by ASR Staff

As the deadlines are approaching, you need to start thinking about reaching out to your recommenders, to make sure that they are slowly getting used to the idea that they have to write a recommendation letter for you. As you do this, keep in mind that none of your recommenders is in any way obligated to take time out of their busy professional schedule and their family time to write a reference letter for you. It is a good starting point that will allow you to appreciate what they are doing. Architecture schools are very competitive these days, and one cannot hope to gain admission to any of them without a good set of reference letters. So, take a big breath, and prepare for the long process of basically holding your recommenders’ hands from step one to the moment when they press submit and their references are sent.

When you do check with them, there is a possibility that some of your recommenders will ask you to take a look a the letters that they have written for you so far. Either that, or they  will simply want to make sure that they are covering the correct points that need to be addressed. This is an excellent chance for you to help them by improving their letter, making it more powerful and more aligned with your overall admissions strategy.

Many recommenders – and mainly the ones who do not understand the process of applying to architecture school – believe that they can simply write a positive letter stating various positive characteristics, and that’s it. However, that would not be enough. It will also not be enough to count on the value of the recommender’s name or professional status. A generic letter is a generic letter. Everyone has seen one, and they all look the same, short and dry, and most importantly not addressing what it is that makes you special as a candidate.

If you want your recommender wants to really help you stand out from the rest of the over-qualified candidates, you will need to paint for him or her a clear picture of who you are, where you are now in life, where you are planning to go, how what you have already done prior to entering architecture school has benefited you and what it has taught you that you could bring to the table when an architecture student. Finally, you need to explain to the recommenders why it is that you really want to go to architecture school … or better, how is architecture school going to help you get where you want to go in life. Therefore, the best way to approach your recommenders is by answering these questions and presenting your answers to them as cogently as possible.

Since the beginning, our consultants at ASR have begun any architecture school portfolio and admissions prep process in a very specific way: Step 1: Build the ideal strategy for getting into architecture school. Step 2: Construct the first draft of your essay, not so much as a literary piece, but as a system of information and ideas upon which the narrative (hopefully aesthetically developed) text of the final version of your architecture school statement of purpose will be based. This essay at that point in the development of the application, is not an actual statement of purpose meant to be submitted to architecture school admissions committees, but simply a strategic tool, a script if you will, encapsulating the overall thematic information and details of your application, and expressing a series of ideas that a) represent your strategy without directly revealing it to the members of the architecture school admissions committee, and b) discuss a series of influences and activities that describe who you are.

The essay at this point, in its raw and relatively incomplete form, is the best tool in your hands for properly guiding your recommenders. At the time when they will be at a loss, when their screen will seem blank and empty and they will not know where to start from, your essay will offer them a framework of thinking, as well as a set of loosely defined guidelines, which will allow them to compose a very good letter much faster, but also one that is closer to your overall strategy and message that you want to communicate.

By subtly offering to guide your recommenders, you make their lives easier while optimizing your architecture school application. Remember to always begin with the essay. The essay is the Script, the generator of ideas, the starting point for all your ideas.


by ASR Staff

As you are accumulating your application materials for architecture school admissions, you are very likely to find yourself confused about how to describe your architectural career goals. Don’t worry, the architecture school admissions committees will not check with you later in life to make sure you have accomplished them, however they  do expect you to give this issue some intelligent thought. This is about your own future after all, as an architect, so it would definitely help you if you could articulate your goals, both short and long term ones.

This all sounds great, however it does bring up a different question: how honest and accurate should you be about your future career vision? Should your goals represent what you expect from your career, or should you just write what you believe the admissions people expect to hear from successful candidates?

From 2002 to 2019, Architecture School Review has worked with over 3000 architecture school candidates, helping them build their strategies and develop them into the foundation for their architecture school portfolios and applications. In all these years, we have asked the same question over and over again, and the answer has always been the same: We find that most of the time it is better if applicants tell the admissions committees what they REALLY want to do with their careers.

