This is the fifth installment of our series on what you should be doing in advance of submitting your graduate school applications. The following suggestions are what to do eight months before your application deadlines.
1. Research press coverage: Look into the type of press that the schools you're considering receive. You could access the institution's website and look for links to "(institution name) in the news" or "press coverage of (institution name)."
Or you could simply use a search engine to look for press coverage. Conducting this type of search will yield more news clips than would be found on an institution's website, as school sites tend to accentuate only positive press coverage.
Some examples of press coverage you might find are the creation of a new department, division, or major; new faculty or administrative changes; or how the institution is dealing with complaints in the community regarding plans to erect a new building.
2. Read school newspapers: You may have to ask for institutional and student-run papers to be sent by mail, but in most cases, you can access them online.
Assuming you have done step No. 1 above, you now have access to both external (press) and internal (institutional/student) perspectives on aspects such as faculty and research—insider info that you will most likely not find in admissions or other promotional materials.
The value of reading a school newspaper is that you will get firsthand information about what is going on at an institution from the student point of view, such as reactions to the appointment of new dean of students, or responses to proposed changes in the way financial aid will be awarded. You will also find information about student governance and the types of social activities taking place both on and off campus.
[See why business school student newspapers are rare.]
3. Check out rankings of programs you're interested in: Various organizations, including U.S. News, provide annual or biennial graduate school rankings that can be useful to you. However, remember that rankings and reputations are two different things.
Organizations that conduct rankings try to provide reliable information, but the people actually doing the data gathering, analysis, and dissemination of the rankings may have never stepped foot on campus. Additionally, by the time you enroll in graduate school, the rankings of your options will most likely have changed—and may change again while you are enrolled and yet again after you graduate.
You need to be careful how much you allow a ranking to influence your final decision about where to apply. You may be better off asking the following: Over the past five years, has a particular institution been consistently ranked in the top 20?
[Learn how to use the U.S. News grad school rankings wisely.]
4. Re-evaluate your options: Review the schools you're considering, taking into account what you have discovered from press sources and rankings. Remember: You are not ready yet to make your short list.
You can, however, change your spreadsheet evaluations at any time. Something you learn about a school that was eliminated earlier from your list, such as its press coverage or rank, may cause you to place that option back on.
Don't forget that rankings and your success in and after graduate school are also two different things. Your ultimate success will depend on you, not on the ranking of your graduate degree-granting institution. Perhaps the higher the school's rank, the more doors that might initially open up to you. But in the end, your success is based on your inner level of motivation.