The Truth About All ARE Study Materials

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My Relationship with ARE Study Materials

I’ve started writing reviews of The Ballast and Architect Exam Prep study materials for ARE 5.0. Since many Young Architect readers are curious about my opinion, they’ve begged me to get this done as quickly as possible.

Guys, I’m working on it. I like to go through each study guide very thoroughly. And unfortunately, that doesn’t happen overnight.

Generally speaking, I’m very impressed with the quality of products that Ballast and Architect Exam Prep have created. They’re the first to put 5.0 study materials on the market. Since I’m trained as an Architect, I always have a constructive opinion. But generally speaking, I think these products are solid.

At this point, I’ve reviewed most of the major publishers in the ARE 4.0 Test-Prep Industry.

I’ve also written my own book about how to use and study this information overload (a book that is still very applicable to ARE 5.0). And I’ve created a very successful 10-week intensive program, which helps people get started with making progress on their architect exams.

It was never my goal to write lengthy articles about the ARE, or still be this involved, almost 3 years after I completed my exams.

However, the Young Architect Audience keeps sending me emails, telling me that this website has significantly helped them complete their exams.

I do it because I want to watch you guys succeed. I do it because I think becoming a licensed Architect is a very noble pursuit and worthy endeavor. I want nothing more than to help you flourish with your careers and dreams.

Since Day 1 of creating this Young Architect website (almost three years ago), the underlying message behind everything is: Help the next generation of Architects be more successful.

The Truth About All ARE Study Materials

As I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of my shiny new ARE 5.0 Books, I realized I have some overall opinions about all ARE Study materials, which I would like to share.  I think this information will help you audit your own study materials to better prepare yourself for your exams.

I decided to write this post about the entire ARE Test Prep Industry (including all publishers) before I begin releasing articles about specific products and publishers.

OK Great, So What’s the Truth about All ARE Study Materials?!??!

Ready for it?

All ARE Study Material Publishers are creating their content from the same exact information.

…and you have access to that information too.

Let me explain.

Understanding the Test Specification

Before the ARE 5.0 handbook was released, NCARB smugly referred to the 5.0 Test Specification as “the best-kept secret that’s a public document.”

What is the Test Specification?

The short answer is that the Test Specification outlines all the topic areas that the questions will address on each exam.

Every single ARE Question addresses an element of the Test Specification. And sometimes, one question can address multiple areas of the specification. Every test touches upon the ENTIRE test specification in one way or another.

The 5.0 Test Specification is the best change that NCARB has made to the new exam.  5.0 is significantly more detailed and precise about outlining the area of information to be tested on each exam. You’ll very clearly see this change if you compare the 4.0 content areas from any exam with the 5.0 test spec.

The truth about all ARE Study Materials, is that the test specification is the backbone to all ARE Study Materials from all publishers.

The publishers read this information, then hit the ground running with creating ARE Study Materials.

Generally speaking, moving into ARE 5.0, I believe having a more detailed, outlined Test Specification will create better study materials across the board.

I also believe that each publisher’s information is only as smart as the person interpreting the data. That’s why I still firmly believe that everyone should cross-train their studying among multiple publishers.

As a candidate, the best thing you can do is get very familiar with the test spec for your exam and making sure that all items are being addressed.  The better you understand this information, the better you can use that knowledge to audit the information you’re studying.

Random Studying Tip:

Organize all your chapters according to each section of the test spec. Study for each section one at a time. Compare and contrast different publishers to each other.

How do we do it in the ARE Boot Camp? Here’s an example from the 4.0 CDS program:

  • Week 1 – We review all the chapters about Building Codes, Regulations, and Accessibility from all publishers.
  • Week 2 – We review all the chapters about Evironmental Issues chapters from all publishers.
  • Week 3 – We review all the Construction Documents chapters (Specs, Project Manuals, and Bidding) from all publishers.
  • Weeks 4 & 5 – We review all the Project and Practice Management chapters (contracts, CA, budgets, and schedule) from all publishers.

After we’ve completed a review of all the study materials from different publishers, then we start getting more focused. We start drilling down deep and creating a working knowledge of it. Sometimes the chapters do not make sense until you’ve read ALL of the chapters.

If you join the Young Architect email list, I’ll share the ARE Boot Camp Syllabus for the 4.0 CDS program with you. It has all the chapters for Ballast and Kaplan organized in the manner I described above.

So why does the ARE Test Prep Publishing Industry even exist if this information is available to everyone?!?!?????

Great question!

It exists to make your life easier. This entire industry exists to help you decipher the Test Specification and make sense of it.

