As a Masters of Architecture student, I am often shocked by the misconceptions people have about the how the architectural profession works. Becoming an architect means getting a Masters degree in the field, spending years working in various capacities in a firm and then taking a series of licensing exams. Maintaining that license also takes work – attending conventions and seminars and staying up-to-date on issues in the field. When people learn that becoming an architect can be as difficult and time-consuming as becoming a doctor or lawyer, many shy away from the field. That said, if you are considering a career in architecture, there are two basic paths you can take (though these converge in graduate school):
Fast Option: you can immediately pursue a Bachelors of Architecture degree. However, this degree counts for little in the field – it will almost certainly not get you a job doing serious design work, and is not sufficient for taking the licensing exam and becoming a practicing architect. It does, however, allow you to save a year of education (and thus a year of tuition spending) over people who select the slower option. With this degree in hand, and a portfolio of your design work accumulated over your academic career, you can apply to 2 to 2.5 year long Masters of Architecture programs.
Slow Option: you can pursue a 4-year liberal arts or other degree, and take certain basic prerequisites (usually in art history, art, math and basic physics). With this degree, and with a design portfolio you can apply to 3 to 3.5 year long Masters of Architecture programs. A portfolio for people taking this option need not necessarily contain architectural design projects. Instead, a portfolio could feature photography, drawings, furniture and other art and design work. Surprisingly, this second option – though it adds a year of study – is becoming increasingly popular. Many Masters programs, in fact, now look for more for students with a diverse (liberal arts) backgroun in order to bring in a mixed population with varied life and educational experiences. Essentially, the first year of education if you select this option is an intensive set of catch-up courses designed to allow a smooth transition into your second year, when you will be mixed with 2 to 2.5 year students with Bachelors of Architecture degrees.
Grades and Scores: In either of the above options, GRE scores and grades are, of course, required components of your application. However, in most cases, by far the most weight is placed on your design portfolio. So, if you pursue the first option be sure to spend significant time and energy on the finished and final drawings and models for your architectural projects. If you pursue the second option, be sure to take enough art courses to demonstrate your visual acuity and graphic sensibilities.
Portfolio: most architecture schools keep examples of nicer student portfolios on file from previous accepted applicants. Looking at these and learning from them can easily make the difference between creating a successful and engaging versus a dull and drab portfolio. Many accomplished and dedicated students are rejected multiple years in a row because of inferior portfolios before being accepted to programs, despite good test scores and grades!
Licensing: Once you have your degree, you will be required to work in a firm in various capacities (from site research to design and drafting) before taking a state licensing exam. While the requirements vary from state to state, virtually all states demand a certain number of hours in a number of different areas of the profession. You should find out early what these requirements are if you want to get your license more quickly, and work with your employer to fulfill these requirements. The licensing exam itself is rather mundane, focusing on the fundamentals rather than on design. In fact, a common pitfall people encounter when taking it for the first time is over-designing. In other words, some people spend too much time trying to draw a building (there is a section in which you do this) that is aesthetically and visually coherent, rather than just making sure the fire exits, heating ducts and other essentials are in the right place. The grading committees who judge these tests are only interested in your knowledge of building codes and other basics, not in your creative skill as a designer!
Exceptions: It should be noted that a surprising number of people who self-identify as ‘architects’ technically aren’t – because they never get their licenses. How can they get away with this? Essentially, as long as at least one person in a firm is a licensed architect, that person can sign off on the drawings of everyone else working in the firm for legal purposes. I, for example, worked in a firm with eight ‘designers’ (calling them ‘architects’ would be legally misleading) of whom only one had an actual architectural license! This firm included two principle designers who had each worked in the field for more than twenty years. So, while a license can help you get a pay raise or start your own firm, it is not an absolute necessity for practicing architecture (using that term more loosely).