ARE 5.0 Content

ARE 5.0 Content

Visualizing ARE 5.0 [Part 1] [Part 2]

NCARB launched ARE 5.0 on November 1 last year, and it would eventually phase out ARE 4.0. Everyone is wondering what the best thing to do is, and the discussion on how the transition would happen continues. Given how much time, effort and money it takes to complete the exam, this concern is of course understandable. But poor ARE 5.0 has been living under the shadow of ARE 4.0 ever since it was announced. Let’s give it a fair chance shall we? Forget ARE 4.0. Pretend we were born yesterday and decided to go for the Architect Registration Exam, and can afford up to five years to do so. What does the exam look like?

Content and Overlaps
ARE 5.0 has six divisions: Practice Management (PcM), Project Management (PjM), Programming & Analysis (PA), Project Planning & Design (PPD), Project Development & Documentation (PDD), and Construction & Evaluation (CE). Don’t let these terminologies confuse you. The first one, PcM, is about how to set up and run an office, and the second one, PjM, is about how to manage time and resources over the course of a project. The other four tests (PA > PPD > PDD > CE) basically follow the standard phases that most of us are familiar with: Conceptual Design, Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents, Bidding and Negotiation, and finally Construction Administration.

The graphic above summarizes the content of all six divisions and illustrates where they overlap. Very much like project phases, the objectives of the divisions might be defined in a clear-cut manner, but in reality they most often merge, blur and slide from one to another.  The left half of the diagram (PcM, PjM, CE) is more on the administrative side, while the right half (PA, PPD, PDD) is more on the technical side, but again, things you studied for one division will most probably appear in another. The diagram is meant to provide a big picture rather than accurate details, so refer to NCARB’s ARE 5.0 Handbook for the official syllabus.

Testing Order
Since the divisions more or less follow an architect’s duties in a project’s timeline, it seems logical to take them in that “chronological” order: PcM > PjM > PA > PPD > PDD > CE. In fact, that’s how they are ordered in all NCARB publications. Another approach would be to take all the administrative ones first, then move on to the technical ones: [PcM + PjM + CE] in any order > [PA + PPD + PPD] in any order.

Worth noting is that PPD and PDD have 120 questions each, so they are significantly (30-50%) more intense than the other four. They do have a lot in common so it is advisable to take them back to back, but depending on your schedule and stamina, you might want to consider sandwiching at least one exam in between.

Each test will have 80 to 120 questions. These questions are either Multiple Choice, Check All that Apply, Fill in the Blanks, or the three new question types that are more interactive: Case Studies, which requires you to cross reference multiple pieces of information; Hot Spots, which you answer by clicking a region in an exhibit; and Drag-in-Place, exercises in which you drag design elements or their labels into a drawing.

Since NCARB had made a conscious effort in making the test software user-friendly, learning how to navigate through the information given and input your answer shouldn’t be that big of a hurdle. That said, be sure to familiarize yourself with the format and interface by checking out the “ARE 5.0 Demo Exam”.

Reference and Study Materials
In the following months a few third party publishers will publish textbooks on the exams, which will organize and condense the content in NCARB’s long list of suggested reference for each division.  These books will definitely be helpful and become the go-to study materials, but since NCARB has no control over these third party publishers, make sure you always start with NCARB’s official ARE 5.0 Guidelines and ARE 5.0 Handbook, as well as the video series on youtube.

Visualizing ARE 5.0 [Part 1] [Part 2]


ARE 4.0 – 5.0 Transition

test 2

Hello world!!! I cannot believe it has been almost three years since I passed my last exam. I hope you are all doing well!

Since NCARB launched ARE 5.0 in November last year, I have been meaning to update my graphics to show how the transition works. It is now six months into the transition, so I am a little late to the party, but today I am excited to finally share what I have put together! Here you go:

ARE 5.0 Transition

Visualizing ARE 5.0 [Part 1] [Part 2]

ARE 4.0 – 5.0 Transition
From November 2016 to Jun 30, 2018, candidates will have the choice of staying with ARE 4.0, going for ARE 5.0, or doing a combination of both. If you are still deciding between “ARExit” and “AREmain”, let’s review the differences between the two:

Things that did NOT change
The ARE is not looking for the best “Designer” per se. Instead, it accesses a candidate’s knowledge and skills to provide various services in the practice of architecture, with a focus on the services that affect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. It is a test of objective competency, not subjective excellence. That is consistent across ARE 4.0 and ARE 5.0.

