by EVANGELOS P. LIMPANTOUDIS, M.Arch. MIT, class of 2006

So you are sitting home, looking over the Harvard GSD admissions brochure, starring and the samples of work they included supposedly from current students, and wondering how you will ever be able to make it there. “These people must be the most talented designers in the entire universe” you think!!! “There is no way poor little untalented me could ever compete and be accepted by this institution”, you think…

The fact is that if you are right about the quality of any of the work that you see and the work that Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale and all the other big guys make you think their students magically produce, it is very likely that the designer was either very lucky or had a great talent in photography, model-building and Photoshop. Let’s be clear here, and not beat around the bush just to defend our own profession (I am an architect too you see): Even the most experienced eye can be fooled when looking at a mediocre piece of design that is well documented and formatted and appeals to the better angels of our taste. Key thing to remember is that nothing that these schools tell you about their requirements for admission have anything to do with reality. The fact is that the faculty and students that will examine your work (keep that locked up in your mind and never forget it – it is not a bunch of random admissions people that look at your work. This is not college applications guys) will look at your portfolio for about 50% of the review time, then read through your essay for about 25% of the time, then spend 15% of the time examining your recommendation letters and finally the rest of the 10% will be taking a quick look at your overall academic performance up to that point. Do you get my point? The hierarchy of significance of submitted material for architecture and design schools is completely different from that of other schools. Here are the elements of application in order of significance:

1) Portfolio
2) Essay
3) Recommendations
4) Resume (Overall personality and extracurricular interests, awards, travels)
5) Transcript (Academic performance, awards, GPA and individual relevant course grades)
6) GRE … honestly, as long as you get the minimum that they require, most schools will take you as long as the other stuff is up to par.

So, stop worrying about that dreadful GRE day, and stop wasting your beautiful money on Kaplan and Princeton Review courses… Nothing against them, I think they are excellent tutoring services, and if you have extra money, by all means let them have it. But if you really want to make a difference in your application, focus on building the rest of your application. How? Well, that’s the trick.

The truth is that there are several schools of thought as far as how to approach a design school application. One approach is to make sure that every single part of your application is perfect, or sounds perfect to the admissions officers. The fact is that this would be fantastic in any occasion, but how often does it really happen that you have perfect everything? The truth is that as great as having perfect framing of recommendations and a perfect resume etc, they will fall apart if they do not build a very specific idea in the minds of the examiner about you, your work, your interests, your position in the school, your position in the world, etc. In essence, if in the fifteen minutes in which the examiner will go over your package you do not manage to build up an image that could sum you up in one sentence, then you have lost the game (unless of course your grades or your portfolio are absolutely 100% perfect, which usually doesn’t happen unless you are already LeCorbusier, or Koolhaas or Dali, or a bookworm). What kind of sentence? Something like “the sustainable architecture guy”, or “the dude with the fabric models” or “that guy that thinks everything is a bridge” or “the social architecture girl” etc. When you manage to build a profile that consists of a bunch of different ideas all converging at one point (the essence of your package), then you have managed to win the battle before it has even started.

The strategy above is not unlike the type of strategy that they use in marketing. In fact, what you are doing when applying to architecture school, is positioning yourself as a competitor of all other applicants, in the environment of the architecture school that you are applying to. It is a type of personal marketing, and whether you like it or not, it is the most effective way of making sure that you communicate exactly who you are to the overworked and over-bored admissions officers, who will be flipping through your portfolio for a few minutes (if you are lucky) and then will be moving on to the next one.

Bottom line of all this, is that you should never start with your portfolio. Always start with the first draft of your essay. Begin by addressing four issues: 1) who you are. 2) Who/ what do you want to become. 3) How will architecture school help you get there, and 4) How will this SPECIFIC architecture school (GSD, MIT, GSAPP, or whatever you choose) help you achieve your goal. See the process of writing not as an opportunity to use big cool words, because this is not going to be read by admissions advisors (yet). This is an exercise for you and just you to understand yourself, so your vocabulary must be as simple and to the point as you feel comfortable with.

After you are done writing your essay, try to find the key sentences that encapsulate the essence of what you are looking for in your education, how you will contribute, etc. After that, compose a single paragraph that captures your own essence. This paragraph will be the core of your whole application. And after you decide on it, and are happy with it and the idea it communicates, you will proceed to the development of the rest of the material, ALWAYS making sure that everything is connected with / grounded on the core paragraph.

Developing a portfolio is a multistage process, which requires good judgment and thinking, but the first step before developing it is getting the main idea very clearly specified in your head. After that, you can start thinking how and what type of work to develop, or how to arrange and present your already existing work. We will cover that in different articles.


by ASR Staff

In the process of assemblying your B.Arch. or M.Arch. applications, try thinking of each component as a chance to tell your story to the Architecture School admissions committee.

This means that you should try not to simply reproduce a list of points from your CV into your application forms. Try offering new information as you are developing your answers on fields that relate to accomplishments, challenges that you have faced, or experiences.

Similarly, if one of your essays focuses on your volunteer work, try highlighting some activity (extracurricular or not), that would be a fit. Also try not to have all your recommenders tout the same achievements that you have already discussed somewhere else. It is important to use different opportunities to provide different snippets of what you can do and what you have done, as long as you can somehow connect these references to your overall architecture school admissions strategy.

Stuff like your GRE and your GPA and transcripts are aspects of your application that function 100% as data points. Other than them, everything else offers a possibility to tell another side of your story. The essay and the portfolio are particularly well suited for this purpose. In fact, each project of your portfolio should somehow discuss several points about your personality and background that you would like to get across. In the same way, each paragraph of the essay must state and explain a set of ideas that must be communicated to make your overall story undertood and to make sure it resonates.

As soon as the admissions committee has completed the review of your admissions materials, they should be able to understand your personality, your achievements, your goals, and your value proposition for the program.

Your test scores, your transcript and your grade point average will give the architecture school admissions committee a sense of your ability to manage dealing with their curriculum. Your CV or resue demonstrates the progression of your career, as well as the process of increasing your ability to manage responsibility. Reference letters, on the other hand, offer a great opportunity to discuss your leadership, your potential, and provide insight on the things that excite you more than anything else.

Overall, it is important to understand that the architecture school admissions committee will be making their selection (or not) based on the full picture that your application paints. Every paragraph, every sentence even of the essay, every image, every page of the portfolio, and every sentence of each reference letter is a brushstroke on this picture. It is in your hand to use these brushstrokes to create an exciting, creative, yet harmonious and sophisticated composition, or end up with a picture that is either incohesive, or simply boring.


by Aaron Larkin

Based on our latest survey of admissions reviewers, the portfolio carries over 65% of the value of an M.Arch or an MSArch application. In undergraduate programs, portfolios carry over 50% of the overall value. This means that your college gpa, your GRE, your essay, your reference letters and your entire profile, carry 35% to 40% of the overall value of the application. It therefore makes you rethink the entire way of seeing this process of applying to architecture schools.

