Why Smart, Talented People Fail the Architect Exam

Want to be an architect? The key is to keep going, no matter what.

Mike Riscica Mike Riscica

Michael Riscica is a licensed architect from Portland, Oregon, who has been advancing the profession with his blog Young Architect. Michael has written extensively about the architect exam and wrote the book How to Pass the Architecture Registration Exam.

For years, I have been watching people “fail” at the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE). When I obtained my Architecture License in 2013, I was one of five people I knew from my architecture school who actually obtained their architecture license. Yet, I could easily name 50 people I knew who started, got derailed and failed at completing the process for whatever reason.

When I say “fail,” I don’t mean that they actually failed a section of the exam. By failing, I mean that they didn’t finish what they started, and they never truly started on the right foot. Either way, they ended up abandoning the whole architecture registration process altogether.

During the summer of 2015, I created and launched a program through youngarchitect.com called The ARE Boot Camp to help, guide and hold ARE Candidates accountable as they study to take the ARE. For 10 weeks, we meet weekly in a small group to check in and discuss the content as well as any challenges that may have come up while they prepare for their exam. We create milestones, deadlines and help each other as we are all working toward the same goal. It’s just like a design studio but for the ARE.

A big part of the inspiration for creating this program was constantly watching others fail at the Architecture Registration Exam. I have learned these are the five reasons why many people do not complete the architecture licensing process after they have started.

1. They Have a Terrible Support Network.

My friends and family love me and want nothing more than for me to be successful in life. They make sure that I know that I am loved every single day.

However, I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell them, “No, I can’t _____ because I have to study.” They almost always did not like hearing this. Always needing to study for my exam was constantly ruining their fun, and I hated letting them down. I literally had to train them about hearing that response. Sure, they love me, but they had absolutely no idea what it meant to pass this exam. And all they wanted was to spend time with me and have fun. Telling them no wasn’t easy, and none of us enjoyed it.

A good support network includes people who may or may not know anything about the Architect’s exam but who definitely understand that you are working toward something great, which requires a long, sustained, concentrated effort. A good support network understands that this process has many highs and lows and admires your dedication while striving toward this goal. They are willing to support you;however, you ask them to come along on this journey.

ARE Candidates who do not finish the ARE often do not seek out or surround themselves with a good support network.

The number of available study resources can be overwhelming; image via EVEA Group

2. They Do Not Know How to Use All the Information.

The one good thing about the ARE is that there are plenty of excellent study materials, and they just keep getting better.

I can’t tell you how many people I have met who show up to study for their first ARE, read the Ballast book cover-to-cover like it is The Fountainhead, look at nothing else, take the exam, fail and then wonder why. Studying for the ARE, you have to constantly be working on your weaknesses, including anything you are not strong at. This is contradictory to architecture school, where after students figure out what their strengths are first, then figure out how to use those strengths to take their work to the next level. Studying for the ARE is all about focusing on your weaknesses.

In some ways, there is too much information available. Certain study guides are better than others, depending what you are looking at. All of them need to be cross-referenced with each other. Even if you have the very best ARE study guides ever made, unless you know how to study effectively, they have absolutely no value.

3. They Cannot Get Past the Huge Learning Curve.

For anyone who starts taking the ARE, there is a huge learning curve and a never-ending list of things to figure out.

Those topics could be:

  • Worrying about learning how to use the NCARB vignette software
  • Freaking out about the ARE 5.0 transition
  • Not finding a good place to study
  • Getting distracted by collecting ARE study materials for exams you’re nowhere near taking
  • Setting unrealistic schedules and expectations for yourself
  • Worrying about your IDP hours
  • Deciding which state to get licensed in too early in the process
  • Getting lost in the forums and not using them effectively
  • Worrying about some bad advice you read on the forums
  • Complaining about The AIA, NCARB, IDP, Kaplan, David Kent Ballast, Gang Chen, Michael Riscica, Robert Ivy, David Thadeus, The California Supplemental Exam or someone that was rude to you on the forums because you didn’t read the rules and accidentally asked the same question that has been asked 3 million times before

This list can go on and on forever, and I have done all of these things. Sure, you definitely need to sort all of this stuff out, but none of these things translate into getting closer to the goal. Most people who do not finish typically burn a ton of energy on this minutiae before they actually do any useful work.

Examination preparation is not for the faint of heart; image via Havadis.

4. They Are Not Prepared For the Self-Guided Process.

If you stop studying for the ARE, guess who notices?

