ARE 5.0: You Can Do It

(The following post is the expanded version of an article I wrote for NCARB, originally posted here.)

Winter is one of my favorite times of the year for so many reasons. At the top of the list? Probably the holiday cheer, family time, and endless snuggle weather. But there’s something else I love along with those warm feel-goods: my year in review followed by goal setting for the next year. There’s something immensely satisfying about crossing off big achievements! This post is all about one of those goals: taking all divisions of the ARE by 2017. 

Back in August I wrote a piece about my experience taking and passing three divisions of ARE 4.0 in three days. My goal was to pass those by the end of the summer, so meeting that milestone was great momentum to keep going. Then, in October, I wrote about the ARE 5.0 transition, the NCARB cut score process, and a strategic plan to take the final divisions. Based on NCARB’s early announcements explaining how it was possible, based on their credit model, to complete the ARE by taking only five exams instead of seven, making the switch was an easy decision. 

On November 1st, the day ARE 5.0 launched, I logged in, committed to the transition, and scheduled my last exams for the end of the month. In keeping with my preferred method of lumping exams together, I decided to take Project Planning & Design (PPD) on November 28th and Project Development & Documentation (PDD) on the 30th. I spent the next few weeks absorbing all the content I could handle before jumping into the unknown. 

Now here we are, a couple weeks after I sat for ARE 5.0 and unfortunately, based on the latest communications from NCARB, it looks like it’ll be a little while before any of us know the results. So, while I can’t tell you what you can do to pass them (because no one knows if they’ve passed or not yet!) I can give you a little insight.

The most common concerns about transitioning to ARE5.0 are:

  • Lack of study material
  • Confusion about what to study
  • Concern about the unknown format
  • Finishing in 4.0 would be faster than 5.0
  • Anxiety over waiting for scores
  • Pass rates drop after transitions

As an advocate for helping each other successfully complete the ARE, let me share some of my experience with 5.0 and respond to concerns you might have.

What do I study and where do I find it?

The first place you should look to understand what to study in 5.0 is NCARB’s website. Review the credit model, which will show you which of the 4.0 divisions are in the new 5.0 sections. Then read through the comprehensive ARE 5.0 Handbook, which details the content areas for each exam along with an approximation of how many questions from you’ll find from each content section. From those two sources alone you’ll know exactly what to study. 

If you’re taking the 3 + 2 approach (combining ARE 4.0 and 5.0 divisions), then you’ll want to focus on the content breakdown of PPD and PDD.

The Project Planning & Design content areas are:

  • Environmental Conditions and Context
  • Codes & Regulations
  • Building Systems, Materials, & Assemblies
  • Project Integration of Program & Systems
  • Project Costs & Budgeting. 

Which translates as the schematic end of design (SD), structural systems (SS), and building systems (BS/BDCS), as well as some site planning (SPD).

The Project Development & Documentation content areas are:

  • Integration of Building Materials & Systems
  • Construction Documentation
  • Project Manual & Specifications
  • Codes & Regulations
  • Construction Cost Estimates

Again, that translates as the more technical end of construction detailing (BDCS), building systems (BS) and structural design (SS), as well as contract document preparation (CDS). 

What do you study? Those sections and content areas. Do you really have to study all those sections for the 5.0 exams? Yes! Is it a lot? Yes. Is it too much? No. 

Take a moment to think globally. Think about the new format and its effort to align with the practice of architecture. The greatest variety and breadth of knowledge needed is typically during design development and construction documentation phases, which is what PPD and PDD are testing. It makes sense that these tests would be the most saturated, then. Sure, it’s difficult, but so are the related exams in 4.0. 

Going back to my method for passing CDS, PPP, and SPD, studying across content areas is a smart strategy. These tests can be unreasonably specific and often randomly obscure. Rather than trying to cram endless fragmented facts and tricks into your short-term memory, take a global approach. When you study big concepts and understand the overall picture, you’re much more likely to make the right educated guess when you come across one of those random questions. This mixed concepts approach works in 5.0 by design, forcing you to bridge content in order to understand the practice of architecture as the multidisciplinary, interrelated puzzle that it is.

So where do you find material? There are ARE 5.0 books out there and more coming daily, but you don’t have to use them. If you target and study the ARE 4.0 divisions noted above (also in the credit model) you’ll know all the information you’ll need. In fact, if you’ve had success with previous exams, I might recommend sticking with your 4.0 study guides because they’re familiar to you. I used my 4.0 material and felt it was sufficient.

(Miscellaneous advice: if you’re on the 3+2 path take PDD first. I took PPD first because, project delivery-wise, it made sense. But PPD is noticeably harder than PDD, so test the new waters with PDD instead.)

Got it? Great. Next!

