NOTES ON THE AA EXPERIENCE: Unit Interview Day
12 October 2016
Architectural Association, London
For many students of the AA, the torturous and thrilling day of interviews for new units is a unique and awesome experience. Outdone by frantic preparations, agonizing waiting periods, and emotional and psychological exhaustion, the interview itself often becomes the minor part of an overall amazing experience.
The Night Before
The night before interview day approaches after a day of relentless unit introductions by tutors. Being the first day of a new year, most students arrive weary, tired after waking earlier than they have for most of the summer break, culminating in a gradual exhaustion come evening. The tiredness sits alongside pangs of excitement, nerves, and expectation, however. Greeting and hugging familiar peers you haven’t seen for a while but will shortly become family soon again, a buzz across the school lies afoot. While having mulled over the unit briefs over summer and feeling assured of your interests, the unit presentations send many a mind in flux and indecision reigns once again. First choices become second, third, or in some cases, snatched off the list completely and replaced by a wild card you never expected would intrigue you. Meanwhile, others who have had their eye on a unit since their first day at the AA sit in the lecture hall and listen to the presentations with a calm conviction.
Students listening to tutors’ unit presentations in the Lecture Hall. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
Amidst countless repeated conversations of “which unit are you thinking of choosing?”, and after a couple of drinks and semi-awkward stances near your potential new tutors during the informal meet’n’greet, weariness creeps its head in once again and students begin to make their way home, where preparations for tomorrow’s interviews must continue, or commence, in some cases. Whether having organized your work in advance and having recited over and over the project information you wish to discuss during interviews, or whether portfolios are only just being dug out and dusted off for the first time at 11pm that evening, preparations come to an eventual end and a yearning for sleep is finally met with a head on a pillow, hopeful of the next day’s events.
What preparations do you go through the night before interview day?
“Read through the extended brief, then selected the drawings from 4th year I would take to the interview the next day. Not much sleep, a lot of thought invested in making sure it is a good decision.” –Patricia Roig, Fifth Year, Diploma 4
“Made sure my portfolio papers were in order/there at all; slept poorly.” –Anon., Second Year
“Go through portfolio; strategically choose 1st, 2nd, 3rd options; PANIC!” –Kira Sciberras, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
How many times have you asked/been asked/will you ask which unit you are choosing?
“Many, many, many times. I would say at least 15-20 times.” –Patricia Roig, Fifth Year, Diploma 4
“Maybe the only words I heard/spoke the day before interviews.” –Kira Sciberras, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
“By almost everyone you meet. Before the day, there is a feeling that people are scoping out their competition.” –Anon., Second Year
Waiting in queue, 29th September 2015, 8.35am. Photo by Tané Kinch, AA Fifth Year
If yesterday began early, today begins earlier still. Arriving from as early as 7am, students begin to queue in front of the school, ready to hand in their first, second, and third choices (in order of preference) so they can receive a time slot for a unit interview. Portfolios of all weights and sizes in hand, pupils arrive one by one, trickling through as the line grows longer and longer. Students arrive so early as, although seemingly never confirmed, it is often assumed that the order one hands in their choices determines the order of interview times, which can often have a huge influence on the overall fate of whether you get a place in your specified unit or not. Worth the risk of arriving later?
Waiting in queue, 27th September 2016, 8.35am. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
In the process of waiting in line with just your portfolio, your sheet, and yourself, the expectation of the day begins to stir the mind. Some start to mull over their choices once again, either reassuring themselves, or suddenly being devoured in doubt. Others begin to question whether the unit number they have written down is in fact the correct one they meant, thinking that perhaps they got it wrong even after looking at it over and over in the course booklet, leading to checks and double checks that it’s correct.
And so almost as a pleasant distraction from the rising mental torture, the first of many bouts during the day’s course, the queue is finally called in, and the line marches one by one into the school and up the stairs towards the administrative hallway, where a smiling face receives our destiny.
Waiting in queue, 27th September 2016, 8.40am. Photo by Shahaf Blumer, AA Fifth Year
The hours between handing in options and finding out the order of interviews are the final moments of bliss for the year. With a heady complacence, students wander between walks to the bar for a vital coffee or occasional nap as a result of the day’s harsh early start, and drifts to the terrace for a pensive smoke or yet another chat about “which unit have you gone for?” Some ponder if it’s wise to eat an early lunch to guarantee being fed, or whether to risk going hungry as the events of the day take hold. Many try to look over their portfolio descriptions, however between all the resting it somehow often ends up being left until the final 15-minute countdown before the interview lists are put up. During this period, an unspoken gradual gathering of students emerges on the terrace to prepare for the unveiling of the list of interview times.
Entering school to hand in unit options, 27th September 2016, 9am. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
And finally by midday, that time arrives. As though one blinked, before even being able to enter the packed room of teems of students, you are passed by re-emerging undergrads looking horrifyingly startled as they declare ‘I’m first for interview! I have 15 minutes to prepare!’ Meanwhile, the remaining huddles of pupils gradually migrate around the room, checking their times for their first, second, and third choices. The board of lists becomes a celebrity and the students the paparazzi, taking countless photos as reference to the intrinsic time slots. The room empties and the next chapter of the day begins.
