For years I’ve been giving advice and pep-talks to friends and coworkers taking the Architecture Registration Examinations. After writing the umpteenth version of the same e-mail, I realized I should just share my advice as a blog post.
The tests suck and are a pain to study for, but—if your goal is to get an architecture license in the USA—they are necessary and worth it. If you want to be an architect, and you have the NCARB sanctioned education, take the tests and be done with it. And if you don’t have the right education or work experience, or are licensed in another country that has impossible reciprocity standards with where you now live (sorry this is such a USA-centric post), then let’s continue to push for better, more unified licensing requirements. Those issues however are for other posts.
The information below might have some slightly outdated parts, but it’s what I tell any reader of mine in private, once I learn that they are about to take or are already taking the AREs. My advice isn’t foolproof and won’t guarantee a pass, but hopefully it will help. And if it saves one person from failing a test that they don’t need to fail, then mission accomplished.
A not-so-quick back story
I took the Architecture Registration Examinations right after the switch to 4.0. In fact while I was taking 4.0, some people were still finishing 3.1. I vaguely recall thinking I would have a choice between which version to take, but then my paperwork got held up for months and months. I finished my IDP requirements in September 2007, but couldn’t submit my hours until January 2008 because I had just started a new job (fortunately that stupid waiting period is now gone). I didn’t get the letter to test until August 2008 and couldn’t get my first test scheduled any earlier than October 2008. I then took one test a month from October 2008 to June 2009, with a one month break in March 2009 because my daughter Madeleine was born on March 2nd. It seemed acceptable to take a month off to focus on being a first-time dad. In the end, I picked up my Minnesota Architecture License in August 2009, twelve agonizingly long months after I first got the okay to test.
My plan was to pass all the tests before I became a father. But I missed my target for a few reasons. It took forever to get the approval to test, I couldn’t schedule my first test as soon as I wanted to, my plan was a bit ambitious, and I failed BDCS (which was my second and subsequently last test). Oh well.
If your goal is to test as fast as possible, do everything you can to make sure your paperwork is in order. If you need transcripts from college, a detailed work history, or whatever else, don’t wait until you are mentally ready to test to collect all that information. Do it now. I took the tests back when—in Minnesota—you couldn’t test before completing IDP. If you live in a state where you can test before completing IDP (is it everywhere now?), do it. You won’t learn anything from an extra year or two of work that’ll help you pass the tests. The tests aren’t about knowledge gained from work. The tests are about studying the material in books, learning the vignette program, and not making a stupid mistake in the testing center.
If you want to become an architect and you have the right education to take the exams, find out how to take them as soon as possible. If in your state you can’t start taking tests until you complete IDP, find another state where you can and get licensed there first. My test taking buddy, Chris (more on him in a minute), completed his hours during his testing and ended up getting licensed in Wisconsin instead of Minnesota so that he didn’t have to wait. He was still able to go to testing centers in Minnesota, and eventually got reciprocity in Minnesota.
As someone currently with a license in a state that I don’t live in (and probably will never live in again), I recommend not stressing about gaming the system in this way. Who knows where you’ll live in the long run, or where you’ll need to be licensed to practice. Get the tests done and then worry about all that. Reciprocity isn’t so hard. With the work I’ve done since getting licensed, I should have gotten licensed in Texas (where the bulk of my work is, where I went to school, and where my business partner lives) rather than in Minnesota. In the coming years I’ll have to decide if I keep my Minnesota license or just drop it after I apply for reciprocity in Washington State sometime in 2014 or 2015.** Or maybe I’ll just give up my license completely. But that’s a different blog post.
Before I get to the official studying advice, one more word about Chris. He and I were testing buddies. I recommend finding someone to be your testing buddy. Chris and I didn’t study together. Not once. All we did was schedule tests around the same time, commiserate and bitch about the process, keep each other focused, and compete. Oh man how we competed. We both wished each other well, but we were competitive as fuck. Neither wanted to show weakness. Chris passed all seven tests without a fail and finished first, but I got my license before him because I had my IDP completed (a conversation with a former classmate a few years earlier scared me into being super diligent and focused on tracking, submitting and completing IDP). Chris and I were both so thrilled when each passed and became an architect. We had that healthy kind of competition which keeps both people performing at their best. The number one thing our competition did was keep us both focused and honest. Weakness wasn’t failing a test; weakness was falling off the wagon and falling behind our insane schedule. I have to give Chris a lot of credit as he also sneaked in the LEED exam into his testing regiment. I was burned out by the end and think LEED is a scam, so I didn’t do that. But my views on LEED AP and LEED buildings are once again for another post. If you are at all interested in getting LEED AP or some other certification, add it to your testing regiment. Do it at the beginning or end (or in the dead time while waiting to retest). No one really likes taking tests, so just do them all together.
Your testing buddy might be an actual study partner or it might just be someone to keep you focused, that’s up to you. Just find someone who can help keep your spirits up and keep you going when things turn ugly (they will for one reason or another). I haven’t talked to Chris is ages, but for that year of testing and stress he was my closest confidant. And one more VERY IMPORTANT point: this person should NOT be your wife, husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend. They’ll be proud of you for taking the tests, but tired of hearing your shit.
Now to the Architecture Registration Examination Advice
Don’t get cocky. Just because you’re a BIM Manager and know software, just because you’re a Passivhaus guy and know energy, just because you spend all your days dealing with structures, site design, or whatever, these tests don’t care. Take everything seriously and get it done. Remember these tests aren’t about knowledge gained from school or work. These tests are about studying the books and staying calm during those grueling hours in the testing center.
