What is the best testing order for ARE 4.0?!???

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What is the best testing order for the Architect 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.

Everyone wants to know “Whats the best testing order for the Architect Registration Exam?”

Having seven exams to tackle in 5 years, many people spend a lot of time worrying about the best order to take the Architect Registration Exam.  Where the hell do you even get started?


That’s what I did.
That order, or a variation of it, are what many people do.

Before I give you all the details, there is something very important that you need to know.


You will get questions from any exam on any exam.  

At the beginning of the process you are at a disadvantage because you have zero ARE’s under your belt.

At the end of the process you are at a disadvantage because you have forgotten everything you memorized from the first few exams.

To answer your question about which test to take first.

It doesn’t matter.


The CDS PPP and SPD Trifecta

Many people like to take CDS, PPP and SPD in that order because the study materials build upon each other. Here’s why…

Construction Documents and Services (CDS)
Contains tons of legal contract stuff, the basics of Architecture as a Business and looks at some of the basics of working in an architecture office or creating construction drawings. Having no testing experience, this test is usually the one test that most ARE Candidates are least intimidated by and existing practical knowledge of. Click here for a full description of CDS.

Programming, Planning and Practice (PPP)
A great deal of what was studied in CDS will directly carry over into PPP. PPP gets into the early stages of a project, it looks at programming and early design concepts. Click here for a full description of PPP.

Site Planning and Design (SPD)
Since site planning is integral to the early stages of the design process, this is where the broad design concepts learned in PPP start considering the site. I personally found the SPD vignettes to be tricky to get the hang of, but having CDS and PPP under my belt helped. Click here for a full description of SPD.

As a disclaimer I must say that many, but not everyone follows this philosophy.


The Island exams (SD, SS)

I call these exams islands because the content doesn’t really have any distinct overlapping information. Depending upon how comfortable you are with these subjects, these 3 exams could be very challenging or an easy win.


Schematic Design (SD)
This is about solving 2 graphic vignettes. You may want to consider how comfortable you are with the NCARB software as a gauge to taking this test sooner or later.  Click here for a full description of SD.


Structural Systems (SS)
I have never been great with calculations and all the little nuances of structures. I could see how this test could be a walk in the park for some other people. There is a bit of overlap with BDCS either way. Click here for a full description of SS.


BS and BDCS aren’t BS

I thought there was some overlap in the content I studied for BS and BDCS. There are really BDCS questions on all the exams.

Building Systems (BS)
During architecture school I used to have a Professor who would yell about how the knowledge he is teaching us in his building systems class would make us more money than any other subjects being taught. His basis was the better educated architects were in these subjects, the less they would have to rely on engineers to do it all for them. Nevertheless the BS test is all about Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC, Acoustics, Elevators, etc.   Click here for a full description of BS.


Building Design and Construction Systems (BDCS)
Building construction
Remember this book from Architecture school? That is essentially the content of this exam. I found the vignettes to be quite challenging. Click here for a full description of BDCS.


Consider ARE 5.0

NCARB recently announced that with the roll out of ARE5.0, it is important to get CDS, PPP and SPD taken care of before the transition goes into effect.  Maybe that is something you should take into consideration.

In June of 2018 ARE 4.0 will be retired and the clock has already started ticking to get in and get out. 


Do what works for you.

If you kick ass at structures, go right ahead and take that first. Or if you want to conquer the vignettes early, then take SD First.

Everyone who has taken these tests will have a different experience during the ARE. You should tailor your journey to whatever works best for you. Start with wherever you feel comfortable starting.


The most important thing to consider.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which test you take first. I have watched many people burn a ton of energy worrying about this and never actually begin the process.

What really matters is…     Are you REALLY going to show up to study over and over again and do all this hard work?

What really matters is…     When you fail an exam, are you going to let it deflate your dreams of becoming a licensed architect?


If you could just get those 2 mindsets taken care of, you’re 3/4 of the way there.

Stop planning and just start studying.


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.

If you enjoyed this post, you should also check out:

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.

Gang Chen - May 24, 2014

Good recommendation!

Gang Chen, Author, AIA, LEED AP BD+C (http://GeeForums.com/)

What is the Architect Registration Exam? - Young Architect - August 5, 2014

[…] to take the exams. There’s a lot of theories out there and a lot of contrasting opinions about ARE testing order but at the end of the day, It doesn’t really matter. Much of the study material in the ARE feeds […]

Bobbi O - January 13, 2016

Hello Michael,

Thanks for your website and your advise.
David Thaddeus recommend to take BDCS and SS close together. I was wondering why you did BS between them? “CDS, PPP, SPD, SD, SS, BS, BDCS”

So far I have SD (pass), SPD (fail), SS (no results yet). I think depending on the SS results the next round will be determined on the result keeping CDS, PPP, SPD together. However I was thinking of leaving BS for last., maybe my weakest knowledge. Then redo any fails.

Thanks again

Troy - August 20, 2016

Michael, I think your advice is great.

To add, another thing I have found helpful is to consider the tasks I am engaged in and will be engaged in at work and select a test that fits. My CDS studying was significantly benefitted by the construction admin I was doing at work. Likewise I became more knowledgeable about ca from the studying, which really is the point of the ARE. I’ll be looking at the BS or SS test next with the consultant coordination to come on my current project.

Best luck to everyone!

    Michael Riscica - August 20, 2016

    Thank you.
    The biggest benefit of going through this process is to become a better Architect!

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