The architecture school application portfolio

architecture-school-portfolio (3)

Image by RNDRD, Morphosis. GA Houses. 9 1981, 158

Perhaps you’re wondering, do I need a portfolio for architecture school? How long should an architecture portfolio be? How do I make a portfolio with no experience?

We have some answers for you. Making a portfolio is a different experience for everyone, but there are some guides to stick to for a successful application.

The most significant component of architecture school, the studio component, is broken down into two main factions. The first is the work you do (project content), and the second is how that work is made legible to other people (the portfolio). If you take anything from this post, please let it be this: don’t fall into the trap of making a graphically intense portfolio with lacking content. If in doubt, focus on project content. Admissions panelists can sniff out a lack of project content. You may see portfolios full of superficial diagrams, lots of page number graphics, lots of random lines bordering the pages, lots of ‘graphic design’, pages jam-packed with a million drawings/visuals, totally plastered in text. This is a lack of content. While this may look like the applicant knows what they’re doing, it usually means the contrary. The portfolio should simply be a conduit there to take your original and interesting work from its raw state to a legible state. If the portfolio itself is more intense than the project content itself then there’s a problem. If your portfolio has lots of text in it, see this post.

The architecture school portfolio is designed for you to develop your work content and, in a legible, relevant and clear way represent that work to other people. It is a coherent collection of 2D and 3D work that describes your projects.

‘Representation’ is a method of making your design intentions clear. For example, an orthographic plan or section drawing is a form of design representation. As is a model, a film, etc. The best forms of design representation utilise the most relevant mediums and make those mediums work hard for the content. See this website, RDNRD, for some examples of precise design representation: These representations are then collated as a portfolio.

Historians have their wordy essays, mathematicians have their mathematical symbols, and architects have their portfolios. While the content and representation of each portfolio is different, there is a guideline to follow for admissions portfolios:


1. Theme

You don’t absolutely need to have a theme, but it really helps. Sadly, admissions panelists are not going to remember your name after you leave the interview/submit your portfolio. Maybe they will because you’re just such an intriguing applicant! But probably not simply because they see hundreds of applicants per week. They will remember you as ‘the one that was obsessed with their shoes’ (if your general portfolio theme is about shoes). This theme can speak to themes in your personal statement/essay to make a holistically coherent application. Within this theme are your individual projects, which loosely tie back to this overall theme. Make sure it’s loose though, otherwise you’ll restrict yourself.

2. Architecturalness…

You’ve been asked to, in a way, do the undoable. They don’t teach architecture in school; your physics teachers seem to think you should be focusing on learning about structural engineering and your art teachers are perhaps a bit too vague. You’ve been asked to:

  • Collate your work and
  • Create something that holds it all together, though
  • Make sure it doesn’t include tons of work on standard architectural practice, whilst
  • Making sure it is inherently architectural

It seems strange to make a portfolio architectural yet make sure it isn’t full of ‘architecture’. This is, actually, a very understandable requirement that schools are setting. It essentially means that your work should exhibit the spatial, material, textural, representational etc. traits of architecture without prescribing to preconceived notions of what you think architecture is by just drawing a building. Any project that has nothing to do with ‘a building’ can exhibit these traits, and that’s what they want to see. No preconceived notions. As an architecture student you’ll do loads of projects that aren’t designing ‘buildings’ but will be as (if not more) architectural than buildings.


A. Don’t make a portfolio system that you don’t believe in.

Try to work in a way that captures your interest to bring out the best in you. Some people make the most elaborate portfolios that take up the majority of their time, reducing the amount of design/project content they can achieve. Some people do the inverse and simply box up their work after they’ve finished designing and call it a day. Some people make an even split. Your portfolio will be far richer if you enjoy the system you employ. While there should be some sort of moderate balance between these two factions, it’s important that you make a portfolio system you believe in. In the long run your productivity will increase.