Having said all this, based on an evaluation of our students from the past 5 years, only the top 7% to 10% of the applicant pool will succeed in gaining admission to schools like Harvard GSD, Columbia GSAPP, MIT SAP, Cornell AAP and Yale (These have been the top 5 M.Arch. schools for years by the way) … Therefore, even if you have the best portfolio this world has ever seen, you probably won’t make it to these schools unless you have a somewhat digestible record from college (for those applying to Masters programs) or from High School (for those applying to undergraduate architecture programs).

To be more specific, let’s begin by setting the minimum standards that these top 5 architecture schools are likely to accept if you have the perfect portfolio:


GPA: In all my years of coaching students I have never seen a student with less than 2.7/4.0 gpa gain admission to a top 5 program. There have been several students with a GPA of less than 3.0, and even a 2.8, who made it to these schools, and some of them even gained fellowships or scholarships. I have also had students with less than 2.5 make it to top 15 and top 20 schools, but based on my experience, if you have less than a 2.7 you can forget it.


GRE: My recommendation is that you do your best to get a 150 in both tests. Schools like Columbia GSAPP make it clear from the beginning that they will simply not even allow you to apply if you do not have a minimum of 150 in verbal, and I know for a fact that most other top 5 schools will look very unfavorably at an applicant who has scored less than 150.


Interestingly enough, based on our research, the statement of purpose and reference letters of architecture school applicants carry around 20% of the value of the application. Based on experience, I also know that in most cases, when working with students, we spend less than 5% of our time on these two elements of the architecture school application, simply because our main concern is the portfolio. Statements of purpose are less time consuming, and their development can stretch over months, so that in the end you do not even notice that you worked on them. Aside from this, embedded in the essays, are the strategy of the entire application, and the theme of the portfolio, which are essential if the applicant wants to build a successful package with a clearm cogent message.


So, what am I am telling you here is that you need to hierarchize your tasks, not based on what you think is more important, but based on what actually brings most of the value to your application. The elements that bring the most value per … hour, are the statement of purpose, and the reference letters. Therefore, you should begin by working hard and exclusively on the statement of purpose for a little while, to get your ideas on the table that will allow you to build a good strategy. Then, you can slowly refine the statement until you reach your architecture school application deadline. Secondly, begin approaching your recommenders immediately after your essay is completed. First analyze them, decide who are the best to make an argument that supports what you are saying in the essay, and then write a letter and make a first contact. As soon as you have done these two things, the stage is set for success, because all you need to do is transition to maintenance mode for the rest of the time.

After you are done working on these first two elements, you then need to move to the third and most daunting element of all, the portfolio. There are several articles on our blog that offer advice on how to develop a successful portfolio, and you can always contact us if you need some advice. However, the point of this article is that you do not need to obsess over an imperfect GPA, or a low GRE score. You still have a great chance for success. You can still make it, as long as you focus and work methodically on the things that matter the most.


Allocating time to build a portfolio is tricky to begin with, and much more so when you consider what else you have on your plate. An average architecture school applicant will need to build a competitive strategy, develop a charming profile, approach recommenders, write an essay of purpose and (the big one) build a portfolio, while also studying for the GRE, studying for a full course-load (in most cases), doing an internship, getting involved in extracurricular activities, and building relationships with various people at various schools of his or her interest. All this, has to happen while this person lives a full life, spends time sleeping, eating and using the WC, as well as having some kind of family or social life occasionally. So, the question that usually comes up early on is “where do I begin” and “how do I get everything done”.


The answer is simple: the way you approach your application differs from person to person based on that person’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as on what has the potential of bringing more value to the application than anything else. Therefore, the applicant needs a serious, objective, intelligent and well informed evaluation at the beginning of the process in order to grasp three things:

  1. Which are the least and which the most competitive aspects of her application compared to the competition.
  2. Which are the tasks that would bring the most value to the application and how much time do they require to complete.
  3. How much time does she have

The answers to the first question obviously differs from candidate to candidate and cannot possibly be discussed in detail here, other than by saying that the candidate has to use the fresh eyes of others, and especially of people who understand design.

The second question is a bit more specific. For example, during the evaluation process that we conduct at the beginning of our work with any of our students, the student’s work and profile are  analyzed using over 30 different criteria which affect the competitiveness level of the application. These criteria differ in terms of significance. For example, the development of a strong portfolio strategy is much more valuable than the development of an educational vision for the essay; The development of a strong concept for a project is much more valuable than the building of a refined model or rendering detailing the final condition of the project, and so on.

The third answer is easy to answer: First of all, you have to understand how much time you has available. To do this, you have to add up all the hours between that moment and the moment of submission, and subtract hours for tasks that do NOT include architecture school portfolio and application work. Here is an example:

Louis has 8 weeks to build an entire portfolio. Louis’s week consists of 168 hours, out of which he sleeps for a total of 56 hours. He spends about 2 hours per day eating, 2 hours per day relaxing, using the bathroom, etc. That’s a total of 28 hours. He works full time, which (including door-to-door commute) takes him about 50 hrs per week. In total, he has 168 – 56 – 28 – 50 = 34 hours per week available to allocate between leisure and working on a portfolio. He has a total of 272 hrs. Calculating that 10% of this will be wasted, he has about 245 hrs.

What remains is for Louis to decide how to allocate this time, starting from using it to work on tasks that can bring the most value to his application.



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. 


By Architecture School Review Staff

One of our students’ most frequently asked questions is whether they should write thank-you notes to their interviewers, and if yes, what would be the correct approach. Many of them are used to the handwritten approach, which to them shows a personal touch, and care. Others are pretty adamant about sending a blanket email, simply to get it done.

But why is sending a thank-you note so important for your application? The answer is that it is not! However, you have to reflect on what the point of the application is to begin with, the answer being that it is a process you must go through to get into a good architecture or design school and begin a (hopefully) thriving career in the field of architecture or design. Therefore, anything that you do during this process, must help advance your overall career, and certainly must not damage it under any circumstances. Not sending a well-written, thought out thank-you note to the people who took time out of their busy schedules to do the same for you, is a recipe for burning bridges with important connections in the field, who will be essential to you down the road. Therefore, even if you do not have time, find the time to write personalized letters.

So, which is the best way to write a good thank-you note for an architecture school recommender?


At Architecture School Review, we recommend that our students break their letters into three parts. This is the best way to do the least amount of writing, while easily personalizing the note.

The first part should be the same for all recommenders, and should be about you, not them. It should begin immediately with you thanking the recommender for the time and effort to write something of substance for your application to architecture schools, which is not the easiest thing to do. Take a few sentences to acknowledge the fact that they have been essential to your application, and that you are sure their input will help the admissions committees at the architecture and design schools you are applying to, make informed and correct decisions. Take a sentence or two to remind them of how significant this moment is for you and your architectural career, and how much difference it will make in your life if you manage to get into a great architecture program.

In the second paragraph, try to be more personal and more about them. Remind them of what you should have told them already prior to them recommending you, which is that you value their mentorship and friendship, and that they are extremely important to you as friends or mentors, or whatever you consider them to be, for many reasons, including the fact that you know you can count on them for a reference. Remind them of specific moments that you have spend together, and try to show them appreciation but also emotion.Limit your second paragraph to no more than 250 words. It is the most important one, so try to work on it carefully, but do not overdo it with too much content, because it may end up being tiring or sounding patronizing to some people.

