Potential grad students are understandably eager to gather as much insight as possible into the programs they’re considering. Applicants want to demystify the admissions process, admitted candidates want to know more about the culture and community of particular schools, and enrolling students want to figure out how to start quickly to get everything they can out of their program. We do our best to provide as much useful information as we can, as transparently as possible, in a variety of formats (emails, newsletters, online chats, virtual info sessions, in-person events, FAQs, individual correspondence, and this blog, to name a fistful). It’s natural, though, for people to want more from time to time. In spite of our best efforts, we may not always provide the specific detail you’re looking for. Sometimes you may just want insight from an outsider; we’ll always be straight with you, but it’s true that we think Fletcher is a pretty special place, and we want you to think so, too.
So, the popularity of online grad school forums is neither a surprise nor something we seek to discourage. There’s value in being able to ask a question anonymously, or to read the thoughts of other anons who have varying familiarity with different programs and professional sectors. As with any type of lightly-administered open online community, though, you should understand the potential pitfalls of relying too heavily on what you may read. It’s important to distinguish what you can usefully learn from such discussions, and what information is better gathered directly from the source, i.e. us. There are a few general profiles of post (or poster) to approach with a dash of skepticism, not because they provide false information (though that does happen on occasion), but because they can inappropriately draw general conclusions from individual circumstances, or provide a selective or incomplete portrait of complex processes. Some examples:
The Ranter: It’s a rare but not unheard of occurrence for a student to be seriously dissatisfied with their experience at a school, and an unhappy circumstance for everyone. There are lots of variables that can contribute to a poor fit between student and program. An anonymous forum provides a great opportunity to let off some steam, and the odd disgruntled party will use it as a platform to air grievances. Keep in mind that, regardless of the legitimacy of the complaints, this type of experience is almost never universal. The threshold of unloading online in this way is likely to have been reached via an atypical and individual set of events and circumstances, whether preventable or unforeseen. There’s more to any school than the worst thing an unhappy person has to say about it. If you read something that particularly worries you, contact the program directly to arrange a conversation.
The Industry Expert: The all-knowing and confident tone of some posts can obscure what should be obvious: these are neither admissions officers nor career services representatives. Generalizations about individual program reputations in particular industries or organizations (“The Department of _____ only hires graduates of ______”), the key to an admissions process (“I had a ____ GPA but writing about ______ in my essay got me admitted”), or personalized rankings (“If you’re interested in ______, you should only apply to ______ or ______”) should be a warning sign. Even alumni posters have, in almost all cases, only attended a single institution, and many of these type of comments are made by writers who have yet to even begin a program. If your reaction to something you read is “how do they know all this?” it may be a case of writers self-justifying their own choices or biases, or an example of a technique known as “making things up.”
The Rumormonger: “The School of ______ is releasing more scholarship funding to people who submit a written request.” “The _____ Institute is admitting candidates from the waitlist starting today.” “_______ University will match any competing scholarship offer.” Versions of each of these news flashes make a fairly regular appearance on most discussion boards, and they can range from semi-accurate to simply false. What is reliably true is that building a class each year is a complex task for any admissions office. It’s also true that, as enrollment deadlines near, much of our time is dedicated to working with a variety of individual and unusual applicant circumstances. The end result for Candidate A, and the pathway that leads to it, will not always exactly correspond to that of Candidate B. You should consider as definitive only information you receive directly from a program.
Think of online forums as one of several ways to gather external perspective on grad programs. My colleague Kristen wrote a while ago about the importance of using your own personal networks for information and guidance, advice that I heartily endorse. You also will have a variety of opportunities to correspond directly with current students and alumni. I promise these aren’t Admissions confederates trained to say only the most flattering things about Fletcher. They’ll be frank, forthcoming, and perhaps most importantly, accurate in what they tell you.
With that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, happy reading!