Architecture School Admissions committees are very good in understanding who is honest and who is insincere. Catering your career goals to what you THINK they expect to hear, would qualify as insincere in their minds. Most importantly though, how would you ever be able to build a case for yourself, and explain why these career goals are your goals when they are not really your goals? Especially when you get to have an interview, how will you justify whatever your wrote about in the first place?

The fact is that most programs have a reputation about their ‘preferences’, but it is also a fact that any architecture school in existence can be the launching stage for any career. Therefore, by being honest about your architectural career goals, not only you are more likely to go more in depth and come across as more intelligent and deep, but you are more also more likely to differentiate yourself from the crowd, which (as we have mentioned so many times) is a key to getting into the world’s top architecture schools.

If you have any questions about how to build your career goals, here at Architecture School Review, we offer a career strategy development report, which will allow you to see your career from a completely different point of view. 


by Fernando Rey, ASR Staff

In the forty years of my life, and the 20 years I have been involved with architecture, design education and the building industry I have come to very few definite conclusions. One of them is that perfection is an enemy, not a friend.

There are many things to think of while assembling an architecture school portfolio.First of all, you have to make sure that there is a proper strategy defining your entire application and the portfolio itself. Secondly, you have to make sure that said strategy somehow manifests in cohesive, well-defined, well-designed projects, and that the sequence of these projects as well as the sequence of the ideas in the individual projects themselves, are well thought out and somehow manage to differentiate you from the rest of a particular architecture school’s applicants. Finally, you need to make sure that the architecture school portfolio projects are well designed, well defined, and able to convey your passions as well as your ability to think architecturally and handle a variety of design media!!!

Long story short, an architecture school portfolio is so complex, that it is impossible of it to be perfect. There will always be problems with it, things that you could have done differently, or other things you would have rather not done at all. Therefore getting obsessed over producing the perfect portfolio could only create problems.

A major problem that it creates is that you end up spending too much time on your portfolio, ultimately improving it a bit, adding some value to it, and while ignoring other, important aspects of the application like the essay, the reference letters, and even your courses at school (grades are still pretty important when it comes to applying to universities).

The worst problem that perfectionism may cause though, is that perfectionists are unable to see the big picture at all times. If a perfectionist is dealing with a portfolio of 5 projects, and she becomes obsessed with one of these projects, then she will develop tunnel vision, and will focus only on that one project, ignoring how and whether or not this project fits in the overall concept / theme of the architecture school portfolio.

For all these reasons, maintaining balance is essential. Yes, do your absolute best when you are developing your portfolio, and do not give up until you get things right, but expect that you will never get everything perfectly and exactly as you want it. By allowing yourself to breathe a bit, you will be able to allocate your time more appropriately, and will end up building a better portfolio for your architecture school application.

If you would like to learn more about the development of successful architecture school portfolios, email us at


By Marko Boudreaux, ASR Portfolio Strategist

A Conversation With a Former Architecture School Applicant

I recently had a very interesting and pleasant conversation with Ariel, a former architecture school applicant and student of ours, with whom we worked 6 years ago. The conversation began with cheerful greetings, which eventually developed into excited laughing over the memory of how horrified she was when she began working on her applications. She remembered in fact that her fear made her hold on to what she thought she had as tightly as she could, and that had been her biggest mistake up till then as an architecture school applicant.

The Story of How Ariel Decided to Apply to Architecture School (… then she found out that she needed an architecture school portfolio!!!)

Ariel’s story was special. A child of a single dad, an engineer, she was brought up observing her dad problem-solve in both his personal and professional life. A super-rational thinker by the age of 18, Ariel went to college to study civil engineering, and eventually she decided to switch to history and economics, when she realized that she was simply miserable as an engineering student.

After graduation, she worked for a couple of years at a venture capital firm, as an ‘analyst’, which (as she used to say) was just one step below the guy that made coffee and cleaned the bathrooms. Eventually she realized that she was not going to progress in that career, because she was not passionate for it. That got her started thinking, which eventually led to her thinking about architecture.

