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California Supplemental Exam: The Basics | CSE

Updated: Mar 1

So, you want to be a licensed architect in California? Let’s talk about the California Supplemental Exam!

The California Supplemental Exam (CSE) isn't set up as beautifully as the ARE's when it comes to study guides and clearly establishing what you need to study. When I first looked at CAB's website to determine what was on the exam, it just gave me a headache. There weren't pretty diagrams and information like there is on NCARB's website. The CSE Handbook looks more like something from the building code than a study guide. So, today I'm walking you through some of the basics to get you ready to schedule, take, and pass your final architecture exam!

Before you begin studying, do the following:

  1. Download the CSE Handbook

  2. Download CAB's CSE Test Plan (again, this looks more like something from a codebook than an actual test plan)

  3. Download my list of resources

  4. Purchase the Ultimate Whole Enchilada (UWE). (I'm not an affiliate or paid to say this).

  5. Purchase the CSE Mock Exam bundle from Designer Hacks (it's only $39! Also not an affiliate.)

The CSE Basics

There are 4 categories and within those categories are task and knowledge statements. There are 51 Knowledge statements in total. If you just read these statements and think this is all you have to do to study you are in for a rude awakening! Make sure you get a study guide like the UWE or develop your own study guide through the resources and statements.


I. General Practice 14%

II. Programming/Design 36%

III. Development/Documentation 30%

IV. Bidding/Construction 20%

Exam Questions

Expect similar wording and ambiguity that you found in the ARE. They're tough and often poorly written, so take your time to really try to understand what they are asking. Don't stress about this, but just know what to expect. You've already passed 6 AREs, so you know the drill by now.

Test Format

There are a total of 100 multiple choice questions set up as 2 project scenarios and multiple-choice questions. If you thought the AREs digital system was old school, just wait for the CSE! Before you enter the test room they will hand you a physical book for the project scenarios. Yep, this isn't a PDF, you get a good ol' fashion 11x17 set of construction documents. DON'T FORGET: there are multiple projects in this booklet and the first case study they show may not be the case study they are asking you questions about. I learned this the hard way! Halfway through the questions, I'm like something just isn't right. I could sort of finding the answers, but it wasn't making total sense. I found out I wasn't looking at the right project. Ugh! Not a great way to start an exam! So, take your time to make sure the case study is the one they are asking the questions about. Time goes quickly for the case studies, so move efficiently. Here are some examples of test questions provided from CAB.

How is the test timed?

You have 3.5 hours to complete the three sections of the exam. Each section is individually timed, which means once your time is up for one section, you CANNOT go back to it to review. The new time will automatically start as you move to the next section. So, in terms of reviewing any questions, you have to do this after you finish the questions of that specific section if you have time, but you will not be able to go back at the end of the exam.

I don't believe I had any time to review the questions for one of the project scenarios, but for the 2nd I had a little buffer. Once you move onto the multiple-choice, that's it, the project scenarios are complete. I did have time to review my multiple choice answers at the end, so there will be some time for this. You also do not receive a formal break, so if you need to use the restroom you have to do so while the clock is ticking. I wouldn't take a break during the project scenarios, so if you really have to, take a break during the multiple-choice. They do provide you a little extra time in here as a buffer to review or take a quick break if needed.

How to schedule the exam?

Before you are able to schedule the exam online, you have to be approved through CAB.

Before taking the CSE, you must:

  • Provide verification of five years of education equivalents and three years of architectural practice experience for a total of eight years of experience as evaluated by the Board;

  • This includes a minimum of one year of work experience must be under the direct supervision of an architect licensed in a US jurisdiction or two years of experience under the direct supervision of an architect registered in a Canadian province;

  • If applicable, complete the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) Architectural Experience Program (AXP) or the Canadian Architectural Certification Board’s (CACB) Internship in Architecture Program (IAP); and

  • Successfully complete all divisions of the ARE

CAB will automatically mail you your CSE application once these requirements are met, it is not available online. However, I recommend reaching out to them to confirm they have all your information and are sending out your application. When they first sent me my eligibility paperwork, they said I wasn't eligible because I didn't have enough education requirements. It turned out my undergrad transcripts weren't verified yet in NCARB's system so I had to get that done and have them reassess. It turned out to be no issue, but a reminder that if you do receive a letter saying you are not eligible, reach out to them if you believe you are. They seem to be pretty responsive via phone.

Once you complete the application and pay them (of course), mail it back so they can mark you as eligible in the system. This is definitely not the most efficient system, hopefully soon they will digitize it, so it may take a couple of weeks for it to register. Don't be afraid to reach out to them to make sure they have received it. Again, you won't be able to schedule your exam until this verification process is complete.

The test is administered through PSI, so you schedule directly through their website. You can check which states have testing sites here. Just like the AREs, you will need a government-issued ID to take the exam. The handbook has more info on scheduling.

When do you find out the results?

As soon as you finish the exam you will go back into the waiting room where you'll anxiously wait as they print out your results. It's super fun having them hand you your results while you're in a room full of people! I think I actually waited until I was outside to read them. It is nice finding out right away though, so you can start celebrating or planning on how to move forward.

How long until I can retake?

You can retake your exam 90 days after your failed exam.

How to schedule a retake?

The testing center will give you a printout after your exam that will show which portions of the exam need improvement for a pass. There will be info on where to send money. You will have to pay the $100 fee to CAB for every test taken. This takes a couple of weeks for them to process, so I recommend getting the check out to them way before the 90 days is over, that way you are prepared to retake as soon as possible.

In my experience, I couldn't even schedule my retake until the 90 days were up. This was super annoying and definitely held me back from taking it again sooner. If I could have rescheduled it right away, I would have scheduled it right at 90 days out. Instead, 90 days was right when the pandemic was hitting hard and the test centers were booked out for months. I ended up not retaking the exam for 6 months (although if you've read my ARE story, you'll know that's pretty typical for me).

Congratulations, you passed! Now what?

When you pass they will give you a printout that tells you what the next steps are. You will need to fill out the paperwork and write a check (again, of course), then mail that back to CAB. Once they receive this, they will send you all your newly licensed paperwork, including your license number. They do not issue a stamp, but you can find info on creating your own stamp here. I only have a digital version since everything is digital these days anyways, but you can always purchase a physical stamp just for fun.

Congratulations on officially becoming a licensed architect! It takes a lot of time, money, and perseverance to get to this point, so don't forget to celebrate!!

Download my FREE stamp template illustrator file here so you you can customize your own stamp!


Access all our various resources below designed to help you PASS your exams, including FREE downloads, courses, and group programs.

Check out all our freebies here.

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