Don’t Study For CDS Until You Read This!

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Opened book and hand drawing building sketches

Construction Documents and Services (CDS) is usually everyone’s first exam. It’s a fantastic place to start on the ARE’s. There is a ton of overlapping information between CDS, PPP and SPD. I like CDS as a first exam because it really dives in deep with all the legal stuff around being an architect. I think its best to get this information ironed out early on in your studying and testing.

Because the ARE 5.0 switcheroo happening, there has been more people beginning the ARE then ever before.  If you can finish the CDS, PPP, and SPD trifecta before June 2018, you’ll only have to take 2 more ARE’s in 5.0, instead of 4 exams in 4.0. It’s a pretty sweet deal, if you`re just getting started with the ARE.

The CDS exam is my world. At this point in my life, I’ve talked about CDS more than I ever imagined I would when I passed this test 6 years ago. Since fall of 2015 I have been hosting The Young Architect ARE Boot Camp (Virtual Study Group). The program helps ARE candidates prepare for the CDS exam.

Here are a few things I have learned about CDS:

Stop Worrying about the Option for 5 or 7 Exams

There is a ton of noise about this:

Do I finish my exams in 5.0, or should I finish in 4.0?!???

Honestly, until you have completed CDS, PPP, and SPD, worrying about your specific path through the ARE is a big waste of energy.  A lot of stuff needs to happen before you get to this fork in the road.

Passing CDS, PPP, and SPD is not a walk in the park. These are not easy exams. They are a ton of work. It took me a year of hardcore studying to get to that point.

It’s kind of like worrying about what your thesis project will be—when you’re only halfway through your very first semester of architecture school.

Just worry about the test you’re working on right now. Be here now.

Diagram of an architecture project

The Life of an Architecture Project – Infographic

A few years ago, I found an old AutoCAD file in a dusty corner of the ARE FTP website. When I opened it, I found this beautiful infographic, which diagrammatically shows the entire life of an architecture project on a giant timeline.  I spent a few hours cleaning up the AutoCAD  file, saved it as a PDF, and shared it as a blog post.

It graphically shows every AIA Document, the phases of a project, the relationships between the owner, architect, and contractor, time and money.

We use this file during the first few weeks of my ARE Boot Camp. I have everyone print it out and start reading it. (Using a highlighter to mark off each piece of text you’ve read makes it easier not to get lost.)

One last thing I want to mention about this infographic…..

The new ARE 5.0 exams are very closely aligned with this old infographic. Each 5.0 exam will be testing your knowledge about a different time frame over the course of a project. For example….

Rather then structures being one exam. What kind of information do you need to know about structures during schematic design vs construction documentation vs construction?

I’ll be explaining this more in future blog posts.

Use Practice Questions from Day 1

In my Designer Hacks review, I went off on a rant about practice questions. Without repeating myself, you should definitely make working on ARE Practice questions part of your studying process from Day 1.

Your ability to answer the questions is 75% of the battle. You could be the top Industry Expert on Concrete and know everything there is to know about it. But if you haven’t practiced how to respond to ARE questions, you will get confused by how the question is asked and answer the concrete question incorrectly.

I’m not being dramatic. This happens all the time.

People who speak English as a second language always get beaten up hard by the semantics of ARE questions. I believe most people don’t start understanding how to answer practice questions until their 3rd or 4th exam, but the sooner you start practicing the faster you’ll get there.

Reprogram your brain to think it’s a really good thing to get practice questions wrong. Each time you get a practice question wrong, you get feedback about the gaps in your knowledge. The goal is to fill in all those gaps: That’s what you’re working towards.

Check out my other blogpost about ARE Practice Questions.

The Vignette

The vignette on CDS is the easiest one out of all of them. However, since this is the first time you’re using the software, there is an added learning curve about how to solve this vignette.

NCARB only gives you the failed answer and a passing answer, with very little additional data.

ARE Advisor has a really great product, which teaches you step-by-step how to solve the NCARB Practice Vignette. It’s perfect for getting up to speed fast. I would also recommend reading my blog post that is all about the vignettes.

Understand the Content Areas

The Content Areas are the broad overview that NCARB gives you about what is on the exam. I highly recommend constantly reviewing (and obsessing about) what NCARB lists as being in each CDS Content Area.

In the ARE Boot Camp, we focus on each content area – one at a time and study all material for that content area together. I highly recommend that you do the same thing. Each publisher has their own style of teaching each content area, and some of them may resonate with you more than others.

It’s kind of like you’re dating. Yes, I said it. It’s kind of like your dating the ARE study materials. They are all good, but some are just better than others.

One day, I sat down with all the Content Areas and looked up the locations of everything in the Ballast and Kaplan study materials. This became the outline of what makes up the ARE Boot Camp Syllabus.

If you sign sign up to get on the Young Architect Email list, I will give you that information.

Don’t Ask The Question!

Imagine spending 2.5 years working on the ARE, and every 15 minutes, someone asks the annoying question:

Hi, I’m just getting started studying for the CDS exam. Can you tell me what the best study materials are, and what I need to know?

OK Thanks Bye

Meanwhile, this question has been answered on millions of webpages and conversations across the internet. But let me drop everything to answer this complete stranger’s question, who offers no value in return.

The people in the ARE Forums and Facebook groups are not your personal butlers. Do a google search. Or even better, just go read The Ultimate List of ARE Study Materials, where I discuss every single book used for every ARE Exam.