She attended the Harvard Career discovery program, and applied to several schools right after that, and was  rejected pretty much by every single one of them, with the exception of the architecture school at CCNY, where she decided not to go. She found out about our company, Architecture School Review, in the winter of 2013, and contacted us in a hope that we could do something to help her find her way into an architecture school that she liked.

When Ariel Asked Architecture School Review to Help Her with the design and development of her Architecture School Portfolio

Just like with any other student of ours, Ariel followed the same 3-phase process, starting with Strategic Evaluation of her entire body of work.

Phase 1: Architecture School Portfolio / Strategic Evaluation

At that point, our strategists analyzed her existing design work and architecture school portfolio, as well as her overall profile, using Ariel’s responses to our online questionnaire. Ariel’s final score was 56%, and our average successful student’s score at the time of the final completion of an application (including portfolio and essay) was close to 95%. There was an obvious competitive margin, and Ariel had to do something about it.

Phase 2: Architecture School Portfolio / Competitive Strategy Development

We began phase 2 by building a comprehensive plan, that defined how we would tackle the problem, and which areas we would work on first (and by ‘We’, I mean Ariel, under her strategist’s supervision). The concept was to focus on the areas that would bring the most value into her application as quickly as possible, and then use the remaining time to build up more value into her architecture school portfolio, by improving the quality of existing projects and concepts. As a first tool in the whole architecture school portfolio design and development process, we used our standard strategic statement, which led to the first draft of her essay. This was where Ariel had a hard time letting things go.

Ariel’s Architecture School Essay – The road to her successful portfolio

One of the toughest things for me (her strategist at the time) was to push Ariel to see her entire architecture school application, as well as the development of her architecture school portfolio, from a new perspective. I still remember how anxious she was, and how crippled she was by this anxiety. I could relate to her anxiety, which is why I understood the catastrophic effects that it had on her way of thinking (especially creatively), which is why I felt that my first job was to help her get rid of it. So, I began by assigning several types of exercises that usually help students re energize their creative selves, but I noticed tremendous resistance from her, especially when it came to re-working the essay for architecture school admissions. At this point, I need to  clarify that an architecture school essay to us here at ASR, is the most important of all elements of the application. Of course if you ask an average architecture school admissions committee member, they will rush to tell you that the portfolio is the most important, which is true (on average, architecture school committee members value portfolios at 60% to 70% of the total value of the application), BUT if one considers that admissions committees evaluate candidates based on their overall picture (let’s call it personal brand), it becomes obvious that the essay is, if not more essential, then more fundamental, because a) it establishes the specific background and tells the story of the candidate, based on which, everything else is built. So, in spite of the obvious importance and value of a competitive portfolio, an ideal essay that encapsulates the ‘Personal Brand’ of the architecture school applicant, is far beyond important!

And yet, in spite of all this, Ariel simply refused to reexamine her essay. It almost felt uncomfortable for her to see herself in a different way. It was at that point that I simply told her, ‘Ariel, your essay kind of Sucks!!!‘ … She did not buy it immediately, but she understood what I meant as we analyzed everything and saw the essay for what it was at that point in our process: a strategic tool for building an excellent brand, and subsequently an extremely competitive portfolio.

A period of renewal – The making of Ariel’s new architecture school application

This was the starting point of a completely new period for Ariel. Her anxiety all of a sudden seemed to disappear, she sounded free, was more passionate, and much more focused on the ultimate goal of getting into her favorite architecture school, which was Harvard GSD at the moment. I eventually convinced Ariel to be honest in her writing, and stop using her essay as a platform for regurgitating her resume. She needed to begin discussing who she really was and what she stood for, what mattered to her in life socially, professionally and emotionally, and how she planned to achieve her dreams. We spent some time thinking about, and reworking her passion for a variety of things, including community development, and how certain aspects of her volunteer activities in several organizations had impacted her performance at her office in the last few years.

Ariel, her Architecture School (Columbia GSAPP), and her Architectural Career

Six years later, Ariel is a graduate of Columbia GSAPP, and is currently working as an architectural designer at a major New York architectural office, while being involved in several ventures in the field of design.

