Grad School Prep Programs Comparison

I am in the initial stages of deciding whether to pursue a graduate architecture education.  Have been working in finance for five years after graduating college and currently contemplating a grad school prep program before applying to M Arch I programs.  I would like to develop a robust portfolio to help my candidacy and also test my interest level in the field before fully committing.  So far I have come across the following programs:

1. Los Angeles Institute of Architecture & Design (LAIAD) - 1 year graduate prep program

2. Harvard GSD Career Discovery - 6 week summer program

3. Columbia GSAPP Introduction to Architecture - 6 week summer program

4. University of Texas at Austin Summer Academy - 5 week summer program


Would be interested in hearing any insights from alumni or people familiar with the programs listed above (as well as any programs that are missing from this list), including, but not limited to, how well the program prepares you to apply to grad school, quality of experience, extent to which going to Harvard/Columbia/Texas program improves your application to those schools, depth of resources available to assist in the application process, and opportunities to intern/shadow at architecture firms while attending.  Thanks in advance.

Apr 18, 13 2:00 pm


I'm also looking into some of these programs. I've applied to Career Discovery, Intro to Architecture, Summer Academy, as well as YArch at University of Illinois at Chicago. I've received admission to Career Discovery and Intro to Architecture but am waiting to hear back from the other two. So, I'd be interested in hearing what information you find about the programs too as I only have about a week left to decide.

There are a bunch of threads about the Harvard vs. Columbia programs. This thread in particular has a great description of what the program at Columbia entails, and what to expect from any of these types of programs.

Apr 19, 13 11:02 am

I can only speak for Columbia's summer program but I would really recommend it.  The six weeks were incredibly intense in the best way possible, you either loved architecture by the end of it or completely hated it.  It was interesting to see how some people became more enthusiastic and determined after the program and how many waned after since it gave them a completely different picture of architecture than what they had expected.

The total class size was maybe approximately 80 or so students I believe, though these students were split into studio groups of approx 9-12 students.  Students with architecture backgrounds were placed together and as I had noticed, everyone else into groups with students of similar backgrounds.  Finance and economics students and graduates were put together, social sciences together, art historians together etc.

The quality of instruction depends on which critic you get but everyone focuses on a final project that culminates to a specific site that everyone works on.  Each critic assigns differing projects but from what I saw, all of them were interesting and unique in their own way.

Almost everything is done by drawing for students with no architecture backgrounds and being in NY really intensifies the program as there a few side trips for students to Moma Ps1, NY bike rides, and just an overall ability for students to hang out together in a place like NY.

Apr 19, 13 3:01 pm

Rander and Strangefires, thanks for your responses.  I am still with my current job until Summer 2014 but trying to gather as much info as I can in advance and this is really helpful



Apr 24, 13 9:52 pm

I majored in humanities. Had zero architecture background. I am by no means a star artist. I did career disco and I can not tell you how much I learned in six weeks. I was admitted into 3 graduate schools this year and my portfolio was 70% Career Disco projects. 

Apr 25, 13 2:55 am


I think I've made my decision to attend the YArch Summer Architecture program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My decision was determined due to this fantastic and thorough description from the YArch Co-coordinator, Jayne Kelley, about the projects we will be working on during the program:

"In studio, YArch focuses on developing core visualization, spatial, and representational skills—you'll be making architectural decisions both formally and conceptually, improving your drawing and modeling abilities, and then figuring out the best ways to communicate the work you've done throughout the program. To get less abstract, this means taking a single concept or idea (formal, social, etc.) and working through that idea in multiple mediums across the four weeks. Typically, this exploration progresses from two dimensions to three: for example, from b/w flat vector drawings to color vector drawings to paper models to chipboard sectional models (and occasionally even foam models). Then, the final exercise in the program requires you to photograph your work, lay it out into a portfolio, and begin to develop ways of describing and situating it in text. This last exercise is geared especially for those who are looking to apply to graduate architecture programs in the fall, and from my experience, it really gives those participants a head start on that whole process. There are critiques throughout the four weeks on each stage of the work; the final critique judges the work as a whole.

These relatively abstract drawing and modeling exercises are complemented by other program activities, most directly by the sketching trips and walking tours throughout the city (which develop hand drawing skills and add to your knowledge of the field and its history) and the history and theory "seminar" (which provides an introduction to a few key concepts and debates within architecture history and theory over the past fifty years). These two aspects of the program resonate with the studio project in both intentional and unintentional ways, in that there's definitely planned overlap in terms of what is covered when, but there's also the opportunity for you to draw and develop connections on your own. The other program activities, from firm visits to faculty lectures, also support the studio project, but usually in a more oblique way; their main objective is to introduce you to the ways that architecture is currently practiced in Chicago and at UIC, and the ideas and discussions that drive contemporary architectural production."

Hope this helps!

Apr 26, 13 12:48 am

Rander, outstanding thank you.  Best of luck in Chicago!

In addition to the programs listed earlier and the Chicago program, I have also become aware of a 1-year program that Columbia offers which splits the year between a semester in NYC and a semester in Paris.  Going to explore this option as well as I've heard from a few students at Columbia that this positions you well for admissions to the full-time graduate program.



