the IELTS at both the graduate and undergraduate level. We look at the overall score.  The requirement for undergraduate admissions is 6.0 and the requirement for graduate admissions is 6.5.  If a student does not have sufficient scores/English proficiency then we can offer conditional admission through our English Language Institute.

 

The Importance of International Student Orientation

Q: After students have gotten their visas to come to the United States, what next steps should they take to get ready?

A: It is important for international students to become as familiar as possible with the institution. Since most often, international students may not have the opportunity to visit campus prior to arrival, They are encouraged to keep in touch with their admissions counselor or international office regarding pre-arrival information and updates. They will be available to assist you with information needed as it relates to what to bring etc. Ask about special programs that might be available, such as peer mentors, host families, faculty/staff mentor, and even free airport pickup.

 

Q: What steps do universities take to help international students feel welcome on campus?

A: Many students create a series of communication to help guide the students to programs and activities (and people) that will serve as resources and be a huge impact on their life on campus. Each semester will have a variety of programming through the International Office and Student Engagement department to encourage student involvement. PARTICIPATE!

 

Stay tuned for the next “The View from Campus” post, where Dr. Campbell speaks about the role of international student orientation, how important it is for new international student and shares advice for prospective students on student life in the USA.

Describing Visual Data (Part 2)

Image courtesy of John Jones via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the previous part, we looked at some useful advice to produce a good report – adding data to descriptions and choosing data carefully.

Here are some more tips on report writing.

 

3. Use comparative language

As well as choosing the right kind of data, a report writing exercise tests the writer’s ability to compare information where relevant. In other words, for a report to be good, you need to be able to look at trends in the graph and identify both similarities and differences.

Naturally, use of language to compare things is a must here, so keep looking for opportunities to use comparative phrases such as greater than, a lot less than, and relatively unpopular. Superlative adjectives (e.g. the tallest, the fastest, the costliest, etc.) also come in handy when something is being compared to a group of objects.

 

4. Use appropriate vocabulary

There’s no doubt that the wider the range of vocabulary used, the clearer descriptions get. A powerful word like skyrocket or plummet can help the reader visualise the trend being described even without having to look at figures. Of course, range alone will not do the trick. What is equally important is that vocabulary gets used precisely.

A graph is usually full of trends, which means that skillful use of trend vocabulary can better the overall quality of a report. Learning such vocabulary can go a long way towards improving your descriptions.

 

5. Look at the big picture

An overload of statistics can possibly suck the writer in, meaning that they spend all their energies on details. When writing a report, if you can’t see the wood for the trees, then that definitely is a major handicap.  Always look for the big picture, that one overriding pattern or trend that captures the essence of the graph that you are interpreting.

 

Practise using these tips, and report writing should be manageable even if you aren’t mathematically inclined.

 

 

GLOSSARY

do the trick
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to mean that something achieved what you wanted it to
Example : Complaining to the manager did the trick, as we got a discount on the meal.

 

not see the wood for the trees
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to say that someone is so focused on details that they fail to notice the main point
Example : People who lack experience are often unable to see the wood for the trees.

 

handicap
Form : noun
Meaning : a disadvantage
Example : Playing in Canada was a handicap, as they were used to warmer conditions.

 

the big picture
Form : phrase
Meaning : an overview of a situation
Example : The article focuses on the big picture of how the internet influences what we buy. 

 

 

Describing Visual Data (Part 1)

Image courtesy of John Jones via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

Describing information that is presented in visual form can be a hard row to hoe, especially if Mathematics isn’t your thing. For a start, there could be so much data that you wouldn’t know where to begin. Identifying the overall trend that captures the essence of the graph isn’t easy either.

 

It then comes as no surprise that different types of tests commonly use graphs to assess the test taker’s ability to interpret and describe data with some degree of precision. In IELTS Academic, Task 1 is a report writing exercise that can be based on visual data – line graph, bar graph, pie chart, or a combination of them.

 

Here are some handy tips for writing a good report.

1. Add data to support descriptions

Sometimes we get so caught up in making any sense out of all the numbers that are plotted on a graph that we forget to get the basics right. A fundamental part of report writing is effective use of figures. Leave them out, and your descriptions could make little sense to the reader.

Imagine reading an automobile sales report that includes various trends but has absolutely no numerical data to support descriptions. The chances are you wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of the situation just by reading about trends. So, add figures wherever needed to support trends or patterns you describe.

 

2. Pick data wisely

Although it is important to include numerical data when describing trends, it doesn’t mean that every number plotted on a graph needs to find its way into your report. Too many figures can make a report less effective, just like one without any data.

One ability that report writing assesses is whether the writer can pick key figures out as well as leave those out which are non-essential to the task. While there are no shortcuts to making this decision, thinking about the purpose of the report should help you decide what numbers to include and what not to.