In terms of difficulty, NCARB states that “ARE 5.0 will not be easier or harder than ARE 4.0”. This can mean that the content is going to be the same, just structured and presented differently, or that they are going to adjust the cut score to keep the overall passing rate close to that of ARE 4.0. Either way, do not pick either exam because one is going to be easier than the other – neither is easier or harder; they are just different.

Things that DID change
While the mission, content and difficulty stay the same, the format is going to change. The biggest difference is that there will be six divisions instead of seven, and there will no longer be vignettes in ARE 5.0. We will cover that in greater detail in the next article.
When we discuss the contents of these exams, it is hard to avoid jargon like “analysis”, “management”, and “development”. For the sake of comparison, let us boil an architect’s job down to a simplified, model narrative called “the life of a project”:

The Life of a Project ARE 4.0 ARE 5.0
Once upon a time, there was an architect.
He set up his business, rented an office, bought insurance, hired some people, managed his finances, and found a client. CDS PPP PcM
He negotiated, decided on a method of delivery and a form of payment, and signed a contract. CDS PPP PcM PjM
He started by looking at the budget and scope and worked out a schedule. CDS PPP PjM
He then did research on zoning regulations and historic preservation. PPP PA
After that he examined site conditions including the urban context, soil for foundation, topography, vehicular and pedestrian access, parking, trees, and, views. SPD PA
He also made sure to drain the site properly. SPD PA
He then developed a program with the client, identified the main goals and priorities of the project, PPP PA
drew up the schematic layout, SD PA PDD
and started looking at different structural systems. SS PPD PDD
Even though he was working with a structural engineer, he understood basic structural concepts like tension, compression, and shear. He could lay out a simple column-beam system. He also knew the properties of concrete, wood and steel. SS PPD PDD
And he knew how to prepare the building in case of earthquake or hurricane. SS PPD PDD
Once he had an idea of the form, layout and structure, he started developing details, materials, and finishes – from the bottom up and inside out – floors, stairs, walls, windows, ceilings, roofs, paints, tiles, millwork, everything. BDCS PPD PDD
He had to incorporate different building systems including mechanical, electrical and plumbing. BS PPD PDD
He also coordinated the RCP – lighting, diffusers and sprinklers etc. BS PPD PDD
While he was doing all these, he took into account building code regulations, accessibility requirements, sustainability, ALL
and budget concerns. CDS PPP PPD PDD
After the design took shape, he moved on to producing construction documents. CDS PjM PDD
He worked with his team to make sure the drawings and specifications have the right information. CDS PjM PDD
The project then went to bid, and a contractor was hired. CDS PjM CE
During construction, he visited the site once in a while. CDS PjM CE
He also answered questions and provided drawings when needed. CDS PjM CE
When the project was substantially complete, he makes a punch list, and eventually closes out the project. CDS PjM CE
He went back to evaluate and think about what he learned from the project, and how to get better. CDS CE
Then, the story starts all over again.

Our profession is constantly in flux, and the process of design is anything but linear, but assuming on the left are the basic responsibilities of an architect, then on the right is how ARE 4.0 and 5.0 divide them.

In a nutshell, ARE 4.0 is more discipline-based, while ARE 5.0 is more project-phase-based. There are two key takeaways:

  1. Perhaps because there is an increasing need for architects to have leadership and entrepreneurial skills in this modern economy, ARE 5.0 has dedicated an entire division to test candidates on how architects set up and run an office, called Practice Management (PcM).
  2. The keyword for ARE 5.0, especially in Project Planning & Design (PPD) and Project Development & Documentation (PDD), is “integration” – on top of having technical knowledge in different disciplines, it requires candidates to cross-reference and integrate that knowledge into different phases of a project.

Transition and credit model
The graphic on top of this post illustrates how NCARB has regrouped the seven tests in ARE 4.0 into the six in ARE 5.0, and denoted by an “ * ” symbol is the sweet spot where you can take three exams (CDS + PPP + SPD) in place of four (CE + PcM + PjM + PA). Those three, plus the remaining two of ARE 5.0 (PPD + PDD), makes the “power combo” (or “loophole”) of getting licensed in just five exams.

