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.

3 minute read

October 6, 2009, 8:26 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

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