Cart Before the Horse(?)

The recent flurry of activity from NCARB — and the requisite mixed bag of reactions from the architectural community, complete with hand-wringing that comes with the idea of changing something about the process — has had me thinking a lot about change, change for change’s sake, and how we as a culture react to it. It’s certainly not the first time NCARB has made modifications to their programs and policies, and I doubt that it will be the last. In honor of the now-ubiquitous Throwback Thursday, here’s an example from my own personal experiences.

Confession time: I graduated from college — and entered the workforce — in June of 2000. (Yes, again, another reminder that I’m getting old.) It was a simpler time — Facebook hadn’t been invented (much less gone mainstream) just yet, Twitter was even further off, and a “smart phone” was one that had a camera. I also walked uphill to the office, both ways, in driving rain and snow… (I’m only kidding about that last part. It was a bridge, not a hill.) But I digress… Back in my day, an intern had to complete IDP (filling out Experience Reports BY HAND) before being they could even consider starting the ARE.

I know what you’re thinking: Facebook hadn’t been invented yet!?! Stay with me, here…

When I began my internship, taking my first steps on my path to becoming an architect, candidates had to complete IDP first (earning your minimum amount of experience while doing so) before receiving their Authorization to Test. Under that model, the exam became a rite of passage… it was something that you worked toward, the culmination of your education and training, a palpable threshold that could be crossed. The ARE tested not only your ability to hit the books, but also the things that you had learned along the way. The experience became part of your preparation for the exam. (For the record, I completed IDP in early 2004, started testing — under ARE 3.1, mind you — in December of 2004, and finished nearly one year later, in December of 2005. Seems like only yesterday, but the fact that it’s been nearly ten years is staggering to me.) As most candidates know, that’s all changed now. Most jurisdictions allow their interns to take any (or all!) of the seven divisions of the exam as soon as they graduate from college, concurrent with earning IDP credit.

As NCARB has been quick to point out, taking the ARE concurrent with IDP has provided a great deal of flexibility in the internship process, allowing emergent professionals the chance to take a particular exam when it’s most convenient for them (even if they are out of work, which has been a major issue for our profession in recent years). It also eliminated some of the frustration inherent in IDP, which can drag out for years due to difficulty in gaining particular blocks of experience. Pennsylvania adopted concurrency in 2007, long after I was registered, which meant that I never had the opportunity to experience this in practice.
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Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of concurrency, which to me feels like putting the cart before the horse. I feel that it has diluted the exam process, and in doing so, has taken some of the “oomph” out of licensure. It’s still no small feat, mind you — earning one’s license still requires 5,600 hours of experience and seven passing scores, no matter what order you decide to tackle them. But there was something about the significance in completing IDP before starting the ARE, meaning that you had earned the experience and were ready to be tested on it. Then came scheduling the different divisions, each one a milestone in its own right, and getting those score reports, one by one. That last “pass” letter was a powerful thing — it meant that you were DONE. Without it, and this is just my opinion here, it would seem to me that your internship ends not with a bang, as T. S. Eliot put it, but with a whimper.

It’s has nothing to do with the time factor — it’s just that I don’t feel that the test was meant to be taken by someone fresh out of school, someone who hasn’t yet experienced many of the things that are meant to be tested. More to the point, without the proper context, some candidates might not even realize why a particular question was even important. The exam loses its heft when it’s nothing more than a chore, something that just needs to be gotten out of the way.

Case in point: I can remember, very distinctly, sitting in on a construction meeting where the word “contingency” was mentioned. I was 27 years old at the time, and will openly admit (just as I did then) that I didn’t know what the term meant. The owners’ rep explained it to me, practically giving me a dictionary definition, but in the context of the project, I understood it. Two years later, while preparing for the ARE, that same definition showed up on the back of a flash card… and, later, a question about contingencies came up in my Contract Documents exam. I remember feeling that I had achieved some holistic understanding, that my study and experience were both informing my performance on the exam. I felt… well, I felt exactly how I think you’re supposed to feel in that situation. Confident. Composed. Collected. Without the experience to back it up, it would have just been another vocabulary lesson, a piece of architectural trivia. I don’t believe that interns are going to look back on the test, after completing IDP, and say something to the effect of “so *that’s* what that question was on my test!” Some will, I’m sure, but many won’t.

