Review of Designer Hacks ARE Practice Exams

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At this point Young Architect has thoroughly reviewed all of the major ARE study materials with blog posts, including:

In November 2015, released a new practice exam product for ARE 4.0, which I have been messing around with for the past few days.

But before I can discuss Designer Hacks’ excellent product, I need to rant about the value of ARE Practice Questions.

Practice Questions Are Gold.

Let’s back up to Architecture School.

Contrary to popular belief, graduating from Architecture School doesn’t prepare anyone for the Architect Exam. In fact, the two have absolutely nothing in common.

Architecture School teaches you how to use your brain in highly creative ways, think in different dimensions and become a brilliant problem solver. Architecture School is all about learning, creating, and breaking the rules.

The ARE forces you to think inside the box, logically and punishes you for entertaining any creative ideas you may have. The ARE tests your ability to follow rules more then anything else.

It often seems that the more creative you are, the more disadvantaged you may be when taking the ARE. Many ARE Candidates are not good test takers, mainly because the formal education of an Architect is not measured by using rigid standardized tests.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when studying for the ARE is spending too much time reading textbooks, instead of obsessively working on practice questions. You could read your Ballast and Kaplan books for thousands of hours, but unless you can recall that information at a moment’s notice, it’s all useless.  Think about it this way:

Reading ARE Study materials is only input.

The AREs are really testing your ability to recall that information and provide an output.

I truly believe that after you have read all of the ARE Study materials once, the bulk of your studying should be spent becoming a master at the art of answering questions.

Training your brain to move the information in the opposite direction takes practice, especially after you’ve spent a lot of time reading input.

OK I’m done.

Sorry about the rant. I feel better now.

Let’s talk about Designer Hacks.

Here is a link to the Designer Hacks product I am reviewing…

The Designer Hacks Practice Exams

About 3 weeks ago, I learned about this product. Since then, I spent a several hours answering ARE Practice questions on both my computer and phone, just so I could write this review. After that experience, I have now made using Designer Hacks now a requirement for The ARE Boot Camp.

Free BDCS wrong

Tony, the founder of Designer Hacks, has been an Instagram friend of mine for a very long time. He became inspired to create this website and these practice exams because he is just as frustrated with the ARE process as the rest of us.

Free BDCS 2

The Free Stuff.

Let’s start with the Free Questions. Designer Hacks has 25 free ARE Practice Questions for all 7 divisions as a way to help you get a feel for their questions and exams.   The free 25 practice questions is randomly pulling questions from a pool of 40 questions, that way you can use them a few times.

Anyone can work on the free practice questions without actually creating a login to the Designer Hacks website. What a good freebie!


The Premium Questions

Currently, there are only premium questions for the CDS, PPP, and SPD divisions.  I asked Tony about the other ARE 4.0 Divisions, he explained that they should be out shortly.

premium 3 options

The premium questions have 3 different options. You can do 10, 25, or a full-blown timed quiz. It’s really all about how much time you have. The timed quizzes match the allowed time and the number of questions of the actual AREs.

CDS – 120 minutes and 100 questions
PPP – 120 minutes and 85 questions
SPD – 90 Minutes and 65 questions

The quizzes with 10 and 25 questions do not allow you to skip around or mark questions, but the timed quiz does allow that. The software is very similar to the actual NCARB testing software.

The premium exams randomly pull a question from a pool that is 3 times the amount of questions as the timed exam.  So that means CDS has 300 original questions, PPP has 255 original questions and SPD has 255 original questions.

Scored results

Aside from the practice questions being pretty damn good, what I really like most about this product is that it grades you according to the NCARB Content Areas.


The Achievements

On Designer Hacks, achievements are awards you receive for doing well on the practice exams.

The practice exams are measured in points. The more quizzes you take, the better you do—and the more points and achievements you earn. It kind of reminds me of the FitBit.

There are a handful of achievements work towards as you earn more points.  The achievements are staggered to keep you coming back, and they give you something to work towards.

As silly as it sounds, I really like the idea of having a goal to work towards. Even if its just practice questions.


The Leaderboard

The names of the 100 people with the most points are featured on the leaderboard. In my few days of messing around with it, I couldn’t seem to land  myself on the leaderboard, but I was able to find several of my friends from the ARE Boot Camp.

Nothing motivates studying like adding a little bit of competition into the mix.

One of the worst parts of studying for the ARE is feeling isolated—like you’re doing this alone. I dealt with that, and everyone else deals with it. So what better to bring everyone together then adding a little competition around answering ARE Practice questions.

The Open Book Method.

I got some interesting feedback from one of the guys in the ARE Boot Camp. He is just getting started studying for PPP.

As a first pass at diving into the new PPP material, he has been taking the Designer Hacks practice questions and using his ARE Study Materials to look up the answers. This method has helped him wrap his head around the scope of the PPP exam and get familiar with the new study materials.

Different ways of studying work for different people. I told him, “If this is helpful, keep doing it.” I appreciate that he is trying out new and different ways to study for the ARE.

TImed Exam

Getting into the Rhythm of Answering ARE Questions.

There is definitely a rhythm to answering ARE questions. It took me awhile to figure this out, but when I would start taking my tests, I would always get freaked out by the first 20 questions.

Eventually, I started to recognize the pattern and would anticipate those first 20 questions. I changed my approach by skipping any questions that immediately freaked me out and finding the really easy questions to answer.

Once I had answered a handful of questions confidently, I would then start to work on all the questions that had initially freaked me out. By this point, I was in the rhythm of answering ARE questions. Almost always, those initial questions weren’t that hard. I just wasn’t warmed up.

The very last thing I’ll say about these Designer Hacks practices exams is that they very quickly got me into the rhythm of answering ARE Practice questions.


  • Like the Gang Chen practice exams, hasn’t published any of their own study materials. It just offers questions. Ballast, Kaplan, and Architect Exam Prep Practice Questions almost always seem biased, and they test against their own study materials.
  • It gives you the score according to how well you did with NCARB’s content area for each exam.
  • It’s cheap, and the free questions are pretty good too.
  • It works great on a smart phone.
  • The leaderboard encourages competition.
  • The 10 and 25 question quizzes are excellent for short study sessions.
  • IF you’re not happy or don’t pass your exam, they will happily refund your money.


  • They currently only have premium questions for CDS, PPP, and SPD.
  • Unlike all other practice exam products available, there is very little or no explanation when the answers are given. The other products give you sometimes a lengthy explanation as why one answer is right and another is wrong.

Overall, Designer Hacks is a quality product. The most appealing part of these practice exams is their grading system, and I’m also a big fan of the achievements.

There’s still room for improvement, but that’s true for almost all new sites. Given my pleasant experience, the recommendations of users, the free options, and the money-back guarantee, it seems safe to say that utilizing this tool will be worth your time.

Click here to learn more about Designer Hacks Practice Exams.

Looking for other ARE Specific Study Guides?

Check out the reviews that I wrote about the other ARE Publishers:

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.


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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