4.0 Average: Accounting 101

The latest in a semi-regular series on preparing for — and taking — the ARE 4.0.

Errata: I’ve recently learned that some of the items in this post — based largely on the information that is available on the ARE Forum — are not fully correct; I’ve since edited the text to delete anything that might be considered misinformation. While it might be fun to speculate about the scoring process, there’s no point in stressing yourself out over things that are beyond your control. Lesson learned.

One of the biggest questions about the exam (probably the second biggest, after “Which one do I take first?“) is what constitutes a passing grade — or, in other words, “How many questions do I have to get right?” The simple answer would be “all of them,” and while that’s an admirable goal, it’s not all that realistic. While only NCARB knows for sure (and things, of course, could change when ARE 5.0 is implemented), it is generally assumed that a score of 75% is considered a pass. For more about how the ARE is scored, check out this excellent post on NCARB’s blog.  However, here are a few things that candidates need to keep in mind:


A rare look inside the offices of Alpine Testing Solutions.

1. You will never see your actual score. The exam is pass/ fail. Your score, of course, determines if you passed or failed, but you will never see it. Don’t sweat it. Be as prepared as you can possibly be — you wouldn’t study 75% of the material, nor should you take the test if you feel only 75% ready. (To be honest, I don’t think I’d want to know. “Pass” was all I needed to see.)

2. There are multiple Content Areas on each exam, and each Content Area will have a different number of questions, but candidates do not need to score at least a 75% in each of them in order to pass. Obviously getting every question incorrect, though, especially in some of the smaller content areas, is going to add up to a serious deficiency.

3. Skipping a question counts as a wrong answer. Each scored question is given the same overall importance — correct answers are worth one point, while incorrect (or blank) responses receive zero points. So, obviously, it’s in your best interest to answer every question, which might mean making some educated guesses in the last fleeting minutes before time is up. Also, it’s important not to waste time on any one question — mark the more difficult questions for review and come back to them later, after you’ve addressed each question on the test.

4. Not all questions that you will see on your exam will be scored. NCARB is constantly beta-testing new exam content, and will occasionally sprinkle newly-developed questions into live exams. Your performance on these items determines if they will become future scored exam questions. It’s not necessarliy about content, but also how the question is structured — for example, is the question too easy (ie, everyone is getting it right), or is it too difficult (not a single person can come up with the correct answer)? It’s not worth trying to sniff these out — treat every question as if it’s weighted the same as all the others, because, more than likely, it will be.

5. While there’s some latitude in the multiple choice portion, the vignettes are pass/ fail. You need to create a passing solution for each vignette on the exam in order to pass the test. Both portions of the exam are combined into a single overall score — conceivably, a superlative performance on the vignettes could help to lift your MC score into passing territory, and vice versa (this is called conjunctive scoring)– candidates need to be confident that they’ve addressed each problem completely, to avoid as many minor deficiencies as possible. Practice with the software and be sure you know it backward and forward. I simply can’t stress that enough.

6. Despite any rumors to the contrary, in my humble opinion, there is no such thing as a “fatal flaw” in the graphic vignettes. This is a myth based mostly on a time when the exam was still being graded by a real, live human being. The computer-based grading system looks at things quantitatively. Any deficiencies in your solution — both major and minor — will be evaulated, and could add up to a failing score, but I truly do not believe that any single mistake that will lead to your irrevocable doom.

This post was a little more technical than I was expecting it to be, but I hope that you’ve found this little peek behind the curtain (from my perspective, anyway) to be helpful, or at least interesting. Other than the pass/fail thing, I didn’t know any of this when I tested (and still passed), but it never hurts to be prepared. We’ll get into the actual meat of the test in future posts. Stay tuned!

Paying Your Dues

This being an odd-numbered year, it’s time once again for that biennial task of renewing one’s license. It’s a part of the licensure process that is often forgotten by many, including me — I literally just hauled out my charge card and paid my $100 renewal fee, with only days to go before the June 30th deadline. Two more years of licensure, in the bag — cha-ching!

