OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD

Pitfalls to Avoid in IELTS Letter Writing (Part 1)

Letter writing may be a dying art, but even today a well-written note can leave a lasting impression on the reader. No wonder then that letter writing skills are still in demand.

In IELTS General Training Writing, one of the tasks to complete is a letter that may be personal, semi-formal, or formal in style. The test taker is presented with a situation and asked to respond to it, writing a minimum of 150 words.

Now, writing a letter isn’t exactly rocket science, but if not careful, you could easily lose marks in a test. Here are some pitfalls to avoid when you attempt the letter writing task in IELTS.

1. Purpose is unclear

Written without clear intention, a letter can leave the reader somewhat confused. They may come across a lot of information yet not understand what it is that the writer wants to achieve in the first place. So, read the task carefully so as to identify its requirements, including the main purpose. In IELTS, you’re likely to encounter common, everyday situations that require you to do some of the following: apologise to someone, enquire about something, make arrangements, invite someone, complain about someone or something, and explain something.

On beginning your response, use the first couple of sentences to make it clear why you’re writing. For instance, in a formal letter, beginning with a phrase such as I’m writing to… can make the purpose clear right from the outset.

2. Inappropriate tone

Sometimes test takers get the style of writing horribly wrong, using an inappropriate tone to compose the letter. A personal letter, for example, may have too many words and phrases that sound formal, or grammar structures that indicate a high degree of formality. In IELTS, use of inappropriate tone invites an immediate penalty, which would subsequently affect you overall writing score.

Naturally, it pays to think about who you’ve been asked to write to and how well you are supposed to know them. This should help you decide what style of writing would be appropriate. Once you identify the right tone, keep it consistent throughout the letter to achieve the desired effect on the reader. 

We’ll be back with more advice to help you avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls in letter writing.

The View From Campus – How Do U.S. Universities Help International Students on Campus?

This month, we hear from Krista McCallum Beatty, Director of the International Students and Scholars Office, at Michigan State University, on the very timely topic of the ways international offices assist overseas students adjust to life on a college campus

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A Top 100 Global University

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

Michigan State University is known worldwide as a top research university, home to renowned scholars and scientists from around the globe and a vibrant and diverse community of undergraduates and graduate students. MSU has a legacy of collaborating with international partners to create new knowledge and explore innovative and practical solutions to the world’s most pressing problems—particularly in the areas of food and agriculture; education and capacity building; global health and nutrition; and water, energy and the environment.

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

Michigan State University is ranked in the Top 100 universities globally. Individual academic programs ranked number one include:

  • Supply Chain/Logistics
    • Elementary Teacher Education
    • Higher Education Administration
    • Secondary Teacher Education
    • African History
    • Nuclear Physics
    • Industrial and Organization Psychology
    • Rehabilitation Counseling
    • Agricultural and Applied Economics Departments (Global)

In addition, Michigan State University has over 30 individual academic programs ranked in the Top 25, and many more academic programs ranked in the Top 100.

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

The countries with the most students enrolled at Michigan State are China, India, Korea, Taiwan and Canada.

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

Michigan State University uses IELTS scores to determine whether an international student whose first language is not English meets the university’s English proficiency requirements. Assessing English proficiency is essential in helping international students to be successful while studying at Michigan State.

Q: What is the role of an international student office on campus?

At Michigan State University, the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) is a comprehensive office, meaning we provide a wide range of support for international students and scholars. Examples of the support OISS provides include new student orientation, immigration advising, assistance with obtaining a driver’s license, individual support for students experiencing personal difficulties, lots of great social activities including trips around Michigan, leadership development programming, and a weekly Coffee Hour, that is a long-standing tradition.

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

Universities start helping international students feel welcome before they even arrive in the US. For example, at Michigan State new international students complete an online orientation program prior to traveling to the US. Once students are on campus, universities provide an orientation program that includes important information about classes and immigration regulations as well lots of information about student life, other laws and policies, and lots of great opportunities to meet other new students, both international and US. Universities also have many staff committed to helping international students feel welcome and part of the community. Many of these people work in a department commonly known as student affairs or student life. International student offices work very closely with student affairs offices to help international students feel welcome on campus. Examples include opportunities to be involved in student organizations, social events, trips, leadership programs, and campus traditions.

Q: How seriously do U.S institutions value having international students on campus? Give examples.

International students are highly important to colleges and universities. They enrich the campus in so many ways – through their academic work, their leadership, sharing their perspectives which may differ from domestic students, and the many informal and formal ways they contribute to all students learning about the world.

What advice would you give prospective international students considering U.S. colleges to help them understand what life would be like for them in the U.S.?

