Poor Man’s Graduate School (aka The Architect Exam)

Architecture school, Graduate school and getting licensed as an Architect

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.

I loved Architecture School.

Architecture school was probably one of the happiest times in my life.

I was the biggest nerd.

I would get really really excited to get back to school weeks before the semester began. I loved being there so much I wouldn’t leave the architecture building for many days at time. I used to hide from security inside the walls, or on the roof and break back into the building after they were done kicking everyone out, just so I could keep working on my projects through the night. I even took the same architectural history class 3 times because the professor kept changing the curriculum and I was obsessed with learning about architects in faraway lands.

Before architecture I did terrible in school until I got to college. As a kid, I hated school and everyone who tried to teach it to me. I was a special education student from 3rd to 12th grade and I graduated high school with incredibly low self-esteem and never would have ever thought “The Architect thing” was ever a possibility.

Architecture school very quickly taught me that I was a lot more creative, smarter and talented than I ever thought I was. It allowed me to express myself with my hands, brain and verbally, which is what I really needed all along. I became addicted to the creative energy of architecture school and embraced all of its challenges with open arms.

Architecture school was my life for a very long time.

The worst day ever…

I graduated with a 5 year BARCH and after graduation I moved to the West Coast and got a job with a great firm. After I settled at my new job, city and home, it hit me like a ton of bricks how much I missed everything about architecture school.

Around November I started bored showing up for work every day. I tried to keep my mind busy with hobbies like cooking, racing bicycles and even brewing beer. That worked for a little while but I really wanted nothing more than to go back to school and continue on with my demented architectural party. Unfortunately my undergraduate student debt made that virtually impossible.

I was not a happy camper the day I did the math and couldn’t get the numbers to workout allowing me to get more education.

Changing Direction.

A very pivotal conversation happened for me one day when I was talking to my mentor/old professor/old boss about my petty post architecture school and pre-recession problems. He very honestly said to me:

“You don’t need any more architectural design education. If you’re going to get more education study something like making money. Why don’t you go after getting your Architect License? The license will be significantly valuable then a Master’s degree and you already have the right degree (BARCH) to start taking the exams.”

Shortly after this conversation I got on the path towards becoming a Licensed Architect.  

The Poor Man’s Graduate School.

I started calling licensure the Poor Man’s Graduate School about halfway through my first test. The lonely self-guided Architect education was all I could really afford. I needed to read all those books and pass all those tests.

I really embraced the idea that the Architect License would be more valuable to me than a graduate degree.

I also believed the exams gave me the architect education I needed more than anything. All the boring topics I didn’t learn in school, I now had to learn it. I struggled at a lot of the engineering and the exam forced me to get knowledgeable about many topics I would have never learned about. That experience had made me a better architect and even a person.

I took the structures exam twice. After my first fail I was terrified to retake the exam. When I did retake the exam, I took extreme measures, learned the content, passed the test and looking back what I learned during that exam has made me a lot stronger. I actually feel pretty good about my general knowledge of structures right now, all of which I learned from the exam.

Every exam will make you a better architect and employee, who is more profitable and experienced. Sure, the content isn’t easy reading. It’s really boring at first, but once I got past resisting it and start sipping the Kool-Aid a lot of it is really great stuff.  

Architecture school and getting licensed are both a great education

Here’s a few of the major differences between Architecture School and getting licensed.

Architecture school taught me to think creatively in an abstract world with rules that were w to be broken.
The ARE taught me to think creatively in a real world with real rules that are not allowed to be broken.

Architecture school taught me to maximize my strengths and play down my weaknesses. I lived inside comfort zone and was very powerful.
The ARE taught me play down my strengths and focus on my weaknesses. I focused on what I was bad at, constantly working on getting better at topics I did not enjoy. This world is outside my comfort zone.

During architecture school I often would feel my creative energy get tapped out from being worked too hard. Sometimes coming up with good ideas became hard.
During the exams I felt like my creative energy was out of control and became my biggest resistance. I was coming up with some of the most brilliant ideas, inventions, and thoughts I had ever had, but because of the exam I couldn’t follow through on any of them. Since my creative brain was not being worked it was now torturing me.

Architecture school has a ton of camaraderie amongst peers. Everyone learns from each other and feeds off each other’s energy.
The ARE is a lonely self-guided process. No one notices if you stop showing up. In fact your friends and family will be happy that they can now spend more time with you.

Graduate school is very expensive.
Becoming a licensed Architect is a fraction of the cost of graduate school. ALTHOUGH you are now signing up for a never ending commitment to paying NCARB, State board, continuing education and AIA fees.

BARCH + Masters Degree = You’re still called an Architectural Intern.
BARCH or MARCH + IDP + ARE = Architect

You need a Masters to teach.
Many Universities acknowledge licensure as an appropriate qualification to teach.



Getting licensed gave me an opportunity to channel my energy and figure out what life was like outside the insulated bubble of academia. More importantly I think getting licensed really helped understand and develop a love for the profession.

I write this to only share my experience. I don’t think one is better than the other. If I had the opportunity to get more education, I would jump at the chance. But I didn’t, so I found something else to do.

I truly believe, there is incredible knowledge and information to be gained by completing licensing process and I have tremendous respect for everyone that has completed or in the process of it.


Read the full series
This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architect 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 Architect Registration Exam Series.

If you are interested in learning more about the Architect Exam:




Michael Riscica

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

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