Also, I'm pretty sure I'm overdue for an oil change...

Also, I’m pretty sure I’m overdue for an oil change…

I wanted to bring it up here, while its fresh in my mind (since I will most likely forget about it for another two years), because it’s one more thing to consider — after NCARB’s renewal fees, seven divisions of the exam, paying to have your record transmitted to the state board, and the cost of your stamp, it can seem like the cost of achieving a license will simply never end. It’s not that much money (it works out to less than $1 per week to maintain my status as a registered architect, a pittance when you get right down to it), but it’s one of those things that doesn’t get spoken of when we talk about how important it is to get licensed. Fees are a part of life, but that doesn’t stop people from having some odd reactions to them — I worked with a young woman who told me she planned her exam schedule so that earning her initial license fell on the odd-numbered year, giving her an extra 12 months before having to pony up for that first renewal. (And if you can plan that far ahead, my anal-retentive hat is off to you.)

Like many bills, it never seems to come at a good time, but I’ve never once grumbled about renewing my license. I consider it an investment in myself, and the effort that went into achieving it. Here’s to two more years of practice! (Maybe I should mark the calendar now…)

The Roasting Pan

If necessity is the mother of invention, then routine is the crazy uncle no one talks about at parties.  Much of our behavior is influenced by habit, instead of critical thought, more often than you might expect. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see something that should be blatantly obvious — for a real-world example, check out this piece on Forbes.com.

One day a little girl was watching her mother prepare a roast beef for that evening’s dinner.  She cut off  the ends, wrapped it in string, seasoned it and set it in the great roasting  pan.

I know it’s a turkey, not a roast… just go with it.

The little girl asked her mom why she cut off the ends of the roast.  Mom replied, after some thought, that she learned how to prepare a roast by watching her own mother, and this was the way that she had always done  it.

That night grandma came to dinner, so the little girl went to her and asked why she had cut the end off of the roast before cooking.  After some thought grandma replied, with a shrug of the shoulders, that it was the way her mother had done it.

The girl’s great-grandmother was quite old and in a nursing home.  A few weeks after the dinner, the little girl went with  her mother and grandmother to see her, and again she asked the question.  Great-grandma looked at them a bit annoyed and said, “So it would fit in the pan, of course.”

Reprinted, with some liberties, from JokeBuddha: http://www.jokebuddha.com/joke/One_day_a_little_girl#ixzz28NeBEcvD

A Time For Change

NCARB announced today that the clock is ticking on ARE 4.0, which will soon give way to version 5.0. It’s not all that surprising — the current version has been in effect for several years now, since 2009, with the graphic vignettes essentially unchanged since the implementation of ARE 3.1. (With the benefit of hindsight, this makes the cloud solution for the practice software make much more sense, eh?)

Transition information won’t be available until at least this time next year, but it sounds like this will be an even more radical shift than the last upgrade, from 3.1 to 4.0. Based on feedback from the recently-released 2012 Practice Analysis of Architecture, the revamped exam will incorporate possibly six divisions, with content focusing on integrated skills like project management.

The biggest change? No more graphic vignettes. NCARB has apparently taken all of the negative feedback about the testing software to heart, and in a bold move, decided to eliminate the vignettes entirely. (I couldn’t help but think of Cuba Gooding Jr’s line from Jerry Maguire: “Well, that’s another way to go…!”). Interns can now kiss that antiquated software goodbye, but at something of a price — the new format, with its “hot spots” and mini graphic items sprinkled throughout, sounds like it might be a much more difficult exam. (Be careful what you wish for!)

Not much more information is available beyond the initial press release, but I’m hoping that this is a topic of discussion at the annual Coordinators Conference. I’ll be sure to report on anything that I find out, so be sure to keep checking back for updates.