You’ll Probably Fail.

OK fine, I’m just teasing. But I want you to know that lots of people fail their very first ARE. The first ARE is always the hardest. You are always at a severe disadvantage when you’re taking your first ARE.

Prepare yourself from the beginning, and commit to taking PPP regardless of your result on CDS.

I’ll say that again. Whether you pass or fail CDS, you’re studying for and taking PPP right after you take CDS.

PPP content is a nice change of pace from CDS.

CDS helps you prepare for PPP, and PPP helps you prepare for CDS… After you take PPP, study to retake CDS. Use different study materials, and hit the ball out of the park. Then move on to SPD.

Does that make sense?

Failing an exam is all part of the process. Being able to keep coming back is what makes all the difference. I failed 4 different divisions. You have only really failed if you let a not passing grade hold you back from being a licensed architect.

Don’t Stop Studying after CDS

The very hardest component of the ARE is rebuilding your momentum if you lose it. Make sure studying remains a part of your life. Do not go back to the normal life that you had before you started studying for the ARE. If you do, it will be twice as hard to rebuild your momentum.

I sound like a psycho, but I have learned that the people who do complete the ARE are all a little bit psycho.

Buy PPP Study Materials before Taking CDS, and Use Them.

There’s a ton of overlap between CDS, PPP, and SPD. All of the ARE study materials do a very poor job of accounting for this overlap, which is another reason why you’re at a severe disadvantage when you’re taking your first ARE.

The Ballast book is just one huge bible that never repeats itself. No matter what exam you’re taking, you must cross-reference study materials from other exams.

I highly recommend reading the PPP study materials and using the PPP practice questions before you take CDS. Don’t go too crazy because you’ll come back to this stuff later, but I highly recommend it.

Here are links:

For PPP Kaplan Study Guide Click year for corresponding edition 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 (dont worry about the year, the content doesn’t change)
For PPP Kaplan Question and Answers Click year for corresponding edition 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013
For PPP Kaplan Practice Vignettes Click year for corresponding edition 2010 and 2012
Gang Chen
Architect Exam Prep
ARE Advisor

Focus on Showing Up and Building Momentum for at Least 5 weeks

If I asked you to jump off the couch right now and run a 26-mile marathon in less than 4 hours, could you do it?!?

No, of course not. Running marathons takes 6 months of preparation and hard work, which all build up towards that one big race.

Studying for the ARE is the same exact concept. In the ARE Boot Camp, we start slow and ramp up our studying efforts: It’s similar to training for a marathon.

The first 5 weeks, we spend a lot of time and energy working on building a habit of studying. You can’t expect to immediately start sitting and studying for 5-15 hours a week while you work 40 hours. Everyone has different study habits, personal lives, and routines.

When you’re just getting started working on the ARE, focus on the baby steps and on building consistency. Studying for the ARE needs to happen every single day. It’s like brushing your teeth.

My rule of thumb is 100 hours per exam.  Generally speaking, that was enough time for me to effectively prepare. Many people do it in less time, but 100 hours a nice conservative amount of time.

The Over-Studying Myth

In the past week, I have heard several people, including NCARB representatives, frown at the idea of over-studying. I disagree.

Over-studying is good. It guarantees success and prepares you for your next exam. Study your ass off, and strengthen your chances of passing. Start looking at PPP before you even take CDS.

ARE 4.0 was soooo nicely compartmentalized. ARE 5.0 takes all those neat compartments, dumps all the ARE information into a big pile on the floor, mixes it up, and then reorders all the study materials into 6 exams—in an order that corresponds to the timeline of an actual project.

With ARE 5.0 on the horizon, over-studying and cross-training between exams and publishers is going to be more necessary than ARE 4.0.

Studying for the ARE is a fantastic education for practicing architecture. It’s turning you into a better Architect. Embrace over-studying and do everything you can to make sure you pass the test.

The Value of Notes

The last 2 weeks of the ARE Boot Camp, I have everyone put their Ballast and Kaplan books away, and we focus more on Jenny’s notes and Caroline’s notes. These notes strip away all the BS from the ARE study materials. They are fantastic resources to study as you get closer to your exam day.

The value in ARE Notes is that after you’ve spent enough time with the long-form versions of this information, moving to streamlined version really helps facilitate getting the information in your head.

Set Up a Realistic Schedule

I don’t subscribe to the thinking that “the ARE is no big deal, and everyone should pass these exams in less than a year.”

A very small percentile of people finish the exam in less than a year. NCARB does a great job of recognizing the people who manage this insane task. But I want you to know that isn’t the norm, especially while working 40 hours a week.

It takes an average of 2.5 years to complete the ARE, and that 2.5 number is only taking into account the people who got to the finish line. There are many, many people who start but never complete the process, and they aren’t being accounted for.

Check out my blogpost about setting up a conservative ARE study schedule for someone that works 40 hours a week.

Join the NCARB ARE Facebook Group

There is a really good group of people on the ARE Facebook Group, answering questions, sharing information, studying tricks, supporting and encouraging each other around the ARE.

Before you start talking about the exam make sure you understand that NCARB is neurotic about people disclosing information about what they saw on their exam. In 2009 they threw the book at a handful of candidates who disclosed exam content on the ARE Forum.

Here is the blog post about ARE Confidentiality.

Here’s a link to the NCARB ARE Facebook Group.

That’s all for now.
Good Luck With CDS!



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.