Everything you need to know about architecture school

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Getting into Architecture school is one of the proudest moments of many students’ lives. However, amidst all the enthusiasm and excitement, it is easy to get anxious and worried about whether you are actually going to cope well with the rigorous (yet exciting!) curriculum that Architecture school is so infamous for.

Some students may even start getting anxious as they anticipate all the sleepless nights students love to to talk about, however as mentioned here these are most definitively within your control.

The truth is, there really is nothing to worry about. Just like in any other course, all you can do is hope for the best possible experience in school. Besides, when it comes to the study of Architecture, it is these sleepless nights and the crazy coursework that make it such a colorful course.

If you are lucky enough to be joining Architecture school this year, or if you are thinking of applying to one, having an idea of what exactly to expect will ease your transition and make the whole process fun.

This guide will lay out everything you can expect to find and experience in architecture school.

A general overview of architectural courses

Architecture courses can generally be categorized into three: professional degrees, non-professional degrees, and postgraduate programs.

This article covers new experiences in architecture, so it will focus on professional and non-professional architectural degrees.

In general, there are three types of professional degrees in architecture, namely:

  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.), typically a 5-year program

  • Master of Architecture (M.Arch), typically a 2-year program

  • Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch)

Non-professional degrees in architecture require a professional degree for licensure. They include:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Architecture (BA)

  • Bachelor of Science in Architecture (BS)

  • Bachelor of Fine Arts in Architecture (BFA Arch)

  • Bachelor of Environmental Design (B.Envd or B.E.D.)

How long will you be in architecture school?

Non-professional architectural degrees typically take 4 years to complete. They may be part of a professional degree which makes it a 4+2 plan. That is 4 years for a BA or BS and 2 years for a Masters in Architecture. Normally, 6 years in M.Arch and 5 years in B.Arch are practical equals in the accreditation and registration processes.

A professional Bachelor of Architecture degree, on the other hand, takes 5 years to finish: 3 years B.Arch. program articulated with an AA degree in Arch. There are also M.Arch programs for people with undergraduate degrees specifically in areas outside architecture. These programs take 3 to 3 1/2 years to finish.

There also exists other programs that combine required courses with the work component needed to sit for professional licensure exams. Such programs enable students to immediately sit for these licensure exams right after graduation as opposed to those who work for several years before obtaining licenses.

Some universities offer architecture programs in an accelerated 5 or 6-year masters format without the need for a bachelor’s degree.

Currently, there’s an ongoing debate in the US on whether to upgrade the 3.5-year M.Arch title to D.Arch for current students or for 3.5-year M.Arch graduates.

What is architecture school like?

Architecture is a very hands-on course. Its very essence involves looking, imagining and designing buildings to fill up specific spaces and to create experiences. It is all about solving problems facing people and society.

Architecture school introduces students to the design process and gradually cultivates them into highly qualified architectural designers. A lot of focus is also placed on how to work well in a team and how to complement the design processes of your teammates. This is due to the importance of efficient design teams in the building and construction industry.

In the end, full-fledged architects are released into the job market to produce design solutions for their clients. The entire journey to that point is fun, intense, and sometimes, a little exhausting even. But the feeling of accomplishment one gets after graduating from architecture school is unlike anything you have ever experienced.

If you intend to get into architecture school, you can be sure that you will spend most of your time in the design studios. An architectural design studio is what students of architecture often have instead of regular classes, and this is where the magic happens.

Studio classes for the most part are fun and immersive.

However gradually the amount of work you will be expected to do, will build up, so you need to prepare yourself for some long days somewhere down the line. This goes onto help prepare you for the pressures of being a real architect, where often there are tight deadlines to deliver set projects.

The atmosphere in architecture school is fun and energized. Expect to meet many different people from diverse backgrounds, and your interactions with them will broaden your own worldview.

Studio classes are lots of fun too, and there is a certain level of freedom that comes with them that you will absolutely love.

You will get to know other students and even your tutors really well because you can chat away as you work on your designs, and you can even play some music and dance around in class during your downtime if that is what gets your creative juices flowing.

Like all courses with a level of art infused in them, self-expression and creativity are highly encouraged in architecture school. It is your interactions with your fellow students and with your teachers that will help you learn to figure out increasingly creative solutions to design problems.

What skills will you pick from a course in architecture?

A common saying in Architecture goes like this: An engineer knows everything about one thing, but an architect knows a little about everything.

