Written for Young Architect by John Maternoski
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.
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.
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.
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 One, Two, 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.
John Maternoski is the Founder of Portland Design Events and Owner of Triple Play Studio. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he earned a Master of Architecture degree with an emphasis in urban design. Enjoying a hands-on approach to the profession, John has worked extensively with Habitat for Humanity, the American Institute of Architects, and the Construction Specifications Institute. He was awarded a Genuinely Enthusiastic Member (GEM) award in 2010 and 2012 from the Minneapolis/St. Paul chapter of CSI for his efforts in creating a student chapter of the organization at the University of Minnesota. Also read Young Architect's Article about how awesome John Maternoski is.