Pre-architecture advising at Vanderbilt focuses on supporting each advisee in building a personalized plan to prepare for graduate study and careers in architecture or related design fields. Graduate programs in Architecture and related disciplines (including Landscape Architecture, Environmental Design, Urban Planning, Historic Preservation, Graphic Design, and Product Design) place high value on self-driven and curious applicants who have engaged dynamically with their undergraduate studies. Vanderbilt’s unique emphasis on individual, experimental learning, cultural enrichment, and immersion lends itself exceptionally well to fostering the types of industrious, free-thinking creators who are prized by the best graduate architecture programs and who become trail-blazers in the architecture profession.
Choice of Major
Pre-architecture advisees may major in any discipline. Degrees in economics, biology, classics, engineering, philosophy, environmental science, computer science, and other fields are respected and thoroughly applicable starting points for graduate study in architecture. Many students have found that a major or minor in Studio Art or History of Art and Architecture are especially valuable in supporting the portfolio-building process and course prerequisites. Particularly applicable to pre-architecture study is Vanderbilt’s Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE) major and minor, which allow for exceptional flexibility in the interdisciplinary study of spatial questions. While based in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, students can accrue 50% of their credit toward the major by choosing from hundreds of classes in dozens of departments around the university. More information on the ABE major and minor can be found here.
Both Vanderbilt and the directors of many architecture graduate programs encourage pre-architecture students to explore intellectual and technical questions from perspectives outside the profession so that they will be able to apply their interdisciplinary experience to the specialized questions that they will encounter in graduate school and beyond. Experience in critical thinking, visual representation, writing, and creative problem solving will strengthen an application. These can be achieved in the process of fulfilling the core requirements within each student’s respective college (AXLE in Arts and Sciences, Liberal Education Core in Peabody, Core Curriculum in Engineering). In selecting core courses, pre-architecture students should attend to their particular interests and needs, making sure both to build on strengths and to fill gaps in skill and knowledge. Students should also seek out courses that allow for investigative projects that can be appropriated to their portfolios (see below ).
Different Master of Architecture (MArch) programs uphold different prerequisites, but nearly all maintain the same spirit and general categories, requiring 1) one or two courses in mathematics and the sciences, and 2) one or two courses in history of architecture. In mathematics and the sciences, schools commonly require a course in calculus, in physics, or both. Some schools are less specific in these STEM requirements; some are more particular. In history of architecture, some schools require one or two courses of any topic within the discipline; other schools require one or two surveys that focus specifically on modern or pre-modern architecture. Prior to your senior year, research the schools that interest you and identify their specific requirements. While most programs permit students to complete some outstanding requirements as late as the summer before the MArch program begins, the strongest applications will have completed rigorous versions of the required courses (e.g., physics for engineering majors rather than physics for non-science majors) at the time of application. These prerequisite courses serve the applicant in two ways: they demonstrate a competence across the multiple skill-sets required of architects, and they provide the foundations for the advanced and more narrowly-focused coursework that will be undertaken in the MArch program.
Note that a few schools also explicitly require one or two courses in the humanities; these are typically of the kind that any Vanderbilt student will have taken as part of their core requirements. A few schools also require a studio-arts course in graphic representation or architectural design; most students will have taken such a course in the process of developing a portfolio.
For additional support in selecting courses that will support your applications for and study in a Master of Architecture program, speak with your pre-architecture advisor.
Master of Architecture (MArch) Program Applications
MArch Application: Personal Statement
Whereas application essays for undergraduate study tend to focus on the general character of the applicant, the strongest architecture school application essays articulate the applicant’s relationship with architecture. In what direction might you eventually take your architecture practice? Why? What excites you about today’s architecture? How would you design differently? Have you had an experience that prompts your particular interests in the field? Are you motivated by a specific conviction—social, political, personal, philosophical—that you expect to drive your architecture practice? Do you have a particular skill or fascination that you expect to use as an architect—maybe facility with complex geometries, or interpersonal abilities, or graphic representation? These are some of the questions you might explore in your statement. Do not use your essay to list your qualifications or your extracurriculars. Also, avoid stories about playing with blocks or legos as a child; the topic is hackneyed.