By the end of your architecture school studies, you will be surprised by just how knowledgeable you will have become.

Architecture is an all-encompassing course, touching on almost all disciplines.

You will be taught basic engineering, math, art, computer skills, knowledge of building codes and laws, communication skills, business skills, design, among other skills, with the expectation that you figure out how to combine all these skills in your professional practice.

You will also pick up a few skills without necessarily learning about them in a class setting. For example, you will learn how to work within set deadlines, how to communicate your ideas, public speaking and presentation skills, how to work well in a team, the list goes on.

These are skills that will prove extremely helpful to you later in life, even if you do not go on to practice architecture.

Architecture will also help you understand your own personal interests, which will in turn help point out your underlying skills and values; jumpstarting a self-assessment process.

Architecture studio culture

Basically, the term “studio” is just the word used to describe a class setting where students explore architecture through the development of design proposals.

It is a creative environment where all the students work together on their own projects or on team projects, which means it is where you are going to spend the bulk of your time in Architecture school. This is also the place where you will make most of your friends.

Studio Culture is what will turn you into a good designer and an expert communicator and presenter.

As mentioned earlier, the studio is where the magic happens for architecture students. This is where ideas are generated, new ways of reasoning are learnt, and physical manifestations of concepts in form of drawings and models are created. This is why studio classes are best experienced in clustered groups.

School facilities

There are several facilities that you are expected to take advantage of in architecture school. They include things like:

  • Computing facilities- these are devoted to education, advanced design, and research. Computing facilities provide a rich environment for professional use and specialized design innovations.

  • Libraries- expect to find a constantly growing collection of architectural materials that students can refer to any time in their study/coursework. Materials in the library include books, e-books, videos, features, interviews, classics, documentaries and so on.

  • Other facilities in architecture school are the studios, fabrication labs, workshops, modeling shops, digital and reprographics among others.

How hard is architecture school?

This is a difficult question to answer for many reasons. Architecture has already got a rather bad rep as being an extremely difficult course that only a few special heroes ever make it out of alive. The good news is …this is largely untrue.

For one thing, each student in architecture school is different. What is difficult for one person may be easy for another. In the end, everyone’s strengths and weaknesses balance out, just like in any other course.

Perhaps the one thing that makes architecture seem hard is the fact that it is a very subjective course. Design tutors also rarely highlight their agendas, intentions, and expectations in a clear, straightforward way. They do this because they mean well, and they do not want to box the entire class in one specific way of doing things.

However, the result is often a lot of confusion until you develop to a point where you understand what a particular tutor means when they say something.

Sometimes, you will be praised for having a good section or plan but you will have no idea why it was better as compared to any other. In architecture, tutors often only simply ‘judge’ without clearly explaining what makes something better than the other. This lack of clarity behind teaching methods and brief is what makes architecture hard in most cases.

That being said, how hard architecture eventually becomes solely depends on your approach to it.

With time, everyone usually gets on almost the same level, and you will realize you can easily recreate what anyone in class has come up with. At this point, the learning curve smooths out.

If you want things to get easier, you should simply approach it with passion, a third eye, and a sixth sense. You only need to be keen and put in the time and hard work and everything will work out for you.

What you should prepare for…

Unlike other courses, Architecture demands a certain level of dedication to it if you want to be successful. There are a lot of bulky tasks and deadlines to beat, which makes it almost impossible to do anything else as you study.

Here is a list of a few things you can expect over the duration of your studies:  

  • A lot of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or energy drinks to keep you up through sleepless nights. You will have some days when you are a complete shell of yourself as you run on autopilot driven by the coffee in your blood.

  • Criticism, criticism, criticism! Some tutors will be savagely brutal as they critique you, so you need to be prepared for that. Breaking down and crying is the last thing you want to do because your friends will never let you live it down. Just take it all in with an open mind and laugh about your experience later with your friends.

  • Existential crises and second-guessing yourself. You will come to question why you thought something you did was a good idea in the first place, you will wonder why you are even taking that course to begin with, and you might even question your own existence. This will happen a lot, especially after crits.

  • Insomnia and power naps

  • Get ready to treat yourself to a good life and a healthy diet. It is easy to neglect your own personal wellbeing when you have a lot on your plate, so make a point of treating yourself right- you’ll need it!

  • Study tours and trips

  • Expect to bond with teachers because you will hang out with them a lot.

