Conquer the ARE!

So you’re considering starting the Architect Registration Exam [ARE]. Or maybe you’ve already started, and wondering how others are getting through the process. Or, maybe, you’re hoping the whole thing will just go away. No matter what, the ARE is one of the major hurdles that stand between you and becoming a registered Architect in the United States, and there are, believe it or not, people who make it through them without losing their minds [completely]. The purpose of this “How-To” is to equip you with strategies from those who’ve passed successfully, as well as collect the best resources here in one place. The goal is to demystify the process a bit, and smooth your way into earning that “RA” after your name.

A lot of this information and advice comes from my 18 month journey through the ARE, and is a compilation of the many emails, conversations, and pep-talks I’ve given since passing my exams. It can be done, I promise!


There is a path to only FIVE exams!

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Step 1. Understand the ARE

I know you’re ready to dive right in, but it is definitely worth it to take a moment and understand these exams, and what they’re for. First and foremost, they are testing your competency. These are not design exams; they do not test whether you are a good designer. The ARE is part of the three-pronged path to becoming a licensed Architect laid out by NCARB: education [where you learn how to be a good designer], experience through IDP [where you learn how to be a good practitioner], and the ARE [where you prove your competence with codes, compliance, and principles]. Until you complete all three of these, you cannot call yourself an Architect [designer, or architectural designer, is allowed]. You can argue with this if you want, you can rant and rave, but the truth remains: you must learn to take the tests as they are, not as you wish them to be. Here are some hints to get your head in the game:

ARE 4.0 Overlaps

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1.01 Learn NCARB-Speak

Start with the NCARB website, and with the NCARB provided study guides. Understand what you’re being tested on, and how they ask the questions. ARE questions are notoriously tricky, but as you practice them more and more, you get used to their wording, and their method of questioning. Learning how to recognize “NCARB speak” is a huge chunk of the battle, and one that comes with immersion in the material. I would say that I really hit my stride with this by test #3, and life became a lot easier.

Oh – and don’t bother trying to argue that “NCARB is totally wrong about X. I’ve been practicing for 47 years, and we never did things that way!” NCARB wants the NCARB answer, not yours. Just give them what they’re looking for, and move on.

1.02 Remember What They’re Testing You On

The ARE rumor mill is quite active – you’ll hear horror stories, or wildly contradicting information about the exams. Always go back to the NCARB study guides: it’s all right there, in stark percentages per category. NCARB is not secretive about what you need to know on each test. And – lucky for you – there is a lot of overlap among tests.

1.03 Practice in a Firm First

This is slightly controversial advice. Many people want to take the exams as soon as they’re out of school, or well before they’re done with IDP. Unless you’ve been practicing for a while, I can guarantee you that you’ll find the tests harder if you try them too soon. Much of the information is quite out of context if you haven’t been practicing. I worked as a contractor for four years, and found that I answered many construction questions from my own experiences and knowledge rather than from what I read, and I know the information a lot better than if I had just memorized things for a test. While NCARB is allowing interns to take the ARE earlier and earlier, from my perspective, it’s not necessarily a good thing if you don’t have a lot of firm experience. Let IDP work its magic, and studying will go A LOT more smoothly – I promise.

Step 2. Study

This is the Beast – the Beast that will devour your weekends, evenings, sanity, and personal relationships. Studying takes a lot of time, but it takes even more time if you’re not strategic about it. Studying is something that many of us didn’t do much of in college – we were too busy working late [aka playing trace paper baseball] in studio. There is no “magic bullet” for everyone; the key is to find out what works best for YOU. In any case, here is my hard-won advice on the topic of preparation:

2.01 Outline a “Plan of Attack”

Read through all the NCARB study guides, and you’ll begin to notice that some of the tests group naturally together. The classic groupings are:

Schematic Design (SD)
Programming, Planning, & Practice (PPP)
Construction Documents (CDs)
Site Planning & Design (SPD)
Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS)
Building Systems (BS)
Structural Systems (SS)

Many people think the tests in the first grouping are easier than the tests in the second grouping. Really, it’s about what material you’re comfortable with, and where your experience lies. Regardless, there is a lot of overlap among tests, so it’s often a good idea to take them in close proximity to each other. For what it’s worth, here’s how I did my exams:

Notice that I did a six-week “blitz,” where I took three exams that are closely related to each other. It was tough, but it felt great to have all of those out of the way! I postponed Structures once, and Building Systems twice. It costs money to postpone, but I’d rather pay a small fee than lose the whole testing fee and six months because I failed. And it all worked out! You may need more time than I show here, or less. When I say “hard studying,” I mean 12-14 hour study days on three day weekends [I took Fridays off the two weekends leading up to the exams], and some review during the week. I can’t study in the evenings after work – my brain is mush. More on this below!

2.02 Schedule an Exam

Nothing makes you study harder, and with more purpose, than having a deadline. Do not wait until you’re “ready” – you’ll never schedule it. Get it on the calendar, and work towards it. Some people like taking tests in the morning, others in the afternoon. I liked taking tests on Monday morning, because I could study right through the weekend, and I wasn’t distracted by work stuff.