A not-so-unusual story of applying to architecture school

The story of Ariel is not unusual. Some of you may have been experiencing some of the same problems as she had, which is why I decided to share her story. It can be truly overwhelming, but you cannot forget that some of the greatest success stories in history followed periods of unbearable frustration for some people.

If you are ready to move forward to the next stage of your application and you feel stuck, getting unstuck before you do anything else is the most important thing. We, at ASR, are here to help you find your voice and move on to the next thousand steps of the architecture school application process.


by Architecture School Review Staff

One of the most common misconceptions out there is that an applicant has to be “what these architecture schools expect her to be“. It is as if there is a secret template of the perfect applicant, and one has to fit in there perfectly, or else her application will get rejected.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that most universities do expect academic merit from their candidates, as well a demonstrated ability to think intelligently, however, this is not what will get one accepted to the world’s top architecture schools. There are way too many candidates out there, and not that many positions. Therefore real competitive advantage when applying to architecture schools, has to be rooted elsewhere… What is the answer to being selected? The answer is, by differentiating yourself.

Michael Porter, (Harvard professor and world-famous business strategist, whose work has focused on the development of competitive advantage in various industries) has built a theory based on the concept that in business there are two ways to create sustainable competitive advantage. 1. Cost Advantage, and 2. Differentiation Advantage. Cost Advantage obviously does not apply to developing competitive advantage when applying to architecture schools (unless one offers to pay double tuition – I haven’t heard of anyone trying it, but you never know). There is, however, the advantage achieved based on academic excellence: if one has perfect SAT, or GRE scores and perfect GPA, they will most likely have a competitive advantage over others who don’t. However … what if one does not! The second approach, of creating competitive advantage through differentiation, is an excellent way to not only make up for shortcomings in one’s academic record, and to even beat competing applicants who have excellent academic records.

Differentiation is where trendier terms that we hear a lot these days, like “innovation” or “disruption”, are rooted. The concept of differentiation in business is easy to explain. It is simply about doing something differently (and better) than the competition, at a level where the purchaser of the product will understand and accept paying the premium (the extra money compared to your competition) for the extra value that you offer. The same is true in the case of applying to architecture schools.

Applicants do not get accepted into top architecture schools because they fit into molds or meet the requirements listed in some checklist. They get accepted because they are different, and that difference is interpreted as valuable by the admissions committees.

Therefore, the key to top architecture schools is simple … You! Yourself! Remember Mr Rogers singing ‘it’s you I like, It’s you, Yourself‘? Perhaps it is time to start digging within and try to find what is special about you, what is unique, and how you are thoroughly different from everyone else.

The best first step in doing this, is to take a piece of paper, draw a vertical line right in the middle of it, and build two lists, of strengths and weaknesses. This is the first half of a SWOT analysis, but it is plenty for the purpose of figuring out how to get into architecture school.

The key here is to be honest with yourself. The key is also to be nice to yourself, and not beat yourself up about your weaknesses. In fact, the key here is to recognize your weaknesses and admit that perhaps you have very little time remaining for you to turn some of them into strengths. Instead, you can recognize your strengths, get excited about them, and also recognize the potential of building on them a strategy and an entire application that can be extremely competitive.

Once you do this, the next step is to ask yourself, ‘how can I use these strengths to beat the most competitive candidates out there’? This will require understanding your competitors, but also understanding your target audience, the admissions committees. You may struggle, but the fact is that every single one of our students struggled before working with us.

Here at Architecture School Review, we have developed a method for analyzing our student’s profile, including her academic record as well as her design work, and coming up with an understanding of the student’s competitive status in comparison to the most competitive candidates. As part of this method, we define our student’s strengths, weaknesses, as well as their potential. We grade our student in over thirty areas of  the application and the portfolio, and try to define what would be the best way to improve the value of her application by allocating her time intelligently on areas that have the potential of generating the most value for the application.

If you would like to learn more about our strategic evaluation method, as well as other parts of our architecture school portfolio design and admissions strategy development process, email us at, and let us know that you would like to proceed.