Most students build one essay and adapt it to the particulars of the various schools to which they are applying. The best personal statements do this attentively: rather than simply leaving space at the end of the essay in order to mention the names of a few famous professors at that school, articulate instead why, really, you would like to study at this particular school, integrating this with the substance of your essay wherever possible. This requires getting to know each program well and can improve not only your personal statement but also your own process of selecting a school and your understanding of the profession.
Most importantly, give yourself a buffer in writing your essay, both temporal and psychological. Begin writing months before applications are due. Have others read your essay early and often, and discuss it with people you trust and who know you—including, but not only, your pre-architecture advisor. Most applicants start writing their essays as an effort to fool a school into accepting them. Surprisingly often, a rigorous, well-paced writing process leads to genuine reflection on career, education, and fulfillment, and the resulting essay is self-evidently honest and considerably more compelling than the initial effort.
MArch Application: Letters of Recommendation
Most MArch applications require one or two letters of recommendation. Request these early—at least a month before your application is due. Choose recommenders who know you and who can speak specifically to your abilities in and potential for the study and practice of architecture. This means building relationships throughout your time in college, finding mentors, supervisors, professors, etc., who will remember you and have seen your best work.
Keep in mind that writing a letter of recommendation is a substantial task for the recommender, often taking hours of effort and days of reflection. Out of respect for the professor’s time and in order to receive a strong letter, you should make the process as easy for the recommender as possible. Ask politely and early, and be sure to make your request in a flexible way. You might ask, “Would you feel comfortable writing a letter recommending me for…?” This allows the potential recommender a judicious way out if, for whatever reason, she expects that her letter would not be beneficial to you. Read the response attentively, and never coerce a person into writing a recommendation letter. You may be asked to collect all the work you have done for that person—coursework, designs, etc.; do so promptly and deliver it in an organized way. If possible, send your recommenders a draft of your personal statement; this will allow them to present you along the same lines that you are presenting yourself. After the application process is complete, follow up. Send a hand-written thank you note, and let the recommender know whether you were accepted.
MArch Application: GREs and Transcripts
Standardized tests and grades matter when applying to MArch programs, but rarely as much as Vanderbilt students expect. This is not undergraduate admissions: most MArch admissions committees use this data to confirm that a student is capable, responsible, and diligent. Few if any insist on the highest numbers from everyone it admits. Therefore: keep your grades strong and study for the GRE, but don’t despair over a low score, and do not give up on a school you are interested in because of imperfect numbers. If your record has outstanding inconsistencies for some particular reason—such as a weak semester because of a personal loss or illness—consider asking a mentor or administrator to include a note with your application that explains the inconsistency.
A portfolio is a presentation of your creative and critical work, represented in mostly graphic form. Every major MArch program requires a portfolio as part of its application process, and most allot the highest importance to this portion of the application.
The portfolio itself is a major design project. Students should allot, at minimum, a full semester to design and repeatedly, thoroughly revise their portfolios. Preferably, a portfolio is a multi-year project, with the pre-architecture student designing a working portfolio in freshman or sophomore year, then continuously adding projects to the portfolio while also periodically revising or fully redesigning the portfolio itself across subsequent semesters. A portfolio is not simply a series of images of one’s work. To the contrary, its design, sequencing, grouping, omissions, and textual explanations should serve to articulate an image of oneself as a designer. This concept may seem abstract, even naïve, to the uninitiated, but, as with most tasks in professional architecture, the laborious process of creating a portfolio gives its creator new eyes to see and understand both one’s own and others’ designs. The pre-architecture advisors are available to regularly meet with advisees as part of the process of developing their portfolios. Such iterative critiques from faculty resemble the design process in architecture schools and professional practice, and they inevitably result in much stronger portfolios.
Portfolio: logistics, conventions, character
Most MArch programs require that the portfolio be submitted as a single pdf file about 30 pages long. It is best created using a desktop publishing application such as Adobe inDesign. A good place to begin thinking about portfolios is to page through a variety of examples, collections of which are linked below. Keep in mind that most of the below examples are the result of years of work by experienced designers. No one will expect an MArch applicant’s portfolio to be so elaborate or expert; approach these as aspirational models, and as troves of ideas.
