The Architect Registration Exam Pep Talk


The Architect Registration Exam Pep Talk

Hey there.

It’s me, your friend Michael Riscica.

How’s it going?

Today, I’m here to talk to you about falling off the wagon with studying for the Architect Registration Exam. A little bird told me that you may have gotten stuck in the middle of taking your ARE’s.

Listen, I’ve come here today as your friend. I’m not here to lecture you about becoming licensed, joining the AIA or try to make you feel like a jerk, because weeks have passed and you haven’t done anything to get closer to finishing your AREs. No way! I’m not that guy.

I’m here to tell you that I can completely understand how this happens and to let you know, I’m here to support you. I want you to know that I already think you’re an incredible human being for just getting to this point in your career.  I want to see you succeed, just as much as you.

Unfortunately, the profession (and the rest of the world) has zero acknowledgement for all the work you’ve done, until you finish ALL the exams. But I’ve completed the process, and I know you’ve already put a ton of energy into taking the ARE’s. I understand exactly what you’re going through, which is why I’m here to chat with you today.

My personal experience with the Architect Exam was a wild goose chase. It ended up being 4 times as much work as NCARB and the AIA made believe it was, when I started studying. For years I’ve watched many of my peers start and never finish. For the past year I’ve been guiding people who are just getting started studying for the ARE’s. I feel like I have learned a lot about studying for the exams, by simply just being an observer.

Getting Stuck

People get stuck while taking the ARE’s for LOTS of different reasons. But after breaking them down, they typically fall into the following groups:

  • Some people just never had a good start from the very beginning. Unsure of how to use all the information and study. Often they make it worse by setting unrealistic expectations for themselves.
  • Almost everyone has a situation where, “life happens” in the middle of this 2.5 year process and disrupts everything. (new job, marriage, baby, a death, accident or whatever) Afterwards it’s always a struggle to bring studying back into their changed life.
  • I myself and have seen many people get angry and bitter about a not passing grade, after they have worked really hard and given it a valient effort.
  • Most frequently, I have seen people make good progress and then get to an exam or a topic that makes them uncomfortable (ie… structures or engineering) and become paralyzed with moving forward or taking the next step.

Or it could be several of these reasons all at the same time.

At the end of this blogpost, I share a few actionable recommendations about how to move forward. But before that, let’s talk about the uncomfortable topic of falling off the wagon.

Falling Off the Wagon

When taking the ARE’s, it’s completely normal to fall off the wagon, and it could turn out to be a good thing for you.

It happened to me.

When I started, I passed CDS and PPP, and I had incredible momentum. I was very prepared and confident when I showed up to take SPD. I mastered the SPD study materials, aced my practice questions, and understood the vignette inside and out. But when I took the test, it had nothing to do with anything I studied. So I failed.

Six months later, I showed up to retake SPD significantly less prepared than I had been the first time. And my second SPD test was so easy, it was pretty much a big joke.

I passed SD, and I worked really, really hard for the next 4 months studying for Structures. But I failed all the content areas. Then I failed BDCS, and I was starting to get frustrated and burned out.

Meanwhile, my life was about to become severely disrupted. My office was  running low on work, and I was about to get laid off. The idea of studying for the ARE’s was definitely off the table, at least until I could figure out how to afford my student loans payments, rent, and food for my dog.

I ended up taking almost 2 years off from studying, to put my life back together. The break, became much longer than I ever expected it to be.

During my break from the ARE, I got to a point where I became completely fed up of telling people, “Yeah, I still have 3 more exams to pass before I call myself an Architect.” To be honest, I started to get pissed I didn’t have this credential, after everything I’ve been through. I was starting to see how it was holding me back and watched several opportunities pass me by. The worst part about it, was I had no one to blame except myself.

After a lot of soul searching and even deeply considering just abandoning the whole thing all together, I decided I needed to get back to studying. For the first time in my life I got intensely focused and decided I was treating my remaining exams as if I was going to war.

I started studying again in November 2012 and did not stop until I had my license in December 2013.  I took four exams in that year, Building Systems twice, BDCS and Structures.

The studying I did during this time was so focused and intense, that it really is one of my greatest accomplishments.  I took all my frustration, anger and being mad at myself and channeled it straight into working harder. I made big bold changes in my life and removed anything that wasn’t helping me get closer towards finishing my exams.