Apr 26, 13 10:27 am

@cag3j - I'm also a former finance guy turned aspiring architect. glad to hear there's another out there. And thanks for the info you posted. I just got into GSAPP Intro to Arch and still awaiting other decisions. Hoping to get into Yarch too.

Also, I'm going to look into the Columbia New York/Paris and Los Angeles Institute of Architecture & Design (LAIAD) programs as well. I'm wondering what's better/more realistice option: finding an internship or doing one of these programs.

Hope to hear more on how things go for you. 

Apr 26, 13 4:00 pm

Last year I finished the LAIAD Grad Prep program and now I am going to UC Berkeley!  I never thought I would get accepted into such a prestigious school but with hard work, long hours and lots of personal attention from the instructors I put together an impressive portfolio that opened the door to many architecture schools.  If you are interested, even remotely interested in seeing if architecture is the path for you, stop by and speak with the LAIAD directors.  You can review former students portfolios and see the design and drawing assignments students are working on now.  The program is intense and you will very soon know if it is for you.  They interact with you as if you are already in an entry level architecture studio and expect a great deal of commitment.  I highly recommend this program. 

I was also accepted into Cal Poly Pomona, SCI-Arc and Woodbury (with scholarship).

May 6, 13 10:16 pm


I have had previous personal experience with three of the four programs you were looking into.  First, let me tell you that having a background in another discipline other than architecture makes you an even more well-rounded candidate for Masters of Architecture programs.  My background was in law, and after deferring to architecture, I now work at an internationally-recognized architecture firm.

But, to answer your question. First, Harvard Career Discovery is an intensive summer course that is led by current master students and has studio sizes ranging from 7-10 people.  I found it engaging enough to pursue design further, but I felt it lacked the personalized experience of true "studio" learning.  The large size of the entire class made lecture topics very broad, or the faculty reached out to colleagues who spoke about their firms and it sounded more like a pitch about their designs and work, rather than attitudes about an architectural education/career.  The projects given were rather repetitive, and more about the final product, rather than the process.  For someone with no architectural/art background, I struggled at first with terminology and concepts, which the instructors breezed through in the first week.  Although it gave me a few projects to compile in a "portfolio", I ended up not using any from Career Disco.

However, without the experience at Harvard, I would not have met a student from Los Angeles who told me about LAIAD.  I applied right after Career Disco, and three weeks later, was accepted into their 1-yr grad prep program.  It was the best decision I have made, and I am where I am today because of LAIAD and their director, William Taylor.  LAIAD is not your "typical" studio/architecture school experience - it is tailored to people who hold jobs, so the classes run two nights a week from I think it was 5 - 9pm.  When I attended in 2009, I had about 15 people in the "larger" class (a course where an ARCHITECT - not a T.A. - teaches you drawing techniques, architectural theory, etc.)  Several of the design projects are not buildings, but exercises where you learn about the "process" of design and employ rules that govern your design.  They make it about approaching design problems with critical thinking, not necessarily creating beautiful objects (which, in the end, happens by itself anyway!).  The second part of the evening is dedicated to a smaller group session of about 6-9 students, where you have a project in which every week you tackle a certain design criteria.  Your instructor and your peers help you through your design decisions and larger architectural issues are discussed.  The year at LAIAD flew by for me, and I felt that I was getting something out of every class.  My portfolio for applying to grad school was the four projects I did at LAIAD, plus some photography, and I was accepted into UT-Austin that same year.

(I also applied to UCLA  and Berkeley, and was accepted into all). Out of the 8 people in my "small" group, five ended up at Harvard, MIT, Cal Poly, Yale, and SAIC.

I cannot say enough about LAIAD and what they've done to start my career.

With that being said,  my third comment about UT-Austin Summer Academy obviously comes from an insider perspective about the program.  This summer, I have several former classmates who are in their last year of the MArch program teaching the Academy.  I did my MArch with several who attended themselves, before applying to grad school.  All have very positive things to say about the program, and although I was never involved myself,  I was in summer studios as a grad student and saw the work of the Academy students.  Very impressed, knowing  where they started and where they ended up finishing.  UT teaches about process more than anything.  The projects encompass hand-drafting and model building and very lively instructor/juror crit sessions 

The only downside to summer academy at UT is the Texas heat in the middle of the summer.  But, don't worry, the buildings that you'll be working in on campus are great.  

I hope you find this helpful, and that your path to getting your Master in architecture is an enlightening and enjoyable one!

May 26, 13 7:10 pm

mcs195- thank you for your insights!  Incredibly helpful


Jun 5, 13 4:54 pm

I have to say haven't heard about LAIAD but think if you coming from a non-design-humanities based programme that a 1 year programme is a must - 6 week courses really are those who have some base knowledge. One spends so much money on tuition in the end without a solid base you might as well throw out the first 6 months of the MArch Programme.

Jun 5, 13 5:29 pm

Thanks all for the great info. LAIAD is looking like the right thing to do. Honestly, I just haven't been able to find any other program to compare it to. The only other thing I can think to do with the next year before the MArch program is try to take some drawing and carpentry classes. Teach myself some of the software too, of course. 

Jun 6, 13 8:54 am

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