Taking the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE)

Bob Borson —  January 21, 2013 — 125 Comments

In order to call yourself an architect (or even state that you provide architectural services) you have to pass the architectural registration exam – the ARE. It is a grueling 7-part test that if you sat through them end to end, it would take you 33 and a half hours.


Yikes, that is some serious test taking.Unlike some of the other white-collar professions that require licensure through passing a test, the architectural registration exam can be taken 1 section at a time and basically whenever you want. This is a big deal and changed the way hopeful future architects went about taking the exam. It certainly had an impact on how I went about taking the exam.


Architectural Registration Exam 4.0.

The ARE currently consists of seven divisions that can be taken in any order. Exams include a combination of multiple-choice, check-all-that-apply, and fill-in-the-blank questions and graphic vignettes. The ARE assesses candidates’ knowledge, skills, and ability to practice architecture independently. It focuses on those services that most affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Because of this, the exams are rigorous and require demonstration of competency in each of the testing areas.

I passed the ARE 12 years ago and I passed all the sections on the first try, something that I am proud of even after all this time. I am not a great test taker – never have been – so I went through some very specific measures that helped me and I thought I would share my techniques with those of you that are currently in the process (or about to start) taking the ARE.

Set a schedule and stick with it.
I gave myself 4 weeks to prepare for each section of the exam and this was always enough time to cover all the material I had to study and review.

Schedule your test for first thing in the morning.
Every test I took was at either 8 or 9 am in the morning. I am a big believer in that most people psyche themselves out before the test and the more time you leave yourself to think about what you are doing, the more anxious and nervous you will become. I also think that reviewing the study material right before you go in for the test is a bad move. You’ve been studying for 4 weeks by this point and asking yourself questions that you might not get correct will only undermine your confidence.

Get a good nights rest.
These tests are long and you need to be fresh coming into the test that morning. Part of the reason I gave myself 4 weeks for each test was so I could be methodical about it and not feel like I was coming in unprepared. I was well rested and walked into each test center confident that I had taken my preparation seriously and was ready to take my test.

Create a study pattern
I set a schedule for when I would study and when I would have breaks. Every Monday through Thursday I studied for two hours – from 7 to 9 pm. I was married but I didn’t have children yet and this time allowed me to get my study time in but also allowed me to eat dinner with my wife, watch TV, run errands – whatever I needed. I took Friday nights off so that I could go out with friends, have people over, just go out and do something fun. I had to get 8 hours of studying in over the weekend but I was free to pick when I was going to get it in. My only rule was that a study session had to be at least 2 hours in length to count – 30 minutes here and there doesn’t count, you can’t get in the right frame of mind.

That adds up to 16 hours of studying a week and 64 hours of studying per test. 64 hours is a long time but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I walked into each test thinking that I had done everything that was reasonable (and a bit beyond) and as a result, I was confident that I would do well.

Study Materials make a difference
I didn’t start taking the exam until I was 30 years old – and I felt like a complete loser for not being licensed. Graduating from college with my degree in architecture was not the finish line for me. Until you get your license, you are not an architect and as a result, taking the ARE is a really big deal. I had spent most of my career designing interior retail spaces and felt that I simply hadn’t learned enough practical matters to actually sit for the exam. While the first part of that sentence is true, the part about not knowing enough to take the exam is total garbage. There is no reason to not start taking the exam immediately – if you are waiting on getting some practical experience – don’t.

There is enough study materials available for the ARE for you to learn everything you need in order to pass the exams. I used the David Kent Ballast ARE Review Manuals  for almost all of my studying except for the structural exams. I also made my own flash cards – thousands of them – for every section. I struggle a bit with short-term memorization and making my own flash cards really helped me.


Individual exam guides and exam practice programs are available in the Preparing for the ARE section:

Programming, Planning & Practice
85 Multiple-Choice Questions
Site Zoning Graphic Vignette
Total Time in Exam = 4.0 hours
Exam Guide for this section

Exam Description: The application of project development knowledge and skills relating to architectural programming; environmental, social, and economic issues; codes and regulations; and project and practice management.


Site Planning & Design
65 Multiple-Choice Questions
Site Grading and Site Design Graphic Vignettes
Total Time in Exam = 4.5 hours
Exam Guide for this section

Exam Description: The application of knowledge and skills of site planning and design including environmental, social, and economic issues, project and practice management.


Building Design & Construction Systems
85 Multiple-Choice Questions
Accessibility/Ramp, Stair Design, Roof Plan Graphic Vignettes
Total Time in Exam = 5.5 hours
Exam guide for this section

Exam Description: The application of knowledge and skills of building design and construction, including environmental, social, and economic issues, project and practice management.


Schematic Design
Interior Layout and Building Layout Graphic Vignettes
Total Time in Exam = 6.0 hours
Exam Guide for this section

Exam Description: The application of knowledge and skills required for the schematic design of buildings and interior space planning.


