Friday, March 12, 2010

Communications Tip: Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

You’ve completed your application essay, ordered your transcripts, and drafted your cover letter; now you need to secure that crucial letter of recommendation. The manner in which you compose your request will influence its effectiveness. Lara Polansky (MESM 2009) compiled the following guidelines for writing position-winning requests:
1. Be concise: Professors/employers are inundated with emails and likely have limited time to read/respond to requests; incorporate the key details in as few words as possible.

2. Include a short description of the fellowship/internship/program: This will aid your recommender in writing a letter geared toward the specific opportunity for which you are applying.

3. Provide suggestions: You know what it takes to obtain the award/position. Help your recommender understand this and, thus, incorporate this information in his/her letter, by suggesting subjects to emphasize. You may also want to guide your recommender towards a discussion of experiences exemplifying your unique attributes that differentiate you from other applicants.

4. List the desired applicant qualities as specified by the program: Your letter of recommendation will be most effective if your recommender demonstrates how your characteristics align with those the program is seeking in an applicant.

5. Attach your statement of purpose (or equivalent) and resume: Although your recommender is likely familiar with your academic and professional experiences, it is often helpful to provide these detailed summaries of goals and accomplishments. This will help your recommender to be as specific as possible in his/her letter.

6. Format your message: Use of underlining and bullets will help direct the reader to the most important parts of your request.

7. Highlight the deadline: It is important that your recommender know the time frame of the request.

Bren faculty contributed the following recommendations to strengthen your requests:
--Be timely: Many times faculty get requests at the last minute. Whenever possible, provide a minimum of two weeks' notice.
--Letters need a full address (i.e., letter heading) ready for copying and pasting, as well as bulleted descriptions of the proposed study or work, if the letter concerns a specific project.
--If the letter has to be sent by mail, provide an addressed envelope for the recommender.
--Provide the web address of the fellowship opportunity but DON'T expect the recommender to weed through the detailed application. Tell him/ her exactly what is required -- e.g., points stressed in the fellowship application instructions, how the letter is to be sent (email or mail), exact address, number of copies, etc.
--Send an email first, asking the person if they are willing to be a recommender and state the deadline. This gives them an "out" and does not make them feel like you presume they are willing to write one. If they say they don't have time, respect that and move on. If they do have time, followup with an email to provide exactly what they need. Try to provide all information in a single e-mail to save the recommender time and to avoid important information getting buried in multiple messages.
--Offer to draft the letter (or at least an outline) for the recommender.
--Ask for letters from faculty who know you well. Often, faculty receive requests from students who took a large course and never spoke with them, either in class or outside of class. There is no value to a generic letter which does not highlight your achievements and qualities. If you want a professor to know more about you than just the grade you received, try to stand out in class by asking questions, participating in research activities, and doing exemplary work.

The bottom line is, be considerate of your letter writer. The more time you put into preparing your letter request, the less time your letter writer needs to spend requesting additional information.

Thank you to the faculty who sent their advice and suggestions!
--Monica Bulger

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Preparing the Bren Group Project Brief

The Bren School Communications Center offered a one-hour workshop on March 1st to assist students in preparing their Group Project brief documents.

Dr. Monica Bulger led a discussion of the elements of a strong brief. She distributed a handout describing the "IRAC" system, used in Berkeley's law courses. IRAC (
Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) is a framework used to develop tight, well-prepared, concise arguments. We can use this same system to help us translate detailed and lengthy reports into a more condensed format.

Considerations in preparing the brief:
  • The audience comes first (as always!).
  • How can you profit from the brief or use it to further your career?
  • Could it serve as a writing sample?
  • The overall goal is to produce a 1-4 page document that communicates complex ideas clearly and simply.
  • Make this a document that you can be proud of.Your Executive Summary may be a good starting point.

Activity 1: Groups spent a few minutes building an outline for their briefs using IRAC.

Applying IRAC to the Bren Group Project:
Issue: What are you addressing? This should be a one-sentence description of your topic.
Example: There is no established way to predict or reduce the environmental impact of shoes.

Rule: What are some of the assumptions made about your topic? What are some of the limitations or challenges in addressing the question?

Analysis: How did you approach the problem? What evidence have you gathered? It is important to explain the basics of your methods and provide support for your conclusions.

Conclusion: What are the results of your study? What are the implications of your findings?
Example: The Footprint Group Project produced a model that can predict and reduce the environmental impact of shoes during the design phase.

You will want to
market your project as much as possible in the brief. A brief is a much more attractive than a full report for people interested in learning about your project. The brief is very likely the only thing that will actually be read. If it is provides a strong and compelling message, it will entice readers to explore your report.

Activity 2: Groups spent a few minutes looking at past group project briefs and the entire group then discussed examples of strong content and formatting.

Advice for brief formatting generated in the session:
  • The main message should be visually obvious.
  • You might consider putting the problem statement and your conclusions in bold.
  • Maximize headings by making them count: for example, instead of "Results" use a more descriptive title.
  • If you have a study site, include a map showing the area.
  • If you are studying a species, show a picture of it.
  • Create strong graphs or figures to represent your data.
  • Think about the brief as a movie preview; you want to include the most exciting moments to get people to the theater to see the full movie. This is your opportunity to compel people to want to know more.
If you would like further assistance with your group project brief, please contact us. Our Writing and Visual Design Consultants will be happy to arrange appointments upon request.