 

Remember, time spent analysing the graph is time well spent.

 

 

GLOSSARY

hard row to hoe
Form : phrase
Meaning : difficult to do
Example : With just four matches left this season, winning the championship will be a hard row to hoe.

 

isn’t your thing
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to explain that you are not interested in something
Example : Camping under the stars isn’t really my thing, so I think I’ll pass.

 

not make head or tail (of something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : unable to understand something
Example : All the dialogues were in Italian so I couldn’t make head or tail of the play.

 

The View From Campus: Arriving in the United States as an International Student

 

 

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

This month we turn to the very timely topic for those students getting ready to make the journey to the United States for their higher education, preparing for arrival. Jim Crawley, Director of University Recruitment and Outreach, for ELS Language Centers, shares his best advice for international students coming to America.

 

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A: Many Centers offering intensive English.

 

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

A: Offering intensive English to prepare international students for entrance into an academic program.

 

Q: What are your top programs for international students?

A: English for Academic Purposes; General English; Short-term Specialized English Programs; Vacation Programs

 

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your institutions?

A: China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Saudi Arabia

 

How does ELS prepare students for university study in the United States?

The ELS English for Academic Purposes program not only helps the international students increase their proficiency, while preparing them to move into their academic program; but through workshops and elective coursework, students also work on their study skills and academic and workload expectation of the U.S. university classroom.

 

Once students have gotten their visas to enter the U.S., what is the most important thing you recommend students do next?

It is important that students familiarize themselves with the local area, and that they feel comfortable with their arrival information. We provide them with web sites and information brochures related to arrival, airport pick-up, housing and the local area.

 

How soon can students enter the U.S. once they have their visas?

Students can enter up to 30 days prior to the program start date on their I-20, however, we do not recommend that they arrive more than a week in advance.         

 

Would you recommend any resources in the students’ home countries to help them prepare for their journey to the U.S.?

 Many students work with counseling agencies. If they do have a counseling agency that they trust, this can be a good resource. Another reliable resource is EducationUSA. They have over 400 locations around the world, usually in major cities.They offer unbiased advice about studying in the USA, and many of the Centers offer pre-departure sessions.

 

How do U.S. schools assist international students prepare for their arrival on campus?

 It is important to communicate with the student and their family.  This is one of the most important decisions the family will have made regarding their son or daughter up until this point.  We have an obligation to make sure the student and family have as much information as possible about all relevant details including, but not limited to: the university, the location, the academic program, and their financial obligations.

Our ELS students are fortunate, as they are already in the U.S. We encourage our students to visit the school where they have been offered conditional admission. It allows them to become familiar with campus and meet some the faculty and staff who they will be working with when they ultimately transfer.

Most U.S. colleges and universities offer some form of orientation for new international students. Sometimes it is just for the international students, while other programs integrate the international students with the newly arrived U.S. students. Orientation is a great way to get to get familiarized with campus along with the other new students, while also having an opportunity to meet their new roommate(s).

 

What advice would you give students who are about to get on a plane to the States to begin a degree program?

Take time to learn about the school, and the community. You are about ready to begin an adventure that will positively affect your future. Be ready to meet many new people, some of whom will be your friends for many years to come. Be open to new ideas. You have much to offer, and much to learn.  Above all else…be yourself.

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 2)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it’s important to sensibly utilise the one minute allotted for preparation during the IELTS Speaking section.

 

Read on for more advice on how to do well in the IELTS Speaking section.

2. Generate some main ideas, not many

Test takers commonly but wrongly try to produce as many different ideas related to the topic as possible, which doesn’t always work. After all, thinking up new ideas is a lot harder than extending ideas you already have. What they really should be doing is to come up with a few main ideas and then think of ways to develop them. Wh-words (what, when, which, where, why, and how) come in handy when you wish to elaborate a point. Learn to put them to good use, and you should be able to keep talking until the two-minute time is up.

 

3. Be descriptive

Topics used in the second part of the IELTS Speaking section often encourage test takers to draw on their own experience and feelings. And when doing so, it’s a good idea to vividly describe people and things you include in your talk. If you’ve been asked to talk about your favourite type of food, for example, talk about its appearance, smell, texture, and aroma. That way, you’ll have a lot more to say, meaning that you are less likely to dry up. As well as this, the examiner might also find your response more impressive, as detailed descriptions involve use of precise vocabulary.

 

4. Speak at a steady pace

It’s only human nature to talk faster than usual when we are fairly stressed out, and exam conditions can do just that sort of thing to you. The problem, though, is that the faster you go, the more content you need to produce to last the two-minute duration. Going at breakneck speed can also interfere with your diction, lowering your pronunciation score. It is best to stay calm and speak at a steady pace – not too fast, not too slow.

