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Civil Engineering vs. Architecture: Which Is Right For You?

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What’s Covered:


Civil engineers and architects work closely to design, plan, and construct buildings and structures. Both make major contributions to projects, and could not function without close communication and collaboration. 


However, there are key differences that distinguish one discipline from the other. Understanding the traits that each major promotes can help students considering a career in the construction industry choose a path. 


Overview of Civil Engineering vs. Architecture


Civil Engineering


Civil engineering is an engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the built environment. The built environment includes essential infrastructure such as roads, bridges, dams, and buildings. Civil engineers have many technical skills, are strong mathematicians and physicists, and critical problem solvers.




Architecture deals specifically with the planning and design of the built environment, most often buildings. Architects require a more artistic mindset, focusing on how human-occupied sites and spaces influence those inside and around it. Much like civil engineers, architects are critical thinkers and problem solvers, but focus less on technical calculations and instead on the creative inspiration behind a project.


Preparing for Civil Engineering vs. Architecture in High School


Civil Engineering


Preparing for civil engineering in high school requires a strong base in math and physics. Taking courses involving calculus is essential, and doing well in AP classes such as Calculus AB and BC will make you a desirable candidate for engineering schools. Also plan to take AP Physics, as it will prepare you with fundamental knowledge constantly used in civil engineering. An environmental science or chemistry class is also useful, especially if you plan on specializing in environmental engineering. 


Join whatever extracurriculars spark your passion, as that is something college recruiters look for in a student’s involvement. Seek to become a leader in your extracurriculars, as leadership proves you have the communication and team building skills to effectively lead a team of civil engineers working on a project. 


A valuable extracurricular activity is volunteer work. All of a civil engineer’s projects are meant to serve the community, and civil engineering involves a strong code of ethics. For example, Habitat for Humanity is a great organization that allows you to serve the community while also gaining hands-on experience with structures. 


To research the civil engineering career path, ask family and friends if they know any civil engineers that would be interested in answering questions about the field. A day to day understanding of what the job entails is much easier to grasp after talking to a currently employed civil engineer. 


Another great way to understand civil engineering early on is to simply explore construction sites around your city (with permission and taking necessary safety precautions of course!). There is a wealth of knowledge to be found at these sites, especially in regards to the specific processes and materials that go into constructing a building, road, tunnel, etc. If a site visit spikes interest, you’re on the right path!




While not as mathematically intense as civil engineering, a fundamental knowledge and intuition of math and physics is desirable in architecture students. Courses such as geometry, algebra, and calculus will establish a good mathematical foundation. Similarly, physics classes will help architects understand structural forces. 


Furthermore, exploring the arts and fostering creativity in high school is paramount for aspiring architects. Drawing, painting, sculpting, and photography will train your brain to visualize and conceptualize abstract and creative concepts into works of art. The ability to sketch to effectively communicate ideas is critical in the architecture profession. 


Most architects build portfolios throughout their careers, and some colleges may require a student applying for architecture to have a portfolio in their application. Therefore, taking a class such as AP Art and Design that requires the creation of a portfolio is a great introduction to compiling a set of cohesive work. 


Much like with civil engineering, asking family and friends if they know anyone involved in the architectural profession is an effective way to learn about the field. To ensure you have an interest in architecture, research online, as there is a vast amount of videos, articles, magazines, and books available. Architecture has a rich history, and familiarizing yourself with different styles is a great place to start. 


For more information about steps to take from high school to become an architect, please check out our blog post on the topic. 

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The College Experience: Civil Engineering vs. Architecture


Target colleges with civil engineering and architecture majors that align with your other preferences. You can use CollegeVine’s free chancing engine and school search tool to filter for schools with civil engineering and architecture majors and see your chances of acceptance. You can also indicate your preferences for size, location, diversity, and more. 



Also, check out CollegeVine’s school rankings for architecture and engineering.


Civil Engineering


Studying civil engineering is no easy feat, but a rewarding one. When researching schools, look for colleges that have a strong engineering department and resources for research. Also make sure that the schools provide plenty of outside academic support (i.e. TAs, supplement instructors, tutors, and easily accessible office hours). A great engineering program ensures that the students have enough support to get a good grasp of the material.


Additionally, look for schools that have a suite of clubs to join, as civil engineering clubs such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Chi Epsilon (an honors Civil Engineering society). These are great national organizations that provide many networking opportunities and credibility post-graduation.


Typical civil engineering courses include Calculus I, II, and III, differential equations, structural design, structural analysis, fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, statics and dynamics, and geology.




There are two academic avenues to become an architect–one can either earn a B. Arch, which is a five year architecture bachelor’s program, or first earn a traditional four year bachelor’s degree prior to getting your master’s in architecture, M. Arch. Before choosing schools, decide which path is right for you. If you are sure that architecture is your desired career, a B. Arch is the most direct route through college and to licensure.  


Overall, an architecture curriculum focuses on history, theory, and design. A design studio is where architecture students get to create, draw, and build scale models of their designs. Research the studios at schools to see what kind of projects students are encouraged to create. Architecture majors spend a majority of their time in a studio, so finding a college with studios that excite you is important. 


All architecture students are required to complete an internship before getting licensed, so finding a school that has career and internship support for students to find internships is very helpful. 


Typical architecture courses include calculus, physics, architectural design, history of architecture, architectural theory, drafting, building technology, and structural design. 


After College: Civil Engineering vs. Architecture


Civil Engineering


After earning a bachelor’s degree, civil engineers complete a master’s in their chosen specialization. There are many specializations in civil engineering: construction, environmental, architectural, geotechnical, water resources, coastal, structural, and transportation. A license is not required for entry level positions, but to oversee projects, a professional licensure is required.


Civil engineers can work in either the public or private sector. They split their time between the office and construction sites to monitor and manage the work being done. Civil engineers plan, design, and oversee construction projects using computer aided software. 


Civil engineering is a steady, dependable profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for civil engineers is $88,750 annually. 




As aforementioned, architects can either earn their B. Arch or M. Arch before getting professionally licensed. All architects are required to pass the Architecture Registration Examination (ARE) to become licensed to practice. 


Architects spend the majority of their time working in an office, and often work in the private sector. They develop designs, prepare drawings, meet with clients, and consult with engineers. 


The median pay for architects is $82,320 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics


Final Thoughts


If looking to go into the building construction industry, both civil engineering and architecture are viable career paths that combine math, science, and creativity. A proclivity towards artistry is what sets architects apart from the more math and science focused civil engineers. Architects are more concerned with the aesthetic appeal and functionality of a design, while civil engineers focus on the structural elements and durability of the design.


However, civil engineers have a broader range of specialties and are not limited to buildings and structures the way that architects are. Civil engineers deal with roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, railroads, and more. In fact, a civil engineering undergraduate can obtain a master’s in architecture to focus on architectural engineering, which is a marriage between the two disciplines.


Deciding what matters most to you—creativity or technical problem solving—will help decide whether architecture or civil engineering is the right choice.   

Short Bio
Araxi is currently a student studying Civil Engineering at the University of Southern California. In her free time, she loves to read, craft, and explore LA with her friends.