Quest to Grad School: The Beginning

<p> I decided to apply to graduate schools in urban planning before I had even finished up with my undergrad work. Urban planning spans many topics, and when I minored in it in college I realized I had a lot still to learn about architecture and design, the environment, and public policy. What really got me interested, however, was when I saw how planning intersects with community organization. I first saw the two forces at work while I volunteered with a philosophically grassroots, non-profit planning organization. I think we did some good work in some not-so-glamorous places, which still encourages me as I think about my career goals.

January 14, 2009, 2:45 PM PST

By Judy Chang


I decided to apply to graduate schools in urban planning before I had even finished up with my undergrad work. Urban planning spans many topics, and when I minored in it in college I realized I had a lot still to learn about architecture and design, the environment, and public policy. What really got me interested, however, was when I saw how planning intersects with community organization. I first saw the two forces at work while I volunteered with a philosophically grassroots, non-profit planning organization. I think we did some good work in some not-so-glamorous places, which still encourages me as I think about my career goals. But let's face it: I still didn't know what I was doing, and if I stood a chance to making a positive impact on any neighborhood in this lifetime, I was going to need more than good intentions. So, back to school it is!

I started doing my homework on schools around this time last year, crashing Firefox repeatedly by leaving innumerable tabs open, each with a different program's site on it. At the time, there was only one comprehensive list of schools to go through, at least the only one I found, and if it weren't for the Planning Accreditation Board's list of accredited programs, I would have been grasping at straws. When Planetizen came out with its own guide soon thereafter, that was one more tab open, wholly devoted to its Top Schools page. I remember it had a shrunken-down sample page from the guide on it. By my estimation, its font was left at around size 4.5-and very blurry. However, I was dedicated to my research, so I squinted until tears formed at the corners of my eyes and I deciphered the Top 25.

In a fun ironic twist, I've decided to apply to one program. But in all seriousness, I justify my perceived foolhardiness by the fact that I'm just adhering to my own set of criteria:

  • Program is far away
  • Program is in a geographically interesting place
  • Program has larger, relatively diverse student body
  • Program is reputable with focus on practice

Not too much to ask, right? I guess it's pragmatism at an extreme-why drop a whole C-note on a school I wouldn't be completely into attending? But make no mistake, I often have to reassure myself by feebly noting that my chances of getting in are much better now than if I were to apply to none at all. And, I gotta say it: worst case scenario, there's always next year.

Over the summer I began, in earnest, the application process. Ann Forsyth's Interchange posts on Planetizen were particularly helpful for getting me started.

But the first speed bump came quickly. I, like many others, personally found least enjoyable part of the application process to be the GRE, which I took in mid-September. I didn't want to, I didn't want to, I didn't want to, but I had to. I had a short list of things to compensate for: a just average GPA, a less than rigorous courseload toward graduation, and a potentially mediocre personal statement. If I'm at liberty to give any advice here, it's to please take advantage of the GRE, the simplest way to boost an application. For me it had slightly more weight, as I was just out of school and didn't have the work experience to help a bad score get overlooked. I hear that's how it works, anyway. It took a month of real self-discipline, but I expect my score to work in my favor.
The rest, like an episode of 24, is happenin' in real time. Letters of recommendation are in, transcript has been mailed out, and I'm now in the fourth revision stage of my personal statement. That is to say, I've completely discarded three drafts. It's an amazing challenge. In a statement even shorter than this post, I am to prove that I'm halfway intelligent, creative, and ready to impact the world. Meanwhile, I've been mentally reduced to "I AM SMART I SWEAR AND I AM READY TO MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORHOODS LET ME IN OK."

But ultimately, I don't think I've ever been more excited for myself. This is it: I know what I want to do with myself, and I'm proactively getting myself there. Wish me luck!


Judy Chang

Judy Chang is a planner for the New York City Department of Transportation. Previously, she interned at Planetizen after graduating from UC Irvine in 2008, where she studied Psychology and Urban and Regional Planning.

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