Mentoring, Students

So you’re nearing the end of your undergraduate program. Or you’ve been out of school and working for a while. Now you’ve decided to go to grad school in architecture.

First, congratulations! Getting to this point has been no small achievement. You’re at one of the most important points in your education, and you’re on the cusp of launching an amazing career.

While it certainly is an exciting time, it can also be very challenging. There are a ton of decisions to make, like which grad school to go to, how to apply, how to fund it, how to juggle it with family obligations, and a million other things.

In the hopes of making this process a little easier for you, I’d like to share some perspective from my experience. I went to grad school for architecture a few years ago, and I’ve had some time since then to reflect on the experience.

Prep Work

Let’s kick this article off with a shout-out to everyone who’s applying to grad school in architecture, but doesn’t have an architectural background. You should know that you’re going to need to do a little extra work before you start school.

Since many of your grad school peers went to undergrad in architecture, they’ve spent years learning about architecture history, theory, materials, and methods. They’ve taken studios and learned about that culture. You’re going to need to catch up on all these things—in a limited amount of time.

While it’s true that you might need to take some extra classes or go to school for an extra year to fulfill the requirements of the graduate program, you shouldn’t rely on these factors alone to bring you up to speed. They’re just not going to be enough, there’s too much to learn.

For those in this situation, and even for those who do have an architecture background, here’s my advice: In the summer before starting school, spend a ton of time in the library, and an equal amount of time visiting buildings, sketching, and going to lectures and events.

Honestly, just pay attention to the built environment around you. Just look up. Notice and critique buildings, and attempt to understand the logic behind them. If you get your mind in this mode before you even step foot on campus in the fall, it will help to give you the vocabulary you need in asking important questions and getting the most out of your education.


There are great grad programs all across the country, and all over the world. If you have the chance to move somewhere new for grad school, I would highly recommend it. Now is your chance to live somewhere new, immerse yourself in a different lifestyle, and surround yourself with people who are going to help you flourish.

For these reasons, I moved from Minnesota to Oregon to start grad school in 2012. Admittedly, it was a big change. I was moving to a new city in a new part of the country, and I didn’t know anybody there. I didn’t have any friends. When I first made the move, I didn’t even have a place to live. It was stressful.

Honestly, I hated Portland for the first few months after the move, because of all those big changes. That feeling didn’t last long, though.

The great thing about architecture school is that you get to hang out in studio. For dozens of hours each week, you get to be in this place that allows you to be free, open, and creative. You’re surrounded by other cool people who have unique backgrounds and so many ideas and experiences to share. It’s a place that fosters relationships and friendships like none other.

In Portland, it didn’t take me long to make a few friends, start to fit in, and feel genuine pride in the awesome decision I’d made. I haven’t looked back since.

I whole-heartedly encourage you to take the leap to a new city. Don’t worry about everything being new or not knowing anyone. It’s a huge change, but it’s exactly the kind of change that we all need from time to time—to help us grow stronger and gain new perspective.


Okay, so the question still remains: “I’m looking for a grad school that’s right for me. Where do I start?!?” Take a deep breath, and take a step back.

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “What do I want to learn?” There are a million schools that can take you through the basic requirements of a graduate degree in architecture, but most of them have a few elements that they focus on and are really good at:

Sustainability. High-rises. Public Interest Design. Urban Design. Historic Preservation. Hand drawing. Public Health and Wellness. Theory. Technical Skills. Resiliency.

Under the umbrella of architecture, there are any number of subgenres, and as you begin your search, it’s important to identify where your specific interests lie. Once you have a focus, it will really help you narrow the field of possible schools.

As you think about your focus, it’s also helpful to have resources that you can reference to help you choose not only a focus, but a school that specializes in that topic.

That’s where the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) comes in. They have two resources that I cannot encourage you enough to utilize: their book titled Guide to Architecture Schools (2009)The online version, and their website, Study Architecture.

The book has a full page of info for every architecture school in North America. It includes what they specialize in, how many students and faculty members they have, and a short description of each program. When I was looking for schools, that book was my Bible.

The website didn’t exist yet, or if it did I wasn’t aware of it. From what I can tell in looking at it now, it’s also very good. These days, it’s probably even more helpful than the book.

Nevertheless, my personal preference has always been to have a physical, hard copy that I can highlight, write notes in, and flag pages in. For me, Guide to Architecture Schools was worth its weight in gold.