In the meantime, current candidates should continue to prepare for 4.0. If you’ve been on the fence about starting the exam, it might be a good idea to take advantage of the Blackout and get prepared to test this fall. The transition from 3.1 to 4.0 was cumbersome, with many candidates losing credit for passed exams due to compatibility; it stands to reason that the transition to 5.0 could bring the same sorts of issues, which are best avoided if possible. ARE 5.0 won’t take effect until late 2016 at the earliest, which is plenty of time to get registered under the current system. Particularly if you have a fondness for those graphic vignettes.

Toward a 4.0 Average

It occurred to me that in the eleven months or so of managing this blog, I really haven’t spent much time focusing on the exam. To that end, we’ll be adding a new semi-regular series here at InDepth called 4.0 Average, where we’ll offer some suggestions, comments, and advice on preparing for — and taking — the ARE 4.0.

Think about about the typical architectural job postings probably seen on LinkedIn or maybe your local components website. The first sentence probably says something along the lines of “postgraduate architect with 1 to 3 years of experience, on the exam track.” Another popular one is “registered architect with 3 to 5 years of experience.” In both cases, the exam becomes a measuring stick, determining exactly where you are in your professional career, and where you see yourself going. It indicates a level of committment to both the job and the profession. I haven’t seen many job postings that start off with the words “Postgraduate degree in architecture, 5 to 10 years of experience, but just hasn’t gotten around to taking the test yet”. (Actually I would like to see that… I think I’d find it amusing.)

The exam is an equalizer, a baseline. Our careers might take wildly different paths — yours might be more involved in design and planning, mine might be more involved in construction administration and detailing — while we each practice in jurisdictions as far away from each other as physically possible. However the fact that we both are Registered Architects means that there is some sense of equivalency between us. It’s the common denominator.

The exam is certainly not without its flaws, particularly when it comes to the graphic vignettes (which seem to exist in an antiseptic alternate reality). It’s an imperfect system for an imperfect profession. But for now, anyway, it’s the only system we’ve got.

Over the course of the next several months, we’ll look a little more closely at those seven divisions of the test, and offer some suggestions, tips, and advice on how to go about preparing for them. There’s plenty more to come. Look for posts tagged 4.0 Average , and be sure to leave comments based on your own experience.

Youth Looks Forward, Age Looks Back: A Love-letter to Internship (part one)

Note: the following post was originally written in 2004, as my entry for the ArchVoices Essay Competition. This was at the completion of my IDP requirements, a time in my life where I found myself feeling somewhat disenfranchised with the profession, as I’m sure many interns do. While some of my thoughts hold up pretty well, I can’t help but shake my head at the naivete of some of the others… but seeing as this blog is devoted to internship, I figured it was worth sharing. Due to the overall length of this essay, this is part one; parts two and three will be published in later posts.

Nearly four years into my career, I feel that I have learned much about myself and the profession, and I have come to one major realization: that my life as an architect, at best, will be only a modest one. Mine isn’t a career that will change the world. My name will never be etched into a glass door at the entrance to an architectural office. Magazine covers featuring my work will never be printed. A space on the mantle will never need to be cleared for a Pritzker.

And I’m perfectly okay with that.

This is not to say that I have “given up” on anything. More the exact opposite, actually. I am as passionate about architecture as I was on the day that I received my degree, if not more. I aspire only to a modest career, one that I can look back on with the simple satisfaction of knowing that I did good work. That I provided the best possible services to my clients. That I improved people’s lives. And, in doing so, left a little bit of myself behind in each of my projects. My legacy, if you will.

As I write this, another milestone has quietly slipped behind me: my IDP requirements are complete. Nine little exams from now, I will have achieved the professional goal that has driven me for the past four years: I will be a registered architect. This is an interesting point in my career, a time to take a deep breath and pause for a little reflection. Looking ahead, it seems, requires one to look back at the same time. I’ve reached the point where I can finally start to see the light at the end of the internship tunnel, but the road to get here has been a rough one. Being an intern has more often than not seemed like an uphill battle, between learning the ropes of the professional world and endeavoring to create a post-modernist masterpiece that conforms to building code under the pressure of a looming deadline… all the while trying to eke out those last few fractions of an errant training unit, only to slog through the seemingly endless paper mill known as NCARB. Ironically, only after completing the requirements set forth by the Intern Development Program do I feel that I have begun to understand their importance. Completing IDP feels a little like graduating from high school — I couldn’t wait to get out into the great big world beyond it, but upon doing so I begin to wonder if I made the most of my time while I was there. Such impatience seems to be the hallmark of my generation. We rush to grow up, only to find ourselves longing for our fleeting youth even before it fades from our memory.

