With the proliferation of social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, graduate school applicants can gain unfiltered insights on graduate school life. With that ease of access through free and increasingly sophisticated technological tools, graduate students say they've charted new routes to understanding the culture and academic merits of prospective institutions without the aid of admissions offices.
"If you really want to learn about individual programs, aside from the university as a whole, I think you have to go straight to the current students and alumni," says Rheanne Wirkkala, a client executive at the global public relations company Burson-Marsteller and a 2011 alumna of Yale University's graduate international relations program.
"I might use Facebook or LinkedIn to meet alumni. At the end of the day, I'd be more concerned about what those people have to say about the program than how the university portrays itself as a whole."
"Honestly, I think you should totally skip that," she says, of contacting the admissions office. "I would definitely approach alumni and current students. ... They won't beat around the bush. They'll tell you exactly how it is. And that's really important if you're planning on becoming a student."
Applicants can track the Facebook and LinkedIn pages of their prospective schools, but they are likely to learn more by interacting with student-run handles and groups, which aren't subject to school censorship like official handles might be, Breyette says.
"That's where you're going to get the most truthful information about what goes on," she says of student-run groups. "A school will go on [its own profiles] and delete comments that might not reflect on them in a really positive manner."
There's also a wide range of quality among school-run pages, Breyette says, and although she doesn't recommend dismissing a school simply for its poor social networking strategy, she says social media can reveal whether a school is "with it."
"I've seen school pages where they've maybe posted like once a day [on Facebook], and it's about the weather. That doesn't make their page fun. Students want to be able to feel a part of something," she says.
[Read about how Yammer may trump Facebook for some grad students.]
Not only do students crave relevant information from schools' social media profiles, but they also appreciate honesty rather than spin, according to Mike Petroff, Web and enrollment technology manager at Emerson College in Boston.
"I respect when schools show content from the college that's relevant to the student's search, rather than just try to market to the students," says Petroff, who interacts on social media with both graduate and undergraduate applicants to Emerson.
"Grad students are savvy enough ... to know when they're being marketed to rather than when they're having a conversation with somebody. Trying to put out relevant content and covering what your own students are doing, and your own faculty research that's going on, I think that's one of the more positive things that graduate schools are doing in the space," he says.
But, Petroff notes, social media will never replace face-to-face interactions on campus visits, and students will continue to interact with admissions offices via E-mail and phone.
"I don't think that social media and being passive and just listening to what the school has to say and listening to the faculty will ever replace the student's drive to get more personalized information," he says. "I think what it's doing, though, is that a student will continue their connection on social media, so they don't have to call every week to see what the news is."
Some students also stress that social media is just one of several tools students should consider, or one of many factors to consider, as Ben Zanghi, an M.B.A. student at Babson College's Olin Graduate School of Business, puts it.