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.

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!

4.0 Average: To MEEB or Not To MEEB…?

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

Some interns look at their office’s “ARE Library” — which more than likely consists of a haphazard pile of Kaplan guides, old flash cards, hand-written notes, and maybe a dog-eared copy of Norman Dorf’s Solutions — and find themselves daunted. Add in a varied list of online resources, plus your own textbooks and class notes from college (you *did* keep all of those, right…??) and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. How would anyone be expected to take a professional exam — on top of a 40-hour workweek — that requires this much reading?

An excellent example is MEEB, one of the more ubiquitous references in our industry, and also one of the most dense. MEEB (industry shorthand for Stein and Reynolds’ Mechanical and Electrical Engineering for Buildings) is a hefty tome; Amazon.com lists the 2009 edition as containing 1,792 pages, weighing in at a whopping 6.2 pounds. My copy, which I’ve held into since college, contains an entire chapter on the psychrometric chart alone. If you’re looking for some detailed information on a specific topic for the Building Systems exam, you’ll probably find it here. Reading it cover to cover, in a manner that would see you retaining even a fraction of the information, would take weeks.

derek_jacobi_bbc500x400So, to MEEB or not to MEEB…? That is the question.

In my honest opinion (and since this is my blog, that’s what you should expect), the answer is… Sort of. The book is an excellent reference, but it should be used as just that — a reference. Exam candidates would be better off relying on more concise study materials, like the Architects Studio Companion or even MEEB’s Student Companion site, in order to gain an overview of the varied content; MEEB can be used as a reference guide for any concepts that are proving themselves to be more difficult.

Personally, I rely on my copy of MEEB almost daily… as a door stop. Don’t let it keep you from moving forward.

4.0 Average: Event Calendar

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

Maya-calendar(Originally published one week prior to the end of the ARE Blackout, which felt like pushing the reset button; exam candidates were free to start testing again, giving us all a chance to start fresh with the ARE after a nice long summer break.) We talk so much about taking the exam that sometimes we forget what it must be like to start. The idea of buckling down and studying for seven consecutive exams, a process that will take months, can be a very daunting thing for many emergent professionals… so much so, that many might not even begin. Much like that journey of a thousand miles, you’ve gotta start somewhere. This post is meant to be a simple guide to the weeks leading up to taking that the first exam, to hopefully help you get your head around this task that you are about to undertake.

Before you begin:
Review the state board’s guidelines for registration. Go to NCARB’s website and read everything pertaining to the ARE — general information about the exam, the ARE 4.0 Guidelines, and the Exam Guide for every division. Download and use every practice program. If you feel overwhelmed, you might not be ready! (I found this quote on the ARE Forum — “Remember, this is an exam for professional licensure. This isn’t a school test. Passing the ARE means that you have been deemed competent to practice architecture on your own.”) If you do indeed feel ready, the next step would be to develop a strategy, beginning with which test to take first.

Four to Six Weeks before the test:
Schedule your appointment. First thing in the morning on a Monday is recommended — that way, you have the weekend to prepare, and the exam is your primary focus that day. Gather your Study Materials, including material for related divisions. Set a schedule for studying, and stick to it. Designate specific “study nights” per week, and make sure to take time off (ex: Friday night). Designate one night per week to review the vignette(s) for this exam. Get familiar with the specific vignette, even if you think you know the software! There will be subtle differences in the tools and menus depending on the particular vignette, and what you’re drawing. If possible, attend a local Review Session or Study Group for that division to help reinforce some of the more difficult concepts.

Two Weeks before the test:
If you were able to find a practice exam (even a half-length version), now is the time to take it. You will not ace it, and that’s okay. Use this to gauge what areas you need to re-review, and develop a plan for the next two weeks. Then ramp up your study effort, honing in on difficult concepts. (Don’t forget to review overlapping material from other divisions.)

One Week Before the test:
Ramp up the study effort. Focus on the areas where you felt you were lacking, and review selected material every night (no more time off for sanity breaks!). Study in a similar environment to exam, and try to avoid distractions. Take a little road trip and find the testing center — particularly if this is your first test, or if you’re trying a different location. Going to a strange place on the morning of your test is only going to add unnecessary stress. Besides, you never know what could happen… (click here for a horror story.)