Structural Systems
125 Multiple-Choice Questions
Structural Layout Graphic Vignette
Total Time in Exam = 5.5 hours
Exam Guide for this section

Exam Description: Identification and incorporation of general structural and lateral force principles in the design and construction of buildings.


Building Systems
95 Multiple-Choice Questions
Mechanical and Electrical Graphic Vignettes
Total Time in Exam = 4.0 hours
Exam Guide for  this section

Exam Description: The evaluation, selection, and integration of mechanical, electrical, and specialty systems in building design and construction.


Construction Documents & Services
100 Multiple-Choice Questions
Building Section Graphic Vignette
Total Time in Exam – 4.0 hours
Exam Guide for this section

Exam Description: Application of project management and professional practice knowledge and skills, including the preparation of contract documents and contract administration.


I also went onto the NCARB website to get passing rate information for the various sections of the test. Since you can’t retake a test you’ve already failed until 6 months time has passed, there is some gamesmanship to the order in which you take these tests. I would recommend starting with the two sections you feel most comfortable with taking. This will allow you the opportunity to become familiar with the test environment, process, and procedures before trying to tackle a section that you think you might fail (not that you will – positive thinking and preparation!!) Follow these up with the most difficult sections so that if you do end up failing, the 6 months waiting period will pass as you are preparing for other tests.


ARE Pass Rates by Division


All of this data – and a whole lot more – is from the National Council of Architectural Registration Board (NCARB) website. It is an absolute must visit site if you are thinking about taking the architectural registration exam or simply want to know more about the process.

I was also thinking that I would allow anyone to put links in the comment section if they think of a resource that would be of value to someone who is in the process of taking the exam. There are a lot out there but I am not going to maintain the links in the post beyond a year or so but they can live on forever in the comment section.

Best of luck, you can do it if you take your preparations seriously.



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  • Ashley

    Hi. Does anyone know if there are books on tape, or voice recording study material for each test?? I drive an hour each way to work and that would help my studying significantly!


    • Gabriel

      Yes, go to ARE exam prep. Each section is like $100. Comes with a study guide and an audio version of the entire study guide. I’m currently doing construction documents and services

    • anate6

      I am recording my own flashcards and putting the recordings in my phone. I listen to them on the radio during my 1 hour drive to work. It does help :)

  • Jack

    Hello Bob – I know that for most of the exam sections, it’s good
    practice to have a holistic approach and study a bit more than just the
    exam section that you are preparing for (i.e. historical facts, AIA,
    etc.). I am just starting the process and schematic design will be my
    first scheduled exam (Oct. 27th). Would the same good practice apply to
    this section, even though it’s completely a graphic exam? Or can I
    just focus on practice, practice, practice of strictly just the
    vignettes? I’m having some difficulty figuring out the best way to focus my study time for this exam. Thanks.

    • Brett Wolfe

      there’s no need to review anything but the graphics for SD.
      It makes some sense to take BDCS immediately before SS since some of the concrete, wood & steel items will appear in both places; you should take BS around the same time, but it’s not important. It makes a lot sense to study for PPP & SPD at the same time since they are essentially both pre-design. It doesn’t really matter when you take CDS. Sustainability, ADA, Codes, & History are the topics that are scattered throughout

      • Brett Wolfe

        By reviewing the graphics, I meant you should have a copy of Dorf’s Solutions book from nalsa. You should also have your own copy of
        Ballast for the multiple choice.

        • Jack

          Thanks very much for the feedback
          and the Dorf reference.

          As for the Ballast reference, you
          meant that with respect to the other divisions, NOT schematic design,
          correct? (i.e. there is no multiple

          I’ve just started practicing NCARB’s
          SD practice vignette. Is that useful? I will make sure to purchase Dorf.

          Thanks again!

          • Brett Wolfe

            Yes, Dorf should be all you need for SD… there won’t be any surprise questions on the graphic portions exam.

            Practicing the software is an important first step, but it you’ll need Dorf to show you the difference between a passing solution and a failing solution.

            The quickest/cheapest way to get it is to ask Half-Price Books to find an old one and send it to you. (The test divisions have been rearranged in the past 15 years, but older Dorf guides are still useful since the content and format of the graphic tests hasn’t changed since they started testing on computers.)

          • Jack

            You were very helpful – much-appreciated.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I agree with everything that Brett said.

      Thanks Brett

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  • notimeforit

    The whole ARE is a scam.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      not a very illuminating addition to the conversation. Why do you think the ARE is a scam?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      care to elaborate?

  • namita

    Hi Bob, I wanted your advice on my situation. I am an indian architect with 5 year B.Arch degree and 6 years of full time experience. I am moving to San Francisco in a few months . Am i eligible to take these exams?. Also how important is it to take them to get a job in California. I have a work permit but am not sure how to go about getting a job…thanks.

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  • Maureen

    Do you know if the new cloud based NCARB practice software allows for alternate vignettes to be used? I can’t figure out how to get the alt vignettes i found on “arecoach” loaded on Citrix. If this isn’t an option, do you know how i might get my hands on a copy of the dowloadable software? Thanks.