How I Passed 3 AREs in 3 Days On the First Try: SPD, CDS, & PPP

Taking the plunge into the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) is a big career decision, but unlike some design professionals out there questioning whether or not it's really worth it, there's never been any doubt in my mind that I'd go the distance and earn my license.  It's something I decided as a student - I wasn't going to spend a decade in school just to fall a handful of tests short of designation: Architect. But, against the recommendation of a few professors who urged jumping into exams immediately after graduation, I wanted to work first.

Two years ago I was hired as a Drafter and Scheduler at a small firm in the heart of Mountain View, CA with zero prior experience. Frankly, I really didn't want to be an architect in the traditional sense but needed the practice to complete AXP (IDP at the time). A few months in it was clear I was great at managing and was promoted to Project Manager and put on track for Partnership. Without getting into details about my job, the important part to understand about how it ties into testing is how much the Principal Architect stresses the importance of researching and understanding zoning regulations and building codes early on in the process. Additionally, as a PM, I'm heavily involved in contracting, estimates, budgets, and scheduling  - all of which come in handy when testing for Construction Documents and Services. If you don't have much work experience under your belt, you might consider tackling that first - it helps! 

So after a year and a half of working I felt I had a good enough understanding of the practice to make the jump: testing time. 

Here are the steps I took to prepare and pass the exams, I hope they help you too!

  • First Step: Listen to the experts. 

Look, thousands of people who have made this journey before us are out there sharing their knowledge, tips, and cautionary tales. Take advantage of that, it'll help ground you. Before you even crack open a book to study, read stories (like this one), ask your peers, learn from your employers, watch YouTube videos. Absorb the vibe. You should get a general sense of what the testing is and what it is not and leave everything else you assumed at the door. This is not going to be your chance to show how awesome of a designer you are, how well you know the process, or even anything close to a comprehensive review of overall architectural knowledge. These are obnoxious exams testing often obscure yet specific details in a relatively limited time period. It sucks, deal with it. Got it? Great. 

For a few months prior to testing I took advantage of the two hours of commuting time I enjoy daily and listened to podcasts. My favorites were from Architect Exam Prep, Archispeak, The Architecture Happy Hour, and EntreArchitect. Listening to their stories was really the best way to get in the mood to test. Also invaluable is all the advice you can find over at Young Architect.

Then two podcasts in particular caught my attention: Taking the ARE: 7 Exams in 7 Days, Completely Nuts?  and the follow up, For Real? Most people discussing their exam experience noted anywhere from 4 weeks to 3 months of studying per exam and then there was this guy, Charlie Klecha, talking about how he's going to take all 7 divisions in 7 days? Awesome. Instead of dragging this thing out and losing steam, I could instead smash them all together and knock 'em out in a week. Done.

  • Second Step: Plan your path.

Have a plan. Seriously. Don't aimlessly bounce from one division to the next hoping you'll land on a pass and move on. Instead, find a grouping, order, etc that makes the most sense to you.

While I was inspired by Charlie's 7 in 7 feat and ready to start planning how to study, NCARB announced the ARE 4.0 to 5.0 Credit Model which showed we can finish the ARE in 5 exams versus 7, and since I hadn't yet started the timing made sense for me. Instead of grouping 7 exams together I'd be lumping 3 and 2: CDS, PPP, and SPD. And hey, from everything I heard, it sounded like those tests overlapped quite a bit - bonus. 

  • Third Step: Pick the right materials.

Everyone learns in different ways so there's no magic combination of materials that will universally work best for all licensure candidates. You know yourself better than anyone so go with what you know will sink in. For me, that was practice questions, watching YouTube videos on Vignettes, and reading through other people's notes. But maybe you're great with audio? Or flashcards? Or maybe you need to read through the books? Whatever it is, figure it out. Don't force yourself into doing what someone else is doing. 

My materials list, studied in this order:

  • NCARB Exam Guides (content areas, practice questions, sample vignettes) 
  • Ballast ARE Review Manual (relevant chapters)
  • Ballast ARE Practice Questions
  • Schiff Hardin Lecture Notes
  • Jenny's & Caroline's Notes
  • More Practice Exams
  • Practice Vignette on NCARB software: building section
  • Watch videos on vignettes: Site grading, site planning, and site section


  • Fourth Step: Know your mind, schedule study sessions appropriately.

When I posted my results many of you asked me for advice and insight on how I passed 3 exams in 3 days on the first try. I'm sure most of you expect a play-by-play you might be able to follow, but that would be ill-advised. As I mentioned in step 3, you are unique and you must do what works for you.

I know how I learn and that it happens quickly, so I budgeted one month to study for the three exams, knowing the first week or two I'd casually browse the books and spend the second two weeks crunching and taking practice tests.

Think about tests you've taken in the past, or big events you had to prepare for, and only focus on the times when the results went well - what did that look like? Were you reading for an hour every day for a couple months? Were you spending bulk sessions on the weekends reviewing? Did you cram it all in in a could weeks? Figure out what your mind needs, write down on a calendar when you'll be studying, and then...

