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.

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!

Anatomically Correct

Allow me to confess to one of my not-so-guilty pleasures… I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.. This coming Thursday marks the 10th season premiere, and I will most likely be in front of my TV when it airs. I’ve seriously watched the show since the very beginning, when it began its life as a mid-season replacement before becoming a Nielsen juggernaut and next-morning’s-watercooler television, complete with companion soundtrack(s).


Early influences: Dr. Carter…

What I like most about Grey’s is its focus on the youngest members of Seattle Grace’s medical staff — the surgical residents. They are young, ambitious, and fresh out of medical school. They make mistakes. They have career-defining successes and soul-crushing failures. In other words, they are just like us. And in spite of the slightly declining quality of the show in recent seasons, despite all of the crazy plot devices over the years (Izzie resurrects a deer! Owen stabs pigs! George gets hit by a bus! A plane carrying 75% of the cast crashes in the woods!), it’s that dynamic — the uphill stuggle that comes with being at the lowest rung of the professional ladder — that keeps me interested.


…and Dr. Dorian.

(I’ve already noted the dearth of architectural role models in primetime television, so instead, I look for inspiration tangentially instead of directly. I’m drawn to depictions of the coming-of-age story, which I feel is at the core of any internship experience. Medical series tend to be rife with this dynamic — in college, I became an instant fan of ER thanks to Noah Wyle’s earnest portrayal of John Carter, and Scrubs, which drew humor out of Zach Braff’s inexperience, was one of my all-time favorite comedies, especially during the first few years of my internship.  I looked at these guys — doctors, not architects, but equally as wet behind the ears — and in their perseverence in the face of constant challenge , I saw myself.)

But back to Grey’s, which seems to strike a balance between ER’s melodrama and Scrubs‘ tongue-in-cheek zaniness… A subplot near the end of the eighth season involved the residents … wait for it … preparing for, and taking, their board certification exam. Really. The drama came less from the exam than from seven years’ worth of interplay, seeing these characters simultaneously encouraging one another while competing at the same time. Even the results were as varied as the personalities themselves. Cristina passed with flying colors… Meredith handled the challenge competently and confidently… April failed miserably. Probably the most realistically, Alex (who was originally not even going to take the test in the first place) felt the pressure of being left behind by his colleagues, and rushed in at the last minute to sit for his exam. This arc –about a professional exam, mind you — lasted for several episodes. Imagine, for a minute, if the setting of this show was the architectural profession instead of the medical one. Would the exam settting have the same inherent drama? Would anyone want to watch? Would we have to call the show Graphic Standard?

(If there ever were a weekly series about architects, I’d hope that it would contain this kind of dynamic — the passing of the baton to a new generation, the transfer of wisdom that comes with experience. And if they need someone to play the good-looking lead character, with perfect hair, living in his Airstream trailer out in the woods… give my agent a call.)

"...I can't beleive they used to be us."

“…I can’t believe they used to be us.” (Grey’s Anatomy episode 9×08, terrible screen capture by the author)

To me, one of the most effective parts of the show has been its dedication to refreshing the cast through a new crop of surgical interns. We’ve watched the core cast develop and grow, over the course of seven seasons, into confident, experienced professionals. This past season, in their place came a new group of recent graduates — recurring guest stars last season, now promoted to the regular cast — and it’s through their perspective, their inexperience, that we are able to appreciate how far their peers have come. This was illustrated quite poignantly in one of last season’s early episodes (x9.08, “Love Turns You Upside Down,” for those of you keeping score at home), which saw the interns pull their first grueling 24-hour shift. On their way out of the hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted, they literally run into their mentors, now level-headed fully-minted physicians, acting during a triage situation.

Two groups, at opposite ends of the spectrum, with only time and experience separating them from one another. The students have become the teachers, and with a new group of interns, have an opportunity to share what they themselves have learned. The silence is broken when one of the interns exhales: “I can’t believe they used to be us.”


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!