 

Equip yourself with these sound strategies, and speaking non-stop will be a walk in the park!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

come in handy
Form : phrase
Meaning : be useful
Example : Some ability to speak European languages will come in handy in this job.

 

draw on (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to make use of skill or experience that you have 
Example : The book draws heavily on the author’s experiences as a tourist in Asia.

 

a walk in the park
Form : phrase
Meaning : something that is easy to do
Example : I’ve been a cop for over two decades, so investigating petty crimes is a walk in the park. 

View From Campus: Student Work in the U.S. Part II: After Studies

 

In a previous post we focused on opportunities for international students in F-1 visa status to work while in the United States while they’re studying. In this post we take you through the opportunities they have after they finish their studies.

For some people, knowing how a story ends before they begin reading a book can be an obsession. When it comes to learning what lies ahead for international students after graduation from university in the United States, students and parents are eager to know the ending as well.

By law, after completion of their studies, F-1 students have either 12 months (for non-STEM degrees) or up to 36 months for STEM degrees of Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorisation possible per degree level for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level students. There are 240 different Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) academic degree programs that can qualify international students for the 3 years of work. The challenge is finding the job that makes sense.

 

Where to start?

When starting out the job search Marcelo Barros, founder of The International Advantage, recommends that “savvy international students are not fixated on specific job titles or firms that they may want to work for. Instead, with time on their side, it is preferred that students focus on understanding the various professional fields their careers interests, skills and experiences might be a fit for, and that they may be aware of. It’s all about creating a bigger pool of employment possibilities.”

Also, students who go to sessions on putting together a resume and cover letter that gets sent to prospective employers, are off to a good start. As Nicolle Merrill, founder of GlobalMe School, remarked that cover letters and resumes are “the main tools students use to get an interview with a company. The challenge is that nobody is good at writing (them)…. Even Americans are bad at it.”

 

Making the most of opportunities

On many college campuses each year, there are job fairs and interview days held that can open the door to the right job. However, students should not go into those fairs without proper preparation. Research is a key first step. Knowing which companies are attending and whether they sponsor international students helps a job seeker focus his/her time on those potential employers that may be a good match.

How international students spend their time with company representatives is critical. Students should know how they want to introduce themselves in 30 seconds. Ms. Merrill recommends that international students “practice your professional story. Know what you’re going to tell recruiters when they ask you to tell them about yourself.”

Ms. Merrill has an important suggestion on how to take the next step: “Follow up by connecting with recruiters on LinkedIn and sending them a personal message. You never know where a connection might lead in the future.”

 

Searching for jobs as a non-STEM graduate 

While the majority of international students in the United States are studying in the STEM fields, and have additional time available to them to work, a sizeable number are not STEM students. Barros suggests that these students “should create a competitive profile by creatively strengthening their profile with an eye towards the skills that are in demand by U.S employers.”

Merrill goes further indicating “there will be much more networking and research involved. It also takes longer to find the right role, so students need to plan for a 6-9 month search to see results…. For non-STEM students, I recommend targeting nonprofits or universities.” In addition focusing on higher education institutions, Merrill suggests “students should also target roles in less competitive locations. This means targeting less popular cities and regions such as in the Mid-West and South of the United States.”

In the end, there are no guarantees of employment for international students after graduation, but with extensive planning and preparation, significant initiative and follow-up, and meeting the right company, the opportunities exist. Good luck!

 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 1)

 

Talking about any topic at length, in itself, is never too easy, so imagine having to do it without any prior preparation.

 

Giving an extempore speech, or an impromptu speech, is something that many people find daunting. For one thing, the speaker needs to be able to think on their feet. With zero preparation done beforehand, they have to make up content as they go along. Another challenge is that the speaker also needs to organise the ideas they generate as they speak. If not, there is every chance of the talk becoming directionless, with ideas popping up randomly.

 

An extempore task brings to the fore a person’s ability to think, organise, and talk all at the same time, when little to no preparation time is available. No mean feat, right? No wonder then that B-schools commonly use such tasks to measure the speaking as well as logical thinking ability of applicants. Several international language tests also have a component that assesses the test taker’s ability to speak at length without preparation.

 

In IELTS, the second part of the speaking section, known as the individual long turn, requires the test taker to speak on a particular topic for up to 2 minutes uninterruptedly. Of course, there is the advantage of having a minute to prepare and make notes, but the task is essentially extempore speaking.

 

Here are some ways to perform well in the extempore part of the IELTS speaking test:

1. Use prep time wisely

Test takers do get time to think about the topic and make notes before they start talking, but one minute is not a lot of time. So, do not write in full sentences. Instead, jot down keywords that can help you talk elaborately on the topic. For instance, if you have been asked to talk about an unforgettable meal you’ve had, add words such as ‘exotic’ and ‘flavoursome’ to the notes you make. Once you begin talking, they’ll serve as a reminder to describe the origin of the food and its distinctive flavours.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Speaking tips in the next part. Stay tuned!