While going for the “power combo” is the most popular choice, bear in mind the following:

  1. The right half of the diagram shows how they have condensed three of the heaviest exams (BDCS + SS + BS), and more, into two (PPD + PDD). This can potentially mean that PPD and PDD, with 120 questions each, are going to be very very hard.
  2. If you have just started, it’s worth taking a quick look at the passing rates of the 4.0 exams. The passing rate of CDS in 2016 has been 58% – not great. Of course, EVEN if you fail, you will have time to retake it before Jun 30, 2018. It’s just that you have to plan it more carefully.

Meanwhile there are pros and cons to starting afresh with ARE 5.0 – pros include having one less division and no vignettes at all, and having full five years to complete all divisions; cons include not having a breadth of knowledge, information and discussions out there, and the many many unknowns. At the end of the day, you just have to take the time constraints into consideration, pick the narrative that you identify more with and see yourself do better in, develop a strategy that works best for you, and go for it. Don’t overthink, don’t procrastinate, and don’t be intimidated.

If you do decide to go straight to ARE 5.0, follow us to the next article where we review its content!

Visualizing ARE 5.0 [Part 1] [Part 2]

My ARE 4.0 Timeline

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

People always ask how long it takes to study for one exam, and the answer is often a generic “it depends”. Since it’s close to impossible to have an objective standard to base one’s study time on, I can only share my own journey with you. Here’s what it looks like, my own ARE timeline with my morale/ spirit/ emotion line running parallel:

click on image to get full resolution

click on image to get full resolution

I have included my trips in the chart, represented by the empty boxes, and I think those are the only days that I genuinely wasn’t studying at all (not even reading on the train). For the studying days, lighter colors are more laid-back studies (procrastinating in the library) and darker colors are more intense studies (studying while eating lunch).

Not included are office deadlines, birthdays, Christmas, as well as all the ups and downs of my personal life. As you can see I didn’t spend too much time in the “sane” zone- the line rises and plummets like the stock market. I am sure everybody has their own struggles and their own version of this curve that, only after it’s over, and only from a distance, can you see that the highs eventually outweighs the lows.

Walking out of it I do see a lot of things that I totally would have done differently if I knew better, but I guess one can say that about a lot of things in life. This is just a retrospective diagram that illustrates what I did, and I by no means suggest anyone follow it.

On a side note, NCARB recently published a document called “NCARB in numbers“. It says that people with a master’s degree on average take 1.81 years to complete the exam(page 28). I spent 1.33 years, so I guess you can see it as a sample timeline of a person with a master’s degree, slightly on the short side.

So that’s the past 16 months of my life in a glance. I will write more about each specific exam later…

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

On being there finally!

This is it – I did it I did it I did it!

The result came a little early – on a Thursday afternoon. After I saw the email from NCARB, I told my coworkers to give me a moment. I clicked, clicked some more and scrolled… there they were, the four big blue letters I was waiting to see all this time: PASS!!!! As I screamed and jumped around in the office like a mad person, I felt almost like someone winning an Oscars. Even though nobody was hurrying me to wrap up my speech, I was scrambling up a list of people I had to thank, figuring out what I had to say. I was definitely elated; but I was also incredibly grateful for all the love and support I have gotten along the way, the things I’ve learned, and more than anything just relieved that it’s finally coming to an end. I never knew my mind could be so full and so blank at the same time.

pass 3

my final PASS.. no expiry date!

Ever since I read the glorious Jenny Cestnik’s final post, I have always dreamed of this day coming. I think she describes it much better, so I would like to take the liberty of quoting her here:

“Are there tears of joy?  Squeals of excitement?  Does the weight of the ARE albatross hanging around one’s neck suddenly disappear?  ….  As my moment arrived it was a strange amalgamation of those things, a deep exhale of relief while blinking back a tear.  Upon reaching the light at the end of the tunnel one is enveloped in a warm sun lit glow of a perfect summer’s day.  It’s the most intimate and yet all encompassing feeling.  It’s not big or flashy, it’s simply tranquil.”

I went hiking last weekend, and what Jenny described is not unlike seeing this beautiful view after climbing painfully for 3 hours (1 of which we spent just being lost).


view from the top of mount beacon park

For those of you still battling the ARE, I wish you the best of luck. Like I said in my earlier post, it is supposed to be hard, otherwise everybody can do it. As far as I can tell, it’s totally worth it.

