What is the Architect Registration Exam?

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what is 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.

What is the Archtecture Registration Exam (ARE)?

The Architect Registration Examination (ARE) is developed and maintained by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). The purpose of the exam is to assess the knowledge, skills and abilities of ARE candidates. It is accepted by all 50 states in the USA as well as 11 provincial and territorial architectural associations for architectural registration in Canada. The ARE is a grueling and challenging exam with an average pass rate of 67% on all 7 sections.

The exam is broken into 7 exams. Many years ago the entire exam was administered in one day, but today all 7 exams take 33.5 hours to complete.

Taking the ARE is a self-guided process. Everyone studies on their own and schedules their own test dates when they feel they are ready to take the exam. Passing all seven exams requires significant preparation, dedication and a whole lot of discipline.

The History of the ARE

In the early days, the architecture exam was developed and managed by individual state boards. The tests were developed and scored by practicing architects, educators, and specialists in other disciplines. This process lacked uniformity because each state held a different board which held its own testing guidelines, questions and standards. From a national stand point, there was no standard to follow.

NCARB was formed to create more standardization of the ARE and to also facilitate Architects practicing architects in multiple states. A syllabus of written examination subjects, test length, and dates of administration were identified. This provided consistency in exam questions and scoring.

Standardized testing became available in the 1950’s and the NCARB converted the ARE syllabus into multiple choice questions. These questions then became made available to all state NCARB boards.

An extensive review of the exam was completed in 1979 and resulted in a general outline of today’s ARE.  The early ARE consisted of 9 divisions taken over a four-day period. This exam was only offered yearly in major US cities. The 1980’s brought along new technology that allowed the NCARB to develop a computer-based exam. The last paper test was taken in 1996.

The 7 exams

The Architect Registration Exam is administered in Prometric testing centers and includes seven different divisions. The entire exam includes 555 multiple-choice questions and 11 vignettes. The ULTIMATE list of ARE study material  provides a great guideline and break down of all seven exams included in the ARE as well as study material relevant to each division.

Construction Documents and Services (CDS)

This division consists of multiple choice questions as well as a vignette. The total time allotted for this section is 4 hours.  A brief overview of this section of the exam includes basics of architectural drawing, contract components and development, construction administration, building codes and more. This exam is typically taken first as it is least intimidating and requires practical knowledge. The next two exams (PPP and SPD) are often taken concurrently because the test preparation overlaps. Click here to see a more detailed description of CDS.

Programming, Planning and Practice (PPP)

This division consists of multiple choice questions as well as a site zoning vignette. The total time allotted for this section is 4 hours. This section includes information from CDS. Some (not all) topics covered in this section include urban and community design, land analysis, architectural influences, historic structures, sustainability, legal issues, project management and building codes. Click here to see a more detailed description of PPP.

Site Planning and Design (SPD)
This division consists of multiple choice questions as well as two vignettes; site grading and site planning. The total time allotted for this section is 4.5 hours.  Items that may be covered include site analysis, topography, drainage, material calculations, air quality, soil, site improvements, ADA and health and life safety. Information from the CDS and PPP may appear in this section. Click here to see a more detailed description of SPD.

Schematic Design (SD)
This division requires you to complete two very complicated vignettes in building layout and an interior layout with furniture. Both vignettes require designs that meet a lengthy list of programmatic, code and ADA requirements. This section has no multiple choice questions. The total time allotted for this section is 6 hours. Click here to see a more detailed description of SD.

Structural Systems (SS)
This division includes both multiple choice questions as well as one structural layout vignette. The total time allotted for this section is 5.5 hours. This division may include understanding loads, determinate and indeterminate structures, stress, diaphragms, trusses, basic structural systems, structure steal, wood, and concreate design. Click here to see a more detailed description of SS.

Building Systems (BS)

This division includes multiple choice questions and one mechanical & electrical plan vignette. The total time allotted for this section is 4 hours. Components of this section may include HVAC, alternative energy sources, energy efficiency, plumbing design, water systems, electrical, power supply, and moisture protections. Click here to see a more detailed description of BS.

Building Design and Construction Systems (BDCS)

This portion of the exam includes multiple choice and three vignettes in accessibility, roof plan and stair design. The total time allotted for this section is 5.5 hours. Content covered may include, soil, earthwork, shoring and bracing, concrete, masonry, steel, metals, wood, finish carpentry, and ramps. Click here to see a more detailed description of BDCS.

What Order do I Take the Exams?

Many people question which order is best 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 of itself. I recommend everyone take the exams in the order that they are most comfortable with.


ARE eligibility is managed by the candidate’s state or provincial registration board. Most US jurisdictions require that a candidate earn a degree from a professional program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (B.Arch or M.Arch) as well as meet the experience requirement by completing the Intern Development Program (IDP).

Because each jurisdiction has its own requirements it is important to review those set forth by your own jurisdiction. A full list of requirements for specific jurisdictions can be found at Registration Board Licensing Requirements.



The NCARB holds the content of the ARE as highly confidential information. You will be reminded repeatedly of the importance of not sharing any details of the exam. Prior to taking any portion of the ARE you will be required to sign and accept the NCARB’s confidentiality agreement, prohibiting the sharing of any exam content.

This confidentiality is put in place to protect the profession as well as the health of the general public. This exam ensures the integrity of the architecture profession. Individuals who cheat, are compromising the health, safety and welfare of the public. Exam confidentiality is a very real concern.

In 2009 several individuals used online study forum to disclose exam information. NCARB took extreme action against these candidates canceling their test scores, and giving them 3-4 year suspensions from taking any AREs. They also raised each exam cost from $180 to $210, to recoup the costs from having to revise the exams. It is extremely important for anyone taking the exam to understand how to talk about the exam in person and online.

studying architect registration exam

Studying for the ARE

The ARE is an extremely difficult exam. It is not uncommon for individuals to fail portions of the exam. It is normal for individuals to spend 2-4 years finishing the ARE and many people do not pass every exam on the first try.

There are many resources available to help you prepare for the exam. Candidates preparing for the ARE 4.0 are advised to download ARE 4.0 Guidelines This is a free publication by the NCARB and provides an overview of the ARE, practice programs and exam eligibility.

The ULTIMATE list of ARE study material can provide you with a comprehensive list of recommended study materials. Don’t be overwhelmed, they are recommendations, not requirements.

It is imperative to set yourself a study schedule, and to stick with it. The ARE requires significant time reviewing material. Break it down into baby steps.


Young Architect.com

After finishing the ARE I started this blog to share all the knowledge and information that I either figured out myself or learned the hard way. You can see a list of all blogposts related the the ARE at YoungArchitect.com/ARE



Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, and the creator of Young Architect, an online platform and community dedicated to helping the next generation of Architects become the most successful generation of Architects. 
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Hi there!

I’m Michael Riscica, the guy behind Young Architect. I write to help Architecture Students, ARE Candidates and Young Architecture Professionals be more successful at school, work and life!


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