Do lots of research! The U.S. is a large and diverse country and there are many different colleges and universities to consider. Don’t make your decision based on rankings and cost alone. Those are important factors, but you should also consider the academic programs, size, faculty to student ratio, opportunities to get involved on campus, leadership programs and career development support, living arrangements, and opportunities for research. Whenever possible, try to talk with a current student and a graduate of the university to learn first-hand about their experience.  Alumni are a great resource not only to learn more about the university, but to network after graduation and stay in contact with your alma mater. Michigan State has a large and active alumni association with local chapters all over the world. In addition, the alumni association offers many opportunities for alumni ranging from social activities to career support and networking events to opportunities to mentor current students.

Q: What is the most common challenge new international students face when adapting to the academic environment at U.S. colleges?

International students will face challenges adapting to the US. However, international students face different challenges depending on their backgrounds and experiences. Common challenges include:

  • adjusting to being immersed in an American English language environment 24/7;
    • learning to eat new foods and at the same time find ways to get familiar food from home;
    • making new friends, often from around the world;
    • adjusting to different culture norms.

The best advice I have for meeting these challenges is to be patient. You will be in the US for several years, and with time you will adjust and thrive as a student here. You will be amazed at how much you learn studying in the US not only about your area of study but about the world and about yourself. My absolute favorite part of my job is talking with students about their experiences and listening to them reflect about how they have grown during their time here.

It is the end of the academic year at Michigan State University right now. This is a joyous time on campus when we celebrate our students, especially our international students. The campus is filled with students getting ready to graduate, and the commencement ceremonies are about to begin. Families and friends have travelled from all over the world to celebrate. Students are walking around campus taking photos in their favorite places, while reminiscing about their time here. They will carry their stories of the ups and downs of life as a university student with them the rest of their lives, knowing that they have grown and changed for the better.

Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

Sounding Polite (Part 2)

In English-speaking cultures, great importance is attached to avoiding language that others may find offensive. In a previous post, we considered how using softening expressions and avoiding negative words can go a long way towards helping you sound polite.

Here are some more ways in which you can appear courteous while speaking English.

3. Distancing verb forms

When we ask questions, make offers, or give suggestions, it is possible to use the past tense instead of the present. In such contexts, past tenses indicate ‘distance’ from the immediate present, thereby making what we say less direct. Do note that there’s no difference in the basic meaning expressed when the past tense replaces the present. Here are some examples to help you understand this better.

When do you want to check in, sir?

When did you want to check in, sir?

Do you want more sugar in your tea?

Did you want more sugar in your tea?

In the same way, sometimes progressive (continuous) verb forms are used in place of simple forms to sound more casual or less definite.

I hope you can give me a lift after the concert.

I’m hoping you can give me a lift after the concert. (less definite)

I look forward to doing business with you again.

I’m looking forward to doing business with you again. (casual)

4. Modal verbs

Another way to avoid being too direct is by using modal verbs. The past forms of modal verbs will, can, and may are commonly used in everyday communication to exhibit good manners. When making requests or asking for help, the word ‘please’is often added to make a better impression on the listener or reader.

Will you need my car tonight?

Would you need my car tonight?

Can you please call the security?

Could you please call the security?

May I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Might I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Remember, being polite helps us build good relations with the listener or reader, so it is definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back with some more tips.

The View From Campus: Why life on a U.S. college campus matters

This month we hear from Marty Bennett, award-winning international educator who has directed international student admissions and student services operations at several U.S. colleges and universities, worked with the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network or advising centers around the world, and now consults with the British Council on U.S. higher education opportunities for IELTS test takers.

For many years I have asked new international students what has surprised them most about their time in the U.S. so far. One answer repeated more often than any other: “it’s not like what I’ve seen in the movies and on TV!” While there may be some appeal to living the life of a TV celebrity or movie star, this is not how the greater majority of people live.

When it comes to understanding what life will be like on a U.S. college or university campus, most international students have only what they’ve read or seen online. Very few have actually visited U.S. colleges before they enrol. As a result, many international students may rely on what the normal university experience is like in their home countries. To help give perspective on what it’s really like, I’ve been asked to respond to these five questions:

What is the most common challenge new international students face when adapting to the environment at U.S. colleges?

Adjusting to the lack of formality in relationships is perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome. Not only do U.S. students have very informal connections with each other, but the student – professor relationship can have a really friendly and casual feel. This can be very hard to understand. There are many ways that international students experience a very different classroom environment that they may be used back home. From how well they participate in classroom discussions being a percentage of their grade, to how terms like plagiarism and academic dishonesty are defined will leave new internationals struggling to adapt.

How would you describe the life of an international student on a college campus?

Get used to most people you pass on campus saying “Hello!” “Hi, how are you doing?” and “Whassup?” and then keep on walking without stopping to have a conversation. This behavior is normal. Don’t be offended. In reality, international students at many colleges in the United States have access on campus to services, social events, advising, clubs, and activities that simply do not exist in most other countries.

How seriously do U.S institutions take the responsibility of providing for a great variety of students’ needs and interests while they live in and around campus?

