Brandon's Interview On Architecture Graduate School With Supportfolios

I recently had an interview with Sicong "Max" Ma (馬思聰), LEED AP BD+C. He is the Creative Director of Supportfolios and holds a Master of Architecture degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Supportfolios (English translation) is a China-based company dedicated to refining and polishing design and architecture portfolios to help students gain entrance to their first-choice program. They offer multiple services, like English translation, portfolio consultation, application consultation, and the advantage of a large alumni group. Their alumni have received admission to schools like Harvard, Penn, Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell, Columbia, and USC and more.

I have included the transcript from my interview below. We covered some great topics so I thought it would be helpful to share with you.

1. Please introduce yourself and The Architect's Guide. 

My name is Brandon Hubbard, I currently live in San Francisco. I am a licensed California architect and LEED AP with a Master’s Degree in Architecture.  I have worked for several architecture firms across the U.S. and Europe, including Foster + Partners in London.  

I am the founder of The Architect’s Guide which is a website dedicated to helping people with their architecture careers.  Through my blog and resources (books and consulting services) I teach what it takes to be an effective and successful architect. I specialize in architecture careers, including job applications, portfolios and interviews.

What is the initial motivation for you to start this service?

While working at Foster + Partners I received a lot of emails from aspiring architects that wanted to work there and were asking me how they could get hired. 

This was also during the recession of '08-'09 so it was a particularly difficult time. That's when I began to mentor many aspiring and practicing architects to help them find jobs but also a rewarding career.

Offices like F+P receive an unbelievable number of job applications. For example Foster's receives approximately 20,000 resumes a year, which is over 50 per day! Since they only hire, at most a few people per week the odds of getting a job are much less than one percent.  So it can take a lot to stand out.

I helped applicants with their resumes and portfolios and helped several to get hired at either at F+P or elsewhere. However, it got to the point where it was difficult to keep up with the number of emails. Also, I found I was often giving similar advice to multiple people.

So I thought is there a way I can help a large number of people at the same time? 

The obvious solution was to share my advice and experiences through a website which ultimately became The Architect's Guide.  Ironically now I receive more emails than ever but I am always happy to help out.

2. We as designers all know the importance of portfolio in application to a good school, what do you think are the most critical factors or characteristics in a successful portfolio?

One of the most important factors for a successful portfolio is to tell a story. The mistake I often see candidates make is just showing the final product in a portfolio. That is a missed opportunity. 

Show the process. How did the idea or concept come about? You can do this by showing your early sketches for example or text of where it started. 

This also brings up an important point, make sure your are documenting all of you work both physical and digital. Back up all of your work and scan  or photograph any sketches or models during the design process. This will help you create an effective story for how your particular design evolved.

I think it is human nature to be drawn to interesting stories and explaining the design process is no different. Just try to be clear and concise about what you did to get to the final solution. Whether this is using a series of sketches, models, renderings or any other relevant material to covey your ideas.

3. So these are also the criteria when you selected the works in your new book "The eGuide To Graduate Architecture Portfolios"?

Yes, I believe the most engaging and successful portfolios which are featured in this book do more that just list a series of projects but rather tell a story for each of the designs. Showing the evolution of not only the design but also the designer.

I also wanted to show a variety of portfolios in the book. For example one of the contributors featured several art projects and another used examples of sculptures. Since many architecture applicants come from a variety of backgrounds I wanted to provide a diverse set of samples that everyone can relate to and use as inspiration for their own work. 

4. What are the unique features of the book compared with say if a student go to website and look at the portfolio themselves?

Looking up portfolio examples online is a completely valid thing to do. There are some good examples out there. However, I would say the good examples are in the minority. There are thousands of terrible portfolios floating around on the internet.

To sort through all of these to find the great ones takes a lot of time and effort.  This is why I received so many emails from my audience asking me if I had examples for them to reference.

This is the reason I created the guide to graduate architecture portfolios. It is a collection of some of the best application portfolio examples from the top schools and are in this one massive 800 page ebook. I have also listed which schools each applicants portfolio was accepted including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Upenn many others. 

5. What are other useful tips in making portfolio?

One of the biggest things is to keep it simple.

A portfolio is already a creative document, so the primary focus should be on your work, not on the actual portfolio itself. So this means don't use strange looking or hard-to-read fonts.

Each school has different requirements but try to keep text to a minimum. The application committee has a lot of documents to get through so make sure they are focusing on the most important parts. If you feel that what is important is a paragraph of text, then fine but keep in mind it is taking up valuable time.

Since many committees print your portfolios, use a common paper size like letter for US applications and A4 for international. Know the small difference between the two. This could result in something being cut off the bottom when your letter formatted page is printed on A4 paper.

Interestingly, in the book the majority of the applications accepted to the top schools are landscape format, whether or not this is significant remains to be seen.

