March 11, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Architecture (Part 1)

My Architects Registration Exam odyssey started about a year ago, in March, 2013. I started taking the exams because, after three and a half years of grad school, and several years of working experience, I was tired of not being able to call myself an architect. I knew enough about the series of seven exams to expect them to be tough but achievable if I invested time and energy into studying and preparation. What completely surprised me was how the process of studying and sitting for the AREs (as of this writing, I am studying for my fifth exam) renewed my passion and enthusiasm for the practice of architecture at a time when they most needed burnishing.

A lot of young architects I know have had a love/hate relationship with the profession, and I cannot excuse myself from that group. This is especially the case for many of us who graduated during the height (or should I say depth?) of the recession and may have experienced some frustration finding work that is stable and engaging in an environment that allows us to grow into our full potential as architects.

When job after job turns out to be just a gig; positions billed as Architectural Internships (with all the IDP-worthy experience implied by those words) turn out to be little more than internships (as in that thing you did one summer during college that involved making a lot of coffee and getting really nimble with Excel); when you find yourself having to apologize at an interview for requiring payment in exchange for your labor, you’d be a chump not to start seriously, bitterly questioning your career choices.

A couple years out of grad school I felt about ready to break up with architecture, but I couldn’t just walk away without feeling like something would be out of equilibrium. A little voice in my head told me not to quit without completing what I had started so many years ago. I had set out to become an architect, invested so many years towards that goal, and, being incapable of leaving a task partially completed, I needed to obtain my license, to become an architect in order to gain clarity on my situation.

There was no pressure from the outside to start taking my exams. My office at the time did not make a point of systematically encouraging its young employees to get licensed (although they certainly didn’t discourage it either and in fact allowed me time off to take the exams – for which I am very grateful). There was just that little voice commanding “Complete! Finish what was started!”

So, I dug in and sorted through the small print detailing the process of applying for initial licensure, the first step towards being cleared to sit for the exams. This was perhaps the most daunting part of the process: the slick design of NCARB’s website breaks down and the user interface loses its coherence in the section laying out the complicated state by state requirements and processes for registering to sit for the exams. After untangling the myriad rules and requirements, I sent my application to the state department of professions and occupations, parted with a significant amount of money, and waited for testing permission to be granted.

In the meantime, I reviewed the material, starting out with NCARB’s ARE exam guides, taking the practice multiple choice questions at the end of the guide to see how comfortable I was with the material covered by each test. By the time my permission to test letter arrived in the mail, I was ready to schedule the first exam.

We’ve all heard the stories about the monstrously horrid NCARB proprietary graphic vignette CAD software. On the advice of a coworker who had just gotten his license, I chose to start with the Schematic Design exam (SD), both for an easy first pass, and in order to get very comfortable working with that proprietary CAD software at the outset of the exam process.

The SD exam consists of two graphic vignettes with no multiple choice questions. You don’t study for this exam so much as practice for it: practice wrestling the software into submission, practice finding solutions to the layout problems, practice focusing exclusively on fulfilling the program requirements and ignoring all aesthetic and good space planning considerations (a peculiar skill necessary for almost all ARE vignettes).

Since it was my first exam and I was nervous, I practiced for about a month and a half, doing the NCARB practice exam and all of the forum alternates dozens of times until I could complete them all in less than half the allotted time. This was complete overkill. Several exams wiser, I now realize I could have passed this exam with no more than a week of practice. Maybe two, if they were busy weeks. However, the extreme over-preparation allowed me to walk into and out of my first exam with a feeling of glowing confidence that could only be undermined by the nagging anxiety that attends nearly two months waiting for exam results (this was pre-blackout, kids).

Immediately after that first exam I ate a good meal. Six hours of testing with no fuel left me feeling weak and light-headed. This seemingly irrelevant detail actually relates to my best and most practical advice to every ARE candidate: bring a sandwich and a bottle of water to the exam and eat during the mandatory 15 minute break between exam sections. You’ll probably have to eat in the hallway because the testing centers generally don’t allow food in the waiting area, and you’ll probably feel pretty silly pacing the corridors sandwich in tow. But alas, the brain runs on glucose and you don’t want your supply of this vital energy running low when you need it most. I made the mistake of waiting until after the exam to re-fuel, and I paid for it with discomfort and less than optimal performance during the last hour and a half of the Building Layout vignette.

Once my blood sugar was back up to normal however, I felt elated and an overwhelming eagerness to tackle the next exam. The whole process suddenly felt a lot more manageable now that I was familiar with it. With patience and persistence I would eventually defeat the ARE Cyclops. By the time I got that first Pass letter, which, while not a surprise was still a relief, I was already deep into studying for my second exam: CD&S.


Rae Solomon


  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing your story. Glad to hear you stuck with it. The first 5 years outta school can be rough.

    I recently finished the ARE's and getting this license after all these years of alot of work is one of the most rewarding feelings I have ever had in my career.

    Keep up the good fight!!

  2. Awesome job Rae! So glad to hear you are doing this... So Proud of You!


Thoughts? Comments? Agree? Disagree?