  • Be prepared to write- Yes! Architecture has a lot of writing, too. Always have a book with you and note don’t stuff that you don’t want to forget.

  • Sketching: on top of writing, you will need to sketch as well.

  • Your first draft is trash! The sooner you realize this, the better things get for you. You will also face a lot of rejects, so lighten up to avoid the heartbreak.

  • You will also experience a lot of backaches from the long shifts you’ll pull.

  • There is literally no pot of gold at the end of the line, study well but don’t get delusional that you'll get a good salary or become a star architect as soon as you graduate. You’ll have to slowly work your way up.

  • Sometimes, you will lose a huge chunk of work that took you hours or days to produce. Cultivate the good habit of always documenting everything and backing it all up so that you don’t regret the loss.

The type of tutors and professors that you’ll meet in school

Architecture school, just like any other school, has all types of teachers. And just like any other creative course, your tutors will have a certain type of flair about them.

You will likely be taught by many memorable characters, and each one of them has their own strengths and flaws, just like a normal human being. Here are some types of tutors and professors that you’ll meet in school:

  • The role model tutor

These are tutors that will really inspire you in everything they do; from the way they dress, how they talk, how they listen to ideas and how they effortlessly do great work. They always have a kind of positive energy about them which is highly infectious especially as they teach you.

  • The scary ones

These are the ones that you will find rather intimidating. They are also important because they prepare students for more terrifying clients and bosses that they may come across in the future.

  • The tutors that give students tough love

This type of tutors is very unpredictable. They may seem nice at first until they make a very firm decision like suggesting you start over your work a short time before the deadline. They are hard to please no matter how hard you try. Such tutors are very important because they push you hard, helping you reach your full potential.

  • The boring ones

These are the tutors that you simply cannot seem to connect with. All conversations with this type of tutor seem to go nowhere. These tutors are important because you will always work without guidance, so you are free! They will teach you to always work on your projects even with minimal external influences.

One to one tutorials

Tutorials are a very important part of the teaching and learning process. And due to their one to one nature, they have a personalized feel that students can cope with easily, and apart from that, they also help students keep track of what is being taught in normal lectures.

They come with many advantages such as:

  • A unique and individualized learning experience.

  • Students pay more attention to tutorials than when they are in a lecture.

  • Tutorials boost academic performances.

  • They improve students’ attitudes towards learning and the whole school setting.

  • This learning tool supports self-directed and self-paced learning.

  • Students who use tutorials to learn have had improved self-confidence and esteem.

  • Study habits also improve.

  • It encourages responsibility and independence.

  • There’s a positive working space with tutorials.

  • Tutorials help students overcome learning obstacles.

Crits (presentations)

‘Crit’ is the lingo that architecture students use to mean ‘to critique’. They are a constituent feature of many architecture schools in the world, and depending on your school, you may find that other terms are also used to describe them, such as reviews, presentations or jury.

Crits are often held once at the end of each semester. Each student has to present their semester’s work in front of a panel of judges or a jury, that often consists of current and guest tutors.

Many students assume that crits are bad and they have to endure negative criticism or comments from the ‘jury’ because they are guilty of ‘errors’ or they are ‘on trial’. But this is not the case, crits are meant to correct students and they present a great opportunity to learn.

They also make students follow important deadlines and instill accountability in them. Crits are also celebrations of some sorts because they invite the community to mark the end of semesters that are full of hard and productive work.

Crits help students develop social and presentation skills, a kind of skill that will be needed in the future when dealing with clients. With crits, students get to know how to present their work without glossing over the key points, while also responding to feedback from their teams and clients.

We have a whole article here, on how to survive them!

Working with other students

Architecture is a collaborative discipline. In the real world, no project is ever a one-person effort. This is replicated in architecture school in the way students often have no choice but to work with your classmates or other students. There are several benefits to working with other students:

  • You will be able to break down complex tasks into smaller manageable parts and steps.

  • It refines understanding with the help of discussions and explanations.

  • Working with other students will help you efficiently manage your time.

  • You will have to be able to give feedback on performance and in turn, you will receive the same.

  • All assumptions that may arise in the work done will be challenged and regulated by the students in your group.

  • You also have a chance to develop your communication skills when you stand in front of people to present your ideas.

The range of projects inarchitecture- What common projects should you expect in your coursework?