Finally, in the third part of your note, Take three sentences to end the note, thank them for one last time, and explain to them that if they ever need you for anything, they should not hesitate to contact you.

Your overall language and style of the letter should be selected based on your relationship with this person. A note to a professor of yours whom you still call by his last name and do not feel very comfortable with, should sound very differently from a note to a colleague of yours who is the same age as you.

An Architecture school application can make or break your career in a big way based on whether or not you make it to good architecture schools. A thank-you note for your architecture school recommenders on the other hand, can affect your career in smaller ways, like losing the bridge with a person you may not consider to be that important to you. However, over the course of an entire career, bridge-burning may turn into a terrible habit of not expressing gratitude for other people’s time and effort, and I have found that the best thing to do is develop this positive habit of thank-you notes as early as possible. It will make an enormous difference.

Architecture School Applicant Holding a Portfolio for Admission to Architecture School - Running to reach the deadline'


By Architecture School Review Staff

If you are planning to apply to Masters of Architecture programs this fall, you have about 9 months left until you reach the dreadful month of December. When you hit December 10, your architecture school portfolios should be 100% ready, your architecture school essays should be triple checked, and your recommenders should have already agreed to recommend you by the deadline.

The time between now and December 10, is extremely valuable, and it goes by too fast. In fact, most of our students here at Architecture School Review have this problem. No matter how old, mature, or organized they are, they always get frustrated at some point by the amount of work ahead, which in most cases causes them to switch to “procrastination mode”.


“I will get started with the portfolio as soon as I am done with school”… Then, they are done with school, and you hear “I will get started as soon as I am back from a quick vacation – I have to refill my batteries after all, don’t I?” Then they are back, and two weeks later you hear “my friend is getting married in North Carolina and I HAVE to go. I will begin working on the architecture school portfolio as soon as I am back. Don’t you fret though, because I am taking my sketchbook with me and I will be doing work constantly. I’ll be working on the plane, in the taxi, on the beach, on the kitchen-table, in front of the TV – Any chance I get, I promise I will work and work and work ….”.

Then they get back, and lo and behold, there is not a single sketch in their pad, not a single new idea in their head, and plenty more stress clouding their mind. 90% of the time we manage to prevent this from happening of course, by telling the architecture school applicants that we coach the truth, which is that while they are hiking, dancing or swimming, their competitors, some of whom have much better records and architecture school portfolio content to begin with, are working tirelessly, day and night, trying to make sure that they do not waste any opportunity to improve their portfolios, or develop their architecture school essays a bit more.

The truth is tough to bear for many, but the fact of the matter is that just for this year, no serious architecture school candidate should waste a second. You literally have to  dedicate every last second to your application. Part of the reason is that “You Never Know”


First of all, YOU NEVER KNOW how good your competitors are in this particular year. Since 2002, the level of competition at some of the most popular programs has fluctuated enormously according to many admissions officers that we have spoken with.

This fluctuation is completely random. There are years when it just so happens that the most talented people from all over the world have for some reason decided to apply to your favorite architecture school. This is particularly true in the case of well known, highly-ranked programs, like Harvard Graduate School of Design, Yale School of Architecture, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Cornell School of Architecture, Art and Planning, and many others.

Usually, this effect is transferred to other, less popular programs as well. It is not unlikely to see a huge spike in competitiveness at schools like Washington University in Saint Louis College of Architecture for example, or the Rhode Island School of Design, or Pratt’s School of Architecture, or even schools like the School of Architecture and Design at the New York Institute of Technology, simply because the same pool of super-competitive students, has decided to apply to many lower-tier universities in an effort to a) secure an acceptance, and b) get as much merit-based financial aid as possible to pay for their overpriced architectural education.

One of course may say, no problem, all I have to do is avoid these years. The problem is of course that no one knows when or where this spike in competitiveness will take place.


YOU NEVER KNOW how BAD the candidates will be. Yes, there are years, when the guy with a 2.8 GPA makes it to Columbia GSAPP, and you are sitting there and wondering how this ever happened. The answer is that he or she (let’s say she) worked her tail off on whatever she could control during the last few months, and this sacrifice paid off, because combined with a year of low competitive levels, it allowed them to stand out and make it to some of the best schools in the country. It all happened while others were procrastinating.


Let’s say that you either have low expectations of yourself, so all you care about is making it to a top 30 school, which you consider to be relatively easy, because you have a 3.9 GPA (this never happens of course, because people with 3.9 GPAs are in my experience usually the most driven and the ones with the highest expectations.) First of all, top 20 or top-30 universities are in many cases equally competitive, and often more competitive that some of the top 5 architecture schools. This happens for a few reasons, including the fact that some architecture schools are much more affordable and yet offer an excellent architectural education to some really good architecture students, or that they are primarily serving people from a specific geographical area. For example, UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design (Berkeley’s School of Architecture), which has appeared in ranking tables at number 11, or 13, is consistently more competitive than a school like Cornell’s School of Architecture, Art and Planning, even though Cornell School of Architecture has been ranked in the top 5 for the past few years.

The reason is that UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design combines all the factors mentioned above. (a) It is an excellent school. (b) It has a great and prestigious name to go with it, (c) It is much more affordable than Cornell School of Architecture, (d) as a State school in California, it gets much more affordable for  local residents, which means that Californian’s tend to prefer it to schools in the North-East. (e) Geographically, people from the middle to the west of the United States prefer it because it is closer to them. (f) People from other states like it too, because by living in California for about a year they can establish residency, and can also claim the local discount – plus, it is actually affordable (relatively) to begin with. Finally, let’s not forget that it is located in the second trendiest city in the US after New York. San Francisco is a large and exciting city, full of opportunities for jobs and fun. Ithaca (where Cornell is located) with all its charm (a lake, hills, waterfalls, etc), mostly appeals to the “over-50” demographic, not your average Architecture school candidate.


All Architecture Schools reserve their financial aid for about 7% of the accepted students. This means that, for example, in the case of Columbia GSAPP, where acceptance rates are about 5%, less than half a percentage point of the total pool of applicants receives any financial aid. Therefore there is no guarantee that you will receive a financial aid package, unless you really stand out. Now, winning the top financial aid packages, like the MIT Presidential fellowship is the toughest, which means that you had better present yourself as if you are an excellent candidate.


Finally, don’t you want to know how good you really are? When was the last time that you heard Mike Phelps take even one day off in the year prior to the Olympics? Even a day counts. This is a race, and everybody has an equal chance.

So, forget about vacations, apologize to your friends, sell your tickets, and trade your sunglasses for pencils and sketch pads, because you have a lotta work to do!


The process of developing a portfolio for architecture school admissions to top schools of architecture, is a tough and relatively long one. It requires patience and persistence, and commitment to the development and re-development of design projects so that they fit perfectly with well-designed architecture school admission strategies.

