Surviving Architecture School

December 16, 2013 — 71 Comments

Despite what you might hear, architecture school is terrific. I know that it isn’t easy and I can still remember moments of crippling panic as I looked around the studio during my presentation. Fast forward 20+ years and things have changed … I may have an easy time standing up in front of a lot of people and talking now but that wasn’t always the case. The idea of wiping my entire body with antiperspirants didn’t seem out of the question. Common sense would have you believe that the more you do something, the more familiar and comfortable it becomes – now it seems like I don’t know how to stop talking.

Well, time heals all wounds and I have been steadily adding to my long running Do You want to be an Architect? series. Most of those posts have focused on the process of becoming an architect after you’ve graduated from college so today I thought I would jot down some things from my collegiate days that will probably resonate with others who have already gone through and survived the process known as “Architecture School.”

1.) All nighters generally do more harm than good, rarely does inspiration come after midnight. There is a phrase that is something along the lines of “inspiration must find you working” but if you are sleep deprived, you won’t be doing your best work.

2.) Talking like an architect makes you sound like you are trying too hard to sound like you know something. Outside the studio, people don’t want to hear your “archispeak” so learn how to communicate in a way that is approachable to other people.

3.) Listen to people who have been around the block, they know things and most are trying to teach you something.

4.) Pay attention to what’s important to you, learn who you are, not who you want to be. This is harder than it sounds but the point here is to simply pay attention to your own behavior and find what motivates you. The earlier you learn your skill set, the better things will go for you.

5.) When you are sick, stay at home – nobody wants your cooties. Well, someone might want your cooties but I don’t.  Call in, find out what’s going on, and work from home. Just because you can power through being sick, nobody else wants the opportunity to try.

6.) It’s architecture not emergency surgery, mix in some hobbies during the weekend. Learning other skills will actually make you into a better architect.

7.) Take some business classes with your electives. Learning how a business runs and how to sell work will actually take you farther in your career than just being a designer.

8.) Most people don’t like coffee breath … even if it is from Starbucks. Make it a practice to always go home and clean yourself up before you start the next day.

9.) Being good at CAD does not make you a good architect. Most of the things you learn in school are simply tools for you to use during your career – the trick is knowing when to put all those skills together. Don’t worry if you’re not good at all of them.

10.) Be a participant in developing your education – nobody can read your mind and know what you want. As the son of an educator, I feel confident when I tell you your professor not only wants you to succeed, they want you to be the best – ask questions and ask for help.

11.) Learn how to speak well in public – take a class if needed. While in studio, you will get the opportunity to practice standing up in front of a room full of people and presenting. In this moment, most people are concerned about how their project will be received but the real value lies in the time spent presenting.

12.) Pay attention to everyone’s opinion and treat them with respect. This isn’t just a studio skill, it’s a life skill.

13.) Hand drawing is not a gift, it’s a skill and has value beyond creating pretty pictures. If your school doesn’t put any sort of emphasis on sketching, burn an elective (or two) and take a class over in the arts building.

14.) The person in school that you thought had terrible designs – but could talk about their project – will be your boss. Nobody in architecture school knows it yet but there are so many roles besides designer in the field of architecture that there is a place for everyone. The person with the most skills typically wins.

15.) You will always have someone in studio that you don’t like – it might even be your professor … find a way to make it work.

What happens when you are actually still in school? What about those poor souls? Recent emails made have got me thinking about the things I didn’t learn while I was in architecture school. Yes, there are too many things to write down here, and the knowledge of what to do when you get pulled over by the cops and you have an open beer inside your pants leg doesn’t seem relevant. Some tidbits of knowledge are worth sharing and if you can think on these without having to learn them the hard way than all the better. If you need a refresher on the  Do you want to be an Architect Series, here you go, these are some of the most read posts from the series:

Big or Small? What’s the Right sized firm for you?

Architectural Portfolio’s and their true purpose

Architectural Sketching

Taking the Architectural Registration Exam

Do you want to be an Architect?

In all, there are over 30 different posts in this series and hopefully some of these kernels of wisdom will have some specific value to you. If you think I’ve missed something obvious, please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comment section.

Happy surviving!

Bob AIA signature

Print Friendly

even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Pallavi

    Hello sir…I want to become a successful architect and I have taken admission in an architectural college and it is going to begin in few days so can you please give me some useful tips and tricks to score best in my graduation which will help me in future…
    I shall be highly obliged.