Another good resource is America’s Best Architecture & Design School Rankings, which is published annually by DesignIntelligence. It’s a good thing to reference if you have the chance, but I don’t know that it’s worth buying outright. As the title implies, they publish annual rankings of the top schools in a wide variety of different categories.
While they do a great job of putting everything together, a list of rankings has never really done much for me. I’d much rather attend a school because it’s the best fit for what I want to accomplish, not just because it has a high ranking in a particular year.

Whether or not you choose to attend schools based on their annual ranking, it’s smart to keep a hand on the pulse of those rankings, and it’s valuable information to keep in mind. The DesignIntelligence guide is the best resource out there for it.

School Visits

Just as buildings cannot be fully comprehended or appreciated without physically seeing them, an architecture school cannot be fully appreciated without visiting it, chatting with students and faculty, and seeing examples of student work in person.

Many schools offer graduate open houses each year, which serve this very purpose. They’re SUPER helpful. Go to them when you can.

Years ago, there was a school I wanted to attend in the worst way. I went to their open house, and after visiting, I learned that the program just wasn’t for me. Even though the students did exceptional work and the campus was beautiful, I found that the focus of the school just didn’t align with the goals I had for my education.

Perhaps I would have made that realization down the road, but by making that visit and learning that lesson early on, I saved a ton of time and effort, which I could then spend researching and applying at other schools that were better suited for me.

I ended up applying at five different schools, and the reality was that I didn’t have the time or money to visit them all. Knowing this, I put those schools into two categories. Some schools I knew that I wouldn’t turn down if I were accepted, so I decided not to visit them. The rest I was more on the fence with – two schools in particular – so to learn more about them, I visited them both.

Even though I didn’t end up attending either one, I’m so happy that I made those trips. I learned so much about the schools and the programs, and it gave me a foundation for talking to alumni from those schools who I met later in my career.

Even nationwide, architecture is a small community, so picking up knowledge about different schools is super valuable. You get to keep that knowledge in your back pocket and impress those colleagues and acquaintances with it later in life.

Application Materials

This topic could be a blog post in itself, so I’ll just go over a few quick pointers.

Above all, be consistent. Create a brand for yourself, and stick to it. Use the same fonts, colors, and sizes across your portfolio, resume, letter of intent, and any other materials that you have graphic control over. This endeavor is going to help make you look more professional, and it’s great practice for everything else you do down the road.

Branding and consistency matter—in school applications, school presentations and reviews, job applications, and professional presentations. Start early, and keep the habit up.

Spend a ton of time on your portfolio. Your resume, letter of intent, GRE score, and all your other submission materials are important. Let’s face it, though: Architects are visual creatures, and a portfolio is the best way to quickly get a sense of who you are. Make it look professional, and most importantly, make it a representation of who you are. Because it is.

When schools review portfolios, they frequently have a team reviewing hundreds of them over the course of just a few short hours. They spend seconds reviewing them, then toss them onto three different piles: Yes, Maybe, and No.
You want to be on the top of the Yes pile. Make it happen by taking the time to do it right. For more tips, check out Michael LaValley’s, Definitive Guide to an Epic Architecture Portfolio, Parts OneTwo, and Three.

While these pieces of advice should be helpful, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors are personal, such as financial questions and family matters. Grad school is a big decision and a big commitment. It’s a game changer.
To help you make the decision that’s best for you, talk with your friends, family, and colleagues. Spend time on it. Be thoughtful and thorough.

At the same time, have fun and don’t be afraid to take risks. This is your chance to refine—or even reinvent—yourself. Have a blast, and enjoy it. You won’t regret it.


This post was originally written by John Maternoski for Young Architect.

Image: Ragesoss, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Community, Events, Mentoring, Students

If you’re a student diving into a fresh new school year, you will soon find that some things just seem to go hand-in-hand with architecture school. Like all-nighters, coffee, attempts to fit the word ‘undulation’ into reviews – and a general lack of interest in participating in the professional architecture world that exists outside of studio. That lack of participation is semi-understandable. After all, architecture school is difficult, demanding, and super time-consuming. But here’s the thing – the time spent in school and working on projects is only a small portion of your overall training as an architect, and ignoring non-school professional events is absolutely detrimental to your education, as well as your life and career after graduation. Here are 5 reasons why you need to be going to activities outside of school:


1 | You love what you do

You do love architecture…don’t you? You’re expending an incredible amount of resources in terms of time, money and health, in pursuit of getting your architecture degree. The theory, then, is that you at least kind of enjoy what you’re doing. (If you’re not, then please stop and reassess your life goals. Life is too short to spend doing anything other than what you truly enjoy.) So if you really are passionate about what you’re doing, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of events that expose you to more of it? These events offer differing points of view, new concepts, and new techniques that can invigorate you and inspire you! This brings me to my next point:


2 | You love what other people do

At least, you should. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, an incredible amount of knowledge and skill is gained by studying and learning from things that other people have done. This can come from flipping through a book of Aalto’s work to picking up a copy of Architectural Record, or it can come from simply going to a lecture. Honestly, books and magazines are good, but going to a lecture and hearing new ideas from the designers who created them – their intentions, their struggles, what they thought, and what they felt as they designed – is an incredible opportunity that is astonishingly valuable. It’s inspiring, and I can promise you that the ideas you hear will stick with you. You may not realize it at first, or it may be subconscious and you may not realize it for months or years, if ever. But you are always picking up on ideas and storing them in your mind, where they are ready and waiting to come to the surface when needed. Every lecture, every site visit, and every film screening has the ability to help you grow as a designer a little bit more every time. And what if something hits home immediately and gives you the instant gratification of a major breakthrough? What a sweet feeling that is!


3 | It’s not about getting a job

I get it. You’re going to a new place with a bunch of professionals and you don’t want to be awkward or come off looking like a moron. Totally understandable. But you’re in school. Believe it or not, you have much to learn and professionals know and understand that. You don’t have to impress anyone – in fact, you don’t even have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to! It helps if you do, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with going to an event just for the sake of personally enjoying what you’re going to! I don’t believe in the word ‘networking,’ because it’s a word that makes people immediately anxious, uncomfortable, and act differently than they would if they were out with, say, a group of close friends, instead. Don’t think of these things as ‘networking’ events – just relax. You’re not out to get a job, you’re out to have fun and be a part of something that is educational, informative, and will make you a better designer.


4 | It can help you get a job!

I promise #3 was totally true, but if you are looking for a job, going to professional events and lectures, and taking part in committees and volunteer activities will hands down help you meet people and give you a leg up on finding a firm that’s right for you. I was once told that if you go to social events or participate in committees, as long as you show your face and don’t do anything too stupid, people will eventually start recognizing you. And they may not know who you are or what you do, but they know that you’re involved, and they think, “well, this kid can’t be too bad.” What happens when you actually get the chance to talk to them, then? Better yet, what happens when you get to an interview, and the person interviewing you recognizes you from an event you mutually attended? Forget the resume, they already know your character and you’ve done yourself a huge solid in favorably standing out for them. After all, you’ve already made that crucial positive first impression.


5 | It’s cheap (or free)!

Many lectures and film screenings are free for the public already, and volunteering is obviously going to be free, as well. If there are things you want to go to that do charge a fee, however, most organizations will gladly offer a reduced student rate either advertised or upon request. Associate memberships to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and student memberships to groups like the Construction Specifications Institute, for example, are deeply discounted as compared to the standard professional rate. Membership to campus groups such as the American Institute of Architecture Students is always a great value, as well. On top of the reduced rates, membership will often net you free admittance to regular meetings (meals sometimes included!,) reduced rates on special events, free subscriptions to magazines published by the organizations, and, most importantly, will get you on the organization mailing lists to stay up-to-date on events and activities happening nearby. These benefits all apply to standard memberships as well, but why not take advantage of the same benefits at a reduced rate while you’re a student?


Look, you’re in school and you’re getting an education and you should obviously do your best in that. But sometime in the very near future, you’re going to graduate, your school community is going to go their separate ways, and you’re going to be a part of the professional community. That’s a big transition if you’re not ready for it, so one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself right now is becoming a part of the professional community as soon as you can. Along the way, you’re going to learn incredible things, keep yourself sharp, and meet a wealth of lasting new friends and colleagues with whom you’ll share common interests in the profession, the people, the culture, and the community for the rest of your career. That seems like a pretty worthwhile break from studio to me.


If you’re interested in finding local architecture and design events, get started by connecting with local groups such as your campus American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) chapter and by keeping an eye out for school-sponsored lectures or events taking place on campus. Also check in for upcoming events taking place through your local chapters of groups such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA,) the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI,) National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA,) or Architects Without Borders (AWB.) Don’t forget to ask your peers, mentors, colleagues and professors for information or advice on getting involved, as well!

Image: Timothy Niou Photography