As part of our process, we engage in online correspondence with our students, which takes place between sessions. This correspondence is meant to help the student advance their design between sessions, by engaging in a process of on-going reexamination and continuous design and development of their projects. The following threads are examples of these correspondences with some of our students. [Names of students have been replaced with fake ones, and photos or ideas associating the text to the actual student have been removed]




Sam is a 30-year-old student, with a background in business, interested in applying to Masters of Architecture programs in the United States

SAM: Been working on sections 2 and 5a/5b. Do you have any feedback?


– Single sentence sounds like an Linkedin profile intro. Focus on your way of thinking – the left-right brain thing.
– Explanation is not specific – what do you mean by background? Describe and relate to the strategy
– “To harness my past experience” is not specific enough. You need to be more descriptive – talk about ‘communication of ideas/ideals’ as we discussed
– Instead of describing “excess and discontent” as the things you are fighting against, try to describe what you are fighting FOPR instead. 
– I agree on cultural changes, but don’t define the how so narrowly (sustainability and personal fulfilment (do you mean wholeness or self-realization or completeness?) the HOW will de discovered through the explored in your projects later on
– It looks ok so far! I think you need to be more focused on communications, and psychology/ behavior rather than sustainability.
– Try thinking of your favorite programs in terms of people: there are three types of people at a program. a) Those who know something and teach it (faculty, through programs, curriculum, lectures etc), b) those who don’t know and are there to learn, and to discuss/exchange ideas (students), and c) those who surround the academic community (people of the city you are in. Then, organize your ideas in the categories mentioned. 
– Don’t mention high-paying job, emphasize substance and other rewards other than money
– Do not refer to the things you did not like. Focus on what you liked and connect it to your mission, which you will continue as an architect
–  “it was inherently flawed. I couldn’t continue to make a living constantly pushing more material things on people”,: I like the idea of the ‘reformed capitalist’, and I think we can use it, but not as the central theme of your essay 
– Helping people tell their story is what you should focus on. We also discussed ideas about feeling empowered through fashion, developing self esteem through a sense that they are ‘enough’ and all that stuff.
– Omit any reference to the left-right brain stuff. The strategy is just for us. We need to communicate it indirectly through the essay and portfolio projects. 
– Your goal should not focus on material achievements, like owning a desgin firm, but on how you want to effect change. 
– elaborate on how you have been helping people so far through your work in fashion and other endeavors – what have you been doing to reach your goal?
Good job so far, keep emailing me progress – let me know if you have questions on what I wrote here. 

Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was very helpful. I have continued to work and have a few questions for you.

2A: This is where I’ve been having the most trouble. Should I strictly be focusing on the way I think/ how I view the world, and not touch on the social agenda aspect? I do think that they go hand in hand, but I’m having trouble making it not sound like a linked in profile description. I’ve been through many variations, but here’s where I am right now:

  • SINGLE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION → I am an altruistic and compassionate person that has a balanced, logical and holistic view of life and its nuanced challenges; A jack of all trades.  
  • EXPLANATION → I am a very balanced and calculated person that always takes a step back from any challenge to view the big picture and approach the problem from a multi-dimensional angle.

2B SSD: Feeling more confident in this one, I think because it is less abstract. I rewrote the whole thing and focused on being more descriptive/specific and describing the transition. Is the single sentence description too wordy? Am I tying it all together in a genuine way?

  • SINGLE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION → To advance from helping people communicate their ideals and achieving a sense of comfort on a small scale through clothing, to helping individuals and communities communicate ideals on a much larger scale, through design, and ultimately push our culture towards one of providence and contentment.  

2B Explanation: I’m unsure if the first sentence is necessary, but I do think it is the first part of the ‘WHY’, ie our culture is fundamentally flawed, which of course leads to why I want to change it. I also tried to tie clothing and architecture together. Is it a complete flow of the ideas I’m trying to communicate? Do I need to go into more detail about the changing of culture, or should that be answered in more depth in 2c? This is where I landed:

  • EXPLANATION →  We live in a perpetual state of crisis, both personal and public, as individuals and a society. Some of the biggest problems are perpetuated by industries, like fashion, that exploit individuals’ insecurities, human labor and the environment for monetary gain. I have spent my career focused on helping others. Clothing is an envelope that has the power to help one communicate their ideals, aspirations and increase the wearers self esteem. They feel that they are enough, they are OK, and that they can go out into the world, live their lives, even aspire for more, yet feel content. Buildings and spaces are also envelopes, and can be used to achieve the same end at a greater scale, not only for individuals, but entire communities. Through this greater and more impactful scale, I believe that our culture and daily lives can be changed.


2A: Try not referring to yourself as a person, but instead refer to your thinking process – meaning don’t tell us what you (think you) are, but how you think. You can express this through describing the results of your thinking process, or simply the way your mind works. 

2B: “To create environments that empower communities” is an example of how to phrase what we had discussed and then you can elaborate in the description. 
2B Exp: Great job! We will improve it even more over time, but for the time being I think it looks good. It also gave me the idea of presenting you as a designer/activist on top of all the other stuff. Remind me next time to show you a portfolio project developed by a former student of mine, where he examined in parallel the famine caused by the fashion industry and the famine of nazi concentration camps in one of his projects. 

Heres where I’m at with 2Aand 5A:


WHO are you … and who would you like the admissions people to believe that you are? 

  • SINGLE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION → I work from inside out to develop a comprehensive understanding to build a box to think outside of. 
  • EXPLANATION → I try to visualize the problem from the inside out, from the smallest detail at first, to understand the basis or root of it. From there, I work back up through the detailed layers, and try to view the problem from the outside looking in. This way, I fully comprehend the calculus of the moving parts. Once I understand the problem, I consider historical precedent vs. an obvious, perfect solution, without any constraints, to determine a choice solution. 

2A- While it is a short description of my thought process, I may have removed “myself” out of it too much, and potentially doesn’t actually answer the question.

2A Explanation- I actually think this is a pretty accurate description of my thought process.


DESCRIPTION OF PERSONA:  I work from inside out to develop a comprehensive understanding to build a box to think outside of. 

25 words per cell, max




My father, a supportive, pragmatic, calculated and frugal engineer. Never too serious. He is resourceful, doesn’t waste anything 

My mother, an empathetic woman who has dealt with mental illness perhaps for her whole life. Librarian, interested in fashion and art. Nurturing, and generally wants to help others. 


Influenced the way in which I think and solve problems; a rational, calculated, and well thought out approach. Stern, disciplined but supportive.

Influenced later in my life to be more of a risk taker, use my artistic side. Learned the impact self esteem has on a person. 

ANSWER ( →  250 words) → I left a fun and fulfilling job. I learned a ton about people, boosted their self-esteem, and helped them feel empowered in their personal and professional lives, but found myself wanting more. I was helping people, but it was inherently flawed; I couldn’t continue to make a living constantly pushing more material things on people. I could, however, continue to help people tell their stories, boost their self esteem, even aspire for more, but also, most importantly, feel content. 



