5 Hard Truths about the Architecture Registration Exam

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I’m not an Architect; I’m a Licensed Architect.

I graduated from architecture school, completed several years of internship hours and paperwork, and passed 7 brutal exams. And finally, I obtained my architecture license two years ago. It was a lot of work, therefore, I refer to myself a Licensed Architect, not just an Architect. I’m a Licensed Architect.

Completing the Architecture Registration Exam was definitely the most challenging part of becoming a Licensed Architect. It’s not an easy exam, and it’s not supposed to be.

Today, while I was riding my bicycle, I was thinking back about my experience during the exam. I realized a couple of hard truths, which I can now really appreciate about the ARE—since the whole process is now 2 years behind me.

Let me elaborate…

5 hard truths

The 5 Hard Truths about the Architecture Registration Exam

1. Going through this process will make you a better Architect.

Completing the ARE is as much work as getting another degree. It forces you to study and learn topics about practicing architecture, which you never learned in the office or at school—and then you need to be able to take a test about what you studied.

I don’t care if you ever get your license. The truth is: Studying how to practice architecture and taking a test about it, will drastically help you become a better and more informed Architect.

Studying for the ARE’s makes you a more valuable Employee. Studying for the ARE’s helps you earn more money. Studying for the ARE’s helps you become more confident in the office and with your career.

I can’t tell you how many times this point gets overlooked when people discuss why they’re pursuing architectural licensing—or why you should pursue it.

No one ever acknowledges that they just want to get better at the craft of practicing Architecture, and taking the ARE’s is a great way to get there.

Going through this process is an awesome way for recent graduates with little experience to jumpstart their professional architecture careers. In some ways, studying for the ARE’s is a better education for practicing architecture, than having many years of experience—working on the same type of project.

2. The ARE Doesn’t Care About You.

After recently listening to someone who failed their first exam complain all about  the ARE, NCARB, and everything about architectural licensing, I realized this…. This was the first time in this person’s life something has told them:

NOPE. Not good enough. Try again. Do not pass go or collect $200. 

The ARE doesn’t care:

  • Who you are.
  • The color of your skin.
  • If your male or female.
  • How many kids you have.
  • Who your parents are.
  • How much money they have.
  • What you’ve done.
  • What your last name is.
  • Where you went to school.
  • What your grades were.
  • How important you were to the AIAS.
  • Where you work.
  • What your experience is.
  • How amazing your portfolio is.
  • Who your friends are.
  • What kind of car you drive.
  • How much money is left in Grandma’s trust fund.
  • How fast your computer is.
  • or you name it….

Nope. The ARE doesn’t care.

The only thing the ARE cares about is your ability to demonstrate that you can make decisions that protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Let’s just call the kettle black and admit that the university system is in business to make money. As long as you keep paying them, you can go to architecture school forever and they will keep giving you degrees and smiling as they take your money.

Trust me, NCARB wants your money too, but making money isn’t the purpose of NCARB. (sidenote – NCARB is a non-profit organization that is heavily subsidized by hundreds of volunteer licensed architects from EVERY demographic and jurisdiction.) The purpose of NCARB is to protect the Health Safety and Welfare of the public by protecting the sanctity of Architectural Licensing.

Therefore, you can’t sweet talk and buy your way through passing these exams, the same way you did with getting you architecture degrees. Nope. The system just doesn’t work that way.

3. It forces you to evaluate your motivations and intentions within the profession.

Not everyone who graduated from architecture school NEEDS to become a licensed architect.

Let’s be honest: People that graduate from architecture school have very successful careers as: Interior Designers, Owners/Representatives, Project Managers, Marketing Experts, Professors, Writers, Real Estate Agents, Construction Material Reps, Entrepreneurs, Politicians, Fashion Designers, Graphic Designers, Contractors Business Owners and many more.

If your unique gift that you offer the world isn’t aligned with becoming a licensed architect, then don’t do it.

