A Field Guide: How to Survive Your First Year in Architecture School

Hello and welcome back to¬†PROP.architecture! With the first week of the fall semester now a part of the past, I can’t help but reminisce on my very first semester here at OU: the complete culture shock, the overwhelming feeling of “so much to do, so little time to do it” that I already had after my first two days of studio.

(If you’re reading this and not an architecture student, I know what you’re thinking: “this doesn’t apply to me, I’m not reading this”. While a lot of the items in this field guide are architecture specific, there are some suggestions that apply to every first-time student that you could find helpful. So don’t give up on me just yet.)

Looking back, I wish I would’ve had a guide; something that would have reassured me that everything was going to be alright as long as I followed “these simple steps”. While it is admittedly unlikely that there is any all-encompassing formula that, if applied to the architecture curriculum, would allow any student to make it through any year level- let alone the first year, which we all know is meant to be the toughest in order to eliminate those not really committed- with ease.

Take it from someone who has been there. Architecture school is hard. So if you’re a first year architecture student (or even beginning your first year of college in general), this is what you have been looking for, A Field Guide: How to Surviving Your First Year in Architecture School.

1. Get in the Right Mindset.

The most overlooked, but perhaps the most important advice I could offer, is to get yourself in the right mindset. College is different than high school. I know you’ve heard it before, but if you’re like me (and I can almost guarantee you are) you ignored everyone’s forewarning on the basis that you made it through high school without studying, without really applying yourself. If that’s you, let me be the first to burst your bubble.

College is hard. It’s a whole different ball game when you don’t have mom or dad bugging you to do your math homework or English paper that’s due at the end of the week. In college, you are your own mom and dad. You decide how much time you spend on studying, and how much time you spend watching Netflix. Recognizing this truth on your own before you’re completely drowning in responsibilities is perhaps the most important way to begin your college career.

Here are some ways to organize your time and get in the right mindset, before it’s too late:

  1. Get a planner.
    • I’ll be honest, I’ve never been able to stick to any planner I’ve ever attempted to use, but that’s just not how I operate. Planners are a great way to regiment your time and discipline yourself to spend the appropriate amount of time on all of your school work. They also help with planning ahead so you’re not surprised by any upcoming deadlines or due dates.
    • Most of the time, your university bookstore has a plethora of planner options you can choose from, but if you’re not into being basic, I’ve found Moleskin planners to be extremely detailed and helpful. They also allow you to customize many parts of the planner so you can personalize it to your needs.
  2. Actually read the syllabus.
    • Every professor is going to handout a syllabus the first day of class. In high school, you might’ve gotten something like it when classes began, but a college syllabus is much different.
    • The syllabus for a college course is like its bible. Knowing what the syllabus says about the course and the assignments is a great way to familiarize yourself with the class so you’re aware of how the professor is going to teach the material, which definitely varies by professor.
  3. “Just do it.”
    • Don’t procrastinate.
    • Trust me.

2. Go to Class.

This suggestion also seems like a no-brainer. “Of course I’m gonna go to class, that’s why I’m here.” This is where being in the right mindset will help you immensely.

You aren’t really aware of the freedom that comes with being in college until you wake up at 9:00 for your 9:30 class and realize your mom isn’t there yelling at you to get your butt out of bed because you’re going to be late. Your bed is so comfortable, and the walk to your class is so far… and this is the only one you’re going to miss, for sure.

Yeah, right.

In high school, your teachers might have worked with you whenever you missed a day: helped you after or before school, sent work home for you, things like that. In college, the professors don’t care if you missed a day. You’re a grown up now, so it’s not their job to hold your hand.

3. Be Social.

It’s important to understand that the people in your studio are the people that you are going to be with every single day for the next five years. I’ve made many great friendships in my studio, and I am constantly using them for design critiques or software questions.

Not only are they your classmates while your in school, but when you all graduate and enter the profession, they will be your colleagues. You never know when you’ll be interested in a firm, and it just-so-happens that one of your studiomates is a Partner.

Studio relationships are important, but I’ve found it is also important to get involved on campus. I made the decision to join a fraternity my freshman year, and I have no doubt the friends I made within my fraternity will be the friends my future wife and I will be having dinner with when we are old and grey.

By no means am I saying that joining a fraternity or sorority is the only option to find friends outside of studio, but I definitely believe having a life outside of studio is one of the keys to your survival for your time in architecture school.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions.

