What’s the Best Testing Order for ARE 5.0?!? Help, I’m Just Getting Started.

Are you having trouble getting started or making progress on the Architect Exam?!?? Is the self-guided nature of the ARE not working for you?

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The New 5.0 Exam

If you’re just getting started on the Architect Registration Exam, you may be overwhelmed. You may have no idea what test to even study for or even where to begin.

One of the biggest challenges with ARE 5.0 is that it doesn’t have a 20-year track record, which the previous exam had. All the previous ARE updates were minor compared to the 4.0 to 5.0 update.

The ARE testing order and strategy many people used for 4.0 isn’t applicable anymore, because many things have changed.

However, it’s really not that hard to figure out a solid testing strategy. But before we start talking about the order of exams, let’s quickly review what ARE 5.0 is, just so everyone is on the same page.

ARE 5.0 Explained in 30 seconds.

Here’s my 30-second explanation of the entire ARE 5.0 exams. I could talk for hours about ARE 5.0 (and I sometimes do), so I accept zero responsibility for leaving anything out my 30-second explanation.

ARE 5.0 consists of 6 exams:

1. Practice Management (PcM)
2. Project Management (PjM)
3. Programming and Analysis (PA)
4. Project Planning and Design (PPD)
5. Project Development and Documentation (PDD)
6. Construction and Evaluation (CE)

The organization of these exams is similar to the timeline of a theoretical architecture project. What does that even mean?! Here’s an example:

1. Practice Management Exam (PcM)
Before you can have an architecture project, you must have an architecture business. This exam is all about establishing a business, laws, ethics, contracts, and business structure.
Think: Business of Architecture.

2. Project Management Exam (PjM)
The moment a client signs that contract, you now have a project. This exam is all about managing budgets, employees, consultants, schedules, risks, quality assurance, and fees.
Think: Management of resources.

3. Programming and Analysis Exam (PA)
The first step of a project is uncovering the problem and interpreting the data. This exam is all about programming, site analysis, and zoning/codes.  A big part is also about evaluating requirements: environmental, social, economic, and project.
Think: Investigation (not design)

4. Project Planning and Design Exam (PPD)
Now you’ll start moving into design and schematic designs of sites and buildings. The selection of systems is a big part of this exam. Choosing an appropriate structural and MEP systems early in the design process.
Think: Selection

5. Project Development and Documentation Exam (PDD)
This exam zooms in on the detail you need to know while creating construction documents. Do you understand code, material selection, construction techniques, and structural and MEP details?
Think: Integration                                                               

6. Construction and Evaluation Exam (CE)
The drawings have now left the Architect’s office. This exam looks at bidding, negotiations, construction contracts, submittals, shop drawings, general conditions, evaluations, and a whole lot more.
Think: Construction Administration

Whew! For a much more detailed explanation of these exams, I recommend that you refer to NCARB’s ARE 5.0 Handbook, also known as the ARE 5.0 Bible.

What’s the difference between ARE 4.0 vs ARE 5.0??

Reorganizing the exams according to “the timeline of a theoretical architecture project” is the single biggest change between ARE 4.0 and ARE 5.0.

The exams from ARE 4.0 are organized more by the subject:

  1. Structural Systems (SS): General and lateral structures
  2. Building Systems (BS): MEP and engineering
  3. Building Design and Construction System (BDCS): Building construction and science
  4. Schematic Design (SD): Life safety and accessibility (all vignettes)
  5. Construction Documents and Services (CDS): Business, contracts, CA, and CD’s
  6. Project Planning and Practice (PPP): Programming and predesign
  7. Site Design and Planning (SPD): Everything related to sites and parking.

In ARE 4.0, you can see questions relating to any phase of the project, as long as it falls under any of these subjects.


ARE 4.0 is organized by subjects, so you’re tested across the entire timeline of a project.


ARE 5.0 is organized by the timeline, so you’re tested across all subjects.

Grouping Exams Together

Generally speaking, ARE 5.0 is set up really well for studying for multiple exams at the same time. For instance, many people are spending a larger amounts of time studying for the bigger picture, but then taking the exams of that group closer together.

Let me explain:

In PcM, PjM, and CE (contracts, business of architecture, project management, and construction administration), there’s a significant overlap between these topics. These 3 exams primarily make up the CDS exam.

The PA (programming and investigation) exam kind of stands alone. It mostly consists of PPP, SD, and SPD.

PPD and PDD (structures, MEP, and engineering) these topics are really hard to study for just a moment in time, without seeing the holistic picture. These 2 exams consist of SPD, SD, BS, SS, and BDCS.