  • disqus_DaFeBnIyIW

    Hello great tips.
    I’m on my first semester of architecture.
    My first project I couldn’t finish on time because I was over thinking and I wanted to do a great design.
    I see that my teacher just gives attention to the ones that are doing great work in class and makes me think I’m not doing great.
    Its been always my dream to become a good architect.
    What can I do to do great in class and finish the projects on time?

    • that’s really the magic question isn’t it? I think most professors respond to effort generated in the classroom as well as the product created. If your designs are terrible but you are putting the effort in, at worst, most professors seem to become indifferent to the end product rather than single that individual out as a terrible designer. As far as finishing your work on time – that’s on you. Either work harder, smarter, or both.

  • lancotf

    Great read and great tips. Passed it along as well. Have a good one Bob!

  • Zoey

    I am currently in junior year of architecture at the age of 17. I like the way you say that an architect isn’t necessarily good in CAD. I am struggling with it as of now. I know how to work in CAD yet I am not good at it. Personally, my assets is in Engineering Mathematics and the main reason why I took up Architecture is I want to create a compact relation between Math and Arts. What I am pursuing now is really really hard but I am promising that I will be a successful architect 2 years from now. Thank you for your inspiring words. 🙂

    • Are you saying that you are in your third year of college at the age of 17?

      Pretty impressive – best of luck to you!

  • b

    currently an archi freshman. i got one word for you, although im not sure if everyone will get it: PLATES

  • G⛎IAツ

    I’m a freshmen in Architecture and lot’s of people say’s that Architecture Course is a stressful and need to be a VERY talented person. Know I’m nervous because I’m not that skillful person but I want to pursue my dream to be an Architect someday…

  • Wildobaggans

    1.) Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, which derives from the Greek arkhitekton (arkhi-, chief + tekton, builder), i.e., chief builder.
    But that really isn’t the case. Architects don’t really build, they create drawings that other people use To build.
    2.) Architecture is a progression of Trial & Error. When an architect & client discuss a project, the process that ensues is one of trial & error. The architect gives the client an initial drawing that the client might change 2x or 5x or any number of times so “design” is more like trial & error.
    3.) Anyone can be an architect. It really doesn’t take a college degree to make an architect. Other than passing the A.R.E., being a designer is relatively easy. You need to listen to what a client wants, give the client some pictorial ideas either by the use of hand drawn methods or the use of computer software.
    4.) The biggest aspect of being an architect is knowing what to put on construction drawings. Plans, Elevations, Sections & lots of details. I worked with an architect who worked with a number of contractors. The architect said that the drawings are usually more detailed than necessary more for CYA than for what the contractor needs to build from.
    5.) Architects are Facilitators. Architects Facilitate the production of something that a client doesn’t have time to do or, especially when it come to residential, the builder just wants enough to get a building permit. More often than not, the client and builder will make changes during construction that if there aren’t code issues or structural issues, most architects won’t even know if something gets changed ( and typically don’t care ).

    • Kyle

      Just want to clear things up, architects are present from pre-design phase up to the post-construction phase. There are Architects-in-charge of construction that oversees the construction if it follows the plan and specifications provided by the architect-of-record of the project. And also, being an architect and being designer is not the same. When you design as a designer, you think more of the aesthetics and how beautiful something would look. The work of the architects is much more complex than that. From carefully planning the circulation in the bldg, to listening to the client’s preferences, to thinking of design solutions to solve some inconveniences that would arise, to considering the relation and impact of the building to its site and environment, to thinking of how the building would utilize the natural light and air ventilation around it for it to be energy efficient and sustainable, to making the structural conceptualization of the structure (note that structural conceptualization is aided by civil engineers for the computation of the sizes of the structural elements) and to fitting every other vital consideration for a building to work, function, stand, and give an appropriate ambiance to its location; all of those things are being considered by architects and that’s not even half of all of it.

      Basically, they consider three principles in designing: the structural strength (they should know the basics in building technology which are taught in archi school to be able to design realizable structures), functionality/utility(they should have a background on the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems of a structure because these are major considerations in designing a structure), and beauty/aesthetics of the structure (which almost everyone mistakes as the sole role of an architect in the industry; this aspect is vital because it dictates the experience and feeling felt by the users of the structure) so I think not really everyone can become an architect because it’s not that easy as what you might have thought and that’s basically why you need 5 years of education on most schools to have a degree in architecture.

      I hope I’ve cleared some things up for you.

