Student Life: A Review of Graduate Admission Essays by Donald Asher

by Ayla Slessor -Previously published in The Gradzette

Throughout the exciting, expensive and arduous process of applying to graduate school I found Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays – Write your way into the graduate school of your choice to be by far the single most instructive resource I came across. Despite the title this book is about more than just admission essays. Asher is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, leading readers into the bewildering unknown with clear step by step instructions and amusing commentary.

The opening chapter, titled Should you go to grad school and how are you going to pay for this? poses some tough questions about the motivation to pursue further education. Asher insists readers be realistic from the outset about the potential financial costs versus benefits of graduate school. Although written for student applying to schools in the United States, the vast majority of information is still relevant to the Canadian applicant. One of the few ways the book’s advice differs is the enormous difference in price between American and Canadian post-secondary education, although Asher’s advice to be wary of total costs is still relevant.

In the next chapter Asher lays out a simple formula for determining which programs readers should apply to, a method I followed precisely and was extremely happy with in the end. The formula he outlines leaves the applicant with a shortlist of six schools, a manageable number of applications. Asher also includes a particularly helpful spreadsheet template that can help students organize pertinent information on each program into a clear and concise format. I ended up adapting his template into a spreadsheet that suited my purposes for both the application season and after I began hearing back from programs and needed to make an informed final decision.

Another particularly helpful section outlines Asher’s detailed steps to getting fantastic letters of recommendation. He advises readers to supply each reference with a package of information summarizing the applicants’ academic career, extracurriculars and program aspirations. Asher suggests that to ensure letters of reference are submitted on time tell professors only the date you will be applying by, which will presumably be well in advance of the actual deadline. Keeping in mind Asher’s recommendations, I made appointments in early September with three professors and took a complete package of documents. All three were impressed, not only by how thorough I had been in getting them any materials they would wish for in order to make a detailed recommendation, but also that I was taking action so early in the school year. Each professor noted that most students request letters of recommendation in December or even January and February when most applications are due, which leaves referees writing more impersonal letters as they lack adequate time to prepare.

As Asher points out, if GPA, CV and extracurriculars are fairly equal among most applicants, the best way to get noticed by an admission’s committee is with excellent recommendations and a unique, polished essay. Therefore, this is where the focus of the book lies. Sometimes called a Statement of Purpose, Statement of Scholarly Intent, Admission Essay or Personal Biography, the general idea of the written component is this: convince the admissions committee you are a dedicated, mature and passionate student who would love to be part of their program and fit in well with their department.

One word of warning however – I found Canadian universities, at least the programs I was applying to, wanted much shorter write-ups than Asher focuses on. Graduate Admission Essays includes 50 sample essays for MA, PHD, MBA and Professional programs, as well as some written for scholarship or fellowship applications. However, they are nearly all two to three single spaced pages, while the schools I applied to all had a single page maximum. To compose a 250-500 word statement that is personal yet professional, academic but still accessible while standing out from the crowd, Asher instructs readers to begin early and answer a large series of questions before attempting any essays. The questions range greatly, from most important accomplishment to date, to specific post-graduate career plans, to listing individuals that have had the most influence on the development of your character. In this portion of the book Asher stresses his belief that there is always something that sets an applicant apart and makes them unique, sometimes they just need to take the time to brainstorm and reflect on their life experiences to figure it out. Asher also discusses his motto: RTGDQ, or Read The Gosh Darn Question. As each program requests a statement with a slightly different focus – be it personal biography or academic intent – Asher makes it clear that it is imperative applicants answer exactly the question that is asked. I did indeed find the focus of my admission essays by answering Asher’s questions, and believe my applications were much more succinct, competitive and well received because of his advice.

Last July Asher released a 4th edition of Graduate Admission Essays, updated and revised based on feedback from readers. While there are a number of other resources worth reviewing, including simply talking with friends and colleagues who have gone through the process, I found Graduate Admission Essays made applying infinitely more enjoyable. Asher clearly believes his readers to be intelligent, capable individuals and treats them as such, while maintaining a banter, clarity and wit that brings the subject matter to life and makes the reader feel energized to begin applying. Good luck and start early!


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