The Dreaded ARE

Posted on August 1, 2012


[Image Source: NCARB Website]

What the Heck is the ARE?

The ARE or Architects Registration Exam is a beast of a series of tests that “intern architects” are required to pass before becoming fully licensed architects. By passing the tests you only become licensed to practice in the state you took the exams, but mostly, it’s pretty easy to transfer your license to additional states (usually it’s just a fee you have to pay).

The ARE consists of seven separate exams. Each exam has a multiple choice section and a graphic vignette section. The only test that differs is the Schematic Design test which only has the vignettes. The amount of questions and vignettes varies for each test. You have anywhere from 4-6 hours to complete each test. I have yet to use up all the time, but don’t worry if you do. Everyone takes tests differently. The tests are taken at Prometric testing centers.

There is no passing percentage set for the tests. A guesstimate that I have seen online for the multiple choice sections is 70-75% correct. The vignettes allow you to make minor mistakes and still pass, but there are certain requirements that must be met or you immediately fail.

The tests are graded by computers and it has been taking me and other people I’ve spoken with 2-3 weeks to get results. I don’t know why it takes so long to get results for something that, theoretically, could be graded immediately, but NCARB isn’t exactly known for being a logical, customer oriented organization.

Resources and Materials

Everyone has their own methods for taking the ARE. I’m sure other people would say my advice is stupid, etc. but it has worked for me so far. The tests have their own personalities from any other exams you’ve ever taken and I would recommend taking an easier test first to learn the whole process and ease yourself in (you can look it upon the NCAAB website or look at the handy chart I stole from them below).

ARE 4.0 Pass Rates
DIVISION Abbr. 2007 2008* 2009 2010 2011
Programming Planning & Practice PPP 49% 56% 62% 62%
Site Planning & Design SPD 59% 69% 76% 73%
Building Design & Construction Systems BD/CS 47% 57% 63% 62%
Structural Systems SS 57% 64% 66% 71%
Building Systems BS 59% 66% 65% 68%
Construction Documents & Services CDS 56% 59% 63% 64%
Schematic Design SD 65% 71% 74% 77%

There’s also a lot of discussion on the order you take the tests. It does seem that certain tests may be slightly easier taken after others (some questions reference material from other tests), but again, I think if you study hard and know the material well, you should pass.

I’ve strictly used the Kaplan study guides and the free materials from the NCARB website to study for each test. Some people hate the Kaplan stuff, but I’ve passed 3 tests so far using them and the NCARB vignette software so I think it’s just personal preference. If you’re part of the AIA, your local chapter probably has some study guides (Kaplan or other) you can borrow for free.

Another good resource is the ARE forum ( This is a place where other people taking the tests can get together and share advice and experiences. Here you can find out a lot more about individual tests, like examples of questions, what things you should make sure to study, and the order you take the tests.

Tips & Tricks

I highly recommend use of the “mark question” button. This allows you to answer a question but mark it for review later. You should always answer each question before marking it. If you run out of time, at least you may have guessed the right answer, and if you have the time, you can go back and easily review questions you were unsure about.

They like to throw in a lot of questions which have multiple answers or a “best answer” scenario (such as, pick the 3 answers that apply and pick the answer that best solves the question). Make sure you practice these types of questions. Read them slowly a couple a times. I have missed questions simply by reading too fast.

When taking the vignettes, I find it helped to write down the requirements for each example so I could cross them off after I completed them. It’s very important that you meet EVERY requirement exactly as it’s stated. When you think you’ve finished the vignette, read over the requirements again very slowly and verify that you met them all.

The software you are required to use really sucks. It’s like having to use the beta version of AutoCAD from 40 years ago. Make sure you get lots of practice using the software before you take your tests, especially the first one (you can download it from NCARB’s website here). I’m 90% certain I failed my first test because of not using the software correctly. When solving the vignettes, I found it very useful to use the sketch tool. It allows you to draw lines, circles, ect. on the vignette that will show you distances and setbacks instead of constantly having to use the measure tool (which sucks up a lot of time).

[Image Source: ARE Forum]

You’ll notice the use of sketch lines in the image above. They are all the green lines. This person took it to the extreme with the circles at the stream, but you can see how you can use them to draw lines where your constraints are to verify things as you draw.

I usually take about 3-4 weeks of hard studying for each test (1-3 hours a day). If you go through all the study materials and pass the practice exams (70%), you should have no problem passing the real thing. Don’t worry if you don’t pass every test the first time around. Most architects I’ve talked to failed at least one test in the process. As you probably noticed in the chart above, you have about a 70% chance of passing the tests on your first try. Study hard, ask for help and YOU CAN DO IT!

Report Card

So far, I have taken four exams and passed three of them. I’m re-taking the one I failed in about a week. That’s the Building Design and Construction Systems test, which is the first test I took (I didn’t start with an easy one).

I’ve taken and passed the Schematic Design, Programming Planning Practice and Site Planning & Design tests. The tests I have passed, I did with flying colors. Meaning, I didn’t partially fail any part of the test, completely passing everything.

Since I originally wrote this post, I completed all portions of the ARE and have become a licensed architect in the state of Illinois. I managed to pass the rest of the sections without any problems, although I did take one exam with a crazy bad flu. I don’t know how I passed that one.

I know the pain and time vacuum that is created by going through this process so feel free to contact me through my email, Twitter or comments below.

@benjamindockter on Twitter

Posted in: Architecture