--Danica Schaffer-Smith

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Compelling Poster Design

On February 22nd, the Bren School Communications Center hosted a workshop on the content and visual design of posters. The workshop specifically addressed the needs of 2nd year Bren students, who are currently in the process of preparing posters summarizing their Group Projects. Dr. Monica Bulger led a brief discussion of the textual aspects of a poster and Visual Design Consultant Aaron Sobel provided guidelines for visual design as well as an overview of design tools.

The text on a poster must strike a balance between providing technical information and sustaining interest. The primary consideration should always be your audience (family, friends, other students, professors, clients). When in doubt, direct your message toward your professors and clients. Also important is in what context the poster will be displayed. At the presentation in April, members of your group will be able to discuss details of the project with the audience, but it should have enough content to speak for itself on the walls of Bren Hall.

When you look at a poster, what do expect to take away from it? Participants at the workshop expressed that within a few seconds you should be able to identify the problem, what the group did, the results, and why the research is important. Consider what message you want to convey to your audience.

Activity 1: Participants worked with their group members to write out their research question or a brief statement about the project’s findings. Once this message is distilled, it can be used as a guiding focus in design of the poster.

Monica’s tips:
  • Plan for short attention spans. For example, use headers that are more descriptive than just “methods, results, discussion”. Consider incorporating your findings into the title of the poster.
  • A lot of text is overwhelming. Preserve the meaning, but cut out the details. Ideally, your main message should be one brief sentence. You can start with a long version, and then determine what is essential later.
  • Consider using your presentation slides as a guideline rather than the report. Your slides are already a more condensed and visual version of your information.
  • Use space wisely. Make sure that all of your images are useful in communicating your data.
  • Look at other posters and decide what you like and dislike
Using Design Tools:
There are many different tools to choose from including Photoshop, InDesign, Powerpoint, and Pages (Mac only). Photoshop and InDesign have advanced features, but are more difficult to learn to use quickly. Powerpoint is the least flexible program, however, it is very widely used, is compatible with both Mac and PC platforms, and more people will be able to assist you in its use.

Regardless of which program you choose to use, it is very important to set the “canvas size” before doing anything else. Doing this will ensure that the poster is already the proper size when you take it to the printer. You may recall that enlarging images can result in pixilation issues. This may be a problem if the canvas size is not set correctly. In PowerPoint, this option is under page setup.In Pages, it can be found in page setup, under the File menu. Under “paper sizes”, you can define a new page size. In Photoshop, the canvas size is set when you create a new document.

Getting your Poster Printed:
When you go to the printer, you will want to take at least two file versions of your poster. Call ahead to determine what the printer needs from you and what file formats they accept. Take your original file with you in case you need make any edits on the spot. Additionally, you should bring at least one image version, such as JPEG, TIFF, or PDF. TIFF is the best option to maintain image quality.

Font choices contribute voice to the information on your poster. Sizes vary between fonts so be sure to print and review several different sizes of the fonts you are thinking of using. Free fonts can be downloaded online and installed on your computer. Keep in mind that the printer may not have your font, if you need to make changes. The TIFF or JPEG image versions will preserve your font style.

A lot of the thematic feeling in a poster is found in the color scheme. Color wheels can help you select pleasing color combinations. You may also want to consider color meanings in making your choices for certain subject matter. Generally, conflicting colors and shadowing should be avoided. Print an 8.5x11 version of your poster to preview the color scheme before making a final decision.

Photographs and figures draw in your audience and are much more easily absorbed than textual information. If you have them, use photos of your group in action. Be creative in how you convey your information in figures and graphs. For example, to compare magnitudes, you can create objects (i.e. in Photoshop) that are the same shape but different sizes, rather than using percent figures. It is helpful to highlight the most important information, such as by using a different color for the most important column on a bar graph.

Logos and other images may look cleaner if they are cropped. Aaron gave a demonstration of how to clip a background in Photoshop so that text would wrap the curves of the image rather than the square background. Use the magic wand tool to do this, with the tolerance set high. If you hold down the shift key, you can add areas from the background. Once the backround is selected, choose select inverse> copy> save new>paste to get same image with no background. Save it as a PNG to import it into your poster.

More helpful online tools:
  • You can upload your poster in Feng-gui to determine the hotsposts in your poster, where most eyes will focus. Aaron uploaded an example poster and no hotspots occurred on the text.
  • Free flowchart tools, such as Omnigraffle, are available to make nicer images. Export them as PNG files to put into your poster.
Aaron’s Tips:
  • Keep the poster as simple as possible and make use of white space.
  • Try drawing your poster before doing it on the computer. Changes will be easier early on.
  • Make sure to use spell check .
  • Ask people outside of your group to give you feedback.
  • Print out a color proof on 8.5x11 before you take it anywhere else.
  • Make sure to have at least $80 left in your account to print two copies of your poster.
Activity 2: Students took a fieldtrip to evaluate design and content elements of posters on Bren Hall 3L, spending no more than 1 minute looking at each poster. Workshop participants generally liked posters with strong imagery, thematic colors, and limited text.

We hope that these concepts and tips will be useful in preparing your Group Project posters. Keep in mind that special sessions for poster design are also available in the Communications Center. We look forward to working with you soon!
--Danica Schaffer-Smith