Download the vignette test program and practice it to death. Don’t spend weeks studying for the multiple choice and then fuck up on the vignettes, which should be easy. I say this from a place of experience. I failed two vignettes on BDCS. Me: a person who spent so much of his time teaching other people how to use BIM software failed on the part that was about using the dumbest BIM software known to man. And yes the graphic sections are as much about reading a word problem as using a stupid piece of software. I still don’t understand what I did wrong. I could probably draw you the roof vignette I failed and I failed that test over five years ago. Of course I won’t do that. Because you know, that’d get me in huge trouble with NCARB. And that is the last thing I want.
Let me be clear and honest. I failed a test. I lived. I retook it six months later and passed. There’s no shame in that. If you fail a test, it’s okay to be angry. Just be angry, accept that you’ll probably lose a few days of studying because of the rage, and then move on. Keep taking tests and don’t let it stop you. Hopefully you’ll read all this advice, not assume you know everything, and pass the first time. But if you do fail a test, don’t worry. So many of us failed at least one too.
While you’re taking the AREs, AREforum.org should be your favorite website. If it’s down, which it is all too often, you should be going to AREcoach.com. Or forget about AREforum.org and just go to ARECoach.com instead. Coach was a godsend to so many of us, so you’ll want to be learning from him anyways. I know I owe a huge debt of thanks to Coach and some other ARE helpers on the forums. Read through the forums, ask questions, search for answers, and share your vignette solutions. You need others to help you understand what you’re doing right or wrong. You can study for these tests alone, but it’s so much more helpful to have others around to support you, especially others who are little further down the path than you.
I can’t stress enough about sharing vignette solutions (and looking at others’ solutions). You can’t guarantee that you’ll pass the vignettes if you don’t understand how to read the questions that are being asked or how those questions are answered in the appropriate graphic format. Once I went from thinking I knew the answers to understanding why something was right or wrong, I never worried about the vignettes again. Annoyingly for me, it took a fail to teach me that lesson.
For study materials, find a variety of resources. Hopefully you have access to your firm’s library of materials. If they don’t have study guides, as your firm to buy some. If a firm cares about the advancement of their young staff, they should have no problem helping you out with this. Check out your local AIA chapter, too. They should have materials. And if not, get them to buy some. Also find out if your AIA chapter has test taking scholarships. I imagine they do. And that free money is probably under utilized because not enough people know to look or ask.
I studied with a (then) current set of Kaplan books, an ancient set of Ballast books, the Norman Dorf book for vignettes (you want that one for sure), and the Archiflash Cards, which were awesome for studying on the couch or back porch. Don’t stress if you only have old books. You’ll probably do fine.
I am a HUGE fan of the Archiflash Cards and Norman Dorf’s Solutions: Understanding the Graphic Vignettes. If you can’t get access to them through work or the AIA, buy both and then sell them to someone else when you’re done. The Archiflash Card iPhone App looks cool, but you can’t resell it after you’re done. To me the Dorf book is essential, the Archiflash Cards are almost as important because they cover such a nice breadth of information, and everything else can be swapped in and out depending on what you can get access to.
Find the A201 and B141 AIA contracts. And read them multiple times. The AIA has them available online with comments. The comments are great because they explain what’s really going on with the legalese. Those documents are more valuable for certain tests, but just go ahead and read them both before your first test. You’ll be glad you did.
I also searched around the AREforum and found a lot of good PDFs of other tangential resources. FEMA stuff, helpful formula sheets, etc. None of that was required, but it was nice to see some of the information presented in a different way. It gets boring reading Kaplan over and over again; and doing the same quizes countless time (by the way, do lots of practice quizzes).
As for test taking order, there are a million answers. Well actually there are 5,040 answers. Here’s what I did: SS, BDCS (fail), CD, PPP, SPD, SD, BS, BDCS (retake). Other than the obvious fail, it was a decent order. I’ve seen people take BS first and I like that route too. Each test builds off the others, so really no matter what order you take you’ll benefit from having taken other tests before. ALTHOUGH I think CD, PPP, SPD, SD is a good order for those four. Probably if I was doing it now, I’d go BS, SS, BDCS, CD, PPP, SPD, SD. And although I failed BDCS, I basically studied the multiple choice for SS and BDCS together. And that was a smart move.
That’s all pretty straight-forward and generic advice (like many architects and test takers I’m terrified of saying something wrong and getting accused of helping someone cheat). So please don’t take any of this advice as some secret answer code. It sure isn’t.
Beyond test order, study materials, and not being cocky, there is one other aspect of the tests that I think is super important. Timing. I took one test a month and you should too. Don’t let excuses get in the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bad tester. It doesn’t matter if you have a stressful life. Or are about to get married or have kids or have kids already. One test a month. You’ll be done in a year or less. If you commit to one test a month you’ll usually have a test scheduled before you get the results from the test you just took. This is critical. Failing a test sucks so much. I was a sadsack for a week or more. It took me months to finally stop being angry. But I had a schedule to keep and no time to waste. One test a month. If you need to take a break that’s fine, but schedule your next test before the break starts. And you get like one exclusion. Not two or three or four or five. One test every two months is too long. After taking a few tests I knew my pattern. I really only studied for two weeks and pretended to study the third week (I usually didn’t study the week after I took a test). So by the end I just scheduled a test for two weeks out and hit the books hard. With a newborn daughter in the house.
In reminding myself about all the pains of taking the AREs, I found this post of helpful tips for taking the ARE. It has some good advice too. Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, and the RSS feed.
**I was a licensed architect in Minnesota from 2009 to 2016, but in 2016 decided to drop my Minnesota license since I live in and am now licensed in Washington State.