  • Phoebe

    I am beginning my studies in architecture and people talk about how incredibly time consuming it is… is it possible to work while in school? I am nervous for the next 6 years and how to balance everything.

    • Wildobaggans

      Get an associate degree in Architecture. Buy AutoCAD, Revit & Chief Architect software. Get good with those. Get good with Adobe Photoshop. Get Sketch-Up and learn it well. Develop actual hand painting and rendering skills. Get familiar with residential construction and how to detail actual construction assemblies. Find an architect who will take you in and really will be your mentor. Get your CDL – Commercial Driving License, because you will always have a skill to fall back on when you can’t get work in Architecture. Or go to school for carpentry, same reason.

    • Fillide

      I’m I’m second year architecture school and trust me life is really hard. I agree with almost everything that is written in the article above. This major is stressful and time consuming but if u like it and if you really are passionate about it- you will excel. And the most important thing I’ve learnt is it’s the people in studio that makes it special. Don’t worry too much about being able to balance your life- sometimes you won’t be able too, but it’s an adventure and it’s an honor to be a designer.

  • Rusty arch mom

    Here’s a different angle…I am a 49 licensed architect who has spent the last 18 years away from the profession raising twins and moving with husband for work to seven different states. Sons now first year in college and I am recently single. I am assessing my options. Any idea where someone like me may fit in the architecture world again? Has it been too long away? I am so rusty.

  • Clay R

    Another question please. I was told by my tutors and heard from so many other architects, yourself included (lol) that presentation is key. I’m okay with the speaking part. But then again there’s not much to talk about when your designs are like poop(sorry) as mine usually are. I don’t know what to add to the drawings or the concept to make it look interesting, visually and also what to do to sell even the most poopiest of all designs. A response from you would be so very much appreciated. :))

    • Fillide

      Even I’m a second year architecture student and I understand what you’re saying- I’ve realized the more drawings you have the more seriously you are taken in a review. But this doesn’t mean you focus on only quantity, quality is also key. Conceptual drawings, perspectives, renderings all help in communicating your ideas to people. Even if you don’t have a strong concept you can always search for something in your project that is worth discussing. Try to employ various systems in your projects that can we discussed individually and that come together as a whole. Overall, you’re project should speak for itself. All the best 🙂

  • Clay R

    Hello. I’m a second year student and this post literally made my day. I’m experiencing everything including paralyzing self doubt and more. My question is, what do you when you get stuck? Or when you have tried all possible means but can’t come up with a design or a design concept? I am trying to move away from the ‘staring at a blank paper waiting for a miraculous inspiration’ into actually thinking through pen and paper (drawing). But i still get stuck. Any advice? You seem very wise. :))

  • Sakat

    Hello, I’m a new follower and I really like your article it’s really helpful thank you soo much!
    I’m a second year student and I’m a shy person, I always get really nervous while doing a presentation in font of my classmates can you please give me some tips to overcome this problem?
    Thank you again!

  • Amani

    I hope its not too late for my reply but, I just wanted to say thank you. since I am starting this year the school of architecture everybody just keeps saying “this is a very hard subject, you should be talented..VERY talented”. well I should say this article really encouraged me I just hope I’m on the right way 🙂

    • that is good to know – a positive attitude will take you far

  • Wildlobo71

    I am glad these articles are timeless in the sense that I never seem to find them the first time around… This is a really good topic to discuss, I feel like I have this discussion with my coworkers all the time. My extra two cents for the following – #11, absolutely take a class. I at one time felt I had some comedy stand-up ability, but it was raw… I took a class on comedic improvisation (think a class curriculum much like “Whose Line Is It Anyways?” TV show.) That helped public speaking immensely, and it helps in simple dialogue, too. #4 – definitely, before college I thought every architect did exactly what Mike Brady did. As I got through school, the “design” aspect of the work fell secondary in my world to understanding the rules (AKA Codes and Regulations) and the detailing/specification of the work. To this day I tell all architectural students and interns that being an architect is about finding your place on the scale between 1 (pure design) and 10 (pure technical) – we are all somewhere in the middle; find your place and make that place work for you because that is where you will be most happy and successful. #13 – I regret this because as a more technical architect, I am certainly not a polished sketch producer like you are; it does take time to regain.

    Thanks Bob! Chat with you again on the next one!


