Spotlight: Architecture Degrees in the USA

Within the field of architecture there are a variety of degree offerings available to students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This article will identify the various study options, specific requirements and objectives for each, program accreditation, the importance of the studio component, and other information on the application process to architecture programs in the U.S.

This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Connections by EducationUSA, and was written by Kristina Stulic.

Architecture has become a particularly diverse field of study in the U.S., requiring a good amount of research to ensure students identify programs best matching their needs and goals. The study of architecture is concerned not only with the exterior and interior of a particular structure, but also the environment as a whole, with a recent trend of developing environmentally conscious design techniques. Across all programs, an essential component in the study of architecture is the design studio, which provides opportunities for students to learn through practical experience.

Undergraduate degree programs in architecture provide students the necessary knowledge for advanced study and practice in the field. Those interested in pursuing an undergraduate degree in architecture should begin planning in high school as many programs require a strong background in trigonometry, calculus, and physics. If deficient, many bachelor programs may require students to complete prerequisite classes in these areas during the first years of study before offering formal admission into the architecture program.

  • Bachelor of Architecture (BArch): The Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) is the traditional first degree in architecture. The BArch is normally completed in five years. The coursework is designed to fulfill the academic requirements of the professional accreditation body, which is known as the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). Generally, a NAAB accredited curriculum includes general studies, professional studies, and elective coursework. It also offers practical preparation through a design studio where students develop the skills needed to create appropriate architectural designs. Upon completion of the accredited BArch program, students must also gain appropriate internships or practical training.
  • Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies/Bachelor of Science in Architecture (BS Arch)/Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies (BA Arch): In slight contrast to the BArch degree, these alternative degree options in architecture are shorter in length; they normally can be completed in four years. However, they are generally not NAAB accredited. Frequently, they are viewed as pre-professional degrees because, in order to complete an accredited program that will lead to licensure, students are required to complete the Master of Architecture degree (MArch).

Application requirements vary by institution and by program. That said, most Bachelor of Architecture programs look for applicants with strong high school grade point averages (GPA) or class rank, appropriate prerequisite coursework, SAT section scores, TOEFL or IELTS scores, and a portfolio of their creative endeavors. The content of the portfolio needs to include an essay that talks about what has inspired the applicant to pursue the study of architecture along with an example of his or her creative work. Most programs prefer to see the design intent in a drafting sample. Portfolios are generally submitted in a bound paper format of approximately 10-20 pages. In recent years some programs have begun requiring students to upload electronic portfolios to a specific link.

Graduate degree programs in architecture offer many tracks depending on one’s previous study, current degree objectives, and area of focus or specialization. At the master’s level, there are two main degree options: Master of Architecture (MArch) and Master of Science in Architecture (MS Arch). In addition, those interested in landscape architecture may pursue a professional Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA). Graduate level study frequently includes specific focus areas such as design, building technology, design computing, architectural history, sustainable design, environmental design, landscape architecture, or historic preservation.

  • Master of Architecture (MArch): The Master of Architecture is a terminal, professional degree that normally requires a studio component. It is not intended to lead to further study at the doctoral level. Those who have not completed a professional degree in architecture or a five-year bachelor of architecture program (the BArch or its equivalent) are required to complete a three-year MArch I program. Students who hold a professional degree in architecture or have completed a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree frequently qualify to enter a two-year MArch II program. In some cases, those with advanced standing may be eligible to complete the MArch degree in one year.
  • Master of Science in Architecture (MS Architecture): The MS in Architecture is a nonprofessional, nonterminal degree that is normally completed in less than two years. It is appropriate for those looking to strengthen knowledge in a particular aspect of the field or for those interested in eventually pursuing a doctoral degree. In addition, there are a variety of other popular specialized master’s degrees, including the MS in Historic Preservation and the Master of Urban Design (MUD).
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctorate in Architecture (DArch), and Doctorate in Design (DDes): The three research architecture doctorates include the Ph.D., the DArch, and the DDes, representing the highest degrees awarded in field. The Ph.D. is designed for students interested in pursuing careers in teaching or advanced research. The Doctorate of Architecture (DArch) offers the opportunity to pursue advanced study in a particular area while also including one or two semesters of professional studio experimentation. The Doctorate of Design (DDes) is appropriate for those interested in a more practical and applied approach to architecture or pursuing advanced study and research in a particular design discipline. In most cases, the DArch and DDes are intended for those who have already mastered their professional skills in architecture.

Similar to the undergraduate process, graduate application procedures vary from school to school and the specific program to which a student is applying. Advanced MArch degree options that allow students to complete the MArch degree in less than three years will require a five-year Bachelor’s in Architecture, strong GRE General scores, especially in the verbal and analytical writing sections, TOEFL or IELTS (minimum depends on programs to which one is applying), and a strong portfolio.

The portfolio is an extremely important component of admission at the graduate level. Most programs in the U.S. require a hard bound portfolio with dimensions of 8 x 11 inches. The submitted portfolio work should demonstrate the applicant’s development and include complete projects that are relevant to the proposed study focus and/or specialization. When presenting collaborative work, the applicant’s role needs to be clearly identified. Unlike many fine arts programs in the U.S. where portfolio requirements and formats can vary dramatically, architecture applicants can generally prepare one portfolio that can be reproduced for each program to which they are applying. Frequently portfolios can be returned if the request is made in advance and the cost for postage is incurred by the applicant. It’s important to review the individual program’s portfolio requirements as many have begun to require students to submit electronic portfolios.