2A: It is an interesting description, but I recommend that you include people in it. I mean, do not just focus on the way that you think, but on how you involve or affect others. If you realize that there is no way to do so, then take what you already have and refine it. Overall, it is ok for now. 
5A: you forgot the HOW! How did you have fun? How did you affect people? How did you help them with their self esteem? How will you transfer your experience to architecture? 
Also, again, do not focus on the flaws of the fashion business, but the ways in which it benefits others. Celebrate the good things about it, focus on describing and then explaining how they will help you in this new extension of your career (architecture). 

Here is what I have for 5A after our “Storytailor” discussion the other day:


When I was 8 or 9, my grandfather took me to the top of Petit Jean Mountain, a small mountain adjacent to the Arkansas River. The mountain is named for the colonial explorer buried at its top, whose death is a source of local legends. “Grab a branch near her grave, ask her what killed her, and she will tell you, ‘nothing’”, my grandfather promised. The youngest of 12 in a poor farming family, storytelling was their way of entertaining, catching up, and coping with life’s hardships. Their tradition continues to this day, despite the generations passing. The give and take of storytelling strengthens a community by empowering the individuals. They feel connected to their roots, more certain about their future, and confident in their own worth. It makes us feel acceptable the way we are. Hearing the stories of my family’s youth allowed me to understand my relatives as real people, rather than an abstract, and relive the experiences that made them who they are today. It was my connection to the past, to my identity as a person and to the community that is my family. I came to realize that while the stories were fine, it was the embellishments that made them great. Small bits of stretched truths synergized with the facts to deliver a story that was greater than the sum of its parts. This transformed storytelling into an art. A way to express who you were, how you got there and what you wanted to be. An envelope to drape over yourself to show the truth beyond the simple facts. To my disappointment, my grandfather was right: Petit Jean said nothing. 

  1. Does it adequately answer the question of “Where I am”?
  2. Is the connection between stories, envelopes, and clothing enough? If not, should it be expanded upon here, or in 5B?
  3. Does it establish the persona of a storytailor?
  4. Any other comments you have after reading it?



1. No, I do not think it adequately answers the question yet, although it sets up strong foundation for answering it. It discusses your family’s story-telling as your background, the idea of transferring stories and creating a sense of cohesion in the family and a sense of belonging, but we do not see you in it yet. Try to describe the same stuff you are describing already, but do it from your own perspective, meaning instead of mentioning your observations purely as an observer, talk about what they mean to you more deeply. (Some of that may actually be better to discuss in paragraph 2 as well). Overall, good job so far, but you have to bring yourself into it more. 
2.I don’t think the connection to envelopes and clothing is strong enough yet. The story-telling tradition is clearly established, but the reference to fabric seems like an afterthought. I think you need to integrate the discussion of clothing into the story. See my next response (3) for some ideas. 
3. I think that there could be an introduction to the use of clothing as a storytelling device in paragraph 1, and then you could be more specific later on in paragraph 2. Perhaps you could tell a story about your Grandfather and how he communicated his emotions through what he wore. The clothing, paired with the stories he told, perhaps created moods that you want to talk about. Paragraph 5B is more specific, meaning that you need to begin telling us about you, and your role in this story-telling tradition. 
4. Overall it looks better than I expected. It creates a feeling we had discussed, of a tradition like that of  the old men in that old Jack Daniels commercial (I looked it up. Here it is: You just need to bring yourself into it more, and try to connect it to clothing. 
Here is my progress on the Piranesi:
With the kebabs, I started cutting it down to a shape that was at the core of what I had before. I have sketched it out in pen, charcoal and graphite, but none of the sketches are very good.
The Piranesi: looks good in terms of attention to detail and rendering technique, although so far you are making all surfaces too dark… and the reason for that, is that you did not follow the direction I suggested, which was to NOT focus on an element at a time, but instead to look at the whole document as one, and shade in layers. If you did so, you would avoid arbitrarily over-darkening some surfaces. If you continue this way, your drawing will end up being twice as hard to finish because you will not be able to balance it with all these super-dark elements – remember, you are not able to erase, so if you decide down the road that (for example) the bottom of the bridge needs to be lighter in order to pop out from a darker background, you won’t be able to do it, so you will end up darkening everything else just to integrate that one element. Whereas if you begin by slowly establishing a dialogue among the different areas of the drawings, then it will not only be easier and faster, but the quality of your drawing will be much better.
The model: There is a long way to go. I am not sure what to tell you at the moment other than ‘keep buiding’




Jun has a B.Arch and is planning to apply to MS.Arch. programs in the US and England.

JUN: Just churning out ideas and doing my absolute best while enjoying the process. There’s a lot in the recording of our session, but I get that the main point being that Nostalgia/memory is the umbrella theme. The methodologies/ tools are water, landscape/earth and light. Currently studying Danteum for Project 3 ( the housing for artists in Canton ) and I can see why you mentioned Danteum as four unique poetic experiences. Maybe I will think about how each four artists convey light in their paintings. Still researching for Project I, I found some local water village from Malaysia and China that may serve as inspiration. But I also looked into some of Welshpool’s historical photographs of coracle and the canal. Will continue tomorrow, gonna rest for now.

For this project, I thought about the project from the beginning, a special feature of Canton, Cardiff is its significant Asian population, although its only 9% of the district population, mostly Bangladeshi (3.3%), Pakistani (1.1%), Indian (2.5%) and Chinese (0.8%), so I want to focus on that and it is also relevant to me since I come from Malaysia, a multiracial, multicultural and multireligious country. And I think this is relevant to the development of the concept of landscape.
In terms of the cultural landscape, I have researched on pictures as inspiration to kickstart the project. Firstly, when you mentioned a landscape as an environment that integrates diversity, my mind linked me to Superkilen by BIG, a park trying to promote diversity. I also looked at traditional architectural elements from Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese vernacular architecture to bring them in as a form of affirming each racial identity. This integration is seen in a lot of Malaysian architecture, such as in Peranakan architecture that fuses Malay, British and Chinese architecture in a single shophouse. So I think this is an interesting element that I want to share to a place like Canton. In terms of the natural landscape, l also see a connection since Indian, Pakistani and Bengali landscape basically lies in the Indus plain. I thought materials of vernacular architecture can also present a potential for memory and identity. Without diving too deep into the research, I present some images below to get the ball rolling.

COACH: the concept that you are describing sounds along the lines of what we discussed, and looks perfectly good to me so far. The images that you submitted are interesting, although I have a hard time understanding what you are keeping from them. Most of them look like man-made natural environments, not natural. Is that what you have in mind? or are you thinking in terms of green roofs over intriguing spaces that change in height, creating changes in elevations above them? If so, then I definitely think this is a great approach, and the images help in visualizing it. The sketch that you submitted is very accurate and interesting so far. I think it encapsulate exactly what you seem to have in mind. It is a great first step, and I would encourage you to keep sketching because I am  sure you will be able to discover lots of new ideas through this process. If no ideas come up for sketching, begin to work on the actual building – meaning, print the drawings out pretty small (sections, plans, elevations), use trace paper, and begin sketching over them with pencil or ink. This is usually the best way to rework a piece, and try to get the concept in the images above to merge with your building by making the changes you need to make. During this process, smaller ideas will pop up in your mind, which you can then explore by making quick 30 second sketches in separate sheets. In this way, you can engage in a fun process of not only reworking the project, but reworking the overall strategy and narrative of the project, as well as producing material that will tell the story of how your project was conceived and developed. 