Again, these are just my opinions on the matter, which are deeply rooted in my own personal experiences with the exam and my internship. That said, opinions can change. In the time that I’ve spent talking with exam candidates and recently-registered professionals, I’ve come to appreciate the freedom that concurrency has offered in the process… particularly in recent years, when practical experience (you know, the kind that came with a paycheck) was hard to come by, and I certainly do not discount that. The point here is this: if I had vehemently opposed concurrency for those reasons, expecting every architect that came after me to have the same exact internship experience as I did, countless interns would not have benefitted from the more streamlined process. The sum of the requisite parts is still the same, just the order in which they’ve been undertaken is slightly different. Those who are opposed to the currently proposals for changes in the system, without allowing them a chance to develop, are in danger of putting an overturned cart in front of our collective horse, a roadblock that is potentially more damaging to our profession than it is helpful.

Some parting thoughts: The pending changes to the ARE, as well as the idea of sweeping changes to IDP, offers an opportunity to revisit our attitudes toward concurrency, as well. The proposed overhaul of IDP, aligning the experience settings with the ARE 5.0 exam divisions, is a game-changer that I hope also will have some influence over how interns (or whatever we will be calling them at that point) approach the test, which I will elaborate upon later. Under the current model, though, my preference for concurrency would be some sort of a hybrid — earning a minimal amount of experience (say, 1800 hours, the equivalent of one year, in any experience setting) before being allowed to sit for the exam; the test would then be taken while the candidate continues to earn IDP hours. Maybe that one year will empower and embolden some, giving them the confidence to charge ahead. Maybe it will show others that they might not be quite ready just yet, that there are still too many questions to which they don’t know the answers. (By the way, that will never change… it’s your confidence that you will find the answer that makes you a professional.)

The best part? The inherent flexibility of concurrency would still be part of the process. Finish the ARE before IDP if you want — that’s your choice. Or allow yourself the chance for that last “PASS” letter to be the oomph at the end of your internship, letting it go out with the bang it deserves. Again, just my opinion. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

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Great Expectations

NCARB’s annual meeting, held in Philadelphia this year, is close to wrapping up… and I, for one, am glad. This week has been chock full of announcements about changes to policies surrounding both IDP and the ARE that its been nearly impossible for me to keep up. (Note to NCARB — love the enthusiasm, but can’t we spread these out a little? Like, maybe one groundbreaking change a week? Thanks…)

To summarize, this past week saw huge announcements regarding palpable changes to the time involved in the IDP process as well as retesting for failed divisions of the ARE. The much-maligned “six-month rule” (you know, the one that says any experience older than six months is no longer valid) is being phased out, while the six-month waiting period for retesting after a failed division of the ARE will be dropping to a mere 60 days. Coincidence? Not sure. Both announcements reflect NCARB’s constant commitment to re-evaluating their programs and guidelines to meet the needs of emergent professionals. I’ll address my thoughts on both of these changes in future posts…

But wait — they’re not through yet! A proposal has also been announced that would significantly reduce the amount of time required in IDP by refocusing on the core hours of the various content areas. If successful, the proposal would eliminate elective hours and reduce the 5,600 hours of IDP by nearly a third. (The proposal is rooted in scientific data, such as the results of the most recent practice analysis. That said, I have some mixed feelings about this one that I will explore in a later post…)

All of these announcements have come in a haze of diaper changes, late-night feedings, and a general “what day is it again?” erratic schedule that comes with welcoming a newborn into the home, which my wife and I did just this past Saturday. It’s actually poetically appropriate, as I try to relearn how to be a caregiver to a new baby, that these policy changes turn the familiar on its ear. Bear with me as I play catch-up. For now, enjoy this shot of my son getting to know his new baby sister.

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4.0 Average: On Your Mark

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

Some of the simplest and most important advice I can offer to exam candidates is to never — ever — leave a question unanswered. A skipped question counts as a wrong answer, so even an educated guess is better than nothing.