    • Bill – looking forward to more contributions from you, thanks for adding to the conversation

  • Mehreen Kazim

    hi Bob,
    i am a 4th year architecture student. i need to know how much does fancy rendering and presentation makes a difference? i mean would the jury for a good design with basic rendering work out as victoriously as it would for a revit or photoshop rendered presentation?

  • Pingback: Architectural Studio - 4 Questions | Life of an Architect()

  • Brianszy

    Good advice. I did very well in architecture school and never had to pull an all nighter. My advice is, in those 4 hours of scheduled studio time, put on your headphones, sit down and WORK. Those seemed to be the times when other students would flop around on the internet, socialize, leave right after their crits and get nothing done. If you work hard then you will spend fewer late nights in studio. You also need to know when to put the breaks on your design process and start producing your presentation so you can complete everything you need without rushing or pulling all nighters.

    Finally never skip guest lectures no matter how busy you are. They aren’t all good but one may be career changing.

  • laila

    Really interesting post, thank you for sharing!

  • Edoardo Ventisette

    Very nice post! It’s a pleasure can read this from Italy! Greetings from Florence!

  • Nicole

    Hi Bob !! So I came across this as I was looking for some great architecture books and interns. I read your intern blog and really enjoyed it so I found myself looking at all of your other ones as well. I really enjoyed this one ! Everything you have said is so true. I had to subscribe !! I will keep everything you say in mind as I go through school, so helpful !! Can’t wait to read more.

  • Nadia

    Great post! And oh so true! I wish I had had this list when I was in school, there was so much that I missed or misinterpreted. That aside, I fondly remember this period in my life as a great one. It was tough but very rewarding.

    • I too remember my time in school very fondly.


  • Lee

    hi Bob! Great post again 🙂 love #6 and #7! may I make a suggestion for a blog post? Do you have one on documentation? Thanks a lot for your great tips! Always a pleasure to read.

  • Lily

    Thanks so much for posting this article, along with your other inspiring posts. I’m currently studying architecture and I love reading the things you write and I always find it so insightful and helpful! 😀

    • glad you liked the article – thanks for your kind words!

  • Pingback: Surviving Architecture School | Life of an Arch...()

  • Linda Slater

    Brilliant – couldn’t have said it better myself. How I believe in #13. I learned to sketch, I learned to sketch architecturally and as I did so, my designs improved. The one thing about getting up and defending your design at Architectural School was being “crit scared”!! 😉

    • thanks – glad to have another sketcher on site!

    • Jess Hopkin

      After reading stuff like this I’m glad my school teaches sketching and puts much more emphasis on hand drawing early on than CAD (going into 3rd year into 2014 and have only presented designs on CAD in that class, not my other classes)

  • Ayelen

    Love your blog! Cheers from Argentina

    • Thanks Ayelen! Cheers from Dallas, Texas!

  • I like how you add in life skills that are applicable to everyone!
    Another great post.

    • Thanks Bridget – I really appreciate having you as a consistent reader and commentor here at LoaA. The community experience here is something that I am very proud of and I’m glad your a part of it.

      • That’s kind of you to say. You’re right. You’ve built a great community.

  • Rubytuesday

    Omg number 6!! Thank you!! Soooo many people in studio did nothing but live and breathe architecture and they made me feel badly for having other interests. Glad to hear that other architects do find having other hobbies normal!

    • Making the time to have a hobby is important – make it a priority!!

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Given the upcoming change coming from TDLR, probably a good habit to mind one’s P’s & Q’s, too.

  • Jake

    Currently going through my second year of architecture education, and the first year was very difficult and painful. Yet I’ve learned so much and now i feel so much more mature and able to deal with all of the stresses of studio management and presentations ect. There is a real difference in your first to second (i assume to later years) to where it gets “easier” more manageable and just sticking with it and listening and learned helps the most. And i would say that i use most of the tips you’ve given here and learned them some time along the way and i’m sure i will learn the rest soon.

    • Jess Hopkin

      I’ve just finished my second year too and I found the same. I think they spend a lot of first year trying to scare the people who don’t really want to be there

  • Another component of surviving architecture school is a good school with inspiring teachers. My hubs proff at U of Arizona told his class not even 5% of them would make it. That kinda of sets the stage for learning… not. Bad teachers can ruin the entire experience.

  • mike

    I’m curious…..what do you do when pulled over with an open beer in your pants ??

  • Keith

    Great post Bob! Wish I had read this when I was still in architecture school! Looking back, I think that I should have followed no. 6 more. Keeping up a variety of hobbies develops a wider range of skills, which come in useful in school and later.

