5 Lessons I Learned Studying For the Architect Registration Exam

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Architecture Registration Exam


This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architecture Registration Exam Series.

5 Lessons I Learned Studying For the Architect Registration Exam

Several weeks ago I finished passing all seven divisions of the Architect Registration Exam. I still have several more things I need to do for the state of Oregon before I can say that I am an “architect” but as I have been saying to everyone “…it’s basically downhill from here.”

To get to this point you need to obtain a Bachelor’s or Master’s of Architecture (from an accredited program), complete 3.5 years of internship training and pass 7 very difficult exams relating to the health safety and welfare of the public.  Then, depending upon which state you are in you may need to jump through additional hoops. Many states have extra exams on their state specific laws and I know California has an extra technical exam for understanding how earthquakes effect buildings.

Everyone has a very different experience taking the exam. The National Council of Architecture Board (NCARB) allows each candidate 5 years to complete all sections of the exam. After 5 years, the exams start expiring and would need to be retaken. The Architect Registration Exam (ARE) is a self-guided process. You basically study your heart out and then schedule each exam when you are ready.

Personally, for me, passing the architect’s exam was definitely the hardest part of becoming an architect. The test was extremely grueling, emotional, and had many highs and lows. Architecture is such a broad subject and you could go on forever finding stuff that you need to know as an architect. Taking the ARE basically forced me to learn everything I didn’t have time to study (..or spend enough time on) in architecture school.

Here is a list of a few things that I learned during my time with the exam.

1. Showing up is the hardest part

At the end of it all, I estimate I spent approximately 1,000 hours preparing for these exams. When I started, I assumed I could do it in about half that amount of time.

While I was studying the rest of the world was making money, getting married, having kids, partying, traveling, and really enjoying their lives.  Saying that sounds like a lot of fun. But I need to study.” That became the hardest part for me. Life was happening while you’re taking the exam and it’s not going to stop just because you have to study.

For me, it was really hard finding an extra 6-12 hours to study for the architecture exam – especially after I worked 40 hours a week. This time typically came from my weekends, weeknights after work, lunch breaks, and even waking up at 5:00am to study for a little bit before I went into the office.

The funny thing is that after I was able to commit to showing up, the studying wasn’t that hard. I really felt like showing up every day was significantly more difficult than studying the material after I showed up to start studying.

2. Learning to love the process.

Almost immediately after starting to study for the first exam I quickly discovered that studying for these exams will make me a better architect, employee and much more aware as a citizen. And it’s true. Almost immediately the content I was studying was directly helping me in the office. Very frequently there are moments when the studying will be directly applicable to what is happening in the office at that moment or vice versa. It is important to notice when this happens.

3. The concept of momentum

The more I study, the easier it gets. The easier the studying gets, the easier it is to show up every day. This is how momentum is built. The more momentum you have the easier it is to knock down barriers.

Starting to build momentum is the hardest part. It’s like starting to run a marathon waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, running through the mud is actually making you stronger.

When I was studying I would often postpone any information that I was intimidated by until I had already built substantial momentum with – this made it easier to grasp the concept.

My momentum was extremely hard to build and incredibly easy to lose. But once I had it, I was on fire.

4. No one else really cares as much as you.

Since the architect’s exam is a self-guided process, I found the journey, at times, to be very lonely. There is a million good reasons not to spend all your time, money, and energy on these exams.

Your mom, your friends, your coworkers, friends from architecture school and everyone you know all want you to succeed. However, if you decide to never finish the ARE their lives won’t change. You can still have a very successful career without being a licensed architect and live a very happy life. Architecture school had a lot of camaraderie that the ARE does not have. If you decide not to show up, no one will notice. Except you!

You need to be your biggest cheerleader. There is a million other things I could have been doing instead of spending 1000 hours studying for this exam. Finishing this process and having my own practice kept me very motivated.

5. Finding the Balance.

Finding the balance of juggling the exams and the rest of your life is a real art form. I can’t ever say I really figured it out. Architecture school definitely never taught me about finding balance. There was just always more that could be done. I regularly pulled all-nighters and slept on the floor of the studio for many years to get ahead. Unfortunately, I felt like the exam was like that as well.

Studying for the exams was actually most productive when I allowed myself to enjoy my life. Since this self-guided process can be very lonely I actually did the best at finding balance when I was regularly socializing with friends and colleagues. Not studying for a night to enjoy myself socializing was at times more productive at passing the exams then just studying around the clock.

Since I was also processing so much information, the creative side of me would often have freak outs. During the exams I truly created some beautiful art, learned to brew beer and cook, read fascinating books (not about architecture) and came up with millions of great ideas that I could execute due to my current situation.

I write this not to scare anyone from taking the exam, but in fact to encourage you. Anyone can finish these exams. It required a lot of persistence, but if you really want it you can definitely have it. I met countless people who started or desired to finish the ARE who never followed through. All of them are talented, smart and creative who could have probably passed it in less hours then I did, but it’s was just too big of a commitment.


Read the full series
This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architect Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architect Registration Exam Series.

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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.

Archibison - March 10, 2014

Thank you for sharing your story. I am in that space now where I need to just make the complete sacrifice to get this done in the midst of being a wife, mom and full time employee. Momentum has been my downfall and I didn’t realize it until you verbalized it! Thanks again…

    Michael Riscica - March 10, 2014

    Hey your welcome. Thanks for the comment.
    The ARE’s dont lend themselves to living a normal life.

    Momentum is huge, start small and over time it will build on itself.

    Good luck!

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