There’s also some “mythology” to testing psychology that exams tend to be more difficult in the middle, so getting caught up at the high point of that bell curve might mean you’d be missing some low-hanging fruit near the end of the test. So, the second best piece of advice is to skip any question that seems too difficult at first glance. Work your way through the entire test at least once, answering any item where the answer is immediately apparent. The Review Screen gives you the ability to drill down and review only the items that have been skipped or marked.  When I was testing, I repeated this process several items in each exam, and each time the number of skipped items kept getting smaller (and my confidence in my answers kept increasing). In the last few minutes, with only a few items remaining — not gonna lie here, folks — I guessed.

Review ScreenRecently, one young woman in my chapter shared her testing strategy, which I thought was one of the most clever things that I’ve heard from an exam candidate. (She must have had an excellent mentor…) When sitting for her Structural Systems exam, she did exactly what every candidate should do — she moved through every question on the test, skipping anything that seemed too complex or confusing during the first read-through. But here’s where it gets brilliant: she skipped questions that were initially confusing, but she marked questions that involved a calculation. When she reached the end of the questions and took a look at the Review Screen, she knew that the 8-10 marked questions involved calculations (editor’s note: this is just an example, and does not mean your exam will only include 10 math-type items… XOXO, Uncle Sean). So she clicked “Review Incomplete Items,” (the ones that she had skipped, which did not involve a calculation) and worked through them again. And again, slowly whittling away at them until all that were left were the marked items (each of which involved a calculation). Time management was a factor here also — she allowed herself enough time to address those items, knowing that the bulk of the exam was now behind her. Smart work. (By the way, did I mention that how you prepare for and approach the test says almost as much (if not more) about you as a professional as passing it?)

It may look simple, but — as my friend’s strategy proves — the Review Screen is actually a very powerful tool. Using it wisely gives you a marked advantage.

Lost in Translation

With the development of ARE 5.0 well underway, NCARB has officially announced that the transition plan from ARE 4.0 to ARE 5.0 has been established. The launch of the new version of the exam is still over two years out, but this announcement makes it start to feel more real. For the record, the specific divisions (six this time) are only just beginning to take shape, but it certainly appears that the test will be significantly improved by these changes.

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“Can I tell you a secret…? I’m actually going to miss the vignettes…”

That’s apparently not the only thing that’s been significantly improved. In the companion piece on their blog site, NCARB has very rightfully pointed out the elephant in the room by addressing the very rocky road that took place during the last transition, when ARE 3.1 gave way to 4.0, offering candidates five solid facts (including an expiration date for ARE 4.0 — mark those calendars, kids!) even at this early stage. The flaws in the previous transition certainly weren’t for lack of trying: ARE 4.0 at least bore some strong resemblance to the previous version — the graphic vignettes were identical, and the multiple choice content, while updated, was still essentially the same… just more dispersed between divisions. The transition chart was pretty clear cut, allowing exam candidates that found themselves in between the two versions of the exam a well-defined path of how to completed the test. However, because the clock was ticking, it also meant that passed divisions of 3.1 had a shelf life.

I personally passed the exam and got registered long before ARE 4.0 was even announced, completely missing the transitional period which proved to be so difficult for so many. A close friend of mine found himself in just that very predicament. Newly married, he began testing under ARE 3.1. Their first baby arrived not too much later, followed by another a few years afterward. The test was still on his radar screen, of course, but life has a habit of getting in the way of even the best of intentions. With the end of the transition period looming, only the “Building Technology” exam stood between him and his license — and if you knew anything about the 3.1 to 4.0 transition, that just happened to be the worst possible test to have to worry about. The results weren’t what he wanted them to be, and he lost credit for five exams. Five. The setback was too much for him to justify financially, and the exam fell by the wayside. He has since left the profession, pursuing an alternative career that, while borrowing very heavily upon his skill set as an architect, is not day-to-day architecture. Whether or not this is better suited for him is not for me to say, nor is it the point of this argument.

I’m sure that everyone in my age bracket knows someone — possibly even many someones — like my friend. The situation that he found himself in wasn’t his fault, nor was it NCARB’s. Change is inevitable, and in the case of the exam, necessary… but it unfortunately takes some casualties along the way. The good news is that, with the release of the ARE 5.0 transition plan, NCARB has gone to incredible lengths to help make sure that the process is much smoother this time around. ARE 4.0 will continue to exist for another 18 months after 5.0 has been launched, giving many candidates ample opportunity to finish. More enticingly, they’ve introduced a credit model that actually allows a unique hybrid of divisions from 4.0 and 5.0, allowing candidates to finish the exam faster by going this route (starting with the CDS-PPP-SPD combo that many resources — including mine, come to think of it– recommend). Obviously a great deal of thought has gone into this process to ensure a much more streamlined transition this time around.