Boy With a Pipe, 1905, Pablo Picasso http://www.pablopicasso.org/boy-with-pipe.jsp

In college, some of my fellow students fostered the somewhat snobbish opinion that architects were an elitist group, one that looks at the world in a manner that differs from virtually every other group of professionals. The layman simply looks at art, but the architect understands it. The architect looks at Picasso’s “Boy With a Pipe,” for example, and sees layers of meaning, devotion to the craft, the careful consideration of color and composition, the tortured soul of the artist; the non-architect sees, well, a boy with a pipe. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that the opinion of my classmates, while maybe more than a little prudish, wasn’t entirely wrong. We are a unique group, but what truly sets architects apart, in my opinion, is that once we begin down this path, we never again are able to look at anything without seeing an opportunity for creation (or, in some instances, a missed opportunity). Architecture very rapidly stops being considered just something that we do; it is what we are, and what we always will be.

Opportunities to create can present themselves to us in many forms: an empty canvas, a fresh sheet of bumwad, a clean piece of chipboard, a blank AutoCAD screen, a vacant brownfield lot. Each offers unlimited possibilities, waiting only for that someone who can see their true potential. To that list, is it really all that unreasonable to add “a recently graduated intern?” Are young architects any less of a blank slate, any less deserving of the touch of the master’s hand?

Part two: the blind men and the elephant.


DCF 1.0

Toronto, Ontario, 2003 Blackout (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

The blackout is nearly upon us… Are you ready? (As one of the exam candidates in AIA-Pittsburgh put it, “well, yes — I’ve stocked up on bottled water and canned goods…” Very funny, but remember, I do the entertaining here… anyhoo…)

It will take an estimated eight weeks to migrate record data from the former holder, Prometric, to Alpine Testing Solutions. Once the migration is complete and the blackout has ended, exam candidates will be able to schedule tests, monitor their exam history, and receive electronic score reports directly from NCARB’s website, using the “My Examination” portal. The test is long behind me, but I think that this will be a huge improvement to the system, and will greatly simplify the way candidates manage their exam process — gone will be the days of using an external site to schedule exams, and then waiting weeks to receive a score report via snail mail.  Nothing about the exam itself will change — Prometric will continue to administer the exam, using the same testing centers, and content will remain the same (rescheduling fees will be modified to follow a tiered structure… but none of you reschedule your tests, so that shouldn’t matter, right??). For more information, check out the details on NCARB’s website.

If that eight-week dry spell scares you, there’s still time to squeeze in one more exam — the last day to take an ARE division prior to the blackout is June 30. Candidates will be able to schedule exam appointments again in late August — in order to hit the ground running, be sure to review NCARB’s guide for testing post-blackout. And don’t forget about the new security measures that will be implemented by Prometric, which might add some time to that first appointment.

For those of you grumbling about how much of an inconvenience this will be for you, take my advice:  stop.  The end result will be a much more streamlined and comprehensive method for managing your testing.  As NALSA Publishing put it in a recent blast, NCARB is actually doing you a favor here. If you’re currently testing, maybe this is the incentive you need to take that next division, prior to the blackout (and if so, you should really think about scheduling that appointment RIGHTNOW!!). Then you can take the opportunity to prepare for your next exam — possibly one of the more difficult divisions? — in those eight weeks. If you’re planning to start testing, you can use those eight weeks to brush up on content and develop a testing strategy, decide which division to start off with, and gather study materials.  Or you could use the blackout period to… oh, I don’t know… take a vacation.  It is the summer, after all.  Just be sure to stock up on bottled water.