Entering school to hand in unit options, 27th September 2016, 9.10am. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
Many say that the order you hand in your unit options determines the eventual interview order (and thus potentially swaying your fate): do you believe it to be truth or rumour?
“I think it’s true. This year the first guy in the line was the first in the list for the interviews; everyone in front of me had their interviews first.” –Diego Ariza, Fifth Year, Diploma 5
“Rumour! It is done by raffle.” –Kira Sciberras, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
“50/50, it’s definitely not a thorough shuffling, but also not exactly in order of submission.” –Jonathan Cheng, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
What’s more nerve-wracking and why: Final Tables or interview day?
“Interview day. Liking the brief and what I’m doing that year influences how hard I will work and how prepared I’ll be for final tables” –Diego Ariza, Fifth Year, Diploma 5
“Interview day, I think because of the changing trends of interest among units that creates like a kind of competition, or at least a lot of potential waiting, all the while the real year hasn’t even gotten started.” –Jonathan Cheng, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
“Final tables for sure. Interview day ensures you a unit spot even in the worst case scenario- final tables determines whether your whole portfolio will advance you to next year.” –Anon., Third Year
Entering school to hand in unit options, 29th September 2015, 8.53am. Photo by Tané Kinch, AA Fifth Year
Bounding over the final hurdle and re-emerging from the trenches, one way or another, a final result is always met, and a space in a unit is always secured. Often those who have managed to get an early interview slot and by even greater circumstances secured a place in a unit by early afternoon gain the privilege of exhaling relief on the terrace for five minutes. Through the gentle influx of students in a similar position gradually joining on the terrace, or around the bar for the fifth coffee of the day, and engaging once again in the recurring conversation of ‘what unit did you go for? Did you get it?’, five minutes hazily becomes a few hours in passing.
For many of these students, the hunger of forgetting to grab lunch induces a quick glare at their watch where they suddenly notice the time. ‘My people need me!’ Intuition of solidarity for their fellow troopers leads them back up to the dreaded Via Cristina hallway, where, like coming off a plane in a hot and humid country, they are immediately met with a sticky heat of anxiety through the corridor, where apprehension is tangible.
Unveiling of unit interview time lists, 27th September 2016, 12pm. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
The day has been developing differently for other students. Waiting lists for interviews leading in to the late evening, or even worse, the following day, and the general angst of waiting for your slot in the mean time, create an uneasiness among peers. Proving the stigma that architects always wear black to be true, a glance along the corridors appears something out of a funeral, with a still silence that dampens the space. Alongside the quietness, murmurs and mumbles run throughout, from those rehearsing project descriptions for now the umpteenth time- a ritual that began out of preparation’s sake but now used as a violent distraction against the brimming nerves that are ready to dismount at any moment- to other mutterings across the bleak and now rather sullen hallway with alerted exclamations of “Did you get in?” from one concerned face, to “No. Does your unit have any space? I’m going to see if they do, if I can squeeze in an interview.” “F*ck. Good luck.”
Apprehension in the corridors awaiting interviews and verdicts, 27th September 2016, 3.35pm. Photo by Sophia Chang, AA Fourth Year
The hallway becomes a “corridor ghetto”, as one fifth-year coined it, with shrouds of students sitting across the floors outside unit spaces, awaiting verdicts. The muffled silence still encapsulates, creating a meditative therapy session between seated peers, too tired to talk at this point, yet too adrenalin-fuelled to take a quick nap. Whether unit masters select students as they go along, or wait until seeing all interviewees before declaring a decision, gradually students are confirmed in a unit and make the triumphant steps upstairs to secure the place on paper. A most confusing system yet relentlessly beguiling, with a certified albeit cloudy logic. By evening, pathways have either begun to lead peers homeward bound for a sleep to cure the chronic exhaustion of the day, or to a local pub, where tiredness is met with another remedy. And so for yet another year, the general thought amongst students rests as: it is exciting, it is tiresome, it is arduous, but it is done.
Apprehension in the corridors awaiting interviews and verdicts, 29th September 2015, 1.37pm. Photo by Tané Kinch, AA Fifth Year
Describe the final few moments before you are called in to an interview.
“Waiting in the corridor, not really speaking to anyone. Just kind of looking at the door.” –Jonathan Cheng, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
“Nerve-wracking but excited. The overall atmosphere of everyone hovering and stressing out is what makes it so horrible.” –Anon., Third Year
“About to throw up; can’t breathe; out of body experience.” –Kira Sciberras, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
Could you express how you felt once you secured a place in a unit?
“Relieved, like a weight was lifted from my shoulders, while also annoyed in the process it takes tutors to make their decisions- i.e. waiting for hours vs. immediate acceptance.” –Anon., Third Year
“Relieved. Effervescent.” –Jonathan Cheng, Fifth Year, Diploma 17
“It’s over, I have a home.”- Patricia Roig, Fifth Year, Diploma 4
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