  • Fifth Step: Schedule the tests.

Commit to act. If you don't want to study aimlessly and make excuses for not having your license yet, do not begin to study until you have picked the dates, paid the fees, and scheduled your exams. Take what you know from step 4 and work backwards. If you need 6 weeks to study, schedule that exam for 6-7 weeks from today. Do it right now. Or maybe you'll be on vacation for the summer? Fine, figure out the date you return and schedule the test for 6 weeks from that day. Whatever you do, just make sure it's officially on the calendar.

Listen to any expert on time and project management and they'll tell you: a concrete, scheduled goal is the only way to ensure you'll make your targets.

I knew I was going to be out of the state for a couple months, so I logged into My NCARB and scheduled SPD, CDS, and PPP for the month after I returned. I'll tell you what, having those solid dates were awesome motivation to kick it into gear when the days grew nearer. Without that pressure I definitely wouldn't have taken my study sessions as seriously. Having a deadline set expectations, and I didn't want to let myself down.

  • Sixth Step: Study!

Now that you've done all the planning, this step is relatively easy. You have your materials, things that work best for you, you've scheduled time for yourself to study based on a method of practice that works for you, and you have a deadline set. All you need to do now is show up and do the work. Pace yourself, don't get overwhelmed, trust that you've planned things just right.

After having studied for and passed three divisions, let me talk a little about the content of the exams I took. I found that SPD, CDS, and PPP crossover tremendously and I can't imagine having passed any of the three without studying for all of them at once. If I could recommend anything to anyone taking the exams, it'd be to schedule these tests close and study for all three at once.

"But that's too much! I can't even handle studying for one! How can you study for three at once?!"

My response is, how can you study for only part of a test and expect to pass? 

Look at it this way - SPD, CDS, and PPP are designed to compliment one another, but in reality and execution, that just means content from one can be seen on the others - and it is. So by studying for all three you're giving yourself the big picture view of contracts, pre-design work, and preliminary site design. Essentially, project setup. By knowing how all the pieces fit in a larger context you'll better understand the general concepts. Many of the specific questions on the exam I had never seen before, but because I could draw from the body of knowledge of all three, I was much better equipped to make an informed guess than had I had a narrower focus. 

Here's what I did: I studied CDS first because it was the most foreign - most of us have never seen AIA contracts before. I spent two weeks solid on CDS before moving on. The next two weeks I'd bounce between all three. Maybe I read Caroline's notes on SPD, then take some PPP practice exams, then Jenny's notes on PPP, then SPD practice exams, then videos on all three. Jumping around also gives your mind a bit of a break, allowing concepts to sink in better. Eventually you'll forget you're studying for three separate divisions, and that's the goal - to see it all as one. Because ultimately, that's how you're going to be tested. 

  • Final Step: Test it out.

On testing day I tried to let my mind just relax. Some people cram and purge as soon as they get scratch paper in their hands but if you've paced yourself right you shouldn't need that - you know the concepts and you've committed to long-term. Get sleep, have a healthy breakfast, and breathe deep. 

It's going to be difficult, and to feel like you were challenged is ok. In fact, I was certain I failed my first exam, Site Planning & Design. I was short on time, I hadn't the slightly clue on many of the multiple choice questions, and I royally screwed up the site grading vignette (luckily realizing it in time to correct, but it was iffy).

Here are some tips to keep you calm during the exam:

  • Read everything carefully - the multiple choice questions can be sneaky - don't get caught because you missed a key word or two.
  • If you don't know an answer in a few seconds, mark it and move on - this will ensure you get through the whole exam without getting stuck and losing time.
  • Go back and review marked - often you'll come back to a question that stumped you after answering a few more that relate in some way, helping you remember the correct response. 
  • Go back and review all questions if you have time - double check everything to be sure.
  • Vignettes: follow the program; the answer is in the prompt. If you double and triple check that you've done what they've asked, you're golden. The vignette problems are almost identical to sample vignettes, so if you reviewed passing and failing solutions during your studies you know exactly what to expect. There are no trick vignettes - they're extremely straightforward. I sketched solutions on my scratch paper first to work out the problems then drafted the solutions once I knew I had it. The timing was tight doing it this way but I passed all 4 so it worked.

Things I wish I would've studied more: historic preservation procedures (Secretary of Interior), Code of Ethics, hazardous materials procedures, and oh my gosh SITE SECURITY. The rest was pretty much what I had expected based on study materials and comments from others. 

And that's it! Now just sit back and wait for those beautiful PASSes.

But hey, if you don't pass this time, follow the steps again and perhaps revisit your materials and methods of studying - but don't give up. Remember to spend a good amount of time reflecting - step back, figure out the big picture ideas and connections, and then zoom in on areas you felt weak, using your score evaluation report to understand those content areas that could use more attention. You're already on the right track by reading this and collaborating with the ARE community! Keep it up, we believe in you. 

Please leave a comment and let me know where you are in the process? And feel free to share your tips, frustrations, etc - I'd love to hear them!

Good luck!