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Thread: How important are GRE's?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    How important are GRE's?

    I'm starting my senior year of college as a sociology major and I just decided I want to apply to Masters in Urban Planning programs for next year. One problem is this pesky little thing known as the GRE. I have 0 preparation for it so far. How long should I budget to study for it, and how import an is it to do well for urban planning programs. I'm considering taking a course because a kaplan course brought my SAT from a 1940 to a 2120. Would that be worth it? I have until January before these applications are due.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Many schools use the GRE as an arbitrary way to weed out applicants. However once you get a score above that arbitrary cutoff point, I'd say the test's significance drops off. The GRE is just one part of your application and is arguably the least important of the bunch (at least for planning programs).

    The GRE is pretty similar to the SAT so I think just skimming through a prep book would probably be enough to get an adequate score. A higher score certainly can't hurt but personally I don't think it's worth the added effort. I'd almost say you're better off taking the test as soon as possible so you'll have an opportunity to retake if you're not happy with your score. I think that's probably a better option than paying for a class.

  3. #3
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    It seems like you have a pretty high aptitude for standardized tests, so that's definitely a plus on your side. I agree with the previous poster's comments regarding the relative importance of the test. I do, however, think it'd be in your best interest to do more than just "skim" some prep materials. I don't think taking a Kaplan class is necessarily essential. Especially because the GRE is somewhat similar to the SAT, you can apply the skills you learned at Kaplan onto your GRE studying. I first took the GRE in 2010 and recently retook it in August of 2012. I didn't take any special prep courses but just from dedicating myself for two months (rejogging my memory about what I'd learned in the first go-round, studying some new vocab, and memorizing the quant rules) I was able to raise my score pretty substantially (at least by more than what I expected I would! I wouldn't say that I'm a naturally great test taker, but I'm happy with my results).

    Research and decide which programs you're interested in, and what their cut-off or recommended median scores are, and try to hit those targets. Since you're an undergrad, your GPA will still matter (in lieu of relevant professional experience), along with the other factors -- LOR's and SOP's. Good luck! Sounds like you're on the right track!

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    I agree that overall GREs are less important in urban planning than other fields, but it depends on the schools you're applying to - it's definitely worth trying to get a feel from each school.

    For example, here's what I learned when I was applying (I'm not sure if the scoring system has changed; the below numbers are based on a 1600 point system):
    UPenn - 1200 is essentially the bottom-line cut-off to weed out applicants; once you hit that cutoff your personal statement, resume, etc. are what matters
    MIT - used as a general gauge. For those below the typical score range (the actual scores weren't specified) an applicant isn't necessarily rejected, but he/she would have to truly make it up for it in another aspect of the application, something very difficult to do, since MIT tends to attract creme de la creme applicants. For those with extremely high scores GRE will weight more heavily in their favor.
    Harvard - GREs matter more than in other schools, including MIT. For better or for worse, they consider it an apt barometer for academic success; that being said, the personal statement is still the most important piece.

    I'd take a practice test, see how you do, and then you can judge what extra prep, if any, you need. I don't think paying for a full-blown course would be necessary though; there are plenty of guides that teach the same thing for a fraction of the price.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Alright, Great, thanks guys! I want to be in Boston so Harvard and MIT are right at the top of my list. On the topic of Harvard, It seems like their program is very design oriented. Would it be pointless for me to apply if design isn't really my thing?

    Also, on the subject of LOR. Most programs require 3 letters of recommendations. The problem is I go to a very large school and most of my professors barely know my name. The people I'd be most comfortable writing my letters of recommendation are: my professor for my study abroad program, my supervisor for my department of transportation internship this past summer, and I'm considering asking a professor I'm doing a two credit independent study for. I've never had a "real" class with her and her technical title is "research scientist" rather than professor.

    Are any of these people appropriate people to write a grad school letter of recommendation? I could find professors at my school who would be willing to do it, but I can't imagine their letters would be particularly strong as they on't know me very well.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Regarding recommendations, yes, it, is OK if they're not professors specifically. I had work supervisors for all of mine, since I had been out of school a few years. You want someone who knows you, your work, and your capabilities.

    Regarding Harvard - there is a studio component, which frustrated some students, since it takes a ton of time. As a way of comparison, studios at MIT are equal to one class, whereas at Harvard they count for double to account for the increased workload. I think some studio works helps one tie policies to the physical outcomes. The key is that Harvard is very focused on the built environment and the way various forces that affect it (including policy); if you're not interested in that aspect, then it's probably not right for you (MIT has a broader conception of what urban planning is).

    That being said, planners are expected to be designers or have equivalent levels of graphic skills. There's also plenty of opportunities to take courses at the Kennedy School and tap into their network, as well as take courses at MIT.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by bostonplanner View post
    Regarding Harvard - there is a studio component, which frustrated some students, since it takes a ton of time. As a way of comparison, studios at MIT are equal to one class, whereas at Harvard they count for double to account for the increased workload. I think some studio works helps one tie policies to the physical outcomes. The key is that Harvard is very focused on the built environment and the way various forces that affect it (including policy); if you're not interested in that aspect, then it's probably not right for you (MIT has a broader conception of what urban planning is).

    That being said, planners are expected to be designers or have equivalent levels of graphic skills. There's also plenty of opportunities to take courses at the Kennedy School and tap into their network, as well as take courses at MIT.
    Forgive my ignorance here, but what exactly does a studio entail in the context of urban planning? Would it involve drawing? I have... limited... motor skills when it comes to drawing.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Funny you should ask that regarding drawing. It's been the subject of another thread (Getting ready for planning and urban design....). The question related to the importance of being able to draw by hand. The general consensus is it is important, especially for one with more of a design focus. I, however, disagree, and maintain that for a planner being able to hand-draw well is of minimal importance. The drawing you will be doing will consist of placing trace paper on a site and drawing boxes, lines, circles, etc. The skill comes from the conception of what those shapes mean, not in the actual rendering of them.

    To answer your broader question of what an urban planning studio entails, I'd suggest you go to www.gsd.harvard.edu/courses and find the description and syllabus for the Fall Core Urban Planning Studio. You'll do a couple short projects where you apply basic skills regarding research methods, etc. and then get some experience putting together and giving presentations. Then, you'll spend most of the semester on a site. You'll visit the site, meet with the appropriate officials to learn about the site, it's problems, opportunities, etc. Then, you'll come up with your plan for the area. There are some basic things that everyone will have to have, such as densities, future population, projected jobs, general character of the site(s). And you'll have leeway over the main focus; for example, if you're interested in affordable housing that can be the main focus of your studio and you'll spend most of your time on that type of analysis. Or, if zoning gets you excited you can spend your time coming up with a detailed zoning plan. Or you could spend your time figuring out how to increase street life in the neighborhood. In short, you can focus on your interest, although if you're interested in something like international development it might be tough to find a way to relate your interest to studio.

    The frustrating thing for someone with no design interest could be the time required to learn and properly utilize the various programs. You won't need AutoCad but you'll need the Adobe Creative Suite, Sketch-Up, and GIS.

    Hope that helps.

  9. #9
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    You have to do some research before you apply for your programs as they differ quite a bit. Some programs are more policy based, others are design based. Additionally some programs require a thesis which is great if you want to do a PhD in the future, but not necessarily important for work.

    One tip: The majority of the best policy based urban planning programs are in state schools. The ivy leagues tend to focus on design

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Nope, Cornell focusses very strongly on policy. As far as I can remember, Columbia does as well.

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