Don Asher gives graduate advice

Don Asher, a nationally known speaker and author, spoke about how to get into graduate school. About 80 students filled two rooms in Smith Center to hear Asher’s advice on writing essays, dealing with letters of recommendation, direction for the nontraditional student and what to do if you don’t get into graduate school.

The presentation, hosted by the Career Center, is the only event providing information on graduate schools that they’re hosting this school year. Dee Thompson, director of the Career Center, explains that their budget only allows Asher to visit every two to three years. In fact, he has not been to Portland State since 1995 when about 50 to 60 students attended his presentation.

Asher provided an abundance of information and stressed his law: “Thou shall not call, nor write, nor visit any professor without having read some of his or her works first.” This advice in professor etiquette resurfaced throughout the presentation and seemed to weigh heavily in importance.

Letters of recommendation are another important part of the application process that needs advanced preparation. Asher recommends that students have a “sophisticated” meeting with the writers in which they ask for a strong recommendation. They should bring a list of “talking points” to these meetings that include what they have accomplished such as community service, research and relevant job experience. In other words, he says, “help them be a good writer.” Finally, ask for the letter to be ready before finals. That is, make sure that you do not ask for the letter at a heavy workload time for the professor.

What if you are a nontraditional student or otherwise have a slim chance of being accepted to graduate school? Asher recommends that you take three graduate level classes, get an A in each of them, get to know the professors and their published literature, then apply to the graduate school.

Asher stresses to “always have a backup plan” and “never apply to only top schools.” The backup plan should include schools that aren’t your first choice and even a “real job” in case you are denied altogether. He also stressed the rule of six when applying to graduate schools: two safe schools, two on target schools and two long shots.

In the latter case, being denied, you have a few choices, which include working in the field you plan to study and simply “getting older.”

In application essays Asher advises to include a paragraph about why you would enjoy living in the geographical location of the school. This is to address any concerns the professors may have that applicants from other locations will not be able to finish the program because of culture shock. He relates a story about two students in New York that were accepted into a graduate school; one from Kentucky and one from New Jersey. A professor was concerned that the student from Kentucky would have culture shock, but figured the student from New Jersey would be familiar with New York. Much to the professor’s surprise, the New Jersey student was overwhelmed by the city and mugged frequently while the Kentucky student fit right in. This anecdote illustrates the importance location can have on the success of graduate school admission and completion.

Asher reminds everyone to have a big closing to their essay; one with confidence that says you fit right in with that graduate school program. He warns, though, that students applying at international schools should seek the advice of an international professor in writing the essay. He explains that many international professors value a humble essay and will not be as impressed as American professors with a great show of confidence.

Asher received a loud round of applause at the end of his presentation, then stayed to answer individual questions from about 15 students. He told one student that a pre-written letter of recommendation is thought of poorly. If someone asks for one, just prepare some basic information to be included in the letter.

Former Portland State student Elise Wagner would like to attend Columbia University or Yale’s graduate art program and asked Asher if she should visit first or apply. After reminding her to have a backup plan Asher suggests that she first apply then visit and meet with professors in the program. Afterwards write a letter about who she spoke to, why the location is perfect and how the visit was further convincing of the desire to attend that school. Another student asked, “I’m applying this year to a grad school, but have no relevant experience, what should I do?” Asher said to read on all the thinkers in the field, then drop all those names in the application essay.

Lillie Fitzpatrick, a post-bac student, was very happy with the presentation and only added that she would have liked some information about how to pay for graduate school. She is a nontraditional student who has stayed at home with children for the last five years and has been out of school for 12 years. She plans on applying to the statistics program at OHSU.

Thompson was happy with the turnout and, as always, with Asher’s presentation. “We like to have him because he is a wonderful speaker and his years of experience working in this field provide valuable and relevant information for students that are trying to get into graduate school,” Thompson said.

The Career Center uses Asher’s literature frequently and currently has his book, “Graduate Admissions Essays … Write Your Way into the Graduate School of your Choice.” In the book Asher discusses whether you should go to graduate school, how to choose a school, how to pay for it and samples of essays. In the introduction Asher points out that “some [graduate schools] are so competitive that only two percent of applicants are accepted.”

In addition to speaking, Asher is a staffing transition consultant and executive coach based in San Francisco. He contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Times, and is also the author of eight books about career development and higher education. If you missed him yesterday and have a question just email an inquiry to his online column, “Fast Forward Careers”, at [email protected].