For many of you in the midst of taking 4.0, the transition won’t be an issue. (Prior to this announcement, I was envisioning a HUGE rush of candidates trying to complete 4.0 before the end of 2016 — appointments at your local Prometric testing center should be a little easier to come by now…). For many others just starting out in architecture school, the exam is far enough off that ARE 5.0 will likely be their only option. But for those graduating in the next year or two, or those who just started working, you might find yourself preparing to test in a transitional period… which means that you have a decision to make. I’m not saying not to take the test, or to put off getting married or having children — life is far too short to waste time waiting for anything. But if you think that your path will take you toward the exam within the next two years, give this some serious thought, and make your plans accordingly.

On the Radar

This post really needs to start with an acknowledgement of just how far OFF the radar I’ve been in the past few weeks… it really is amazing how many different things that life likes to throw at us at any one given time, and how that can wreak havoc on even the best of intentions. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t published a fresh post in over a month (interestingly enough, it was also about my bursting-at-the-seams schedule), a near-eternity in the blogosphere– in that time, I’ve packed up every one of my earthly belongings, sold my home of the last seven years, and moved my wife and son into a temporary living arrangement with my in-laws. Not to mention deadlines on three different projects, a few late nights for project interviews, a presentation for an ARE Review Session, a last-minute trip to Nashville for the NIRSA conference last week (which was something that I really want to spend some time talking about, in a later post…), and, oh yeah, trying to be a somewhat attentive husband and dad. At the risk of sounding like I’m complaining (hey, waitaminute… didn’t I recently share an article on Twitter about how saying you’re too busy is a horrible excuse for anything…!?), my airspace has been a little crowded lately… hopefully I didn’t leave any of you hanging.

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Image credit: FreeImages.com, shared here under the standard restrictions.

Earlier this year I was quite humbled when NCARB mentioned me in their brand-spankin’ new blog as one of the “11 Twitter Accounts that Every Architecture Student Should Follow.” (Maybe I should be thankful that it wasn’t “the top ten Twitter accounts…?”… heh.) Today I find myself humbled once again to have my blog (that labor of love, flight of fancy, and sounding board for ARE and IDP advice…as well as any other random and mildly relevant thought that might pop into my head) included in NCARB’s latest post, “The Best Blogs for Architectural Interns and Students.” Again, I find myself in the most excellent of company, which includes some of my personal favorites — Brinn Miracle’s ArchiTangent (quietly intelligent about design, sustainability, and the licensing exam) and Bob Borson’s The Life of an Architect (who has basically written the book on blogging about being an architect) — both of whom, by the way, were also featured by NCARB for their Twitter feeds — as well as Jared Banks’ ShoeGnome (forcing me to reconsider virtually everything about the way we represent ourselves and our work) and Jenny Cestnik’s AREndurance (putting a very human face to the exam process). Longtime readers will remember that each one of these has been listed in my “Other Paths to Follow” widget off to the right for as long as I’ve been maintaining this site, and for good reason — I’ve enjoyed reading, following, and most importantly, being inspired by, their work, and think that others would benefit from their words as much as I have been. (And I’m really looking forward to checking out Stuck in Studio and Just and Intern, too…!) I’m still a relative newbie when it comes to blogging, but each of these sites has impressed me with their honesty, intelligence, humor, and heart — a combination that, to me, is exactly what a blog should have.

