Failing the Architecture Exam – Part 2

While I was becoming a Licensed Architect, failing the ARE became a big part of my story. It is for most people.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post sharing that story, and it received a huge response. Since then, I have seen a lot of failed exams, as well as a lot of bad beliefs about failing the ARE.  So a lot of people have asked me to write more about this very sensitive topic.

Getting Rich Quick

I don’t subscribe to the belief that the ARE is no big deal—that everyone should easily be able to complete all these exams in less than a year, while working 40 hours a week and living a healthy lifestyle.

That’s just not reality. It isn’t what’s happening.

Rarely, there are All-Star ARE Candidates, who actually complete the exams in less than a year while working full-time and managing other life responsibilities in a healthy way. According to NCARB’s historical data, it takes an average of 2.5 years to finish ARE 4.0. (I predict that this estimate will change to 2 years with ARE 5.0.) And guess what…

That’s just the people who finish.

How many people do you know from work and school who’ve started this process, but never finished or became a Licensed Architect for whatever reason?

….I can quickly name 20 off the top of my head, and I bet I could rattle off 50 or 100 more if I kept thinking about it.

When I started working on the ARE’s, I had very unrealistic expectations about how much work it really was. From 2009 to 2011, they profiled a guy on the NCARB website, who completed nine ARE 3.1 exams in about nine weeks. I read this profile several times, and thought to myself, “This ARE thing can’t be a big deal. I can easily get this finished in under a year.”

As I started studying, testing, and doing the work, I quickly learned that his story just wasn’t going to be my story. The ARE tests your ability to make decisions, and these concepts take time to learn, digest, and create a working knowledge.

Passing the ARE requires that you consistently work hard, remain focused, and maintain a very strong commitment to passing these exams. Rarely, I see people “get rich quick” and make it look easy, while the rest of us become licensed by consistently working hard and staying focused on the goal.

God bless NCARB and the AIA. They have the best of intentions, but they have often glamorized, profiled, and highlighted the very small percentile of All-Stars who finish the ARE’s in a very short amount of time. At the end of the day, it’s taking an average of 2.5 years for the profession to complete the ARE.

I truly believe that focusing too much on other people’s stories about the ARE has created a lot of unrealistic expectations—for both myself and all those very talented Architectural Designers who never completed their licensing process.

ARE Candidates Can’t Handle Failing.

I’m a junkie for books about entrepreneurship, especially ones with a little bit of self-help sprinkled throughout. In all the books I’ve read over the years, one of the most basic principles of entrepreneurship is learning how to fail.

They say the road to success involves learning how to fail. That means getting rejected, screwing up, losing, being called an idiot and taking major setbacks. It’s how you react, pick yourself back up, learn from them, and keep going that separates successful people from everyone else. Sure, success looks easy, but it’s really achieved by repeatedly failing and learning from that failure.

In all the years that I’ve been involved with the AREs (taking them, writing about them, and now helping people prepare for them), one of the most common traits I’ve observed is that ARE Candidates have a REALLY hard time with a failed exam. ARE Candidates are smart, well-educated, hardworking people who have never failed at anything in their lives.

When they do FAIL, I see them spend ten times more energy (then they spent studying) being angry or depressed about the fact that they failed their exam.

I even did this myself after failing my structures exam.

You’re Already Set Up for Failure.

Architecture School doesn’t set you up for success at taking and passing the Architect Registration Exam. Sure, you have an Architecture Degree, but standardized testing and a self-guided studying process were never a part of the Architectural Education process.

The traditional sense of failure really isn’t even a part of architecture school. Sure, we all know a bunch of people who didn’t show up, screwed around, did half-assed work, deserved to fail, and eventually got kicked out. They were boneheads.

In Architecture School, hardworking people that truly cared and did all the work were never held back by a very difficult standardized test.

Architecture School and the Licensing Process have little in common. Architecture School is all about learning design and history, being creative, and taking lots of risks that have zero consequences. Architecture School is phase 1.

Licensing is about studying how to practice architecture in our complicated, modern world, following all the rules to protect the public, and NEVER taking any risks. Licensing is Phase 2.

You need to learn how to walk, before you can learn how to run. You need to learn the fundamentals of design, before you learn to practice. I strongly believe Academia should be teaching fundamentals, history and design and not the licensing curriculum. (another blog post for another day)

I’m Sure You’re Really Talented.

Unfortunately, all the ARE cares about is your ability to recall the information you studied and give them the right answer. There is absolutely no creativity or brilliance involved in this process. Sometimes, the ones who get licensed first are the least creative people.

While studying for the ARE, being highly creative and always being trained to think outside the box became disadvantages for me. The same skillset that brought me success in Architecture School was holding me back on the ARE, because there is absolutely nowhere in all of these exams to use your creativity.

After I was done with my exams, this Young Architect blog was birthed from years of suppressed creativity.

Failing Is Only Part of the Process

I failed 4 ARE exams before I became a Licensed Architect. Failing 4 exams was my process. It was what I had to do to obtain my license. The longer I stayed bitter and upset about it, the longer it held me back from getting my license, and moving on with my life. Failing 4 exams was the process it took for me to obtain my architecture license. I wish I’d known earlier.

Sure, it sucks to lose $210.00, but think about how much money, time, and energy you’ve spent to get to this moment in your Architecture career. I bet you spent just as much money in a semester at the art supply store and didn’t question it or worry about it. You could fail 10 exams before you started passing them, and the cost of the ARE is still a bargain, compared to what you spent on your architecture education.

You Haven’t Wasted Your Time

If you fail an exam, YOU MUST KEEP GOING. Start studying to take the next exam, or immediately start studying for the retake.

If you stop, you will lose all of your momentum, including the studying you did, even though you didn’t pass.

You cannot let time and space stand in the way of moving forward on your exams. Time is the real enemy, much more then failing. The more time you let get between a failed exam and moving forward, it will be that much harder to pick up where you left off.

I truly believe that the only people who have failed the Architect Exam are the ones who didn’t pass a silly test, got really upset, and decided to give up on the desire to become licensed. While I don’t think everyone who graduated Architecture School should become Licensed, I personally know too many people who should be—but aren’t—because they couldn’t handle failing a test they studied hard for.

Tips for Studying to Retake

  • Try to use new study materials to get a fresh perspective. Then as your final review before taking the exam, revisit the old study materials you originally used. Often, the old materials will have new meaning later, after studying a fresh perspective.
  • Study hard for the parts you previously failed. Find supplemental materials on those topics.
  • Make sure you study everything again, not just the parts you failed. This tip will prevent you from doing worse on the retake.

I Have A Dream…

Too many talented people have become paralyzed by getting their licenses and moving on to the next chapter of their careers—because they have unrealistic expectations and see failing an exam as defeat.

If I only make one contribution to the profession, it would be to change all the bad beliefs about failing to:

Completing the ARE is a ton of work and failing the exam is all a part of the process.

While some people have “gotten rich quick,” most simply don’t. Completing the ARE is a game that you need to learn how to play. Sometimes, getting pushed back a little bit is a good thing; it will help propel you to the finish line.

Learn to fail. Anticipate failure.

….but at the same time, do everything in your power to make sure you don’t fail.

Get focused, and study hard. Consistently show up. Do the work. Stop paying attention to other people’s stories about getting rich quick. That’s their story, not yours! Help and support other people who are going through the process. Worry about the work you need to do today, not about 3 tests from now. Be here now!

Understand and respect that this process isn’t supposed to be easy. If it was easy, everyone could do it, and then becoming an Architect wouldn’t be such an achievement.

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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