For me, getting very clear about where my life was going and deeply considering just giving up on becoming a registered architect, helped me get serious about getting back to working on my exams.

But remember, this is my story, not yours.

Let’s get back to talking about you.

You’re a Human Being

It’s true.

You’re not a machine.

I’m sure your boss wishes you were a machine, but unfortunately, you’re just not.

One of the biggest problems in the profession is that we live in such an accomplishment-based culture. We spend our energy worrying about:

  • Getting the right degree
  • Getting a respectable salary
  • Getting these drawings done
  • Getting the next client
  • Getting a portfolio with lots of glossy pictures of buildings during sunset
  • Staying competitive and current with the trends and keeping up with the Jones’s.

At the end of the day we work, work, work and work some more, until we start to lose ourselves. Then I ask you, Is it really worth it? Is it really worth working so much, that you’ve stopped enjoying your life.

Studying for the ARE is a ton of work. It’s not fun, creative work like architecture school was.  It’s reading dry boring books, memorizing lots of information, learning many concepts, and understanding the connections between them.

Its mentally taxing, and you start to feel like a machine after a while. Like I said, I completely understand why you’ve stopped studying: it’s because you’re human.

Unlike machines, people need:

  • To be creative and express ourselves.
  • To connect to other people and be part of a community.
  • To be acknowledged for our hard work.
  • To laugh, have fun, and joke around.
  • Take care of ourselves (mentally, physically and spiritually).

The ARE is boring and lonely and none of that. It’s not how people want to spend their free time after they’ve worked a 40-hour week. Architecture school doesn’t prepare you to do this work in any way. In fact, it sets you up to fail.

There was nothing self-guided during architecture school. Everything had a schedule, with milestones to achieve along the way. Now you’re expected to read all these books without any deadlines, and schedule an exam whenever you think you’re ready to take the test.  Nothing in the architecture world becomes a priority, without a deadline.

There were also no standardized tests during architecture school. Sure, we took a lot of multiple choice tests, but exams always had some kind of essay element, which allowed you to express your creativity or brilliance. And even then, the tests only made up a percentage of the grades.

To me, it makes complete sense that you’ve gotten stuck in the middle of this process.

It’s because you’re human.

You Can Do This

Like I said earlier, I want you to know that I’m really proud of the fact that you’ve made it to this point. It means you’ve already accomplished a lot it in your life. Please don’t forget that.

I truly believe this: If you can graduate from architecture school, you can finish these exams.  You just have to REALLY want it. That’s all it takes. But sometimes, that means taking a break in the middle to reevaluate why you’re doing it.

Four Suggestions for Getting Back On the Wagon

My whole life, I’ve hated it when people tell me what to do, especially if they’re significantly older than me. My default knee-jerk response is always, “No, you’re not the boss of me!”

I hate telling people what to do and I certainly don’t want to tell you what to do. Instead I’m going to make a few suggestions of some things to consider to help you get back into the groove of studying and regain your momentum. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t. Either way it’s just a suggestion.

Okay, let’s get started.

#1: Start by Reading a Really Good Book

Yes. I’m serious. Hear me out.

Let’s change subjects and talk about running marathons for a minute.

If you want to run a marathon, how do you train for it? Jump off the couch and start running 18 miles on Day 1?

No, not at all. You start by running 1-3 miles several times a week. Then you get comfortable running 3-5 miles several times a week. Then you keep doing that. And on Sundays, you start taking longer runs. Each week, you add a mile more than the week before.  After six months of keeping up this routine, your body is finally in shape to run 26.2 miles.

What if training your body to run a marathon was similar to training your mind to study for the ARE?

All the reading required to study for the ARE is unavoidable. Reading is like a muscle, and it needs to be exercised to get strong. Maybe you’re not in shape to jump right in and start doing this work right away.

When people sign up for the ARE Boot Camp there is often several weeks until the program begins. As part of the program I have them read, How To Pass The Architect Registration Exam, but I then encourage them to do some pleasure reading. I tell them that I don’t care what they read, it can be novels, magazines, Harry Potter books or even a different book everyday. What’s most important is that they find the time to read everyday, get quiet and practice getting focused.

The only rule I have for the pleasure reading is that it can’t be something you HAVE to read. Like a project manual or something for work. I want it to be 100% for pleasure.