Jessica is a 26-year-old woman, with a background in business and property development, interested in applying to Masters of Architecture programs in the United States.
1. Architecture School Essay – rough draft: This is definitely a rough draft and the language needs quite a bit of work. I will also need to cut this down. At the bottom of the essay, I’ve included some project ideas that could fit with the theme/story. Please let me know your thoughts. 
2. Stick models: I decided to start from scratch, feeling uninspired by my last project. I like where it ended up; although, I’ll admit it’s not easy for me to draw. Taken a stab at some drawings; they are definitely not proportional but I wanted to produce more than spend so long on one. I will upload later this afternoon. 
3. Piranesi: I only have 18 x 24 paper; it’s been moving slowly. I’ve been called into work this week (not tomorrow) which has made it difficult for me to commit time to all of the items above. I will also upload my progress tonight. 


I am a walker, but do not confuse me for a saunterer. From a young age, moving in a hasted run-like-walk through the megacity of New York yielded a sense of personal autonomy. This freedom gave rise to a self-awareness of how my surroundings and physical environment were and continue to shape me. In other words, the not so particularly beautiful sidewalks of New York construct my psyche. Walking serves as a means of discovery of the conglomerate that is New York where my burning calves is my only boundary. The lack of physical uniformity represents the diverse thinkers, cultures, languages, ethnicities of the city. The physical disparity encourages individual expression; the skyscrapers, ambition; the subway, competitiveness. Passing through blocks, neighborhoods and boroughs is passing through people and communities, even in emptiness of night.

One of my regular short routes is walking from Chinatown to Downtown Brooklyn and back via the Manhattan Bridge. The bridge is easily trumped by its infamous counterparts, but its narrow walkways with abrasive lights and adjacent deafening, often slow, crossing of the BDN&Q subway lines remain as a relic of New York’s uncomfortable, displeasing disposition. The littered neoclassical arches emerge from the chain-link guard; the crumbling masonry buildings of my neighborhood lurk in the shadows of the glistening curtainwall towers above; reverberating steps do not diminish my unilateral faith in NY engineering. The overwhelming sensory experience yields a sense of comfort and familiarity with the foreign, non-homogeneity that is New York.

My relationship with New York is so fundamental to my identity that although I knew I wanted to attend university in an urban center, I did not realize until my second year that I could pursue my interest in this relationship by majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Psychology. After experimenting with a multitude of disciplines, the course Industrial Metropolis, taught by walking through Philadelphia and observing/comparing/studying structures, plans, people of present to past fit with my curiosity of cities and tangible (economic, political) impact on communities and intangible (sensory, psychological) impact on individuals. The drive to understand the interdisciplinary relationship between environment and humanity led me to study in Paris for my third year of studies. From Urban History to Economy of Sex to History of Jazz to Gardens insert course name, the courses centered on Paris and its history to formulate a complete story of how present day Paris exists. This year solidified my understanding that cities are puzzles of complex history and it is imperative to understand this history from as many angles and perspectives as possible to have a truly informed idea of a city today.

By means of these walking revelations, it has become clear that community development and neighborhood revitalization speak to me most. The challenge of striking balance between ameliorating conditions for local individuals while preserving their essence exhibited by the built environment fascinates me, and selfishly, as I see New York become ever more homogenous, is a driver for me that I wish no city to fall fault to. This interest led me to West Harlem affordable housing and commercial developer and owner, Janus Property Company. To be apart of a private developer so deeply entrenched in the community was incredibly unique experience in NYC. My first project fresh out of school with no design/construction/handiness experience was to build out offices in a small 1000 sf storefront space on 130th Street and Amsterdam Ave for local not-for-profit, PA’LANTE Harlem (People Against Landlord Abuse and Tenant Exploitation), serving the community for decades. With no architect or engineer, I ran the full gut job, building an ADA compliant bathroom, private office and x number of desks. I was suddenly the designer, engineer, construction manager, super, electrician, plumber and tenant manager. I may have bothered the seven person firm and contractors with too many questions, but facing and completing this challenge, providing space for Elisa to continue her impertinent business for the community, brought so much satisfaction. I continued this purpose by moving to planning/design/construction project management for a major healthcare system to again serve communities around New York and continue expanding my breadth of knowledge in construction and complex design.
Project ideas that follow this essay:
  1. All projects touch on theme of environmental psychology?
  2. Cognitive map of NYC or Chinatown or elsewhere: “A cognitive map is a type of mental representation which serves an individual to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment. The influence of cultural, social, and gender-specific factors on an individual’s representation of space is now also acknowledged in cognitive psychological research.” – this is overall can be about my relationship to/perception of environment ; example of art project as example
  3. Kebab stick project thoughts – Overview reminds me of the shape of Paris even though I did not have that in my mind consciously at all; From this, I’m not sure exactly where to go
  4. Something related to these 20th century type buildings I am familiar with; Study of decay?
  5. Creative manipulation of existing plans?
1: (Essay): 
I see that you are trying to use the Walt Whitman approach we discussed, of listing things as you walk. Interesting so far, although I am not sure where it is taking the first part of the essay, the description of your persona, yet. THe influences that you are trying to use are revitalization/historic preservation, and the urban environment of a large metropolis. However, what does that say about you? You are a collage of all these influences, so your persona is generalist, not focused, and that is not a bad thing, but the danger is not leaving them with a clear idea of what you really stand for. I think this is what you really need to work on for the first part of the essay (the ‘Where I am” part). 
The third paragraph is also ‘where am I”, but this time you use more of the format of a CV rather than the poetic narration of the first two paragraphs (which was pretty interesting by the way). I would recommend that you find things in this paragraph, which support the main points made in the first two paragraphs, and then try to integrate them together so that you can tell us about your academic career while defining your persona. Right now, the paragraphs are too disintegrated. 
– I like 1, the environmental psych theme. We can discuss it as a portfolio theme or part of it
– 2: It depends on the overall charactr and theme of the portfolio.
– 3: I think you will get lost and confused dealing at such a large scale and in such abstract terms. Try some readings of possible smaller scale projects. 
– 4: Would not recommend it.
– 5: No
2: Stick Model
Looks good so far. 
The point of the sketches is to try and interpret what your model could become, and then try and develop it slightly. Do not just sketch the model like a still life. Instead, try to look at your model carefully, from a specific point of view and using a specific base, and then ask yourself:
– what am I looking at? What could this be? Is it a chair? Is it a cabin? Is it a building? Is it something larger, like a landscape? 
– How big is it?
– Where is it located? in a city? which part of a city? in thje water? under water? On a hill? Overlooking something? On top of a tower? You can place it anywhere
– How do people use it? 
And then, begin to actually imagine how this thing looks. The final definition of your space should be with paper, so it can go through the structure, not necessarily just cover the exterior. Think about the sticks not as a structure, but as a framework for you to think. 
Finally, try to play with the two models that you created and see if you can combine them into one. You can take photos of them in different positions to see how they fit. 
3: Piranesi
It looks good so far, but I recommend that you extend some more guidelines first, and then extend some guidelines of your own based on these extensions. Just like with the stick model, this approach will create a framework for you to think, and within that framework you will then be able to make multiple readings of what you are looking at. Then, you can go ahead and add your elements based on Piranesi’s drawing. This approach will also allow you to see the entire drawing as one piece, as opposed to a collage of multiple different ideas. It will help you balance it and build a vignette that shows interesting spaces and architectural patterns. 
At this point do I continue more lines or start filling in more details? Start with pen or pencil? 
I just noticed your email. For some reason it ended up in my spam folder. From now on, please text me as well as email me, just to make sure I know. 
The Piranesi looks ok so far, and definitely better than last time we looked at it. I like that you extended the lines first and then tried to develop some kind of a framework for the development of ideas.  I would recommend that you try to add depth to your drawing, by exploring what happens beyond the middle ground. The background is key because it will allow you to understand the drawing three dimensionaly and achieve balance along the Z axis. 
In terms of details, be careful when you are drafting elements that Piranesi is using in his work, like arches, doors, bridges etc. Try to learn from him and in the beginning try to imitate him. Be as precise as possible when drawing. Some of your arches for example are unclear and not well defined.
Finally, Some elements, like these arched openings, need to show depth. Right now in most cases you are just showing a profile. Try to spend a bit more time thinking if the elements you have added to the drawing make sense, (and if they don’t, you will know it), and then fix them. Look at Piranesi’s work for guidance, or simply look around you. 
I think the next step after you are done with the corrections is to move forward with the rendering of the drawing. Email me when the pencil is complete, and just go ahead and start inking.
today I focused on my essay the stick project as well as thinking about the references a bit more. Piranesi will come in the next days; I understand I won’t be getting feedback. 
Sticks: As I was cutting away, an arc shape came forward (perhaps Piranesi on my mind), but as did a climbing structure. Somewhere in the evaluative/strategic documents, I’ve written about rock climbing (as it is one of my passions). It felt natural to me for a climbing structure with mediative nooks to emerge. I will work on sketching and seeing other forms/uses of this and share w/ you over the next days. Photos uploaded to dropbox. 
Essay: I’ve pasted this draft at the bottom of the strategy google doc 
References: I’m certain of two references; the third is up in the air. 
You had asked me to free-associate on things that fascinate me and group them. Here is that: 