Here are some of the project categories that you will come across in your course work:

1.      The Cube

When it comes to learning architecture, perhaps this project is the most common of all. It is like a rite of passage. The project is meant to help students explore interfaces: negative and positive spaces, space creation and space manipulation.

This project manifests to a spatial extension exercise and could also be a basis for a structure in your final semester project.

2.      The Endless Module

The endless module is an exercise that helps students grow a clear order of operations as a guide for future projects. Students develop projects without glue or adhesives through carving, folding or twisting paper and wire.

3.      Parametric Models

This is a rigorous exercise that aims at educating students on architectural projection and geometry. It entails blending computer and hand drawings together with Rhino which is a modeling program.

4.      The Analytique

This project instructs architecture students on 2D image construction. In analytique, students base their studies on built work but use analog and layered methods like drawing and painting to complete the exercise.

5.      Other common projects that you'll find in architecture school are:

The Precedent Study, The Artist’s Residence, The Mixed-Use Urban Design, The Hospice, The Playspace, and The Community Center. These projects vary from school to school.

Taking trips: What are the benefits of experiencing architecture first hand?

When architects travel, they always take the time to appreciate the architecture of their destinations. Architects have an ingrained gift that allows them to experience the changes in buildings that have taken place over an extended period of time.

Traveling is essential to learning for architects and architecture students because, in this field, learning never stops. As you travel, you will get to see first-hand how the architectural masters that came before you were able to solve specific architectural problems that were presented to them.

Other benefits of experiencing architecture first hand include:

  • Architectural trips will open you up to ideas on how to customize your own style and design solutions. You need to learn how to celebrate the past while keeping in mind the changes that have taken place in the building and construction industry.

  • Traveling gives you insights into the lives of people. It will give you a sense of direction and lead your thoughts on how to vary designs for different people’s needs.

Always keep in mind that a good design can be found anywhere in the world. Taking trips unlocks certain riches that would definitely break your default design or pallet solutions.

Traveling is a good source of inspiration.

Why is group work important in learning architecture?

There are quite a number of reasons why students are encouraged to engage in group discussions and group projects. Apart from helping students grow skills specific to collaboration, group discussions also enable students to come up with efficient systems of delegating roles and responsibilities, tackle a lot more complex issues than they could handle on their own, and share different and diverse perspectives.

Group work is also important to architecture students for the following reasons:

  • Students have access to a pool of skills and knowledge.

  • There is a sense of accountability in handling group tasks.

  • With group works, students can find peers to effectively emulate

  • Group works also mold students’ voices and perspectives. This easily happens when they work with their peers.

  • Students receive encouragement and social support from fellow members. With the right amount of encouragement, students are able to take informed risks in projects.

  • Group works also help students establish a shared identity while they work together on various projects.

  • Finally, as students work together, they are able to develop new approaches and ideas for resolving their differences.

Choosing an architecture school

What is the best college for architecture?

Top 20 Architecture Schools in The World

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - United States

  • UCL (University College London) - United Kingdom  

  • Delft University of Technology - Netherlands

  • The University of California, Berkeley (UCB) - United States

  • Harvard University - United States  

  • National University of Singapore (NUS) - Singapore

  • ETH Zurich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology - Switzerland   

  • Tsinghua University - China 

  • University of Cambridge - United Kingdom  

  • The University of Tokyo - Japan 

  • Columbia University - United States

  • The Hong Kong Polytechnic University – Hong Kong 

  • The University of Hong Kong - Hong Kong

  • Politecnico di Milano - Italy  

  • The University of Melbourne - Australia

  • Tongji University - China 

  • The University of Sydney - Australia

  • The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - United States   

  • Seoul National University - South Korea

  • University of British Columbia - Canada

Top 10 undergraduate architecture schools in the US 

  • Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

  • Rice University, Houston, TX

  • Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (SLO), San Luis Obispo, California

  • Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

  • Cooper Union, York City, New York

  • Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island

  • Pratt Institute, New York City, New York

  • Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

  • Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Los Angeles, California

  • University of Texas (U.T.), Austin, Texas

Top 10 architecture schools in the UK

  • University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England

  • University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England

  • University of Bath, Bath, England

  • UCL Institute of Education, London, England

  • University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England

  • Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester, England

  • University of Lincoln, Lincoln, England

  • University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland

  • Coventry University, Coventry, England

  • UWE Bristol, Bristol, England