Do you want to be an Architect? The college years

Bob Borson —  January 11, 2011 — 101 Comments

I have been an architect my whole life. When I tell people who I knew I wanted to be an architect by the time I was 5 years old, they think how lucky that must have been! How great it must be to have a singular drive and focus towards a career! Admittedly, I have spent time thinking about how people can go to college and not know what they want to do with themselves – it’s something that I never had to deal with. But am I really so lucky?

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This is one in a series of posts I am writing about the process of becoming an architect. I receive so many emails from people who seem rudderless that I thought I would address the majority of questions and comments in these posts. Today I am going to focus on the architecture school experience. – which was both great and not so great. I’m not going to focus on the particulars of being in studio – I already did that when I wrote Design Studio: The Top 10 Things You Should Know.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture – a program that is consistently in the top 10 and even top 5 of all architecture programs in the country – it is very competitive and extremely difficult to get accepted. I didn’t even apply anywhere else when it was time to send out my college application. It might sound cocky but it’s really an indication of how ignorant I can be at times.

When the day came and I showed up at college, I was surrounded by a bunch of hard-working, type A personalities. My pattern of “working the system” wasn’t working for me and I had a horrible go at things. I looked around at what I was doing compared to everyone else and I was terrible …. talk about an identity crisis. Can you imagine always knowing what you were supposed to do and then learning that you couldn’t actually do it?

Early on in my first studio class we had a drawing assignment; once they were all turned in, I found my drawing (along with 3 or 4 others) pinned up on the wall. The professor wanted to talk about how terrible these particular drawings were and how disappointed he was in the effort shown. Things were not going well for me and starting off my grades were not very good. One of my sisters pulled me aside and told me that if I didn’t get my act together, my mom and dad were going to pull me out of school. So here I was, enrolled in architecture school, always wanted to be an architect ….. and I sucked …. bad. Now what was I going to do? I started freaking out … which turned out to be just what I needed.

I still wanted to be an architect, but if I was going to be terrible at it there was no way my proud soul could have taken it. I had nothing left to consider except to change how I went about doing things and get serious –

  • Drop out of jazz band. Check
  • No more parties. Check
  • Stop going out with my friends. Check
  • No more “dating” the ladies. *sad face* Check
  • Spend ALL my time up at the studio. Check

Guess what happened? I stopped sucking. I found myself in a group of what I considered to be the best designers of my peers. I stopped paying attention to what other people were doing and only worried about what I was doing. The fear of losing something that was this important to me was a remarkable motivator and once I channeled my inner fear of sucking, I never had any more issues in school. A by-product of my new-found focus was that I uncorked some competitive side in me that I never knew existed. Once I let that particular genie out of the bottle, along with it came the constant fear of sucking – most people call it performance anxiety – competitive nature vs. fear of failure; the whip and the carrot, good and bad, yin and yang, call it what you will, all of the effort and hard work I put in was a result of not wanting to suck. Nothing worthwhile comes easy does it?

“We stopped asking because you can never come …”

I enjoyed all of my studio classes quite honestly and don’t remember being bitter about how often or how long I was up there. I had two distinct groups of friends and they rarely crossed over with one another. There were my architecture school friends, the closest of which I still have some communication with even though none of us live even remotely close to the other, and then there were my high school friends … these were the ones that I spent whatever free time I had – doing the things that college age kids do (like panty raids). I recently wrote of a conversation I had with one of these high school friends because they stopped calling me to go do stuff. His response was –

“We stopped asking because you never can come – you always tell us that you have to go to studio or something and we know that if you can do something, you will let us know and we’ll tell you what we’re doing”.

Hearing that kinda sucked but at least I understood him. I was willing to forgo that aspect of my social life in order to stay in architecture school. That’s not to say I enjoyed college any less than my heavy partying business major friends – it was just different. It turned out to be the right decision for me in the end but it wasn’t ever easy – but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

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even better

  • Zak Stone

    Dear Bob, I’m in my first year of A Levels (17 y.o.) and have been thinking about taking architecture for the last year or two. I’m taking a ‘Design Technology’ course which requires me to do a fair deal of architectural as well as product and graphical design. I did very well for two architecturally related projects last year but have realised that now the time has come for me to start a couple of new projects, I’m running out of ideas. Does this mean I’m lacking the creativity required for architecture? Do you recommend that I continue pursuing architecture even though I have lost a lot of the enjoyment that I used to have when designing things? -I have started to simply copy designs found in books and on the internet. What sort of things could be taught? and what things must come naturally?

    P.s. I think that my academic side of things is up to scratch and I have no problem with sketching. It’s mainly just my inability to come up with new ideas that I can express on paper…

    I look forward to your reply,
    Thanks.

  • Sikha

    Hi!
    I’m in my second year of A levels and I’m still confused on what I want to study. Every since I was little I have always been intro art and creative activities. At one point I wanted to become a fashion designer ( I kinda still do) but thinking about the amount my parents spent on my studies, I had to cross out that idea. Then I thought maybe I can do architecture…it also involves designing and I wouldn’t mind. I was really bad at physics in class because the teacher wasn’t exactly good so I took tuitions which helped me a lot and actually made me enjoy it. This year I’m struggling again because of the teacher so I’m thinking of doing tuitions. I dropped maths after AS level because it was extremely hard for me. I did get an A for IGCSE but A level maths was at another level. Now, a month before applying to uni, I’m unsure about my life. I look at people talking about architecture where they say…. it’s a long course, it doesn’t pay well, it is so much work and etc. I even considered of taking graphic designing but I just don’t know, I’m still hooked on doing architecture (either architecture designor technology). Is architecture maths and physics hard? Will there be free time? time to get a job for personal expenses? Is there any future scope for graduate architects nowadays? Please answer soon.
    Thank you

  • Another concerned mom

    I would appreciate if you could elaborate on the group process. My son (1st yr BARCH) at a top school is in a group of five and they have been assigned several projects. Three of the students are contributing very little, making their personal life and parties a priority to studio time and getting the project finished. The other student is contributing some but has already informed my son that he is planning on changing majors as soon as the quarter is over. My son is pulling the entire weight of the group spending many full nights in studio alone without their help working very hard as he has always wanted to be an architect and takes this very seriously. He is taken back by the lack of effort of the others in his group. At what point should he talk with his professor? I have never seen him this stressed. Is this normal in ARCH and is this how the slackers are weeded out?