The new format scares me and I’d rather stick with what I know.

I get it. Change is scary. But does that mean it’s bad? You really don’t know until you try. Lucky for you, I did! And here’s how I feel about the new format. 

Overall, the multiple-choice questions in ARE 5.0 are comparable with ARE 4.0 in terms of style and difficulty, so practice exams from 4.0 will still work well to prepare you for 5.0. In general, most of the 5.0 exam feels familiar, but with a cleaner, fresher interface. 

The new “drag-and-place” and “hot spots” questions are great! They’re easy to use, clear, and quickly test understanding and application of specific concepts and details. I’d sign up for an entire exam of these types of questions if I could – I love them. 

Case studies, though, are tricky. Conceptually, they’re doing the right thing and are a great replacement for vignettes. You are provided with a client, a project, a list of design, zoning, and technical concerns, as well as the codes and plans to solve a series of questions; it feels very much like real practice. Where I found the case studies to be a problem was more in the design of the exam rather than the studies themselves. 

The first issue is timing. The case studies are stacked at the end of your exam, just like vignettes. But unlike 4.0, your time isn’t rationed out for you between multiple-choice and the rest. In 5.0, you’re given the full 4.5 hours or so with a 15-minute break you can use flexibly, meaning time management is solely up to you. Because of this, it’s much easier to get caught up in the multiple-choice portion, leaving insufficient time to fully digest and address the case studies at the end. But if you know this going into it and are mindful of your time, you’ll do fine. ‘Mark for later’ is a great tool – use it.

The second problem with the case studies is the page formatting. You are presented with a series of tabs and screens within your main test screen. Each time you click between tabs you’ll have to wait for pages to load and they’re often full of poorly sized plans and text that is illegible. Sizing tools help but they’re clumsy and time consuming. Below the case study screens are your questions but both elements don’t fit on screen at once, meaning you’ll be scrolling up and down and clicking back and forth through slow loading graphics to answer simple questions. 

Try practicing with NCARB's Demo Exam to get a feel for the new format.

But even with slow, cumbersome case studies that you may or may not have time for at the end, the change to from vignettes was the right choice. Vignettes involve learning a tool you’ll never use again and studying a prescribed method to pass expected graphic drafting tests. What does that say about your ability as an architect? Not much. But case studies test your ability to quickly assess design problems and think strategically to solve them in a way that mirrors work in a real firm. If NCARB could somehow improve the interface they’d be perfect.

And that’s all you can expect from the changes. Not bad, right? In fact, ARE 5.0’s much-improved changes are just another reason why you should transition.

I’ve seen the statistics proving pass rates drop during transitions, and I can’t handle waiting so long for my results. I might as well stay in 4.0, I’d finish sooner anyway!

This one is hard to argue. Yes, historically pass rates drop with new iterations of exams. And yes, you’ll be waiting longer for your results while NCARB waits for the 600 tests required to establish cut scores. But would you really finish sooner in 4.0? 

If you’ve passed three of the 4.0 divisions and choose not to transition, you’re looking at 4 more exams. A speedy average for testing would be one per month, so you might finish by April. That’s assuming you pass ALL on the first try, which is a difficult task. But if you transition and take the same average, you’d be finished by February. By then cut scores should be established and you’ll know if you have to retest. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be looking at the prospect of retesting two exams versus four. Ultimately, I’d bet on you completing the ARE sooner in 5.0.

Not only is 5.0 a faster route to licensure, but it also makes economic sense! By testing strategically and transitioning, I may have saved myself over $600; that’s a lot! How? ARE 4.0 is seven exams costing $210 each, but by using the credit model to complete ARE in just five exams means a savings of $420. On top of that, NCARB is giving away $100 Visa gift cards for each division of 5.0 you take before January 31st – that’s another $200 earned just by testing early. I received my cards recently and have already treated myself to a few reward gifts! 

So, sure, maybe the tests take a little effort to get used to and I’ll wait a few more weeks to know how I did, but even if I have to retake one or both of them, I’m still saving money and still finishing sooner than had I stayed in 4.0. The timing and savings alone made transitioning a no-brainer for me.

In the end, whether you stay in ARE 4.0 or jump into 5.0, your should strategically assess your path based on where you are in the process. If you’ve only a couple 4.0 exams to go, it makes sense to just stick with it. And if you haven’t started yet, you’ll likely have no choice but take all divisions in 5.0. But if you’re caught in the middle, I strongly suggest making the switch. 

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is take the time to set your goals, push and persist, and then pass. We’re all here to complete the journey to licensure. Keep it up, and I’ll see you on the other side!

04/01/2017 UPDATE: It worked! Passed both exams. See my full recap on my testing strategy here.