This is the sixth installment of our series on what you should be doing in advance of submitting your graduate school applications. Seven months before applying, it's critical that you reach out to both current students and graduates.
1. Contacting current students: If you know people who are attending the graduate schools you're interested in, contact them and ask some questions. If not, ask the admissions staff if they can put you in touch with current students.
Many admissions offices have student volunteers who are willing to talk with prospective students. If you ask the same questions about each of your grad school options, you will have more information for the purposes of comparison shopping.
Here are questions that will elicit very good information from students about their experience:
• What are the top two reasons you chose this institution?
• What are two of the most exciting or rewarding parts of your student experience thus far?
• Is there anything about the program that has not met your expectations?
• How do you like your fellow students?
• How do you like the courses and faculty?
• Have you found the staff (such as financial aid and career services) to be helpful?
In my experience, prospective students greatly value contact with current students when searching for graduate schools. Current graduate students will usually give it to you straight—they have nothing to lose by sharing their real experiences, and their input and comments will be of tremendous value.
[Find out why some grad students picked their schools.]
2. Contacting alumni: After graduation, alumni have a chance to reflect on their student experience—and have the added benefit of time since graduation.
Once again, ask the admissions office (or the alumni office) for the names of graduates who live in your area. Look for individuals who have been out of grad school for 5 to 10 years. Arrange to meet with these individuals by offering to come their way. You could even offer to take them out for a meal.
Here are key questions to ask alumni:
• Has the value of your educational experience increased or decreased since you graduated?
• How do you believe your graduate school experience most helped you with your career?
• Have the career services and alumni offices been helpful?
• How much contact have you had with your former classmates? Do you believe the alumni network is strong?
• If you had to do it over again, would you accept the admissions offer and enroll?
[Find out if graduate school alumni are drawing high salaries.]
Once you have concluded your conversations with students and alumni, go back to your spreadsheet, and in the columns marked "interaction with current students" and "interaction with alumni," provide letter grades. You might also add some comments regarding what stood out most to you in your conversations.
Try to chat with at least two or three students, and the same number of alumni. While this is time consuming, the benefits to you will be huge. The best advertisement for any product or service is a satisfied customer—and higher education is no different.
When you are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars for your graduate school education, something you will most likely do only once in your lifetime, getting information from those who have previously made that investment is well worth your time.