Is Architecure School Worth It?

By Jon Henning •  Updated: 03/24/22 •  10 min read

If you’re here, you’ve probably already skimmed through a few of the web’s top hits when you plugged this question into the ol’ Googler: “Is architecture school worth it?”

If your search yielded similar results to mine, you probably read a handful of pessimistic responses to that question… and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably also heard stories that talk about how difficult architecture school is…

Sleepless nights… not having time for a social life… getting paid a mediocre salary when you start your first job… and I’m sure you’ve heard many of the other stigmas that surround the profession.

But before you get lost in the spiral a negativity — read this.

In this article, I’m going to tell you about my own story of pursuing my Bachelor of Architecture. I’ll talk about what it took to graduate near the top of my class, and how that lead to starting my career at the largest architecture firm in the world. I don’t want to come off as boastful, but I hope my story will resonate with you in some way — or at least shed a more personal light on some of the “big picture” reasons for choosing to go to architecture school.

An Optimistic Outlook

I’ll be up front with you and let you know that this post is not going to be one of those wet-blanket reads that endlessly shits on the profession. If you’re looking for positive motivation about making your decision to pursue architecture, you landed on the right page.

I want to share my perspective as a 2021 Bachelor of Architecture graduate.

In 2021, I started my professional career in architecture working for the largest commercial architecture firm in the world — and I love what I do. I’m going to address the question as a response to myself, 5 years ago when I was trying to make the decision to pursue architecture. I’m going to be as transparent as I can be, but know up front that my perspective is ultimately an optimistic one.

Making the Choice to Pursue Architecture

Let’s start with some statistics. These are numbers from a website called Successful Archi Student, which is a “platform for architecture students to help them become LESS THAN the 1% of students who end up being successful in the profession“:

From a sample of 25,000 students that applied to enter architecture school:

15.30% of them were accepted.

8.50% of them made it through to the second half of their education.

2.04% of them were awarded a degree in Architecture (post-graduate)

0.78% of them ended up working a job in architecture.

— Source, https://successfularchistudent.com/

Those numbers help put things into perspective… but don’t make your decision based on the numbers alone.

If you’re anything like me, your pathway to architecture may not be a traditional one.

I had a lot of cards stacked against me as a first generation college student with a virtually non-existent network, no college savings, and limited access to practicing architects in my hometown. I had no financial safety net to fall back on, and that drove a lot of my initial decision-making when it came to my pursuit of higher education. There were so many questions running through my head everyday.

Questions like:

If you’re reading this, maybe these thoughts are running through your head as well.

Hopefully my story and the resources I’ve included in the article will help you get a better idea of whether or not architecture school is worth it for you.

I spent about 2 years of researching architecture schools before I decided to pull the trigger on pursing my dream. I researched over 50 universities in the US, a variety of design programs, NCARB, AIA, licensure pathways, degree types, etc. I armed myself with the information I needed to make an informed choice.

I worked for an engineering firm for a few years before I started architecture school, and I was only 19 when I started that job. It was an incredible opportunity, but engineering just wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

Actually, I talked in-depth about this when I was a guest on the podcast, “Sorry I’m In Studio”, which you can check out here if you want to hear a more detailed version of my story: https://anchor.fm/sorry-im-in-studio/episodes/28–Jon-Henning–1500-Miles-for-Architecture-ev5j55

 

Those questions I mentioned above started flooding me every day until I couldn’t take it anymore. I was just way too curious and passionate about architecture to settle down doing something that wasn’t my dream career.

Speaking from Experience: What I’d Tell Myself in 2016

Knowing what I know now — after graduating Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from a tier-one research university in the 4th largest city in the US — here’s what I would have honestly told myself back in 2016. If your circumstances are similar to mine, here’s what I would tell you too:

To my past-self:

Regarding finances, you’re going to need to take out student loans. You might think that the $10,000 you saved up from working at the engineering firm for 3 years is going to give you a good start, but you’re going to have to spend it all within the first 6 months of school.

1st Semester Architecture Studio, 2016 — Final project of my first semester

You’re going to need to apply for as many scholarships and grants as you possibly can. In fact, these will be the sums of money that you will depend on to keep you moving forward. You don’t know this yet, but in 5 years you’re going to win over $20,000 to help pay for a part of your education and living expenses. You’re going to take on research opportunities, and you’re going to get multiple offers to be a teaching assistant. You’re going to enter design competitions — both local and national.