This will not be my final post – it’s interesting how one can realize so many things only in retrospect. And therefore I will continue to write. I will put together all the information I find useful and share them on this site. To quote my friend TJ, who happened to find out he passed his final test the same day I did, we all know this is only one step towards bigger things. So, stay tuned!

ARE 4.0 according to NCARB

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

Hi everyone! I have taken my CDS exam last Thursday, and now the only thing I can do is to wait patiently for the result. Meanwhile, I have finally found the time to make the third diagram of my “visualizing ARE 4.0” series. It really is a combination of the first two. Here you are:

Click on image to get full resoluation

Click on image to get full resolution

After taking all 7 tests (and retaking two of them), I realized one of the biggest pitfall most people encounter lies in the discrepancy between the content of the published textbooks and NCARB’s syllabus. Think about it, NCARB is the actual organization who makes the tests, while Kaplan and Ballast are just publishers who provide general information about those topics, and there is NO official coordination between the two. So when one starts studying, it is very very important that one goes to NCARB’s exam guide first.

For example, NCARB’s guide states clearly that there will be 4-12% project management questions in SPD, but if you only read through the two textbooks, there is no mention of project management at all under SPD. If you didn’t know about that, there will be a good 4-12% of the exam that seems to come out of nowhere. Also, even if you get the content areas right, make sure you pay attention to the distribution too. For example, almost 60% of SS is made up of seismic, wind and lateral forces, which is totally not proportional to what’s in the study materials.

Going back to my new diagram, the percentages in the pie charts are taken directly from NCARB, while the dots below are roughly what I think would make up that percentage. The topics are ballast chapters, but it’s more about the subject matters. Obviously, the more dots the more important it is in that division. Here are my comments:


PPP: Definitely read the AIA contracts.

SPD: Read part of the CDS for project management. Also read some BS stuff related to sustainability.

BS: “Vertical Circulation” (elevators, escalators etc) is included in Kaplan but not Ballast.. Ballast lists it under BDCS. I think it falls under “specialties” and therefore is part of BS. Other than this, there are not too many surprises in this one. Studying back to back with SPD might help but not necessary. 

BDCS: Same with SPD, there are significant project management questions. Know your AIA contracts. Also sustainability stuff from BS/ SPD.

SS: Not too many surprises in terms of scope, but while the fundamentals are important, make sure you focus a good chunk of your energy on lateral forces. Don’t get hung up on stuff like wood equations.

CDS: Not too many surprises either, but expect one or two questions from pretty much every division in it.

Overall: Always read ADA, IBC, and brush up your history.


All in all I am just trying to point out the importance of reading NCARB’s official guides first. To conclude, diagram 1 is a general overview of the 7 divisions, diagram 2 is a literal illustration of the number of pages, and diagram 3 is ultimately what I think is the minimum amount of stuff you need to know walking into the test. I hope all three combined will give you a comprehensive picture of what the test is like.

I am going to relax and not think about the test until I get my results (supposed to come at 6am this Friday!). For those of you still studying, keep calm and carry on! Good luck!

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

ARE 4.0 Reading

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [ Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

arewethereblog_ARE 4.0_reading

Click on image for full resolution pdf

The ARE seems to be such a mystery to a lot people. For those who are looking to get started, the two most asked questions are “What do they test you on?”, which I attempted to answer in my previous post, and “Is there a lot to study?”, which is what I try to answer in this post. Short answer, 1794 pages. Long answer…

I have made this diagram that visualizes how many pages there are to read in each test, from the two main publishers. Before we dive into the diagram above, I must make one point extremely clear:

Kaplan and Ballast are NOT the only books you have to read.

Kaplan and PPI (commonly referred to as “ballast”, after the author) are both publishers who publish ARE review materials. They seem to be the most popular, although I don’t know if NCARB has ever declared them “official” study materials. Some people study them exclusively while others say they are “complete waste of time”. If you go to “coach”‘s forum, you will see a diverse range of study materials and different opinions about these two publishers. Resources go from wikipedia, youtube to user-contributed notes, flash cards and quizzes, but that’s the topic for another post.

Nevertheless, Kaplan and Ballast are usually where people start. Kaplan publishes one book for each test and Ballast is one giant 800-page review manual. I broke them down to all the chapters so you can see the topics in each test. Since Ballast is one complete book, it does not repeat information if it’s included in two different exams, but only cross-references it between sections. Kaplan on the other hand, tends to repeat information in different books.