    • Bill Reeves

      In the 80’s I tinkered with computers. I took classes at the local community college. I was very happy when computers and architecture merged.

  • Bill Reeves

    Expanding on your item #7: I took a botany class for non botany majors. I found the class interesting, and so much of it stayed with me. When I sat for the State exam, there were many questions I was able to answer due directly to that class.

    • wow – that sounds kind of cool. I took a pottery class and it was one of my favorites out of 6 years of courses.

  • cgarch

    Agreed, brilliant post. I spent some years bartending before I entered school. It went a long way toward learning how to talk to people and generally improved my social skills. Highly recommended.

    • Bartending? I bet you did develop some social skills. The ability to talk to people is the great equalizer, if you can’t do it, it almost doesn’t matter how good you are at the rest.


      • cgarch

        I believe the best thing one can do before entering an architecture program is do some different things in the world. A gap year (or two) is not a bad idea. Get to know the world, get to know your inner architect.

  • Architectdesignblog

    I still have nightmares about architecture school!! Luckily I can count the number of all nighters through the 5 years on one hand but I wish I had had more FUN in college and less work work work.

    • Like most people, eventually you’ll look back on that time and think of it fondly. There is something very pure about the experience and the process you go through during that period of your life. I don’t remember loving it while I was in school but I never hated it either. Now I think about how much fun it would be to go through it again (as a 45 year old) and how different I would treat it.

      Rose colored glasses probably …

  • 03306028

    All hovering around your first great point here, Bob, and this more relevant to life in general than architecture school I suppose, (like a big pile of those points are) but never undervalue a good night’s sleep and a decent diet and physical fitness routine. At the end of the day the human body is a machine than needs fuel and maintenance to perform at peak levels.

    Proper time management and staying organized will help to avoid the need for an all nighter. It’s one thing to get in the zone and lose track of time, but it’s quite another to start a project due Monday morning on Sunday evening. Working well under pressure is a good skill to have, but staying on top of assigned tasks is a great way to curtail the need to develop that skill.

    And finally, the sooner one adopt good habits, the sooner those habits become second nature and simply aren’t work any more — it becomes the way one operates. It is absolutely possible to actively monitor one’s thought processes and habits and change them for the better.

    • I only did a few all-nighters in my day and I was generally worthless for the next two days (although I didn’t think that was the case). I look back on it now and find humor in the person who takes pride in the fact they do loads of all-nighters because they looooove architecture THAT much. Getting your work done in a manner that precludes the need for an all-nighter is more impressive to me, you potential future boss.

      Just a thought …

      Great point on the diet and exercise.

  • Courtney Price

    Another brilliant post. This is truly impressive and certainly applies to everybody, no matter what their profession. Well done. #5 made me laugh- why don’t people get this?!!!

    • I always think that some people feel some sort of honor for not letting their illness slow them down. I always think, I don’t care what you do, just don’t get me sick.

  • Megan Hartensteiner

    As a current architecture student, I think most students overlook the importance of #6. When I started architecture school, everyone thought I was crazy for attempting to be in the marching band while being an architecture student. Now 4 years later, I’m still surviving while pursuing both. More than anything, the marching band is my stress reliever and escape from studio. Out of 350 band members, there are only 2 other architecture students and none of us are in the same section. When I go to rehearsals and games, my focus has to be on my performance and having fun with friends, not the issues I’m having with my studio project. Honestly, it’s the only thing that has kept me sane these past 4 years.

    • I’ll admit that it’s extremely hard to find those extracurricular activities but it’s important to put the effort in. Not only will having a group of friends outside the architecture school keep you sane, it will help keep you grounded as well.

      (so what instrument do you play?)

      • Megan Hartensteiner

        I play the clarinet in the Spirit of Houston Marching Band at the University of Houston.

  • Kerry Hogue

    Good points Bob.
    On number 11: while in high school my mother made take speech class. At the time I could not understand why. Once I got to architecture school and had to stand up and present, I was thankful. She also made me take typing class. Not so relevant today, but also saved me back in the day. Both of those have served we well through the years. How did she know? Mothers are like that.

    • Mothers generally work that way, they make you do things for your own good although it is rarely seen as that while still in the moment.

      I never took a typing class but through the years of working in CAD, I’ve gone from a 2 finger typist to a solid 8 finger typist (You’d think writing this post for 4 years would have helped as well…)