In the back of the 5.0 Handbook and each 4.0 study guide, NCARB has a lengthy list of recommended references for each exam. But there’s something very important that I want you to know about NCARB’s list:

Their list of recommended references includes the books that they used to create the ARE Questions. That doesn’t mean that they make good study materials. Trying to study for any exam by only using NCARB’s recommended list is the least efficient way to study for the Architect Exam.

I’ll admit that there are many great books on their list, which were tremendously helpful to me for passing my exams. But only after I’d been studying for many weeks, I used them to supplement my studying in ways that the ARE Study Materials weren’t providing me.

Reading NCARB’s list of recommended references is not a good place to start studying for an exam. Finding the information in all these books is like finding a needle in a haystack.

That’s why the ARE Test Prep Publishing industry exists.

All the publishers use NCARB’s reference list and compare it to the test spec. Then they use it as a starting point for creating their content—for someone studying for the Architect Exam. All of the books on NCARB’s List were not written with the intention of helping people pass the Architect Exam.

NCARB will also never acknowledge or send you to go study Materials from the private test-prep industry. It creates a conflict of interest for them. Instead, it’s safer for NCARB to just say, “Go study the books we created the exam questions from.” But my advice is: “Go study the books that were created to help you pass the Architect Exam first!”

The last thing I’ll say about the NCARB’s recommended reference list is that about 90% of books they recommend (which aren’t related to building codes) are published by John Wiley or McGraw Hill. It’s just something interesting I recently noticed while writing this blog post.

There’re tons of books about practicing architecture, which are extremely helpful for studying for the ARE. I’m not sure why those 2 publishers have the monopoly on NCARB’s Recommended References.

The ARE Test-Prep Industry Generally Does a Great Job!

Many people ask me which book is going to help them pass their test. And my answer is: All of them!

None of these publishers are perfect. All of them interpret the Test Specification differently. Each of them emphasizes and focuses on different pieces of it, which is why you need to cross-train with different publishers.

Each exam’s study materials is often written by a different author. By the time you finish your exams, you’ll have studied materials written by HUNDREDS of different people. Some of these writers will be very insightful, but others not so much.

You also need to consider the chemistry between your learning style and the writer. Even though an author worked really well for helping you understand the content, he or she could be very confusing to someone else studying for the same exam.

In a way, it’s kinda like dating:

We all have different backgrounds, experiences, expertise, and skills. First and foremost, you need to figure out what works for you first. Then move forward from there.

Old ARE 3.1 and 4.0 materials will still be very valuable, moving into the ARE 5.0 era and beyond.

Just because we’re now living in the age of ARE 5.0, it doesn’t mean you should ignore old ARE 3.1 and 4.0 information. If you understand the other versions of the ARE and know your Test Specification, it shouldn’t be too hard to extract value from older ARE Study Materials.

If you are studying for 5.0 exams and have access to old ARE 4.0 study material, take a look at it. It’s still very valid and applicable.

Many years’ worth of really valuable information are available in this content, which many people write off as “outdated” because of the 5.0 transition. I would pay attention to the study guide, practice questions, and even the vignettes.

WTF? The Vignettes?! What’re you talking about? Are you crazy?!??

Ahhh yes, the vignettes. Dare I say that dirty word? Let’s discuss the vignettes for second.

The rest of the profession and I applaud NCARB for eliminating the vignettes. But remember that the vignettes tested significant parts of the Test Specification, which will still be tested—just in a different way.

I’m not saying you should start practice-drawing vignettes if you don’t have to.

I believe its worth spending 1 hour watching the vignette videos that NCARB has published. Then they start making a list for each vignette that answers the following questions:

What ideas and concepts are being tested in this vignettes?

What would I need to know?

All of this information will come up somewhere in their 5.0 exams. The study material providers also need to figure out how to teach these ideas and concepts—without using the vignettes as a medium.

That’s why I think the vignettes shouldn’t be completely forgotten about (even after they’re retired).

None of these publishers are perfect.

They can’t ever be. But I do think they do a fine job at creating great study materials.

We have better study materials than we did 5-10 years ago because of:

  • Technology
  • A better test specification
  • This growing industry of people who want to support you in passing your exam

But most importantly….

You need to do your part. Dive into this information, and start dissecting it. Don’t just blindly rely on the publishers to give you what they think you’ll need.

Do your part, and get familiar with this data.

Keep up the good work. I’ll be publishing my reviews of the Ballast and Architect Exam Prep 5.0 study materials shortly.

About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.