For many colleges, they are the home away from home for their students, especially international students. As a result, U.S. institutions tend to provide a full range of facilities, activities, event, organizations, and services to their students. Unusual offices that help students with everything from resume crafting and interview training, counseling services for mental health concerns, to special interest clubs, to intramural sports, and dozens if not hundreds of service opportunities for students wishing to do volunteer work, U.S. colleges cater to the full range of students’ needs.

What do most international students find most surprising about what happens on campus outside of the classroom?

Other than the friendly “hi’s” and hello’s” they will get from most students on campus, the sheer scope of different events, activities, and clubs available to join is what is most surprising for international students.

What advice would you give international students to best prepare them for life on campus?

Perhaps the best advice I would give to students about coming to the United States for a college or university degree, is twofold: 1) keep an open mind – expect to be surprised by what you encounter, and 2) if at all possible, talk to current international students from your country or region of the world before you go, so you can get the perspective of someone who has been through what you are about to experience. Good luck!

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

Understanding the IELTS Listening Test

When moving to an English-speaking country for work or study, one challenge that many foreigners face is communication. Even those with reasonably good English skills are stunned to find themselves struggling to follow the brand of English spoken abroad.

This is for the simple reason that native speakers pronounce differently. They employ a range of pronunciation features that many non-native speakers aren’t familiar with, such as contractions and weak forms.

Being an essential survival skill, listening comprehension is commonly assessed by language tests meant for migration, work, or study. Here’s an overview of the Listening section in IELTS, the language test trusted by universities, governments, and businesses the world over.  

Skills tested

IELTS Listening tests a wide range of skills needed to function efficiently in an all-English environment. This may include understanding factual information and main ideas, recognising the opinions and attitudes of speakers, and following the development of an argument or a talk.

Content

Unlike Reading, the Listening section in IELTS is the same for Academic and General Training test takers. The test has four sections, and includes both monologues and conversations. Conversations can involve as many as four speakers. While the first two sections are set in everyday social situations, the last two have an educational or training context. A range of voices is used, which means that test takers are likely to hear British, North American, Australian, or New Zealand accents.

Timing

IELTS Listening lasts approximately 30 minutes, at the end of which test takers receive an additional 10 minutes to transfer their answers from the question booklet to the answer sheet. All the recordings are played once only, so test takers need to be alert throughout.

Questions and marking

The test has a total of 40 questions, each worth one mark. Question types include multiple choice questions, labelling maps or diagrams, giving short answers, and filling in a form. Once a raw score out of 40 is calculated, it is converted to the IELTS 9-band scale using a conversion table.

Here’s a quick tip to finish off: IELTS listening is designed to be progressively difficult, so if you are aiming for a high score, make sure you get almost all answers in the first couple of sections right. Good luck!

The View From Campus – How Public Universities Make Admissions Decisions

This month’s article is featuring Robert Hardin, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for International Recruitment, at the University of Oregon

About the university

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?
A:
Green, unique, groundbreaking, welcoming, and thoughtful.

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?
A:
The University of Oregon has alumni from around the world that have made an impact, including: Phil Knight (founder and president of Nike), Daniel Wu (actor), Renee James (former president of Intel), Ann Curry (journalist), Ken Kesey (author), and Chuck Palahniuk (author) to name just a few. UO is also known around the world for having successful sports teams and individual athletes.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?
A: The University of Oregon’s top academic programs are: Accounting, Architecture, Education, Psychology, and our sciences, particularly Biology and Physics.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?
China, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. We are an international university with over 3,200 international students (about 14% of the student body) from 103 different countries.

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?
IELTS is one of the few ways we allow students to prove English proficiency. It is a helpful and valuable tool for us to determine if a student has the level of English needed to be successful at the University of Oregon.

Making admissions decisions

Q: Do most public universities have set deadlines for international admissions?
A:
Yes, most US public universities have deadlines. However, some deadlines are more flexible than others. At the University of Oregon, we accept applications after the deadline if there are spaces available. However, if you want to apply for scholarships, you will need to meet all posted application deadlines.

Q: What are institutions looking for in an application essay/statement of purpose?
A: We want to get to know a little about the applicant. The essay is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself other than your grades and test scores.

Q: What needs to be in a letter of recommendation that my teachers/professors are asked to write?
A:
Teacher letters of recommendation should go beyond what grade you received in a class. We want to know more about how you performed as a student. For example, a letter of recommendation from your maths teacher talking about the hard work and effort it took to earn your grade in the class will help us better understand your true academic potential.

Q: How important are test scores in university admissions decisions?
A:
In the US, there is no standard practice for admission decisions, so each university sets different expectations. However, the vast majority of US universities value your class grades more than your test scores or other factors.

Q: What are the most important factors public universities use to determine admissibility of international students?
A:
Grades are usually the factor that public universities consider the most important.  At the University of Oregon, our research shows that high school grades are the best predictor of success for new college students. Test scores are often the second most important factor. After test scores and grades, it is common for public universities to use other factors such as grade trend, strength of curriculum, extracurricular activities, essay, and teacher recommendations.

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