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.