Once the program begins, we put all the Harry Potter books away and start studying for the ARE’s. For the people that follow my instructions and actually do this, it makes a huge difference. They always hit the ground running and transitioning from pleasure reading into studying always goes a lot smoother.

#2: Study Every Day

This suggestion sounds miserable, but it really isn’t.

There’s sooo much work that needs to get done. On the days that you can’t sit and read for hours, do something easy. That could include:

All of these things are baby steps and technically they are still studying. After a few months of doing this on days when you cant sit and read, they really start to add up and will make a huge difference over the course of preparing for an exam.

I used to make a list of all the baby steps (i.e., busywork) for the days I couldn’t sit and study. Even if I had a hectic day, I would find 15 minutes to do something on the list.

Maybe just taking daily baby steps is how you transition back into studying again. That’s perfectly normal. Working on something ARE-related for 15 minutes is still better then not doing anything.

#3: Acknowledge and Celebrate Wins (Yours and Other People’s)

Like I said earlier, there’s no acknowledgement for getting halfway through the exams. However, a lot of work goes into preparing for each exam, so you deserve to treat yourself to a massage after you take each one.

Noone else (besides me) is going to acknowledge all the hard work you’re doing. So if you don’t reward yourself for doing it, you’ll go insane.

It’s also very important to acknowledge and celebrate the other people that’re  on this lonely self-guided journey. Start being excited about someone else passing an exam—the same way you would if you passed.

“But what if I fail and don’t have any wins to celebrate?”

OK, that’s a legitimate question. Let’s talk about failing for a minute.

I think you need to realize that failing an exam is all part of the process. Very few people get to the ARE finish line without failing an exam. I failed 4 exams. It doesn’t matter. It sucks that you lose that money, but in my opinion, your time is a lot more valuable than your money.  Rather than having an “I’m an idiot” attitude, consider adopting the following:

“Even though I studied really hard, it just wasn’t enough this time around. All of the studying I’m doing is moving me closer to my goal.  I will do everything in my power to ensure I’m prepared to pass these exams. Sometimes failing is out of my control. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned while studying for this exam. Now I have a head-start studying for the retake.”

Basically, keep your head up. If you can keep a positive outlook, you’ll understand and acknowledge how going through this process is making you a better Architect. That’ll make all the difference.

Lately, I’ve been telling people to disregard the feedback NCARB gives you when you fail. Instead, study EVERYTHING all over again before you retest. I keep seeing people fail one content area, and they only study that area before they retake the exam. And sometimes, they actually do worse than they did the first time.

Just restudy everything before you retake an exam.

#4: Journal

I have a lot going on in my brain. I either think about 3 or 4 things all at the same time. Or I’m braindead and not thinking about anything. My thoughts are often incomplete and fragmented. To help clear my head, journaling is my most powerful tool.

Years ago, I read the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a book for Artists who’re blocked from making art. (I don’t recommend reading it until you’ve finished your exams. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted and never finish.)

She has you journal and write out 3 pages with a pen in a 1 subject notebook. You basically write about what’s bouncing around in your head. Noone is ever going to read it and the most important thing is that you start writing and do less thinking. Just write. Your not done until you fill the 3 pages.

My journals are all incomplete sentences. I jump around between many different subjects, and my penmanship is absolutely awful. But it doesn’t matter. The purpose is to get clear, not to create reading content.

Journaling this way is a hack for turning off the filter inside your head that keeps you stuck. Once you can do that, stuff just starts pouring out of you. For me, that happens after I’ve written at least a page and a half.

This is the very last thing I’ll say about clearing your head:


Healthy body = healthy mind.

Let’s make this happen.

I hope these suggestions can help get you back on track and regain your momentum.

Always remember that even though this process is very lonely and boring, you’re not alone. There are thousands of people out there feeling the same way you are. You can definitely finish these tests. It just takes a lot of showing up to do the work.

You already have everything inside you that you’ll need to achieve this goal.  You just have to show up to do it.

Thanks for listening.
Keep being awesome!

Michael Riscica

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


Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, Founder and Head Coach of the ARE Boot Camp Coaching Program & Online Study Group.

Hi I’m Michael Riscica.

My goal is to help as many people as I can PASS their exams and succeed in their architecture careers.

This is accomplished with the following offerings:

Free FB group that is 12k+ members strong
Low-cost, high-value upcoming webinar
Affordable and Quality ARE Study materials
Professional Development and Powerful Networking
Premium 10-week ARE study program