The personal statement / application essay

As part of your application you will be required to make a written statement pertaining to your interests, achievements and goals. There is a substantial weighting on the personal statement, though it is not as important (for lots of schools) as the portfolio. Check out portfolio tips here.

General

The personal statement, or ‘essay’ as it is sometimes known in US circles, is the chance for you to tell the school exactly what it is about you that makes you a candidate in a sea of applicants. This will require a lot of introspection, especially as architecture isn’t something that’s taught in school and has a curriculum to back it up. Generally, the PS is a give and take. The ‘take’ is to describe how suited you are for the school, and the ‘give’ is to describe how much you may be able to contribute. University is an education, but these institutions need assurances that you’re able to learn from them and give back quality work and quality inputs into their systems. They need to be excited to have you. In the UK, the PS is a UCAS form totalling around one A4 side. Some UK schools require extra personal statements specific to their architecture department, also around one A4 side. In the US, the common application system requires a bunch of shorter essays as well as a longer one. Some schools then request even more essays! But if you have one main essay body, you will be able to disseminate information to all various other essays. The US likes to hear more about your extra-curriculars than the UK does, and these generally can fit into the first section of the essay structure (see below).

Introspection

This is one of the few opportunities in your young career that you will be able to take the time to delineate your values. It’s best to see the PS as a tool for you to understand yourself better, and being able to submit it to a school is simply a bonus. If you are in a position where you’re just filling out a PS for the sake of applying to a school, then stop. Take a step back and consider yourself. Explore your values through your writing. The application can come later, and it will be significantly higher in quality once you’ve established yourself.

Structure

There is no right answer to structure, despite what your high school art or physics teacher may tell you. There is, however, a general structure that you can follow to help you dig up all your values and interests. A starting point. This may help you get your thoughts into an organised system.

  • Who are you and what are your interests?

This is the hard bit. You have to remember that the person reading your PS knows nothing about you. Before you go into detail about the history of trompe l’oeil in architecture (if that’s your thing) we need to go into the history of the author. Most of the time these people reviewing your PS just want to know what kind of person you are, what makes you tick, whether or not you’re going to be a fit for their teaching style, whether you’re willing to learn, whether you’ll fit in, etc. The great thing about this is that if you write honestly and your application is unsuccessful it at least means that you will truly know that the school was never going to be a good fit for you anyway. This paragraph requires you to open up about you, and does not necessarily need to solely be about architecture. Who are you as a person? What do you enjoy doing? Where do your values lie? What makes you tick? Do your best not to force this answer out, otherwise it may seem contrived. It’s highly unlikely that your interests from birth, and reason for your entire existence, is tethered to a deep passion for Art Deco architecture. (Also, avoid the word ‘passion’ and other cliché terms – they’ve heard them all before and they only sound insincere). It’s more likely, however, that you love making fabrics, or painting, or cycling. And it’s even more likely that you have great interests in things found a step before those things, such as escapism, or nostalgia, or storytelling…This is what we need to do here: we need to get to these base interests and build on them in the next paragraph. This is where you define the trajectory of the essay in general, and become known as ‘the one who was really into fabrics’ etc. Something memorable, specific to you. This is how you will be remembered during admissions decisions.

  • How may architecture help you achieve those purposeful interests?

This paragraph goes a step further. How are these values which comprise your identity relevant to the field of architecture? If they’re not in any way connected, then it may be time to find a different subject that aligns with your values. But it’s likely that there is a connection, because you have the ability to play with these connections and own them, such that you can mould your interests to architecture and mould architecture to your interests. In fact, it will be beneficial to your application if you can make your own definition of architecture that you’re able to defend, that is personal and intrinsically relates to you. If you’re interested in fabrics, then it’s time to talk about how those garments you made relate to all sorts of different spatial theories and archi-tectonics. Things which crop up in architecture. It’s time to explain how architecture is in fact all about how materials are stitched together, maybe! Define the interest and make a purposeful stance. Show how the study of architecture drives your values.

  • Why this specific school?

But why is any of this important? Why should a school care what your values are? You have nothing to do with them and they seem to be getting on fine without you! Now is the time to prove them wrong about that. You’re the one who is going to be comprising their alumni group. You’re the one who is going to be representing them in the summer show three or four years from now. They need to know that your values which we have just defined are specific to their facilities, their faculty, their program, their output of student work that you saw at their summer show last year. (Note, go to as many summer shows as possible). Cite their specific resources that appeal to you, and let them know your desires to contribute. It’s a give and take.

We’re happy to help you through this process. It can be daunting, but when done well it will make your entire application fall into place. It can drive your portfolio work/organisation, and give you a strong personal theme that will both help you with your outlooks and in the interview itself. These opportunities to introspectively reflect don’t come often enough, yet are extremely rewarding.

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