When I started this little project, all I wanted to do was to offer some unbiased advice, rooted deeply in my own personal experience as a young architect. The fact that I’ve been included in such a wonderful group is mind-boggling (I keep hitting refresh, and I’m still listed!)… and also a little daunting, too. I may have been able to delude myself before, but it looks like I’m officially on the radar now. So, a promise to my followers, both current and new, I have several new posts queued up and ready to launch over the coming weeks… just in the nick of time, apparently. No more month-long hiatuses for me, I guess… (although I hope you’ll give me a little break when I tackle that next deadline, move into my new home, and welcome my newborn daughter… all in the next two months. Sigh…)

(Sincerest thanks — again — to the folks at NCARB’s blog for the attention… and yes, I *am* working on that post for your blog, too… it’s around here somewhere, I promise…)

Left Turns

It’s hard for me to believe that, after over two months of planning, the Emerging Professionals Summit has come and gone. With it, my first visit to Albuquerque, a fact that met with some bemusement to my family and some of my friends, the ones that cut their teeth on the same pop culture classics as I did, for whom the city will always be associated with Bugs Bunny and his famous lack of direction. (Plus, I have to admit that I was pretty psyched to visit the setting of one of the greatest pieces of television ever made. No, not Breaking Bad… I was referring to that timeless coming of age story, High School Musical.)

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Albuquerque — and more specifically, the gorgeous Hotel Andaluz — was the site of the AIA’s 2014 Emerging Professionals Summit. Sixty professionals representing the AIA, as well as the various collateral organizations, gathered there to discuss future directions for the Institute, and ultimately the profession, in the interests of avoiding the somewhat dystopian view of our future (or any version of it) that I shared in my previous post. Our discussions in Albuquerque (graphically recorded for posterity’s sake) will form the basis for the next three to five years’ worth of initiatives that the AIA can undertake in order to strengthen the profession for emergent professionals. Bold ideas were encouraged, maybe even challenged, by AIA leadership (including CEO Robert Ivy and 2014 President Helene Combs Dreiling), and in response, bold ideas were proposed. Our conversations focused on four main aspects of practice — Education, Licensure, Career Development, and Firm Culture — with the expectation of more than just talk. Our primary responsibility for the weekend was to be demonstrative, ensuring that tangible, actionable results would be able to be derived from our discourse. It was a hefty charge, one that I’m proud to have been a part of.

Hefty charges, of course, often bring with them a fair share of self doubt. There will many, I’m sure, that will question our findings, asking if we should have zigged instead of zagged, made a left turn where we decided to go right. Perhaps we should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque. Only time will tell. The point of the exercise was not necessarily to pose a solution, but to chart a course. The destination is for all of us to find, together. I’m looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

Make Your Mark

The AIA’s 2014 Emerging Professionals summit takes place later this week. Between Friday to Sunday, 60 professionals from across the country, representing the AIA and the other collateral organizations, will gather in Albuquerque to discuss the future of the profession, in order to position us for the next 20 years of practice. Late last year, anyone interested in participating was invited to submit an essay answering the question “In 2033, what role are architects playing in society?” In honor of the summit, I’ve decided to share my submission here. (For another emerging professional’s response, click here.) Join the conversation at epsummit.mindmixer.com, and follow the Summit on Twitter at #2014EPSummit.

March 14, 2033: I find myself celebrating my 56th birthday with our company in the last stages of a corporate buyout. Next Monday, I will begin the last phase of my career, acting as a consultant for a global construction management entity that has chosen to incorporate our staff into their local Real Estate Development group. Our offices have shared a long history of collaboration — as a small general contractor, they built many of our designs, giving them a foothold in the industry that allowed their business to flourish as ours, ironically, continued to grow smaller — and out of respect, our firm was acquired for its skills in space planning, programming, and code analysis.

The last time I packed up my workstation – fifteen years ago, when we moved to a smaller, more efficient tenant space – was a cumbersome undertaking, but I’m finding it surprisingly easy this time around. Our fully-integrated building models are entirely cloud-based, with changes uploaded instantaneously to the field model in the construction trailer, making the clutter of paper documents a thing of the past. Most of our digital information was already housed on our new partner’s network, making my move to their office no more complicated than syncing my tablet. It’s a seamless transition, especially since we had already adopted the contractor’s document management process years ago, in the interests of a more integrated delivery system. Following their paradigm was more cost-effective than creating our own.

With no paper documents to sift through, the focus is mostly my personal belongings, including some well-worn books and my stamp — which, having been used only a handful of times, looks as pristine as the day that I received it nearly 30 years ago. Hermetically sealed in a small glass display case, a gift from my wife when I was named senior associate, the simple inscription upon it still rings true, figuratively if not literally: “Make your mark.” It’s been a museum piece, a marvel to the paraprofessionals in the office, not only because the idea of putting ink on paper seems as dirty as it does antiquated, but because the act itself no longer has any meaning. By accepting all of the risk on a building project, the construction manager’s virtual signature, digitally encoded into each document, has physically and legally replaced the architect’s stamp.