Chipped plaster/stucco 

Condensed Terra-cotta flat arches 

Mold markings on Sheetrock

The scratchy, Uneven texture of the face of worn limestone 

Dirty, dark bricks and stone

Pile of pavers 

Crumbling stucco/plaster with moss 

Faint Cracks in materials 

Dented metal roofs 

Corroded Cast iron columns 

Demolition; materials falling on themselves 

The sound and form of rope dropping on the ground or tensioning around wood 

The streets that do not conform to a grid; alleyways 

Small entrances 

Dirty bodegas 

Dense, local business of locals in chinatown selling spices and eastern medicines 

Winding streets overlapping others, access to other streets via stairs 

Warm, fuzzy light 


Wax dripping 

Smoke formations 


Tree roots sticking out of the ground

Lumpy, bumpy, massive trees 

The circular dips in rock formed by water 

Wabi sabi 

Dried dead plants and flowers 

Water receding 

Ripples in body of water 

Sun reflection off of water 

Algae on rocks and flowing with the water 



Zebra print upholstered chairs 

Bird feathers 

Wrinkled fabric 

All shades of brown and cream 

Stack of raw linen paper 

Translucent materials

Christo and Jeanne Claude 

Curves and softness in shapes 

Stone Staircases that show wear of use 

Spiral stairs 


Velvet couches


Xavier Corbero 


Richard serra 

Piles of books, magazines 


Tatami mats 

Heavy, Grand wood doors  

Ornate wood carvings 


Red rocks and dust

Vertical crag, imperfections in rock as holding points to climb 

Worn down seashells 

Mugler suits 


High heels 

Femme fatale 


Baroque music 

Airy early 2000s dream music 

Simone de Beauvoir 

Pina bausch 


My plan for the rest of the week until our next session is to sketch the stick and free associate more with it as well as accomplish more with Piranesi. Once I receive feedback, I will work on that as well. 
I went through your essay, and I think it is moving along well. I think we should discuss it in session. I’d rather not offer feedback on it right now, because something tells me that if I do, you will start working on it again and forget about the design projects 😉
Sticks: “A climbing structure with meditative nooks” – sounds terrific! Perhaps a meditation space for climbers? Or a house for Alex Honnold? ( – A rockclimber’s townhouse! Or something more public, like a 3D, vertical park, accessible with stairs, perhaps attached to the highline, or a vertical extension to the highline, Next time I will show you some similar examples so that we can clarify a vision for this. I think it’s great, so go ahead with it. 
Piranesi: I think it looks much much better. The elements are clarified, the arches look good (most of them), etc. Overall, it is a bit unclear what it “wants” to be, but that’s ok, you can slowly clarify it as you develop it. It feels a bit like a cubist composition, with different chunks of the drawing having different vanishing points. I like it! There is one other student’s work that comes to mind, and I will share it with you next time. For now, try to develop as much of it as you can in the way we discussed. 
Regarding free association: I meant free associate as you are exploring possibilities for the stick project, however, it is very interesting that you put yourself through this process of free-association. A theme pops out (so far): raw material with strong textures something you can touch and feel deeply, how light hits it – Sensuality of material. If you agree with this, try to think how it could fit in your story, and then we can discuss further in session (take some quick notes if they come to you).
Let me know what you think about my last paragraph, and keep working and updating me on Piranesi/sticks progress. 
I uploaded piranesi progress from yesterday to dropbox. There’s definitely plenty of mistakes, but I’m embracing them for now. 
Re the climbing structure – glad you like the idea. I think public space sounds more appealing, but I’m open to any ideas. Re location – since it takes on an arch shape, I thought near the Manhattan Bridge on Manhattan side could work. 
There’s a cluster of NYCHA buildings there (see attached from google maps) and not far away a new horrible condo building in my opinion. There is a parking lot bordering the nycha property, and I thought maybe this climbing structure could somehow be more dedicated to the public housing than the new developments. Maybe the meditation nooks face the public buildings .. not sure. We’ll discuss! 
Re sensuality of material – I think you’re spot on. I’ve been thinking of this, and a common thread between what I’m interested in left brain vs right brain is a sense of authenticity. It’s funny you mention the high line because although it is definitely nice, there’s something plastic, inauthentic about it too. Something I wrestle with in my head is how often new developments including public beautifications of urban environments brings in a privileged crowd and pushes out existing communities ; this thought reminds me of my interest in existing buildings and historic preservation. There’s something about authentic materials that give a sense of fullness of life /history through sensuality. But I’m not sure – I’ll probably have a thought later that contradicts this completely but throwing it out here.   
Regarding your idea for the site, I know the area you are mentioning, and I like the idea of creating a public space for public housing, BUT, it is not weird and fun enough as a location as all the other stuff we discussed. I am not saying you need to force yourself to pick something else, but I remind you that this project is still at the ‘childish play’ stage, and if you lose that and start addressing too many real issues, your creative side may suffer. If this was a real project, it would be a great site, however, it is not – it is a project meant to help you build the best possible portfolio project, and help you get excited about the process of designing environments, so the site is not my favorite. Having said all that, you are welcome to choose this site. I have no problem with it. 
Regarding the Highline, we agree on that. I think the way it was developed represents one of the greatest missed opportunities in the field of landscape design. And yes, it was what started the gentrification of that once terrible area. I think gentrification is a great issue, so discussing it in your projects is a good idea. the sensuality of existing buildings (whatever that means) sounds good too. The problem is that both these ideas are hard to understand in terms of projects. Meaning, it is hard at this point to present a planning project about Chelsea/Meatpacking, or to present a research project. We could, however, develop a critique of gentrification as a phenomenon. Or we could develop a project that critiques the adaptive reuse of former factories and soho loft spaces into condos that cost millions. Overall, we are talking about the soul of the city. ‘What is a city’? Is the question we should be asking ourselves perhaps. The New York phenomenon of the early 20th century, the cultural melting-pot, the immigrant’s home, is gone now. What is left of the real New York? In a way it is just the buildings; the sceleton of the life that used to occupy it. Like the Parthenon in Athens, these buildings are representatives of a different era. And ironically, the people who visit New York or move to New York, are here because they were attracted to what that era once represented, but it is not there anymore. So, these historic buildings may be ‘sensual’, but they pretty much do not really belong in this city any more. Most of them in fact are brand new, and all that is left of the old buildings is their facades. They are hollow, like the stage-set of a theatrical production. Therefore I cannot see how you could create something that criticizes the real social issue of gentrification and at the same time celebrate the very thing that is responsible for it, these buildings and their ‘history’. You kinda have to make a choice between the two If it were me, I would choose the social issue, BUT, as I mentioned in the beginning, it is hard to present a planning project or a research project at this stage. You are doing an excellent job thinking about it though, so continue doing so and you/we will get to it. I think you are very close. 




