Thinking to study architecture at uni? Q & A

Around this time of the year, I often receive questions from new first-year students who are starting their Bachelor degree in architecture. As a graduate (of the Bachelor degree, not a Master yet!), I believe I can offer a perspective on how to get the most out of the uni life. Here are my responses to frequently-asked questions.

Disclaimer: my responses are purely based on my own opinions and experiences and do not represent the view of any institutions / organisations.

Q1. I got into an architecture course but I’m not confident with my level of understanding of architecture (ie. I don’t know much about architecture). Is it for me? What should I do?

Q2. How should I choose the right university for the architecture course?

Q3. I don’t have a design background, is architecture too hard for me?

Q4. I heard that architecture course is very tough… is it true?

Q5. I have space for elective subjects / option to take double majors. What should I choose?

Q5a. What should I choose for the breadth subject slots? (unimelb only)

Q1. I got into an architecture course but I’m not confident with my level of understanding of architecture (ie. I don’t know much about architecture). Is it for me? What should I do?

A. Welcome and congrats on getting into an architecture course! (Assuming that you chose architecture course because you have some interest in it,) you don’t need to worry too much about not knowing in depth about architecture when you start Bachelor degree, because university IS the place for you to study it. Of course, knowing more will help your studies tremendously, so I’d encourage you to engage with your field of study outside of university (e.g. watch relevant films, read books, go to exhibitions & events).

In the high school, you might have been directly/indirectly pressured to choose a ‘right’ pathway into the tertiary institution. But the fact is that it is completely okay to change degrees / majors / university if you think it’s not for you. Ultimately it’s your life and you want to do something you want to do in the future. Some people I met at the university have worked as an interior designer / a primary school teacher / a nurse, studying architecture to become architects. So, if you find that architecture is not for you, that’s okay too.

Q2. How should I choose the right university for the architecture course?

A. When I was choosing the university to study architecture, I was told about different curriculums each university had. But after completing the degree, I felt that it really depends on the professors, subject coordinators and tutors who run subjects. So, what you should be focusing on is NOT what you’ll get (which is often uncontrollable), but how you respond to your learning & what you do at the university.

For example, for a design studio subject, everyone in your class/year level may be getting the same design brief. It is how you think and respond to the brief that will make your work/ uni life unique and special (ie. don’t do it just to pass the subject, think it as a chance to build your portfolio and to show your skills).

Also, at the university there may be opportunities to be involved in competitions, student associations and volunteering. You will get more out of your study through these extra-curricular activities and meet like-minded people.

So how to choose a university? Make a list of must-have qualities that you want to have in your uni life, and compare universities based on those qualities you value. For me, it was the availability of green spaces on campus and possibility of taking non-architecture related subjects. So I chose the University of Melbourne.

Q3. I don’t have a design background, is architecture too hard for me?

A. It depends on the entry requirement for your course – if it is mandatory to submit a portfolio as part of the application, you need to have works to show.

There are two aspects to this question: design background as a skill of critically think design, and as a set of technical skills to produce design.

It is not necessarily important whether you have a design background or not. Having design background will be beneficial, and will be relatively smoother starting design studios in the first year, but most of people struggle to make a transition into university study so you’re definitely not behind.

People with design backgrounds may know how they like to develop designs, and that might be something you haven’t got. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything – bring in what you have studied in other fields of study (science, history, literature, mathematics, etc) and make them shine in your design.

In terms of the technical skillset, most of people acquire CAD drawing techniques and 3D modelling skills after starting university, so don’t worry!

If you have time, I’d recommend learning Adobe suites (Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign) as university often expect you to know the basics (at Unimelb we only spent 20 minutes during a tech workshop on Adobe and that was it!). Everyone works on their designs differently, and we all try to find own design processes. So keep learning!

Q4. I heard that architecture course is very tough… is it true?

A. Architecture course is known for the long working hours, but it’s because of numerous reasons.

Firstly, it’s because design assignments don’t have black-and-white answers like mathematics or science. There’s no limit to how far we push designs (until the deadline!), so many of us tend to spend lots of time developing 3D models, drawings, making models, and putting together presentations. Of course it can be intense, but more effort you put in, the more rewarding it will be.

Secondly, it is a productivity issue. I’ve met people who never have had to stay up overnight, or people who work on their assignments only during the working hours (9am-5pm). So having an organised schedule and clear daily expectations might help you avoid a time of struggle a bit.

After all, once you start working in an architecture office (or other built environment related firms), there may be a case where you’re asked to work overtime before deadlines or during busy times. So it might be tough sometimes, but I’d say give it a go and see what you think.

Q5. I have space for elective subjects / option to take double majors. What should I choose?

A. It depends on the universities but at the University of Melbourne, you can take double majors, minor or specialisation (for selected major options) within the faculty. I personally recommend taking double majors, minor or specialisation if you can.

In my year level, there were 200+ architecture major students, and in Victoria there are five major architecture Bachelor degrees, so there are roughly 1000 graduating students having similar level of skills and knowledge competing for job opportunities. So one of the ways to make yourself stand out in the crowd is to have expertise in multiple fields.

I did double majors in Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and that was one of the best decisions I made. Understanding the relationship between buildings and public spaces / landscapes / ecology helped me with my design projects and understanding what I want to do in the future career.

I have friends who did double majors in Architecture and Construction, or a specialisation in Design Visualisation, or other combinations of studies. They chose those study paths because they liked / they were interested in, and now their specialised knowledge and understanding are appealing to the employers.

So to summarise, choose subjects you’re interested in, read subject descriptions, ask other students for feedback, and if you can, undertake double majors, minor or specialisation so that they will be formally recognised on your transcript.

Q5a. What should I choose for the breadth subject slots? (unimelb only)

A. At the University of Melbourne, you need to have ‘breadth’ subjects, the subjects from other faculties. My recommendation is to take subjects you always wanted to study, or you’re interested in.

I took Principles of Marketing, French 1, Law in Society, and School Experience as Breadth. After completing these breadth subjects, I found:

  • The psychological aspects of marketing were fun and I enjoyed the lectures but it’s not for me
  • Now I can read French a bit and it helped me undertake a volunteering program where I was cataloguing architectural postcards from France
  • The philosophical literatures by Foucault and other philosophers were quite relevant to architecture (surprisingly or not surprisingly) and made me think of how I can incorporate philosophical ideas to architectural design
  • Work experience as a tertiary student assistant in VCE Visual Communication Design classes made me realise my interest in teaching

Of course you can take breadth subjects that are likely to give you high marks, and that’s okay!

Thanks for reading such a long article, hopefully this helps someone having similar questions. Please feel free to share the article around if you know anyone having the same situation.

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