When I think back in my experience with the AREs I remember my first conversation after graduation with my mentor. He was concerned about the 5 year rolling clock and I remember telling him that it wouldn't be a problem. I was certain that I would be done taking exams long before the end of 5 years. Unfortunately, here I am 5 years later, still studying.
Although I haven’t finished testing there a few things that I've learned from my own experience as well as from stories from others. First, time moves a lot faster than you’d think. I start studying, then a new project or deadline comes up and I always put studying on hold. Before I know it 6 months have passed by. I think most of us are naturally procrastinators so life events make it easy to put studying on hold and without the deadlines that school and work usually impose on us, there's nothing to keep us on a set path. To avoid this many people suggest scheduling the exams before starting to study for the first exam and immediately after each one. Since it has become so expensive to reschedule each exam this will usually prevent discouragement from a failed exam or “taking a victory break" from continuing for too long.
Speaking of failing exams this is one of the main reasons why I've hesitated to test. I don’t like to loose and each time I fail an exam it hits me in two places. It feels like a shot to my self-esteem as well as my wallet. Fortunately others, some who are licensed architects, have shared with me the number of times they've failed. It helps to know that failing one exam (or two or seven) once, twice, or even ten times doesn't matter! Captain Kirk took the Kobayashi Maru 10 times and no one cared. He got a starship. I’m learning that the only thing that matters is getting the license. Knowing that no firm or client will ever ask about my failed exams takes some of the pressure off. In my experience most architects don't feel like the ARE's are a proper measure of your ability to be an architect anyway.
Personally I feel like the ARE exam is a crock and NCARB isn’t much better either. The whole thing is another way for someone to make more money off of us interns. Don't get me wrong, the information I've learned from studying has been invaluable. My firm has been supportive enough to take on jobs related to my topics of study so I can get more experience or apply what I’ve learned. The exam itself just feels irrelevant and nonsensical. I don’t know who writes it or where the questions come from but I often hear people saying that they thought the questions were way left field. I too have walked out of exams feeling like the information I studied was not reflected in the questions, or like I had to guess on far too many questions, but still passed. I’ve even been told not to try to make sense of it or think about how things would work in the real world. As I plan to practice in the real world, I wonder how designing for the imaginary world of NCARB will help me. But, since there’s currently no other way to test our qualifications, we have no choice. That being said the best resources that I’ve found for test preparation are the areforum.com and more recently arecoach.com, which is a little less overwhelming than ARE Forum. Some people recommend specific ARE prep courses, but reading the recommendations on the forums and going with the general consensus has helped me to know what’s worth the investment.
As for methods for studying I’ve tried organizing study groups for AIA committees, promising to study with friends who were also taking the ARE’s or with family members who were studying for other things, but I found that I talk too much and I’m better off studying alone. I’ve asked my mentor for help but ended up wasting time arguing that the questions & vignettes aren’t designed to make sense. I’ve even enlisted friends and family as accountability partners, but having my coworkers outside of architecture threatening to cut me off or not tell me about meetings and family constantly threatening to confiscate my gadgets gets old very quickly.
Currently my process involves not telling anyone when I’ve scheduled exams, not studying in front of my mentor and either waiting until everyone has left the office or escaping my home to a nearby Starbucks to study. I try to put in at least 2 hours on week days and 4 on weekends not including time on the train reviewing flash cards I make for myself in an app called StudyDroid (although I invested in like a thousand index cards, I found that I tend to leave them at home in efforts to make my purse lighter. I never go anywhere without my cell phone though!).
In the end everyone has their own system. For studying, my system is one that doesn’t involve anyone other than the anonymous, nonjudgmental people on the exam forums. For exams some prefer water, and energy bars during exam breaks while I prefer coffee and cookie stuffed chocolate bars. I’m learning that what’s important is creating a routine that works for you, sticking to it, and just getting the thing done.