One Day before the test:
Return to a “general overview” mentality, but beware of cramming! It’s only going to raise your stress level. Study until mid-afternoon, then try to put it out of your mind.

The night before the test:
Make sure you’re relaxed and well rested. It sounds simple, but the best prep is a good night’s sleep. Try to avoid cramming — you don’t need added stress at this point. In fact, consider taking the night off! (More on that here…)

Test Day:
Arrive at the testing center early — remember that Prometric has instituted new security measures that might add some time to check-in. During the test itself, don’t get stuck — skip or “mark” items and come back to them. Don’t get stressed if you mark a lot of questions — once you review them, they may seem easier the second time around, or another question you answered might trigger the answer on a question you skipped. Answer every question! Even an educated guess is a chance at a correct answer…

Then it’s off to the Graphic Vignette(s). But first, make the most of your break! Clear your head, relax, and get focused on the next task. Take a quick walk, eat a snack, splash water on your face… whatever works for you. Don’t stress on what you think you might have missed on the multiple choice. In the exam itself, be sure to follow all of the instructions!! Don’t second-guess yourself.

Lastly, take your time! You paid for the full appointment — use it!

Immediately after the test:
Jot down any trouble spots you might have encountered (being mindful of the Confidentiality Agreement!). There were a handful of questions that I found particularly difficult — I made note of those items and looked them up later, which helped to reassure me that I had given the best answer. (Strangely enough, nearly eight years later, I remember those four or five questions nearly word for word — must have been all the reading and re-reading as I whittled my way through the exam.)

Later on, relax…! Take the night off, grab a drink with your friends… Give yourself a break after six weeks of hard work!

The day after the test:
Move on to the next division! Schedule that next appointment (if you havent already) and get to studying!

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!

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.

4.0 Average: Where to Begin…?

The shift from ARE 3.1 to ARE 4.0 was implemented by NCARB to create an exam that was more reflective of the profession.  The seven divisions of the exam are now more integrated with each other, rather than parceled out into neat little packages.  The graphic vignettes have been combined with the multiple choice sections of the test, as well, in keeping with the idea (rightfully so) that architects need to have a wealth of knowledge while representing themselves in visual form.

The exam format gives you the flexibility to tailor the experience to your own strengths and weaknesses (my thoughts on this, if you’re interested, will be offered in another post)… but it comes at a small price:  one of the biggest questions about the exam is what order one should attempt to take these seven divisions.  Every opinion is slightly different… from fellow bloggers The Artichoke’s Guide and AREndurance, to a neverending stream of posts on AREForum.

AIA-Pittsburgh’s YAF is kicking off our 2012-2013 series of formal ARE Review sessions this week.  With the disclaimer that every exam candidate is different, and you really need to do some homework to figure out what’s going to work best for you, we’ve decided to endorse the following sequence:

Construction Documents and Services (CDS)
Programming Planning and Practice (PPP)
Site Planning and Design (SPD)
Structural Systems (SS)
Building Systems (BS)
Building Design and Construction Systems (BDCS)
Schematic Design (SD)*

In the interests of streamlining the study process, this sequence seems to work out well by building upon prior knowledge.  CDS has a (relatively) narrow focus, making it somewhat easier to study the material.  There’s a lot of overlap in content between CDS and PPP, and again between PPP and SPD, making these three tests ideally suited to be taken together.  BDCS, by contrast, is extremely broad in scope; a lot of the content will come from related subjects in the SS and BS divisions, so studying for them will help build your knowledge base (and comfort level) for BDCS.

* – The only “wild card” is Schematic Design — as the only division of the exam with no multiple choice component, it is an entirely different animal.  It could conceivably come anywhere in the sequence — some candidates use it as a “break” from the hardcore studying for the other divisions.

The first exam you take will be the hardest, mostly for psychological reasons. It doesn’t matter which division you decide to start with. It has a lot to do with the fear of the unknown – getting to the testing center, finding the actual space itself, waiting to be given a computer terminal, watching that clock count down your time remaining and knowing that it’s FOR REAL this time. That feeling will pass – somewhat – when you take exam #2.

Lastly, to any exam candidates reading this, let me ask for a small favor — If you’ve found an exam sequence that works for you, or if you think I’m insane for suggesting such a thing, please leave me a comment!  I’d love to hear how you’ve decided to tackle this thing.