2.03 Develop Your Own Study Schedule/Strategies

This takes some time, so don’t worry if you don’t get a pattern down til test 3 or 4. As I mentioned above, I need to devote large blocks of time to studying, while others can do 2 hours a night after work. I can’t – my brain just doesn’t want to work in the evenings – so I gave up lots of weekends. By the time I locked into a study routine that worked for me, here’s what it looked like:

  1. Read NCARB study guide
    Read the one for the test I’m planning on taking, then take the NCARB study guide quiz. This gives me an idea of where the holes in my knowledge are, and what content I need to focus on.

  2. Skim Ballast
    Go over the appropriate chapters, make note of things that I know already, and that I don’t know that well. I found Ballast easier to understand; some people swear by Kaplan. Take a look at both, and figure out which works best for you.

  3. Read Ballast slowly
    Take detailed notes per chapter.

  4. Make Flashcards
    Create flashcards in Quizlet of terms I don’t know, from Ballast or NCARB study guide. Many “vocab” words are italicized in the text. If you don’t want to create your own, search through the public sets on Quizlet – just be wary of trusting others’ definitions, and remember that the act of creating flashcards is actually part of the study process!

  5. Review
    On my daily commute, review flashcards on Quizlet app, Jenny’s Guide [see toolbox resources], or chapter notes. Find “pockets” of time that you can use for quick review sessions like this, if you don’t have the benefit of a subway ride each day.

  6. Drill vignettes
    First, do the NCARB version “open book” style, then make notes on all my questions, then research my questions on ARECoach, then do alternate vignettes if available. For the trickier vignettes, especially the ones that are tight on time, I write out a procedure and memorize it, so I don’t get flustered on the exam and forget what I’m doing, or miss something. Make sure you can confidently use the NCARB vignette software!

  7. Skim Kaplan

  8. Read Dorf
    Caution: Dorf is outdated for some of the vignettes; consult ARECoach to get an idea for which tests Dorf is good for, and which it’s not good for.

  9. Take practice exams
    Both Kaplan and Ballast have them. I take the tests, and then review the answers for the questions I don’t know.

This may be complete overkill for you, or may not be enough. I found that the single biggest things I did that helped me were to drill practice questions, and to not underestimate the vignettes [drill those suckers!] Also, for tests like Structures and Building Systems, I used study materials that were beyond the typical Ballast/Kaplan sources – I found Marc Mitalski’s Structures lectures and practice quizzes absolutely invaluable. I don’t believe I would have passed, and felt so confident on the test, if I hadn’t done his course. I also spent a lot of time with Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings [MEEB] while studying for Building Systems, and found that invaluable as well.

And those pesky vignettes – drill them, over and over. Do NOT assume that because you’re a good designer, or because you’re a whiz with software, that you’ll automatically ace the vignettes. They have a software and logic all their own. The best thing I did to prepare was to use the NCARB practice software, and then write out a work plan for each vignette. This ensured that I didn’t miss anything in the heat of the moment, because I built in lots of checks and balances. Some good examples of vignette work plans are included in JennyPDX’s study guides [see toolbelt]. I’d start there, then modify to suit my own way of working. Take the time to do this, and when you’re in the exam, it will be much, much easier – I promise!

Step 3. Take the Test

This is the easiest part. Go to the testing center, lock all your belongings in the locker, and just get in there and do it. Each test is a bit different in terms of time, number of questions, and time for each vignette. Know this ahead of time, and you won’t have any surprises. One of the best tricks I learned was to use the given materials on the exam. Click on a special tab [next to the calculator tab], and there it is – tons of moment diagrams, HVAC calcs, all kinds of useful things. This isn’t a secret – NCARB tells you exactly what resources they’ll have for you on the test – but everyone freaks out and forgets. Use these resources, know the test, and you’ll be that much further ahead.

Step 4. Get the Results

The waiting is sometimes the hardest part, but these days, it’s a little less painful now that everything is online, on NCARB’s “My Examination” website. Results are usually posted in 1-2 weeks. Don’t let a “fail” derail you – just move on, get into the next test, and before you know it, the 6 month waiting period will be over and you can retest! I often found that if I scheduled my next test while I was still riding high on finishing an exam [but before I got the results], I could keep my momentum going.

Step 5: Support Your Friends

This may seem obvious, but it’s really important – going through the ARE is tough, and it means giving up on fun things, and facing frustration and disappointment sometimes. Help each other out – especially women, who drop out of the licensing process in large numbers. Share materials, offer to babysit kids, share your wisdom for tests you’ve passed, and respect the processes that others need to go through to pass the exams. One of the reasons the ARE is tough is because it’s very solitary. Unlike studio, or work, where we’re “all in this together,” going through the ARE can be very lonely. Many local AIA chapters have study groups, or you can form your own. My roommates and I treated each other to a delicious meal from our favorite local BBQ joint after any of us took a test, and then again when we found out the results [pass or fail]. In any case, support each other in any way you can.

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