2nd Semester Architecture Studio, 2017 — Architectural Model

 

Know that you’re still going to owe money in student loan debt after you graduate. $54,000, in fact. Even if you pour everything you have into your education, you’re also going to have personal debts that will take many, many years to pay off. You didn’t have a financial safety net when you started college, and you certainly won’t have one when you graduate.

 

But that’s all surface level.

 

You’re going to work as a part-time research assistant for 3 years, and the experience is going to be absolutely worthwhile. You might even get the chance to have some of your photographs published in a book about an architect that deeply inspires you.

Donna Kacmar & Victor Lundy, Oct. 30, 2018 — Book Launch and Signing at MFAH
Photo Wood Detail in U.S Embassy, Sri Lanka — Photographed by Jon Henning

You’re going to learn how to present in front of people and develop strategies for public speaking. You’re going to learn to embrace criticism as something that will help improve your design process. You’ll learn how to communicate through drawing, and how to create graphics that tell a story. You’re going to realize that your professors and other students are your sounding board for ideas, and the cycle of learning is two-fold. Professors are learning from you, just as you are learning from them.

3rd Semester Final Project, Spring 2017
5th Semester Final Project, Spring 2018
7th Semester – Fall, 2019

You’ll learn to be curious, rather than intimidated when it comes to putting yourself out there. And when you put yourself out there, more and more opportunities will present themselves to you.

 

You’re going to find mentors that will help you find success in your career as an aspiring architect. You’ll meet people who will change the way you think about life. You’re going to make connections that you could have never made by staying in your hometown — in your “comfort” zone — and you’re going to work with some of the smartest and most passionate people in the industry.

 

You may even have a chance to meet some iconic architects.

Steven Holl “Tessaracts of Time” Presentation at MFAH, 2017 — (Left-to-right; Steven Holl, Nathan Bowman, Jon Henning, Elizabeth Henning)

You’re going to learn things far beyond the practicalities of design, and you’re going to build a foundation for the things you really value in your design process. You’re going to build upon skills that you already have, and you’re going to learn a ton of new ones along the way. You’re going to learn what it means to make sacrifices, but you’re going to feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment when you overcome your hardships and achieve your dreams. You’re going to make a name for yourself, and you’re going to help so many others along the way.

 

And most importantly… you’re going to take something to heart — something that will light a spark in you that will burn for the rest of your life if you keep fueling it.

 

When you go after your dreams — no matter if you fail or succeed, you will learn from your own process. You will learn how to learn. You will embrace failure as an opportunity to grow. You will learn to roll with the punches, and you’ll do whatever it takes to become the best version of yourself.

Gensler Houston Office, 2021 — Starting my Professional Career in Architecture!

Design education is one of the most well-rounded curriculums that could be offered by any college or university. Program focuses will vary according to the university you attend… but in general, architecture school will provide a canvas to challenge you and help you become better at your craft.

Remember: Your education is what you make of it. If you approach your decision to pursue architecture with a “glass-half-empty” mindset — that is, a pessimistic one — there’s a chance that it will manifest into a bad experience. Rather than being intimidated, be curious. Be eager to learn, excited to be challenged, and pour your heart into your education.

The only wrong choice you can make is by not making a choice at all, or worse, allowing somebody else to make the choice for you. Keep weighing your options, see what works best for your goals, and go after it.

Is Architecure School Worth It?

So to answer the question — yes, architecture school is definitely worth it. I am lucky to have the privilege of being able to make my own choice for my education, but the sacrifices that I had to make along the way helped create the foundation of a career that will fulfill me for the rest of my life.

I want you to have that positive experience too.

I will be sharing more personal stories of my experience in the design process, as well as tools and tips that will help us both become better designers. If you haven’t already, check out my YouTube channel where I will be uploading content regularly: https://www.youtube.com/rascoh

I’d like to share some books with you that were vital in helping me make my decision to pursue architecture:

    Lastly, please feel free leave a comment below to help start the conversation. Let me know what concerns you have with pursuing architecture school. I’d love to connect and become a part of your journey!

    Jon Henning

    Hi, I'm Jon. I have over 10 years of combined experience in various design fields revolving around architecture, engineering, and technology research. I'm passionate about teaching and writing about cutting edge technology for designers.

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