B. Problems with words

Understanding that the language you will be using is a visual one is vital. This is a chance for you to prove that you can communicate work visually without words (or too many words) with 2D and 3D work; a vital skill to exhibit. You may not be good at it right now, but at least let the admissions officer know that you’re trying and willing to learn by showing these signs. People on the admissions panel are probably not going to read your words (or most of them). It’s a well-known nonsense fact in architecture that people just add a few bits of text to pages to make work seem more legitimate and give a scale to drawings/photos. That’s fine, but don’t overdo it. The interview you will bring your portfolio to is only 5-20mins long and that time is taken up with flicking through the visual work itself and talking about it verbally. If you submit a portfolio but are not required to go to interview, they may read 30% of your text but certainly no more than that. These guys have to go through hundreds/thousands of portfolios. They won’t read it. They read and process visual work exponentially faster, so they will focus on that. Make sure that the text is to a minimum and describes the basic premise of your work. For example, a sentence or two describing each page, a few key words as titles or diagram descriptions if you have any. If you find yourself writing and writing; stop. Develop your visual work instead. The language of visuals is a far more complex and sophisticated one.

C. Size/format

When applying for a job in architecture it’s not uncommon for the employer to ask for a sample of work (portfolio) no greater than 2mb in pdf format. That is a shockingly small amount of data, and unless you’re an absolute whizz at compression on Acrobat you won’t be able to submit more than a 9 or 10 A4 pages. However, school is a bit different. You will find that your e-portfolio submissions for schools such as SCI-Arc will be subject to mb caps, but they will be higher.

The basic format for any school admission portfolio is around 20 pages containing around 4 projects. Make sure you believe in these projects as they’re the ones you’ll be working on. Make sure they include a section on life drawing of some sort or another. Admissions look at these to gauge your skills in straight-up drawing. It’s hard to hide when it comes to life drawing. Also, they will know if you were copying a photo or if you drew from life! Draw from life!

If you’re going to interview with your portfolio you have the freedom to make your physical page sizes larger, though the number of pages should still not exceed around 20. At many top schools, in the first/freshman year, they will ask you to collate your work into A1 portfolio pages and have your original drawings, 2D work and photos physically stuck down on those pages. Therefore, showing up at interview with an A1 portfolio of original work is a good way of going about it, if you’re able to easily get your A1 portfolio to the interview location. If you’re unable, then a minimum size of A3+ would be ideal. For eportfolios, A3 is a good size as it will force your words to appear smaller for a font size of around 9pt. We don’t want your words to be overpowering.

See this channel for Bartlett UCL BSc Architecture Year 1 students going through their Year 1 A1 portfolios: Notice how they aren’t cluttered. They’re super clear. They’re also designed to be easy to talk through, per page. Also notice that they’re loose sheets. This makes it easier to easy reshuffle work if necessary and allows admissions to take a sheet and look at it in more detail. It will also travel better as the binding won’t destroy the pages.

D. Per project

20 pages with around 4 projects is around 5 pages per project. For clarity and ease of conversation at interview (or between admissions panelists if you don’t need to interview) the first page of each project should describe some sort of brief/intention. It should sum up the starting point and theme of the project itself. There should be one or two show-stopper pages per project which simply contain one amazing drawing or one amazing model photo (for example) at full bleed or nearly full bleed. This establishes a hierarchy of content to the portfolio. The project does not need to have an ‘end’, it can simply contain work of a certain quality that allows a conversation to appear. The phrase ‘quality over quantity’ cannot be emphasised enough. Do not fill your portfolio with endless amounts of work, instead…

E. Say no to work

In an effort to make quality work and not work of quantity, be ruthless with yourself and don’t include those other pieces of work that took 10 hours to make but aren’t actually that interesting. Don’t put them in, and your portfolio will be clearer. This will save you time at the interview as there will be far fewer tangents.

These are just a few pointers. An objective overview. However, portfolios are personal to the designer/maker/individual and while following these tips will help, they are only a framework. The applicant’s work itself, and how that work interacts with this framework, is what makes the difference. This is where the value of consultation lies. See our courses.

4 Replies to “The architecture school application portfolio”

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