Visiting Planning Schools: What (Not) to Do

Ann Forsyth's picture

The fall is high season for school visits from prospective students. I am a great believer in doing this remotely-while some greenhouse gases are generated by a Google search it is far less than a plane ride to a distant campus. I suggest visiting schools only after you have been admitted (and not even then if you don't have a really crucial question that can only be answered on site). However, if you can't bring yourself to even apply to a school in a place you've never visited, and promise to buy carbon set asides, a tour may be worth it. The following tips can help you make the most of the school.

  • Try to go to an open house. You'll not only meet faculty and see the school, you'll also meet students who might be your graduate school peers.
  • If you are going independently, don't contact faculty directly to organize your visit, except as a last resort. Most schools have a graduate program administrator who can provide information and assist with campus visits. If there isn't an administrator, a faculty member who is the program director may have this as part of their job description. They can coordinate schedules better than you could.
  • Come prepared. Read the web site for the program and come with additional questions for the program administrator, faculty, or students. If the question is fully answered on the web site, don't ask it-use the time to check out the local area.
  • Ask questions that show you have investigated the school. Don't start an interview with a faculty member by asking "Tell me about your research". If they have a strong research program their publications will be available and they will wonder why you haven't read them; if they don't, you'll get to hear about the Environmental Impact Statement they wrote for a highway rest stop in 2001. Instead ask questions along the following lines (and these are just a sampling--there are many more):
    • "I noticed you have written a lot on solid waste disposal planning, has there been much funding around for that kind of thing recently?" This indicates you know their research and want to understand the logistics of doing it; it can also help you raise the issue of research grants and contracts (including funding for students).
    • "What do you think students like most about the program?"
    • "What campus-wide opportunities and resources do students seem to appreciate the most?"
  • Talk with students as they can provide a really valuable perspective.
  • Do a basic campus tour to get oriented and find out the range of facilities.
  • Don't expect faculty to review your vita or statement. Many faculty won't do it out of fairness to other candidates and in consideration of the time it takes away from work they could be doing with current students.

For other advice on applying to graduate school see my recent post on writing statements of purpose and my earlier one on applying to graduate school.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



I agree with all the

I agree with all the author's questions to ask about the school and program, and her previous articles about the application process. However, I think it's extremely important to visit at least the schools you've been accepted to, not for the school itself, but to see how you like the city it's in and that city's personality. There was only one small mention in the article about checking out the local area.

There were several graduate programs I didn't even apply to, purely because I didn't want to live for several years where the school was located. Among the three equally well-thought-of schools I was accepted to, I dumped one based on visiting the town, which I thought was dull and not very friendly. I think you have to see the place "in action." Where might you live, what might you do on weekends, what is the non-school life like? etc.

Maybe this is obvious in selecting which schools you're interested in applying to, but I think it bears mentioning.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245
AICP CTP Storefont Display

The first online AICP* CTP exam prep class

Are you ready to take the AICP* Certified Transportation Planner exam?
Priced at $245 for May exam!
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!
Book cover of Unsprawl

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places

Explore visionary, controversial and ultimately successful strategies for building people-centered places.
Starting at $12.95