 

 

GLOSSARY

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long period of time
Example : The ministers spoke at length about the need to bring down crime rates.

 

think on your feet
Form : phrase
Meaning : to have the ability to think and react quickly 
Example : Stand-up comedians need to have the ability to think on their feet while doing live shows.

 

no mean feat
Form : phrase
Meaning : not easy to do
Example : He has played in over 300 international matches, and that’s no mean feat.

 

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 3)


Image courtesy of Jil Wright via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

So far in the series, we’ve spoke about four different ways to increase your word power: reading extensively, learning words in context, listening, and practising using new words. Here are two more tips to help build your vocabulary.

5. Keep a dictionary close at hand, always

When it comes to vocabulary building, an obvious place to start would be somewhere you are likely to encounter thousands of new words: a dictionary. If you don’t have one, invest in one, for a good dictionary is worth its weight in gold. Maybe you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way by consulting a printed, unabridged version. Or maybe you wish to have something more sophisticated, such as an app or online version. Whatever your choice, it hardly matters. The one thing that does is that you always have a dictionary close at hand while reading. Why? You are more likely to use it that way.

 

Apart from the meaning of a word, a dictionary also has alternative meanings, pronunciation, word origin, useful expressions and phrases featuring the word, collocations, and lots more. In short, it’s a treasure trove of information, so make the most of it.

 

6. Make it fun

Let’s face it, learning of any kind could be a pretty dreary affair after a while, even if you happen to be an eager beaver! So, try as best as you can to make vocabulary building a fun activity.  A game of Scrabble, for instance, is an enjoyable way of getting introduced to new lexis. If board games aren’t your thing, you can always play a spoken word game. A quick online search should get you a list of ideas. If you wish to push yourself, then try a crossword puzzle or perhaps an anagram. Crossword puzzles can be a right challenge, as creators are typically forced to use unusual words so that everything fits into the puzzles they design.

 

Remember, there’s no one perfect way to acquire an extensive vocabulary. Feel free to chop and change learning strategies so that you find out what works best for you.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

worth its weight in gold
Form : phrase
Meaning : very useful
Example : A good cookery book is worth its weight in gold.

 

unabridged
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes a book or article that has not been shortened in length
Example : I’ve seen the unabridged version of this play, and it is just too long.

 

close at hand
Form : phrase
Meaning : near
Example : Is there a hospital close at hand?

 

treasure trove
Form : noun
Meaning : describes something containing many useful things
Example : The encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information.

 

 

chop and change
Form : phrase
Meaning : to keep changing what you are doing
Example : Football coaches sometimes chop and change players to find the right balance.

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Velaia (Paris Peking) via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In Part 1, we looked at two sure-shot ways to build your vocabulary: forming a reading habit and learning words in context. Here are some more suggestions to increase your word power.

 

3. Listen to natural speech

Want to learn new words and pronounce them right at the same time? Listening to lots of natural speech can be the answer. From a lexical point of view, it can introduce you to several new words within a specific context, making it easier for you to retain them in your memory. Should you choose to give this method a try, be sure to watch videos that come with transcript. That way, you get to listen to new vocabulary as well as see it. A good place to begin is TED Talks (www.ted.com), where there are plenty of short, powerful talks to choose from. When you watch a TED video, see to it that you read the transcript and jot down new vocabulary. You may also want to pay attention to how words are pronounced so that you say them just the right way.

 

4. Try using new words or risk losing them

Learning new vocabulary is one thing, but forming an ability to recall them when needed is something else. Not putting newly learnt words to immediate use could mean losing them in the long run, as they may no longer be fresh in your memory by then. One way of getting round this problem is to focus only on vocabulary that is personally relevant, as you are sure to have opportunities to use them at regular intervals. Keeping this in mind, before you decide to learn new lexis, ask yourself whether the word or phrase is something you would use in your day-to-day conversations. And make an effort only if the answer is a resounding yes! Your task doesn’t end there, though. Use the newly acquired word at the earliest opportunity. Once you’ve used it a few times, it usually sticks in your mind, becoming a part of your active vocabulary.

 

We’ll be back with more vocabulary tips in the next part.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

sure-shot
Form : adjective
Meaning : certain to be successful
Example : Continuous practice is a sure-shot way to improve your sporting skills.

 

transcript
Form : noun
Meaning : the words that someone says in written form
Example : The police have transcripts of all the telephone conversations made by the suspect.  

 

in the long run
Form : phrase
Meaning : at some time in the future
Example : Although expensive, new machinery will help us cut costs in the long run.

 

stick in your mind
Form : phrase
Meaning : stay in your memory for a long time
Example : He has won several tournaments, but his first ever final sticks in my mind.

 

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