The perfect time to evaluate your professional motivations and intentions is prior to starting on the ARE’s . Everyone who goes through this process has a stronger conviction about showing up and doing the work.

Many people have gotten very angry with me every time I say:

“Not everyone who went to Architecture school needs to get their architecture license.”

I keep saying it, because first and foremost, it’s about you…. Not the profession, Not the AIA, Not NCARB. It’s your life. Don’t let your Superiors, your Company, The AIA, NCARB, or whoever else push you down this path, because it was the right thing for them.

Go down the path because you want to go down it.

….And figuring this out first, is really powerful.

4. The ARE forces you to learn a lot about yourself.

A small percentage of people get through the exams in less than a year. The majority of people spend 2-3 years learning a lot about what their weaknesses are.

It’s just like life.

Some people are born looking like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, yet most of us aren’t. That’s OK. We’re all still beautiful people, and we learn to work with the hand we’ve been dealt.

I’m a visual learner and a slow reader. I always struggled with structures, and my creative side made it really hard to show up and read boring ARE textbooks.

Studying for the ARE is a 3-year process of focusing on your weaknesses and what you don’t know. That’s the complete opposite of the architecture school experience.

Let me explain….

Architecture school allows you to discover the design process by focusing on what your strengths and talents are. If you’re a great 3D modeler, water-color artist, renderer, or model builder, then architecture school allows you to use that to explore architecture and the design process.

The ARE is very different.

You’re always looking for the gaps in your knowledge, focusing on what you don’t know, and finding ways to fill in all those gaps. Then you take the test, and start the process all over again with the next test. The glass is always half-empty. You spend all your time focusing on what your bad at or what you don’t know for several years.

It can become psychologically taxing, but it’s also a fantastic way to learn a lot about yourself. Moving through this process and getting past these exams, can be a tremendous confidence builder once you have momentum.

5. It’s really about discipline, motivation, and commitment.

Will you show up over and over again, day after day, year after year?   How far will you go to get this license? How bad do you want it? What does success mean to you?

Maybe you’re too busy to find an extra 5-15 hours a week to study—after you’ve already worked 40 hours a week at the firm. So what makes you think you have the time to become a Licensed Entrepreneur Architect, if you can’t find the time just to study?

Architecture is not a 9-5 profession. Sure, working 9-5 will pay the bills, but if you want to compete, make a lot of money, or just be really good at what you do, then working from 5pm-9am on improving yourself is really what it takes.

And this brings it back to my first point about improving yourself. Going through the process of studying for the ARE’s is improving yourself as a Practicing Architect.

That’s all…

This is what I’ve been thinking about as I have been riding my bicycle across America.

Sorry to get all heavy about the ARE and the profession right in the middle of the summer. I know this kind of stuff isn’t what most people are thinking about right now.

WAIT A MINUTE!!!  ….That’s another hard truth about the ARE.

** Bonus: No One Cares about the ARE during the Summer **

It’s true.

Remember when I mentioned the small group of people who finish the ARE’s in 6 months, while it takes the rest of us 2-3 years? Well, those people are studying their asses off, while you’re hanging out with your friends at the beach.

It’s really hard to prepare for the ARE’s during the summer months.  Studying for the ARE’s right now is a lot like taking a Economics course during the summer break from architecture school. Some people do it, but most don’t.

Generally speaking, here is the calendar of the ARE’s:

January 1st until Memorial Day
Everyone is motivated, studying, and testing.

Memorial Day until Labor Day
Not many people are studying.

Labor Day until Thanksgiving
Everyone is back—motivated, studying, and testing.

Thanksgiving until the End of the Year
Only the people who are almost done are studying during the holidays.

That’s the pattern I’ve seen since I took my first exam in 2009. This year might be a little different, because NCARB just announced that ARE 5.0 will begin on November 1.

Have a great summer!

Michael Riscica AIA

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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.`

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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