Edith is a 24-year-old woman, with a background in graphic design and three years of work in the field, interested in applying to Masters of Architecture programs in the United States.


Here is the latest version of my essay. It is also in bold right under the section 5 header in my strategic statement document. It definitely still needs work, but is it better structurally? What do you think?
Do you think structuring the portfolio around games still makes sense if this is the essay topic?
I will send photos of the kebab project tonight.
Thank you,

The way my mind works can be clearly delineated by the structure of my family. The left part of my brain is logical, thrives on facts, and thinks linearly like my intellectualist father. The right part of my brain allows me to be intuitive, creative, and think holistically like my expressive mother. My brother with Autism Spectrum Disorder has inspired me to be empathetic as fiercely as any of these other inherent traits. These influences are ever present in my design work, in which I direct my thinking and creative processes back and forth seamlessly from one hemisphere to the other, and always with social and service based impact as a foundation.

Throughout my education at Washington University in St. Louis, I was able to begin to explore ways in which design can have a social impact on its audience. I took courses that focused on community based design solutions, and continued that learning outside of the classroom.

  1. During all four years I was heavily involved in the Thurtene Carnival, which is a student run community event for the community surrounding the university. During my final year I was the design lead on building one of the structures to be showcased during the event, and created a gallery space filled with student art. The community had never had the opportunity to see or purchase student artwork on such a large scale before and the students were thrilled to get to better connect with ____.


  1. During all four years I taught bi-weekly graphic design classes to underserved high school students at University City High School in St. Louis. I worked to create curricula, explain graphic design techniques, and work with individual students to improve their work and prepare their portfolios for the college application process. I was amazed at how this exposure to design so deeply impacted the students and has inspired me to want to teach.

My experience volunteering on the Exhibition Design team at the Design Museum of Chicago solidified my desire to creative innovative and interesting design that also has community impact. The mission of ChiDM is to make design accessible to an audience that does not usually have access, which has informed my thinking about my own practice and goals for the future. On nights and weekends I designed and installed shows from ideation through to completion, strengthening my knowledge of architectural programs and using complex construction methods to physically build exhibitions but also creating a direct impact on the community around me. The museum showed me that the quality of the design elevates its impact rather and should be emphasized. 

After feeling so inspired by the impact of the work at the Design Museum, I co-founded a design collective to work towards a similar objective. Our first endeavor was to transform a home into a site-specific installation and alternative gallery space to host a show made up of the work of 50 emerging artists, many of whom have Autism Spectrum Disorder and are represented by Pure Vision Arts, a gallery and studio that represents artists with ASD. We designed and curated a space with interesting and dynamic exhibition design that showcased the work of artists and gave a platform to artists that are not usually able to show work in. The event created drew over 300 guests and created an inclusive space for artists of all abilities while still retaining a high caliber of design and art.

I currently work as a designer at Stefan Beckman Studio, a production and set design studio in creating large scale experiences for the fashion industry. We aim to turn fashion into art and use the sets to create interesting and unexpected experiences for our audience. I would like to take the incredible design skills I have learned at Stefan Beckman and translate them back into communities they could help improve. 

Architecture school will allow me to move towards my goal of working on design projects that are both innovative and community focused. I would like to build on my design education and learn how to practically apply my way of thinking to the built environment so I can have more of a widespread and lasting impact on the world around me.

I am a designer who interchangeably uses poeticism and rationalism to inform my work. I like to take on complex, multidimensional projects with many problems and components and complete them using an integrated thinking approach that incorporates both imagination and logic. My goal is to bring together multiple disciplines under the umbrella of strategic design, to create innovative systems that impact the lives of communities and individuals.




The biggest deal when dealing with graduate architecture school applications is YOU and not your work. In essence, even if you have a B.Arch., your focus should not be on your most perfect renderings, but on those drawings and sketches that bring up your own personality and way of thinking. Through these sketches you will manage to build a narrative that will demonstrate to the admissions committee a) your PROCESS of thinking and composing, b) your ability to conceive IDEAS and develop them into tangible strategies and plans, c) your ability to precisely communicate in a few pages what you are thinking clearly and simply, and d) your personality as it is manifested in your design.
Try locking up your portfolio in a drawer for a week, and start from scratch, focusing on the ESSENCE of the work, which (in this case) is the process itself. Begin with your essay (Yes! the admissions essay), and use it as a road-map for the portfolio. Use the essay to analyze yourself and what you are, what you stand for, and what you want to achieve in your career. Then, develop a theme for your portfolio that you will be able to describe in a paragraph. Then, develop a narrative based on a) the theme, and b) the projects that you have available to show. This narrative will be how your strategy will unfold. Then, take each one of your projects and try to fit them in the narrative. For this, you will need to pretty much tell a story for each project. I do not mean sit down and write an essay for each. I mean use visual material like sketches, diagrams, mappings, sketch-models, etc, formatted and laid out appropriately, in order to tell your story. If you do not have this material, PRODUCE IT!!! There is no law (yet) against post-rationalizing and post-producing. If its ok for Renzo Piano to do it, then it is ok for you to do it too.