My college diploma is next to be packed, another relic from a time gone by. Ten years ago, when academia standardized a “licensure at graduation” model, the need for practical experience was eliminated. A formalized internship program vanished, leaving us with no established method of training. The sense of entitlement — that a credential need not be earned — crippled the profession, breeding an entire generation of talented designers with little technical ability; an architect’s license lost its value. The backlash, realized in a huge drop in enrollment, forced several universities to drop their architecture programs, including my own. With no carrot to strive for, the younger professionals that remained lost their competitive edge. Many sought more challenging (and lucrative) work elsewhere, leaving the mid-range professionals like me with fewer resources to draw upon. The clout associated with the term “architect” — that the AIA had fought so hard to protect, for as long as I can remember — crumbled from within. We had spent so much time and energy worrying about how we were being perceived outside of our insular culture, that we neglected to focus on what was happening inside of it.

My afternoon will be spent in the file storage room, an archaeological dig through record documents and yellowed rolls of paper. It’s strange to see the names of former senior principals on these documents, proof that they did indeed deal with the daily mechanics on projects in the same way that I have. Having known them solely in marketing and business development roles, seeing their signatures on RFIs and change orders strikes me as odd; they always seemed to exist in different realm, separated from the rest of us by strategic planning, budgets, and spreadsheets. They have long since retired, taking their professional relationships and business acumen with them, leaving the next generation of leaders to essentially reinvent the wheel. It’s no surprise that, when given the reins, many of us struggled, and some failed; when the phone stopped ringing, the lack of mentorship at all levels of development in the profession became painfully evident.

I set the lid in place, the last remains of my formal career in architecture neatly boxed, musing inwardly that it didn’t have to be this way. A profession full of creative, intelligent, passionate individuals, we had the ability to change the course of events twenty years ago. By placing appropriate value on licensure, while still embracing non-traditional paths in practice. By fostering open collaboration with our fellow professionals, on both sides of the design community. By establishing ourselves as progressive leaders of change instead of followers, rigidly holding on to outdated ways of doing things. Most importantly, by encouraging mentorship and succession planning. By strengthening the profession from the inside, so that we had nothing left to prove to those outside of it. Simple concepts, but difficult to implement. It wouldn’t have been easy, it would have taken a collective effort from all of us, but it would have been worth it. The contents of this box deserved it.

Looking Back

2013 is drawing to a close. My first full year of In DePth has shown me that blogging on a regular schedule is, quite frankly, really hard to do. As much as I’ve enjoyed the blog, it still falls squarely into “hobby” territory… which puts it at a distant fifth place behind my family, my friends, my home, and my job. As a result, my publishing schedule was more than a little erratic — after feeling like I was running to stand still early in the year, I managed to hit my stride and publish a new post at least every two weeks over the summer (far more than I had ever imagined), but saw my productivity drop off rapidly in the last few months of the year (where deadlines and holidays might have been a factor). A tip of the hat to anyone out there that manages a blog on a weekly (or daily) basis.

My posts this year ranged from random thoughts on the practice of architecture, including some things that were tangentially related to it — my take on Ted Mosby became my second most popular post (and judging by the posts that were inspired by Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, and even Wheel of Fortune, I watch entirely too much television). (I also wrote about a roasting pan, a hot air balloon, and a giant rubber duck. Talk about your random thoughts.) However, in the interests of making this site actually somewhat useful, I also started including straightforward essays on the exam process and IDP; 2013 saw the launch of two recurring series of posts — Toward 5600, about Supplemental Experience in the IDP process, and 4.0 Average, offering exam advice — which seem to have been very well received. (Also the hardest to write, due to the fact-checking involved — the nature of the platform makes me nervous that I might accidentally spread some misinformation.)

The blog got some great publicity at the 2013 Coordinators Conference in July, where I used it as the prime example of how I use social media to supplement my role as State Coordinator. NCARB’s support of the blog has been invaluable; in fact, my most popular posts of the year were my perspectives on NCARB’s events, such as the Blackoutand the end to the duration requirements, and the piece that I wrote after the announcement of ARE 5.0 has proven to be my most popular ever. (Timing, it seems, is everything… but a few retweets from NCARB never hurt, either.)

