Failing the ARE 5.0 and How to Pass
Updated: Mar 10
It took me 20 months to pass all 6 Architect Registration Exams (AREs). Some people are way quicker than this and some take a lot longer. Everybody’s situation is completely different. I’m here to tell you my strategy, what order I took the exams, what kept me motivated, and of course what I used to study. There are so many classes, books, and materials out there, so it is easy for them to all add up and spend a lot of money. These are the strategies and materials that worked best for me.
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What should be my first step?
Download NCARB’s ARE Handbook. This is a condensed look at what to expect from each exam, how many questions there are, how much time you will have, what each exam covers, example questions, and a list of resources. This is a small fraction of what you will end up needing to study, but it’s the best place to start. Open it up, read through what each exam covers, and then map out a plan.
When I was first mapping out an exam schedule I thought I was going to start with “the hard ones”. Why not start with PPD and PDD? Get the hardest ones out of the way first! Plus, I have a lot of experience in developing construction documents. Luckily I only studied for PPD for a short time before I realized this wasn’t the way to do it. I am SO glad I switched gears! These exams are complex and part of getting through them is not only the topic knowledge, but how to take the tests, how to FAIL the tests, and what to expect. Starting with the difficult exams is just setting yourself up for being let down. Even if you have been working in the industry for 25 years, don’t do it!
The order I took the exams was: PcM, PjM, CA, PA, PPD, PDD. I think bundling those first 3 and second 3 is huge, there’s so much overlap! PcM was frustrating because it's all business - contracts and legalities that aren’t design related. But, it was a good way to get introduced to the tests and allow more work experience before the design exams. Starting with PcM helps guide you into what the exam is going to look like. SPOILER ALERT: even the “easy” tests are NOT easy! So, starting with PcM is not just an easy pass to get started. But it will show you how the problems are worded and how the questions require a deep understanding of the information, not just memorization. So, to start with financial and business topics are a little less of a blow than starting with PPD and not even know what is going on.
These exams are not based on rote memorization. Even the financial questions will be worded in a way that you have to deeply understand the topic. You will never have a question where you will automatically know the answer based on something you memorized (except maybe a specific ADA dimension - even then, the question will not be straight forward). I want to stress this not to scare you, but to help you strategize how to study.
How to Study
Right away I learned what type of learner I am. I can’t just read a book and remember it all. The first exam I took I read, read, read. I felt like I grasped the info, but sitting in that first exam was a slap of reality. It’s not about reading and regurgitating. It’s about knowing. So I had to find a different method. I hadn’t made Cornell notes in probably 10 years, but they became my best friend. Online flashcards through Quizlet were also really helpful.
Here is a comprehensive guide of the resources that helped me pass the exams. They are broken down into 3 categories: recommendations from NCARB, Free sources, and paid sources. You may still have some of these books from architecture school. If not, they can easily be found on Amazon - I’ve added links* on each one for you to find.
For me, studying for these exams was most successful when I included a combination of audio, reading, and videos. When I took my first exam, I relied on basically just audio and skimming the books. I thought “I’ve started a business, I have a degree in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management (and architecture), I know all about business development, spreadsheets, etc. I got this! No need to get crazy with studying”. WRONG! I failed the first exam.
OK, I failed. Now What?
So, you failed an architecture exam? Who hasn’t! Yeah, you hear about those ARE Unicorns who pass 6 exams in 6 days or finish in 6 weeks, have a full-time job, and a baby. But there is a reason why these stand out, why you rarely hear these stories, it is because these are the exceptions to the rule, not the rule. About half of you will fail at least one, if not multiple, exams before finishing them all. NCARB shows the exams have a pass rate between 42%-70%, with an average of 54.33% in 2019. This isn't based on just first time test takers, it is based on each individual exam, so chances of you passing the first attempt are even less. This first fail can be defeating, but based on the statistical pass rates you can expect to fail roughly 5 exams before passing them all.
Those in the process of obtaining licensure are typically people who are not used to failure. Architects (yeah, you can’t call yourself that yet, but just go with it)…architects are known to be detail-oriented with Type-A personalities. The majority of you would probably even classify yourself as a perfectionist. We’ve already accomplished A LOT to get to this point. We were accepted to architecture school. We passed the insanely hard studio and structural courses. Pulled all-nighters (some of you). Graduated. Worked thousands of hours in an architecture firm. We have worked hard to get where we are. So, it can be a huge slap in the face when you sit for your first exam and you see the word FAIL bold across your screen. But I am here to tell you “NOBODY CARES!”.
Before you freak out on me, hear me out. After a failed exam I was feeling SO defeated. Over it. Drained. I came home and told my husband how frustrated I was and questioning if this was all even worth it. He looked at me and said, “nobody cares!”. WTF?! “WHAT DO YOU MEAN NOBODY CARES? I’m working my ass off trying to get through these exams. They are HARD. I put life on hold to get through these. They are expensive. I’m drained. I care!” He says, “No, I mean nobody cares if you fail an exam. People fail. When you’re done with these no one is going to care if you failed along the way, just get them done.” Something clicked with this. It’s true. No one else cared if I failed. Yeah, they were sad for me, but the only person who cared was me. The only way I was going to fail is if I stopped taking them and gave up. My husband probably could have said this more sensitively, but to be honest it helped me. Every time I would go into an exam I would say to myself “nobody cares!” Nobody cares if I pass today, who cares if I fail. Don’t stress about it. You know the info, just get in there, relax, and take it. No pressure.
If you look at my test timeline, you’ll see after my first 3 fails it would take me 5-6 months to get up the courage to take the next exam. That is a lot of wasted time! I was frustrated with myself for taking so long to get back to the exams.
When I finally went to retake PPD in August 2019 something was different. I had a “nobody cares” mindset and decided it was time to get these finished. So, what happened? I failed. BUT one month later (not 5!) I took another test - PDD. I failed. That was THREE fails in a row. Instead of feeling defeated, I went in less than a month later and finally PASSED! Only 1 month after that I finally passed my last exam. So, I took an exam every month for 4 months in a row. If I would have taken 5 months to recover after a fail as I had in the past, it would have taken me over a year to pass those last 2 exams. Do what you need to do after a failed exam, but take it from my experience, don’t wait too long.
Put the ego aside, dig deep into your pockets, and do what it takes to pass these exams. Realize no one cares if you fail - yeah it’s stressful, but the sooner you take that next exam the sooner you will be done and you will never have to take them again! You’ve come this far. You got this!
Don’t forget to reach out to colleagues also taking the exam. The ARE community on NCARB’s website is super helpful and so is the ARE Facebook group. People tell you their stories, what worked for them, what didn’t, and how to stay sane while taking the exams. You’re not in this alone, there is a large community of us who are going through it or have gone through it and are here to help. Please reach out with any questions or areas you’d like more info on! I didn’t go into each exam specifically, but if this is something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below. Happy studying and just remember, nobody cares!
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*Note: Some of the reference links are affiliate links. This means if you purchase through the links it will help my small business. You won't pay a penny more, but we'll get a small commission. Every recommendation is there because I have personally used, tested, and highly recommend it. You will never find a recommendation solely for monetary purposes. Thank you for your support!