Navigating Graduate School

Life & Times at the Yale School of Architecture



Jul '14 - Jul '14

  • Dissecting the App Process - Part One

    Last year this time when I was taking baby steps in the application process, I was frustrated with the lack of information out there. Sure, there were the annual Archinect threads with GPA/GRE/acceptances/rejections, but there didn’t seem to be anything available beyond the surface stats – no insights into why people were applying where they did, what they felt the strengths and weaknesses to be, what was the X-factor of their applications, things like that. A real peek into the real people behind the numbers. Also, most people on here appeared to be flawless superhumans of some sort.  GSD with $$. YSOA with $. GSAPP with $$$. Those are the kind of stories I saw here on a regular basis, and that’s just one guy’s results. If you’ve been lurking around these threads like I have, I don’t blame you for believing that getting into architecture grad school is a piece of cake. Till that first rejection comes along and then you’re back to wondering who these supremely-talented- mysterious-HYP admit-beings who make it seem so easy are.

    I once came across a little ‘interview’ on one of the MBA(!) threads I was trolling in search of application strategies. This was before I was accepted anywhere, but at the time I remember thinking that if I did have a successful application, I’d love to do my take on these questions and hopefully open up a dialogue on the arch-school admission process.

    I’m making this a two-part series since there’s just so much to cover. So here goes.

    What do you think worked for you in the application?

    A bunch of things. I had the basics in place, for one. A consistent academic record all through undergrad (3.96/valedictorian), reasonably decent GRE scores (161/164/5.5), awards, scholarships, good recs (I hope!) - nobody reputed though, no starchitects or anyone even remotely famous; the works. I was also applying pretty much straight out of undergrad so I had a raw, fresh line of thought which can sometimes work well with schools – they like to be able to shape you, I think.  A well written SOP. I struggled with it forever but ended up being very happy with the results. I think it really articulated my interests, my thought process, my reasons for going to grad school and its applicability in my future plans in a concise and coherent way. So I knew that I was ticking all the boxes, so to say. I didn’t have a glaring red flag on my app. I also ended up putting a ton of work and effort into my portfolio. It wasn’t of the exceptional blow-your-socks-off folio category you see on ISSUU every once in a while, but it was strong, sound and did a good job of conveying my strengths.

    However, if I were to sum up my application success in one line, it would be this: Develop a stance and market it consistently across every aspect of your application.

    What do I mean? Look, the adcoms at every college probably have stacks upon stacks of files to go though. They’ll spare maybe a few minutes per application, doing a quick scan of your materials before moving on to the next one. Of course – I may be completely wrong and the actual ongoings behind those doors may be entirely different, but this is how I pictured it in my head. You have those few minutes and a bunch of mediums (SOP, portfolio, resume, recs) to draw up an image of yourself in their minds. At the end of the day, if you’ve been able to successfully use your file in getting them to remember you as someone with an interesting accomplishment/point of view, I’d say you have a foot in the door.

    I realize that not all of us, me included, are of the exceptional overachievers straight-admit category. But we’re all interesting in different and unique ways, whether it’s in the way we think about the profession or something we enjoy working on. It is up to you to introspect on that and I’m sure you will once you sit down to writing that SOP. Whether you’re the guy who’s into vernacular sustainability or the girl who wants to explore the application of scripting to bamboo architecture or if you’re into tropical architecture in SE Asia or whatever, find out what drives you and weave your narrative across all aspects of your application. So if you’re the vernacular sustainability guy, talk about what propelled your interest in the topic and where you want to take it as part of your essay. Have a couple of projects in your folio that showcase your work on the matter. Maybe have your recommender talk about something you did in that space, list it on your resume. Your application package now paints a picture of you that goes over and above your stats and academic accomplishments and brings you to life as a person and potential architect. It shows the adcom that there’s something that drives you, excites you, and that you could bring with you an interesting viewpoint and will be a meaningful addition to their class.

    Notice how I said ‘vernacular sustainability guy’? That’s exactly the point. If you’re able to get the adcom to remember you as that guy, or the ‘parametric bamboo girl’, or the ‘tropical design fellow’ or whatever, then I’d like to think that you’ve started your journey to an admit on a strong note.

    What was the X-Factor for this application which wasn’t present in your unsuccessful ones?

    Demonstrating fit. Before I applied to school I’d always hear of this ‘fit’ business without really understanding it. But as I dug deeper and deeper – scoured websites, blogs, spoke to students, read interviews, I began to realize that there were some schools which clearly resonated with my interests, and some where I truly wouldn’t be happy spending two years. Whether it was the feel of the school, the professors, the city or the work produced, I started to formulate a picture of the place and my role in its community, which to me translated into the ‘fit’ part.

    My strongest (and successful) applications ended up being those where I believed I’d be a good fit, where my portfolio and essays were in line with the school’s pedagogy. I also did (and quite stupidly) go out on a limb and apply to a couple of schools where I’d clearly be a terrible fit. Why did I do this? For one, I naively wanted to spread my net wide and was paranoid about not getting into the schools I really wanted, and I was pretty enticed by their glitzy urban locations, their prestige and their place in the rankings. Needless to say I was denied from those two schools. If the present me were to give a spot of advice to the one-year-ago me, I’d have told myself to apply more selectively, and only to those schools which I’d see myself attending. Attending a school – however ‘prestigious’ - that’s not aligned with your interests is one of the worst (not to mention very expensive) decisions you’ll ever make.

    How did you show that you fit with your admit school?

    By doing a ton of research. There’s not much information out there on schools beyond the usual website/archinect/gradcafe so you have to dig deep. I personally found that hunting for faculty interviews turned out to be a great resource and starting point. It is a window into the minds of the people who lead the school, their visions and aspirations for it, what the pedagogy leans towards. It’s a great way of finding out about elusive little aspects and what’s currently going on at the school. Are they looking at a pedagogical shift? Are they making big, impactful changes, bringing in new guys? It’ll also give you a hint as to the kind of students they’re looking to fill their classrooms with.

    Apart from that, I ended up speaking with a few students over Facebook about their experience and about exciting things that may be happening at the school. Beyond getting information, it was also a way to gauge the tone of the student body. Were they happy to be there? Were they the sort of community I’d want to be part of? If you are able to get your hands on the school’s magazine and publications, that’s a fantastic reference point as well. It’ll tell you about so many little things that may go a long way in demonstrating fit at the school.

    Basically, I tried to make a compelling argument as to why the school and its resources would be a great platform for me, specifically, in developing/challenging my ideas and taking them out there.  

    Part Two coming up soon!

  • House-hunting in New Haven

    ‘Oh, it’s just a seven minute walk to the YSOA!’In my country, you’re better off discounting about seventy percent of whatever the Realtor tells you. So ‘comes with a backyard garden’ will mean a couple of wilting flowerpots on the building stairs, the gorgeous ‘city views’...

  • Dealing with Debt

    I just got hit by my first semester invoice today. Even though I’ve gone over the calculations a hundred times in my head already, nothing really prepares you for what I call ‘THE Mail’ – the dreaded figure finally sitting in your inbox all ready to be coughed up. Up until now, even though...

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The journey of a 23 year old international student to the other side of the world and through living the dream at the YSOA. Bring it on!

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