Preparing a Winning Portfolio for Architecture School Admissions

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.

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