How to Become an Architect

Getting an Architecture Degree

We often think of architects as artists, but they are so much more. While a great deal of their focus is on the way buildings and other structures look, they are just as concerned with their function and safety. In designing structures, they must also be attentive to the needs of the people who will use them and the projects' budgets.

You will acquire all the technical skills you need to work in this field through your education and training, but without certain characteristics, called soft skills, it will be almost impossible to succeed. Creativity is necessary. It will allow you to come up with new ideas. You must also have the ability to visualize how a structure will look once it is built or after changes are made to it.  Good listening, problem solving, and critical thinking skills are imperative. 

Before you move ahead with your education, honestly assess whether you possess these traits. Ask yourself the following questions: Are you creative? Do you easily understand what others say to you? Can you find alternative solutions to problems, evaluate them, and then implement the most appropriate one?

While architects aren't expected to be fine artists, they should have some background in design. If you are still in high school and aspire to study architecture in college, it is a good idea to take at least a couple of semesters of studio art classes before you graduate. In addition, you should also take trigonometry, geometry, and physics courses.

What Degree Will You Need?

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To work as an architect almost anywhere in the United States, you will have to earn a professional degree from a program that has received accreditation from the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). These professional degrees include the Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) and Master of Architecture (M.Arch.) degrees. Which one you need depends on your educational background.

  • B.Arch.: If you don't have a bachelor's degree yet, you can go to college to earn a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Students who have studied for five years at an accredited architectural school are awarded this degree. In addition to taking classes to fulfill general education or core requirements, for example, math, social science, science, and humanities, you will take classes in architecture.
  • M.Arch. For Students With a Non-Architecture Bachelor's Degree: If you have an undergraduate degree in another subject, you don't have to get a bachelor's degree in architecture. You can instead earn a Master's degree in Architecture. Since you haven't already taken courses in this discipline, it will take about three to four years to complete your degree.
  • M.Arch. For Students With a Pre-Professional Bachelor's Degree: If you have a pre-professional degree, for example, a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), in architecture or architectural history, you can apply to M.Arch. programs to get your professional education. Since you already have taken some of the basic coursework in college, you will earn your M.Arch. in about two years. This type of program is commonly referred to as a four-plus-two program (four years to earn a bachelor's degree plus two years to get an M.Arch.).

While actual coursework varies by school, professional architecture coursework may include the following:

  • Architectural Design
  • Environmental Systems
  • History of Architecture
  • Building Science and Technology
  • Calculus for Architecture
  • Visualization

After you complete your professional program and perhaps get some experience as well, you may decide to take your education even further. You can enroll in post-professional masters or doctoral degree programs for highly specialized study in areas not covered in professional programs. Examples of these areas are ecology, urban studies, and applied research. Post-professional degrees are not required nor are they NAAB-accredited.

Getting Into a Professional Architecture Program

Architecture students brainstorming at building model in classroom
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If you are applying to undergraduate professional architecture programs you will go through a process that is the same as what you would go through before you can be admitted to any other undergraduate degree program. You will have to submit SAT or ACT scores, high school transcripts, and teacher recommendations. The only difference is that you might have to also submit a portfolio with your application. Not all schools require it, but many do.

When applying to master's degree programs, in addition to following the requirements of the college of architecture you want to attend, you will typically have to follow the general graduate school admissions requirements for the university. This includes submitting an undergraduate transcript, GRE scores, and letters of reference which can be from professors or employers. Many schools will also ask for an essay that explains why you want to enroll. Some schools call this a statement of purpose or a letter of aspiration. It is very likely that the school will ask you to submit a portfolio as well.

If you have a pre-professional undergraduate degree, for example, a B.S. or B.A. in architecture, you will probably be asked to include material that represents your college coursework. If your degree is in a discipline other than architecture, your portfolio will have to demonstrate your interest in architecture or an aptitude for design.

What You Must Do After You Graduate from a Professional Architecture Program

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Whichever route you take to earn your professional degree——either a B.Arch. or M.Arch.——you will have to get licensed by the architectural review board in the jurisdiction in which you want to practice. Jurisdictions include all states in the U.S., the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The architectural review boards are all members of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), an organization that, according to their website, is "responsible for establishing, interpreting, and enforcing national standards for architectural licensure."

In addition to your education, all jurisdictions will require you to get practical experience before they issue a license. Most mandate that graduates of accredited architectural programs complete the NCARB-administered Architectural Experience Program (AXP). You will work under the supervision of licensed architects for a period established by the individual architectural registration board. You can find more specific information in the Architectural Experience Program Guidelines.

To get licensed, you must also pass a test called the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE). The ARE, which is made up of seven divisions, is used by all 54 U.S. architectural registration boards as well as by all Canadian registration boards.

Architects can also become NCARB certified. Although this certification is not mandatory, it could, according to the organization, facilitate your ability to be registered in multiple jurisdictions. You can apply for this certification after completing the Architectural Experience Program, passing all divisions of the ARE, and getting licensed by a state registration board.

Many jurisdictions' registration boards also require that one participate in continuing education. They will renew licenses only for those who provide evidence that they have completed this requirement.

Getting Your First Job as a Licensed Architect

Architect at work
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Armed with your degree, practical experience, and license, you will be able to apply for professional jobs. Prospective employers will be looking for candidates who have certain qualities in addition to their technical skills. The following qualifications are from job announcements found in various sources:

  • "Advanced knowledge of project design and construction documentation and construction materials."
  • "Intermediate computer and software skills to include the use of word processing and email as well as the intermediate use of spreadsheets."
  • "Excellent written and oral communication skills."
  • "Must possess strong time management and organizational skills with the ability to manage several projects concurrently."
  • "Ability to successfully manage the internal staff."