HOW TO BUILD A GREAT ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL PORTFOLIO
by EVANGELOS P. LIMPANTOUDIS, M.Arch. MIT, class of 2006
So you are sitting home, going over the Harvard GSD admissions brochure, starring at the samples of work (supposedly developed by their current students), and wondering whether you are good enough to make it there. “These people must be the most talented designers in the entire universe” you think, and shrug, thinking that there is no way you can compete.
The fact is that even if you are right about the quality of work that you see in the brochures of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Cornell and others, it is very likely that the designers of this work were either very lucky or had a great talent in photography, model-building and Photoshop. 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 will look at your portfolio for about 3 minutes on average, then quickly skim through your essay for about 2 to 4 minutes, then spend 2 to 3 more minutes examining your recommendation letters and finally will go over your transcripts and test scores. In this process, the hierarchy of significance of submitted material for architecture and design schools is completely different from that of business schools, law schools or even your average college. Here are the elements of application in order of significance:
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.
This is the reason why you should stop worrying about that dreadful GRE day, and stop wasting 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 everything else. Here is how:
There are several schools of thought on 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 excellent in any occasion, but how often is it possible? The truth is that nomatter how perfect the six individual elements of your application are, they will fall apart if they do not come together to build a cohesive idea of who you really are, in the minds of the examiners. I am referring to your personal brand, which must encapsulate the essence of your work, your interests, your position in the school, your position in the world and finally your persona and purpose. In essence, if you manage to build up an image that could sum you up in one sentence, then you have lost the game. This sentence must concretely describe a a simple yet complex profile that consists of different ideas, all converging into one point: your essence. This is how you will manage to win the battle before it has even started.
The strategy above is a branding strategy. 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 program 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 flip through your portfolio for a few minutes (if you are lucky) and then move on to the next one.
The ideal approach to developing this type of brand is to not begin the development of your application with your portfolio. Always start with the first draft of your essay. Begin by answering four questions: 1) Where am I? 2) Where do I want to go? 3) How will architecture school help me get there? and finally 4) How will this SPECIFIC architecture school (Harvard GSD, MIT, GSAPP, Yale, Cornell or whichever one you have chosen) help you get to where you want to go. Try to see this not as an essay (although it will eventually turn into your application essay), but as a strategic statement. This is an exercise for you and just you to understand yourself, so your vocabulary must be as simple and to the point.
After you are done writing your essay, try to find the key sentences that capture what you are looking for in your education, how you will contribute, etc. Later, 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 and 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.
Author’s Bio: Evangelos P. Limpantoudis – LEED AP, Assoc. AIA
Evangelos is the founder of Architecture School Review. Evangelos is a design entrepreneur with a background in architectural practice and education. He received his Masters of Architecture from MIT, and MS in Management from NYU School of Engineering. He has taught at various universities such as MIT, NYIT and NYU Poly. He is an member of the American Institute of Architects, a LEED Accredited Professional, and a 2010 Fellow of the NYU Reynolds Program for Social Entrepreneurship. For more information, please visit