Portfolio: What to include?
A portfolio used in applying to architecture school need not contain all, or any, architecture, per se. There are a variety of ways to present one’s existing skills, interests, and aptitude for studying architecture. Indeed, often the most appealing applicants present little or no architecture among their creative and critical work. MArch application portfolios usually present a combination of projects undertaken as coursework (often revised after the completion of the course) and those undertaken independently. As you choose classes, consider what courses might allow you to create a portfolio-ready project; as you choose your project within the class do the same; and as you work on that project, continuously reflect on how your work at that moment might best be presented in a graphic portfolio. This might mean creatively diagramming your market-research findings, or producing an exceptionally legible map of a poll you conducted, or graphically rendering a 3-D mathematical concept you are investigating. Some examples of non-architecture projects ideal for a portfolio—all completed as recent coursework at Vanderbilt—include:
- A GIS analysis of past and predicted flash-flooding in Nashville
- A brand-identity package for an upcycling startup
- A hypothetical 3D reconstruction of lost details from the pediment of the Parthenon
- A campus advertisement imitating the appearance of Soviet socialist-realist propaganda posters
- An exhibition design presenting the original design of a recently-renovated Vanderbilt building
- A design for a student backpack
- A coded map of trees on Vanderbilt’s campus, paired with an analysis of campus shade coverage and its environmental impacts
- An imagined ancient Greek monument, informed by the historical study of ancient practices of memorialization
- Logos for Vanderbilt research laboratories, imitating the approaches of historical designers
- A hypothetical renovation of a local park
- 3D-printed inkpad stamps depicting new designs for personal and family crests
- A 3D-printed children’s puzzle
- A lampshade created out of lasercut plexiglass
- A small robot that navigates using a custom algorithm
- A virtual-reality environment presenting the history of gender-equality in the US
- A series of woodcut prints
- wheel-thrown pottery in a variety of firing techniques
- Fragile archaeological objects modeled photogrammetrically then 3D printed for an exhibition, allowing museum visitors to handle the objects
For a list of Vanderbilt courses related to the study and practice of architecture, consult the extensive course listings for the Architecture and the Built Environment major .
Architecture Design Studios
The Department of Art offers a variety of art studios that can produce rich material for an MArch applicant's portfolio (see below). Vanderbilt does not, however, currently offer dedicated architecture design studio courses. Thus, in addition to coursework and independent projects, summer study in one of the many career exploration programs offered across the US and around the world will help students produce material for a portfolio and will also expose the student to architecture studio culture and the types of work done in an MArch program. Here is a selection of programs:
Resources at Vanderbilt
Some resources at Vanderbilt for producing portfolio-appropriate work in and out of class include the following:
The Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s ‘innovation center’ is the university’s prime space for creative design. Open to all Vanderbilt students and located in the Engineering and Science Building, the Wond’ry includes a makerspace with tools for both digital and manual fabrication (3D printers, laser cutter, CNC mill, vacuum former, fiber-arts and circuitry tools, and much more), a computer lab with rare and expensive software, and entrepreneurship resources from meeting spaces to skills seminars.
The Curb Center
The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy supports scholarship, arts projects, and programming often relevant to the interests of pre-architecture students. Among the center’s initiatives are:
Visual Resources Center
The Visual Resources Center (VRC) offers extensive resources for 3D modeling and photogrammetry, virtual reality production and consumption, and digital humanities. These include ArcGIS, data visualization and digital publishing software, and apps for designing graphic, 3D, and virtual reality products (including Adobe Suite, Sketchfab, MeshLab, Cloudcompare, and Unity). These are supported by appropriately powerful desktop computers. Hardware available includes an Alienware desktop computer, VR headsets, a Nikon DSLR camera, and an 11” x 17” flatbed scanner.
The Vanderbilt Department of Art offers an abundance of courses and resources for creative practice. These include courses in drawing, photography, installation art, ceramics, sculpture, conceptual art, film, and much more. Practically any course undertaken within the department can result in portfolio-ready material.