This is another piece of advice that you’ll no doubt hear often.

“You won’t know unless you ask.”

“There are no dumb questions.”

I’ve heard it all, and like you, I discounted much of what I heard.

I am here to tell you that it is all true.

There is no shame in asking questions. I know it is difficult to put yourself out there and be vulnerable to possible embarrassment (something I still struggle with even today), but I’ve learned that the professors are ultimately there to help you. But they will only help you if you show them that you need (and want) the help.

My summer in an architecture firm did nothing be reaffirm my stance on asking questions. Everyone around you has something for you to learn, so why not take advantage of that?

5. Essential Tools.

Here are some of the things I have found that I really can’t go a day without in architecture school, along with a handy link to purchase each on Amazon.


  • Francis Ching – Architecture: Form Space and Order
    • No doubt this book will be a required text for any design class you are going to take. Ching beautifully illustrates the intricacies and subtleties of nearly every design principle architects and designers use everyday. I’ve found it to be a great reference for when I need to get back to the basics of design – an essential part of any designer’s library.
  • Francis Ching – Building Construction Illustrated
    • Also likely to be a required text for many of your courses, this book does just as the title suggests. Ching’s graphics beautifully represent many of the common construction types and practices. This book is also a great reference for common ergonomic dimensions that are very handy for every architect.
  • Francis Ching – Design Drawing
    • Completing the “Ching Architecture Trilogy” this book serves as an ideabook for when you are stuck in the design phase and need a new approach. Ching presents not only drawing techniques, but graphic and design standards that will help you in every aspect of design.
  • Bjarke Ingels – Yes Is More
    • This book may not be a part of the required text lists, but it is one of my personal favorites. I am known in my studio for being somewhat of a Bjarke Ingels fanatic, but after you read this book you will understand why. An “archicomic” that beatifully illustrates the desgin process of BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, no doubt one of the most popular firms in the profession today, this book will keep you interested from cover to cover and motivate you to get out and design something that will change the world.


  • Xacto Knife and replacement blades
    • One of the architect’s most essential tools, you’ll use the Xacto blade to master the art of model-making. You’ll need the replacement blades if you want to keep your models clean and precise. (A common calculation is one pack of replacement blades per semester.)
  • Architectural Scale or Straightedge
    • An essential tool for any hand-drawing or model-making, the scale will make your life a lot easier when needing to figure out how long that 125 ft wall will be at 1/4″ scale.
    • The straightedge is a handy tool for making those straight, clean cuts with the Xacto knife. And if you’re like me and thought it was called a ruler, you need it that much more.
  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pen
    • I’ll be the first to admit, I was definitely weary when someone suggested I spend $25 on a pen (a pen!). “I have plenty of pens, why do I need this one?”
    • My purchase of this fountain pen my first year effectively changed the way I think about writing. As architects, every time we put pen to paper it should be artistically considered. Using this pen will make you begin to think about every sketch you make and every note you take as a piece of art.
    • And, come on, it looks really cool to write with in front of all of your friends and their lame ball-points.
  • Moleskin Sketchbook
    • This sketchbook is similar to the Lamy fountain pen in that it is really hard to describe the feeling of having something specifically designed for the creative process. Yes, no doubt you have other notebooks that would work well as a sketchbook, but using this Moleskin will give you the professional feel that will elevate your design process more than you would think.
  • Trace Paper
    • An absolutely vital tool for every prospective architect in school, as well as established architect in the field, trace paper is an essential part of the design process. Every professor you will have in school will emphasize the importance of using trace paper to formulate ideas and overlay concepts while developing your design. You can never have enough of this stuff.

Those are just a few essentials that will get you started on the right foot your first year of architecture school. My collection of “stuff” has grown exponentially since my first year in school, but all of those items are specific to me and my design process. You should be excited about growing your collection as the years go by.


Like I said, many of the things I mentioned in this field guide can be applied to an incoming student in any field of study. My hope is that anyone reading this at least found one thing useful that you can then apply to your life to make it just a little bit better.

If you have any questions about any of my suggestions or would like to know more about some of the essential tools I use everyday, be sure and follow this page by entering your email at the top of the page so that we can get in touch. I’d love to hear from you and help in any way that I can.

Good luck with your first semester of a very long (but ever-so enjoyable) journey.





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