Don't forget to include your contact info. Your portfolio may get misplaced and it can be impossible to match it to the rest of your application.  Usually just email and phone, address isn’t really necessary. Put these somewhere on the front and / or back pages, a header or footer works well.

6. We are often asked by students that "Why do all of the portfolios look so similar?" Do you think it is an issue, and if so what do you think might be good methods to personalize?

I think that is a result of the architecture studio culture, so much time is spent with the same group of people that your projects and ultimately portfolios tend to look similar. Even if we are comparing portfolios to someone that is from an entirely different school they often look similar. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Architecture has always been about looking at what others have done in the past and seeing how we can evolve and be improved upon. 

The most important thing is to tell your own story and express your own design talents. Since by definition you are unique this should inform what is featured in your portfolio. What unique talents or skills do you have that few people have? This could be something like photography or some other medium outside of architecture that you could feature. 

What experiences have you had that have uniquely influenced your designs? Really take some time for self reflection and see how it could apply to your portfolio.

7. You are a contributor to the famous website ArchDaily, and writing is a critical way to better clarify design ideas and issues. However, many students whose first language is not English often find it hard to properly include text in their portfolios. What are your suggestions for them?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing international applicants is the language barrier. Simple mistakes in grammar and sentence structure can be very distracting in applications. 

One of the best ways to work on this is to write everyday. When I first started writing regularly I noticed that over time I became much better. 

The same is true for non-native speakers. Try to write something in English everyday, make it a goal to write a page a day. It doesn't have to be about architecture it could be something like a simple daily journal or a creative writing project. 

Also have someone who is fluent in English review your writing and make corrections over time. As we will talk about, this is something I can also help applicants with. 

8. Another problem might be the presentation skills, which are also difficult for non-English speaking students. So what should they do to deliver better in a presentation or interview?

Unfortunately there isn't an easy answer for this. The only way to become a better presenter and interviewer is to practice. Try to find someone who speaks English well, ideally a native English speaker that you can practice with. 

Be as prepared as possible for your interviews, do as many practice or "mock" interviews as possible with an English speaker.

Have them ask you questions and have responses prepared. I typically don't recommend applicants memorize their responses, but as someone with English as second language having prepared responses to common questions and prepared descriptions for all of your projects would be extremely beneficial. 

Don't wait until the night before to start preparing. This should be done months in advance of your first interview.

9. What is the key to do well in graduate school according to your experience, since it could be difficult for international students to fit in at the beginning?

Keep in mind that most architecture graduate schools have an extremely diverse group of students. So there are people from all backgrounds. So if you think you will have trouble fitting in, I think everyone has the same feeling. Don't let that discourage you. 

I think an important thing to remember is don't be afraid to ask for help. I think many architecture students try to do too much by themselves. This isn't surprising because many of the studio projects are just you working alone. 

However in the working world that is very rare. All projects are a team effort involving dozens if not hundreds of people. So if you want to know more about a particular subject, talk to a fellow student, a professor, or professional for advice or help. It is important skill to start building your network that will be extremely valuable as you begin your career. 

10. It is also critical to get prepared during grad school (often just 2 years for many students) for an actual job. What relative services does The Architect's Guide provide and how they can help international students?

So depending on the potential applicants needs I offer a few levels of service. 

My most basic service is resume editing, I help applicants building a resume that emphasizes their strengths and is targeted to the job or jobs that they are looking for. 

The next level is my application editing service which helps applicants with their cover letter, resume and portfolios.

Finally my most comprehensive service is my one-on-one coaching package. I work with you to:

  • build a customized job search plan.
  • Define your short-term and long-term career goals.
  • Identify your accomplishments and how to articulate them.
  • Assist with your firm selection and targeting process.
  • Conduct a mock job interviews with response feedback.
  • This also includes the Complete Package download which is all of my ebooks and job search resources as a digital download. 

As I mentioned previously one of the of biggest challenges for international applicants is since English is their second language, preparing these documents is difficult. Obviously that wouldn't be an issue working with me. Since I can help to craft the written documents.

11. For international students without a network in the U.S. what is the most efficient way to get the attention of the employer to get an internship/job?

I think an important piece of advice is to start meeting and networking with the potential firms you would want to work for. Start as soon as possible. Don't wait until the end of the semester because it will be too late. Start a conversation with a firm you admire or would just like to work for. You can have what is called an "information interview" with the hiring manager.

You can sit down with them and explain your situation and that you will be looking for a position in the near future and would like it if they could keep you in mind. This is generally less formal and is also a way to meet other architecture professionals. That way when the time comes to start looking for jobs you already have a group of people you can contact.

Once you have established that initial contact you can then later easily reach out and let them know you are looking for an internship. This is much more likely to get a response than just sending out hundreds of applications. Making those personal connections is really important for the development of your architecture career.

Thanks for reading! Get a free sample of The Architect's eGuide To Architecture Graduate School Portfolios.




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