How to Research a School
By Ben Feuer, Photo by tallchris

To gain entry to a top school these days, applicants and parents need to wear a lot of hats – scholar, change-maker, networker. One of the less-appreciated (but vitally important) hats is that of researcher. Across academic disciplines and continents, schools are turning to their full-length bedroom mirrors, striking a pose and whispering to candidates everywhere, “Tell me that you love me.”

The truth is, even though parents and students think of themselves as being in competition for the schools' affection, schools are also in competition with one another to snag the best students. And their preferred mode of salving their academic insecurities, apparently, is by having applicants write worshipful ‘why our school is the best’ essays. It's really not as crazy as it sounds, though, there are some good reasons for it. For one thing, it separates out those who are 'just tossing another on the pile' from those who are serious. And for another thing, schools know that if they make you research them, you just might fall in love with them unexpectedly. That's why somehow, even when essays get cut and word lengths shrink, this topic always seems to stick around.

It ain't because they're popular, we can tell you that much. School research essays drive candidates crazy, and many smart kids who cruise through every other stage of the process get stumped by this one. So we here at Forster-Thomas are taking a few minutes out of our busy schedules to get you up to speed on how to nail your school research.

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Dig deep on a few topics. Most school specific essays are like aerial bombardments or spaghetti foodfights – throw stuff everywhere and hope something sticks.  But the great ones are like surgical scalpels, cutting to the heart of the inherent bond between the candidate and the school. The key question to ask yourself while researching is – Do I care about this aspect of the school?

Once you pull a list of three or four specific things you care about (for a list of possible research topics, check out our other blog on this subject), it’s time to do your deep dive. Figure out the relevant keywords and Google them in various combinations and iterations. Read the first 5-9 links that come up – news articles, Rate my Professor reviews, EventBrites and Meetups, student blogs, Linkedin profiles, what have you. When evaluating this kind of material, the question you need to ask yourself is -- Does this sound different, or better, than how it’s done at other schools? How? Then -- and this is a key step -- WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. By efficiently combining and clearly referencing your sources now, you’ll be setting the stage for success later.

Think like a reporter. So now you have research. How do you put it to good use? Reporters don’t go into an article wondering what they’re going to learn. They already know most of the basic facts of the case before they set fingers to keyboard. In other words, they have a thesis, just like scientists and sufferers of college writing seminars. When they’re drawing on sources and pulling quotes, they’re filling in the gaps of a story they already know. On the other hand, most candidates approach conversations with adcoms, former students and professors with a nearly total blank slate, expecting their partner to fill them in on everything. Sorry, guys, but that’s not possible!  If you want a useful answer, you need to ask a useful question, which means you need to know what question to ask, which means you, too need a thesis as to why you're a good fit for your target school.

So write one out. Right now. In a sentence or two. It should be different for every school.

Good. Now that's done, you can start contacting your sources and filling in gaps.

Say you’re interested in the XYZ Club at RFD University. It would certainly be a great idea to talk to the former student who used to manage that club – but NOT until you’ve already Googled the club, checked out their Facebook page, studied the programs from their last three events, determined how large it is, how long it's been around, and a half-dozen other similar questions. That way, your conversation won’t consist of platitudes like “How did you like the club?”  You’ll be able to ask them “So last semester, who was it that got Bob Smith to come to campus? How was his talk? Did he recruit anyone out of the club last year? Whatever happened with that power struggle in the leadership where the club split two years ago?” When you then go to write the essay, you’ll be armed with quotes supporting a very specific thesis concerning where the club stands, what it does well, and how you can contribute to its further growth. Sound like too much work? For you, maybe. But the guy next to you is going to do it. And he's going to have a leg up on you. This part of the process is completely meritocratic -- you get out what you put in.

Show your sources. Name names of students and give class years IN THE ESSAY. Name the professors, classes, clubs and initiatives that interest you IN THE ESSAY. Reference the student blogs and websites you have read ... wait for it ... IN THE ESSAY. (Need a list of student blogs? We made one!)

Don’t self-censor early drafts. One mistake many applicants make is collecting a ton of research, throwing up their hands while trying to organize it all into a small word count, and then throwing it away and replacing it with one generic sentence they could have come up with before they ever applied!  This is where having a smart, thoughtful, patient reader comes in handy. Instead of trying to decide for yourself what sounds good, present the most comprehensive and strong argument you’ve got, and let someone else suggest where to trim.

The golden question. Wondering if you’ve gone deep enough on your research? This golden question will give you the answer. If I replaced the name of the school in ANY sentence of this essay with another school’s name, would the sentence still be true and make sense?  If the answer is YES, you need to do more research. If the answer is NO, you’ve done enough. Whether you’ve done it well is another matter.

Cohesion. Although you can’t treat a school-specific essay like a narrative essay (it doesn’t tell a story), you still need to consider whether the topics you’re discussing form a cohesive picture of how you’ll operate at the school. Are you really going to join the consulting club AND the finance club? Are you really going to be active with the East Asian students AND the Mambo club? Probably not, if you’re being honest with yourself. Your choices of what topics to discuss define where you’re looking to grow and how the schools can help you grow, so make choices that cohere.

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Sound like a lot of work? It can be. But here’s the good news – there actually is a silver lining to this cloud. All that research you’re doing just might actually help you figure out which school you want to attend in real life! You might meet someone, or learn something, that opens up your mind to the wide and wild world beyond the US News Rankings. We could think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.