  • Ethan

    Ive always wanted to be an architect, but i never knew it was going to be that hard. What subjects should i start taking up in college?

  • Concerned mom

    My son is struggling exactly like you did and I can’t motivate him to stick to it

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      This may not be what you want to hear but your son is probably old enough so that if this is something he wants, he’ll figure out a way to make it happen. I needed a few things to kick me in the butt but they were all self-induced (both the problems and the solution)

      Best of luck,
      Bob

  • Dan

    Hey,
    I’m 22 and have a bachelor’s in English. I’m considering returning to school to become an architect. Does it make most sense to get another bachelor’s degree, or is it possible to jump into a master’s program in architecture without a bachelor’s in architecture. Would that make sense?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      take advantage of the Bachelor’s degree you already own and go for the Master’s degree. It will probably still take you quite a while but probably 1 or 2 years less since you already have the Bachelors under your belt.

  • Cid

    Iam intereting in arquitecture but Iam scare because I also like law school. I don’t know which one should I choose.

  • Jodee

    seriously this is the story of my life. I have a studio final critique tomorrow afternoon and i still have 3 models and 5 analysis drawings to do….hello all nighter, not so thrilled to see you again. It feels like there is never enough time to get all of the work done to the quality that i would like to see it at, and i cant help but constantly compare my work to my other peers and friends (who happen to produce the best work in all my classes week after week), they constantly try to convince me to stop doing comparisons but i find the task beyond impossible. I see kids dropping out left and right each semester because they just couldn’t keep up. But even though i find myself struggling sometimes i cant ever see myself dropping out, even though iv found myself thinking about it more and more as the program progresses. Seriously why does the thing iv loved the most my entire life have to be so beyond difficult, not difficult in terms of the work but the time frames you have to do it in! I love the work, even though the projects they assign are not always the most interesting or easy to understand, but im addicted to the times my body goes into that state where it feels like somewhat of a overdrive-high that i just zone out in and my instincts take over and 6 hours later i have a model or drawing that knocks the socks off my peers, but how do you do this when you have 3 models and numerous drawings due in just a day and a half’s time? My peers say focus on just getting the work done and not so much on the quality. but how does that make sense? why bother using your time at all if its not going to be worth putting it into your portfolio for finding a job? and then aside from all the homework they expect you to be creating that professional portfolio, finding a paid internship and learning revit, autocad and all other design programs simultaneously all on your own. Its like “Yeah let me learn how to bend time real quick on top of all of that”…..

  • Brenton

    Hey Bob, I just want to say this blog has really aided me in crushing my fears of returning to college and pursuing my life long dream of becoming an architect. Like you, its been a dream of mine since I was 6 years old and started drawing buidings in perspective view. I get silly excited at the words “modeling” and “rendering”. I’m currently 25 years old and just got married to a wonderful woman a year ago who is a great encourager for me to finish my schooling and reach my goal. Now stumbling upon your blog, I feel truly blessed and seeing you specifically address my woes such as the “all nighters” and initial skills required. I’ll be that “old” guy in the back working hard to accomplish my goal and get home to my wife at a decent hour. I’m so excited at what the future holds. Thank you for helping to elimate fears I’ve had and I will continue to follow your blog for a long time. The reason I stopped several years ago was due to hearing a recent 4 year graduate explain his distaste for “architorture” and the all nighters and poor critiques he recieved. Now, I know better and from reading this particular article that it was most likely due to his being a party hard and procrastinating traditional student. Thanks again for giving me confidence and showing me how being a non-traditional student can actually have advantages.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am glad to hear that you are back pursuing your dream – best of luck!
      ps – at 25 years old, you are hardly old. The graduate students running around the same space as the undergraduates are that age. You’ll fit in just fine.

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  • Justin Lau

    Hi Bob, your blog is really inspiring and I really enjoy reading it! I am currently in my last year of high school and I’ve applied to a few architecture universities in the UK. Unfortunately I was rejected by one of the best architecture university (Cardiff University ranked 6th) in the UK and so I ended with receiving an offer from a less “good” architecture university (Oxford Brookes ranked 10th) and I’m most probably going to go there next year. Does it matter if you graduate from a less competent university for architecture and will it affect your prospects as an architect? Because right now I am feeling really worried because I didn’t get an offer from one of the best architecture universities. Will I get a good job as an architect in the future?

  • Canan

    Hello Bob! I really appreciate your blog and I love reading it. I live in the UK and I’ve still got quite a bit before I go into uni however I cannot stop thinking about what subjects I need to be doing at a level to get into an architectural uni. All of the universities I looked at want good grades and maths and science subjects – I’m not bad at either but I don’t enjoy it and I think I’ll struggle at a higher level. My art is good, but is that enough to get into a good university? And get a good job?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Canan, glad you like the blog, I appreciate the comment. As far as getting into a good university, for many, one of the major ways they determine your mental capabilities is by evaluating your grades in math and science subjects. For us in the US, most schools want to see some sort of portfolio, something that demonstrates your visual capabilities. I can’t speak as to whether or not you’ll struggle (or not) and if you’ll get a good job – you’re a long way off from knowing the answer to that question.