I also had a few pieces published on AIA Pittsburgh’s site. Two of my blog posts (my report from Grassroots, and an essay on mentorship inspired by my son) were republished there, as well as two original articles — the paths to licensure taken by five recently registered architects, and a review of a playful new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum. Feel free to head on over and check them out.

Onward into 2014… hope to see you again soon. Happy New Year to you and yours.

4.0 Average: Expect the Unexpected

True story… somewhere in the haze of working a 50-hour-per-week job and studying for my licensing exam, I witnessed a car accident. I was on my way to catch my bus to work, about to cross an intersection, when an SUV blew a stop sign and broadsided a Jeep. The impact spun the second vehicle nearly 180 degrees. The entire thing lasted less than a second, even though it felt like hours to me, the innocent bystander with his jaw somewhere around his mid-chest.

car-accidents 8No one was hurt, thankfully (not even the 2-year-old strapped into the backseat of vehicle #1, nor his irate mother, who was clearly in the wrong). As the driver of the Jeep — a tall guy about my own age — stepped out, I asked if he was okay. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied, visibly disturbed by the situation at hand, “but I was on my way to take a professional exam…”

My heart sank. Those words of his hit pretty close to home for me. I probably had a stack of flash cards in my pocket at the time. The idea that any number of things can happen to any one of us, at any time, no matter how prepared we think we are, was a real eye-opener.

When I offer exam advice, I often tell candidates that the first test will inevitably be the hardest. Most of this is psychological in nature — you don’t know what to expect, the testing center is a strange, foreign place… By the time exam #7 rolls around, all of this will be old hat. You might even know the attendant’s by name at that point.  Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.

My advice for preparing for the exam includes some things that aren’t study-related at all. Leave early. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the testing center. If it’s your first test, and you don’t know where you’re going, consider a little road trip the week before your appointment — find the testing center.  If possible, try making the drive at the same time of day (and the same day of the week) as your appointment, so you have a feel for how heavy traffic can be. Most of Prometric’s testing centers are in office parks or strip malls — in other words, areas that see a lot of vehicular traffic.  The entrance might be difficult to locate.  A lot of this might sound like being over-prepared, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, but anything that helps to cut down on your stress on test day is worth considering. There are a lot of things that are out of our control — just ask that guy in the Jeep — but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a handle on the rest of them.

4.0 Average: Little Red Envelopes

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

Netflix may just be the very best study companion that an exam candidate can ask for.

I took the exams on a “one per month” schedule, meaning that I studied for roughly four weeks straight for each individual exam, on top of a busy work schedule where I was juggling two large projects at the same time. Add to that the mounting psychological tension that comes with the exam date drawing ever closer. It was a very stressful period in my life. Even the smallest opportunity for some relaxation was greatly welcomed.

netflix-rev-1The simplest (and in some ways best) advice that I can offer anyone who is preparing to sit for the exam is this: take some time to yourself, for the sake of your own sanity. The night before your test date, put the books away and relax. Cook yourself a decent dinner. Straighten up your apartment (for a little feng shui). Read a book. Play some of your favorite music. Or (and here’s where Netflix comes in), fire up the DVD player and watch a movie. My preference was mindless (and somewhat raunchy) comedies (Road Trip, Old School, Van Wilder…). Maybe, for you, it’s over-the-top action, period dramas, or sappy romantic comedies. Or maybe you’ve been looking to dive into a series, like True Blood, Homeland, or Downton Abbey (I hear that Netflix’s original series — House of Cards and Orange is the New Black — are some pretty good stuff, too). Whatever it is, load up your Netflix queue with at least seven of them. Take a load off, turn the TV on, and put the exam out of your mind. Then go to bed at a decent hour, so you can start the next day on a good night’s sleep.

The point of this is, if you don’t know the material by then, cramming the night before isn’t going to help. All it’s going to do is add unnecessary stress right when you don’t need it. You want to walk into the testing center well-rested, relaxed, poised, and confident.

One caveat: I wouldn’t recommend drinking. Save that for the next night (AFTER the test!).

Do you have any suggestions for “sanity breaks” during the testing process? Add them in the comments!