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Visiting Planning Schools: What (Not) to Do

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.

Ann Forsyth | October 6, 2009, 8am PDT
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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.

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