Absolutely no one!

In the moment, no one cares, and it’s always nice to catch up with all your friends after you have been busy studying.

Except two or three years down the road, you have to start explaining to people that you still aren’t a licensed architect. You have completed four of the seven exams, and that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. There is no award or acknowledgement for getting halfway through, but not to the end.

Completing the ARE requires discipline and motivation to keep showing up, so you can study by yourself day after day until the process is completed.

I don’t know about you, but there was nothing about my architecture education that prepared me to read massive amounts of textbooks and schedule and pass seven exams within five years — all on my own with no one to have a face-to-face conversation about it. Architecture school has a dictated schedule, a camaraderie and a group of people all working toward the same goal.

The ARE can be very lonely. Not everyone is extremely disciplined and self-motivated. In fact, being smart and talented means nothing in terms of being disciplined and self-motivated enough to finish the ARE.

5. They Have Bad Beliefs or Believe in Poor Excuses.

Not believing in yourself and believing some made-up rubbish is the most debilitating reason why most smart and talented people do not complete the ARE. Since I have started writing about the ARE, I have heard more garbage beliefs that people have about the ARE than you can imagine. Let’s review some of the popular ones:

“I should have taken the ARE right after I graduated from architecture school. I have been out of school too long and am disadvantaged.”

Not true. Real-life experiences are just as (or more) helpful than remembering stuff from architecture school. Either way, the exam tests on such a wide variety of information, your preexisting knowledge will only help you for small moments of time during the process.

“Someone in my office completed the entire ARE process in six months. Therefore, it should only take me six to nine months to become licensed once I get started.”

Not true. Some people are great test-takers. You do not know if you’re a good test-taker until you start taking a few tests. The average time it takes most people to complete the process is 2.5 years, and that doesn’t account for all the people who started and never completed the process.

There is no correlation between success in architecture school and success with completing the exam. In fact, I truly believe that the creativity that brought you success in architecture school will be your biggest handicap with studying for the ARE. Using other people’s experiences and setting unrealistic expectations for yourself is the fastest way to fail with the Architecture Registration Exam.

Fitting in studying with the rest of life is the ultimate juggling act; image via 8tracks.

“I work too many hours.” or “I have too many kids.” or “I’m too old to study for this exam.” or “I’m too broke to pay all the fees.” or “I’m getting married or buying a house, and I’ll deal with it later.”

None of that stuff matters. People who really want to complete the ARE always figure it out. I personally know people who have overcome all of these obstacles. It is never convenient for anyone to take the ARE. The longer people wait and keep telling themselves this, the greater their chance of not completing the process.

“English is my second language. I don’t know if I can take this exam.”

This is a good excuse but certainly not a valid one. I always tell people who speak English as a second language that, first and foremost, they should study the practice questions. NCARB does a really great job of confusing people who speak English as their FIRST language with the linguistics of the questions. Recognizing and learning how to read through tricky questions can definitely be learned, and practice questions are the fastest way to get there.

“I don’t want to accept the liability of being a Licensed Architect.”

OMG, shut up! Here in America, anyone can sue anyone. Just because you don’t have an architecture license, you are not free from being ethically responsible. If you do something stupid and something happens or someone gets hurt, it will somehow come back to haunt you, license or not. There is a lot of responsibility in doing this work, and you are definitely not avoiding it by not having an architecture license and working under someone else who does.

All of these beliefs are untrue, and I believe they are preventing ARE Candidates from being successful in life.

At the same time, I do not believe EVERYONE with an architecture degree needs to become a Licensed Architect. There are many great reasons not to become a licensed architect.

Image via Scoolist

Smart and Talented People Who Do Complete the ARE

There are many more reasons, but these are the ones that I repeatedly see. The people who have completed the ARE have always had these five things dialed in. Just being aware of these pitfalls will have a very positive impact on your success at getting through it.

When I created The ARE Boot Camp, I designed the program to accomplish the following goals:

  • Create a positive support network for ARE Candidates who are working on the same goal as you and want to help you succeed;
  • Establish a realistic schedule and learn how to use the information appropriately for the task at hand;
  • Quickly move you past the learning curve of getting started and up to speed with moving toward the goal;
  • At the end of the 10 weeks, leave you with a very clear idea of what you need to do and how to effectively finish the remaining six exams.

Click here if you are interested in learning more about YoungArchitect.com’s ARE Boot Camp.

This post was originally published here and is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having completed the 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.

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