My advice for ARE 5.0 testing strategy is this:

Start studying with a zoomed-out view of multiple exams. As you start to feel more comfortable with big concepts, choose an exam, and aggressively focus on it. Often you need to see the whole thing holistically, before the pieces start to make sense. But once it does, you can start to zoom in and focus intensely towards a particular exam.

I organize a 10 week program that helps people get started with making progress on their exams: The ARE Boot Camp. Until June 2018, the ARE is in a state of transition.  And currently, a lot of people are studying for CDS and PPP.

When 5.0 people sign up for the program, I have them study for CDS, for the first 5 weeks the program (obviously without the vignettes). The CDS exam gives a really nice, broad overview of the PcM, PjM, and CE exams.

After 5 weeks (and after they’ve completed the review of all the CDS study materials), I have them very closely review the PcM, PjM, and CE exams, then choose one. For the remaining 5 weeks, they very aggressively attack studying for the ARE 5.0 exam and using Architect Exam Prep and Ballast.

Often, their second ARE 5.0 is not scheduled far behind their first one because of the significant overlap.

Using 4.0 Study Materials

Hallelujah! Those stupid vignettes and ARE 4.0 is being retired, but I wouldn’t ignore those dusty old 4.0 study materials, even though we’re now in the era of ARE 5.0.

Old study materials will be incredibly valuable to anyone studying for ARE 5.0, especially if your office or friends already own the books. I’d recommend getting familiar with the ARE 4.0 exams. Then you can easily navigate the old 4.0 materials, which will help you find content for ARE 5.0.

IGNORE THE KAPLAN YEARS ON THE COVERS OF ARE 4.0 STUDY MATERIAL. I use a 2007 CDS Kaplan book that I purchased off amazon for $10, to run the ARE Boot Camp and it’s awesome! It even has all the same errors and mistakes that is in the 2012 CDS Kaplan book has!

Kaplan used to design a new cover for their books every year, without making any revisions to the content inside. They did this as a way to justify charging a more expensive price for the more recent book, they tried to pass off the new books as being updated. But they weren’t actually revised, and most ARE Candidates are too smart to fall for this lame marketing strategy.

The Kaplan Architect Exam division is now in the process of being rebranded by a new parent company: Brightwood Architecture Education.

If Your Just Getting Started from the Very Beginning

Where should you begin?

Obviously start by reading Young Architect and join the email list, duh!

No seriously, I always like to recommend people get started by just reading for about 2 weeks, and not even reading ARE study materials. I say read something enjoyable, something your interested in, or even my easy to read self-help book about the ARE’s. Anything besides boring ARE study materials.

Reading is a lot like exercise. If you want to run a marathon you don’t just jump off the couch and run 18 miles on day one. No, you train for 6 months 3-5 times a week running shorter distances and slowly ramping up to being able to run 26 miles. Studying for the the ARE is the same way.

Focus on showing up, finding time to read, being quiet, and processing what you read. If your not processing what you read, then find something more interesting to read. Showing up over and over again is really the most important part.

Treat it like a 2-week warmup, because that’s exactly what it is.

90% of the challenge of passing these exams is consistently showing up to quietly sit and get focused. Practice showing up for something you enjoy reading first, then start showing up to study for the architect exam.

If you can get “showing up” dialed in, then it happens naturally: day after day, rain or shine, sick or well, year after year. THEN studying for the ARE’s becomes an enjoyable education in practicing architecture. Lots of growth happens during this process, but if you can’t show up for it, it’s not going to happen by itself.

“…but I want to complete the entire ARE process in 6 months.”

Too many people spend too much time worrying about the speed and time it’ll take for them to complete the entire process— BEFORE they’ve made progress or shown up to do any of the work.

Studying for the ARE is an education, and this information will make you a better Architect, Employee, and Entrepreneur. Just like architecture school, the ARE is kind of a mind fuck. You’re going to learn a lot.

Too many people treat the ARE as a silly annoying hurdle, trying to do the minimum or hack their way past it. In school, did you just do the minimum on your design projects so you could get a passing grade?  I’m sure you’ve learned by now, architecture is the worst profession for people with a “get rich quick” mentality.

Use this opportunity as personal growth at becoming a better architect, while trying to pass these tests. Spend that extra time going above and beyond the exam, so your more knowledgeable and better prepared to be successful in the real world.  Because practicing architecture in our complicated modern world can be a lot more brutal, then these silly exams.

Good luck.


Michael Riscica AIA CSI

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.

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