There are few things that this diagram doesn’t quite convey:

  1. Ballast is more technical and more wordy. For me it takes at least twice as long to read one page on Ballast compared to Kaplan.
  2. Some content areas are way heavier and more complicated than others. This is highly subjective, it really depends on your knowledge and work experience. Like for me, going through 10 pages of PPP’s “urban design” is like a walk in the park compared to 10 pages of SS’ “Seismic Design”. All I am trying to say is merely looking at the number of pages might not give you an idea of how hard the subject is.
  3. The “links” between tests are the most obvious ones, but there are many overlaps in general. You will know what I mean ones you start studying.
  4. These are pages for the multiple choice section only. You will also have to read and practice for the vignettes.

So here you go, my attempt to answer “how much do I have to read”. Not too surprisingly, SS is the winner, followed by CDS, BS, BDCS and PPP with more or less the same amount of reading, and then SPD has the least. The amount of time you have to spend on reading them depends on your test-taking order, familiarity with the subject matter and whether you focus solely on these two publishers or branch out to read materials from other sources.

Like I mentioned previously, getting started is the hardest thing to do. Once you get started, the more you read, the faster you read, and the more comprehensively you understand things. For me, the first 1-2 months were hell and everything got easier afterwards. I personally don’t like reading (architects are all visual people after all, right?), but I do have to say, there is so much I just can’t learn from work (nobody has time to explain to me how all different types of HVAC system works) and reading all the materials has helped me a lot professionally.

Again, please feel free to share this with whoever wants to know more about the ARE.

Now, back to my reading of the AIA contracts for my CDS test next Thursday…

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [ Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

ARE 4.0 contents

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

ARE 4.0 content

Click on image to get full resolution

ARE 4.0 has 7 divisions, and for those who are looking to get the process started, the amount of information can seem overwhelming and intimidating. When they are trying to figure out their exam orders, they often want to know which exams overlap most so they can schedule those back to back or study both at the same time. While I was procrastinating instead of studying last night, I thought, maybe I can visualize it with a venn diagram. I have only taken 5 tests (passed SD, PPP, BS and SPD, failed SS), but I think I’ve read enough to make a summary. Here you are- all 7 exams and their contents in one poster. You can click on the division to access NCARB’s official exam guides. You can also click on the links at the bottom for my blog and pinterest page with additional ARE info.

The Multiple Choice
There is a general consensus that CDS, SPD and PPP belong to one group (left half of the diagram), while BS, SS and BDCS belong to another. In my opinion, BS and SPD actually also have some significant overlaps, as illustrated above.  Unfortunately I could NOT get the sizes of the circles to correspond to the amount of materials in each test– SPD and PPP are definitely much “lighter” tests. As you can see in the diagram, these two have minimal exclusive topics and a whole lot in common with others. SS is almost the opposite.

Now I am not saying they can’t ask you how elevators work in CD or test your structural concepts in PPP… because they can. But as far as studying goes, this is pretty much it. Most people take all three of the same group and then move onto another group, but I personally chose something that looks more like a heavy-light-heavy-light order.

SD is a stand-alone satellite, it has NO multiple choice questions, and is the easiest (although of course, one should by no means underestimate it). People either take it first, because it can boost their confidence; or they take it right in the middle, so they get an easy pass through the mid-way hump; or they take it last, because there’s nothing worse than failing your last test and waiting for 6 months without doing anything.

In the center of the diagram is ADA, IBC and zoning. They matter more to some exams than others, but in general they are sprinkled throughout. You can really get any code-related questions in any test. So, no matter which test you are taking first, start by getting your hands on the codes and you will benefit from it. You will find yourself going back to it for every single test.

The Vignettes
Vignettes are generally easier than MCs. Most of them can be prepared for within a week. Out of all 11 vignettes, I’d say SD’s interior layout, BS’s M&E plan, as well as SPD’s site design are a little trickier than the rest, mostly because of the time limit you are given. Anyway, all it takes to pass the vignettes is a little patience, the ability to follow directions, and attention to detail. Practice, develop a strategy for each type, be careful, and you will be fine.

I have 3 more test to go, so I am somewhere between seeing light at the end of the tunnel and having a long way to go (I have to RE-take SS for crying out loud!) So far I think getting started is THE hardest thing to do. Once you get your feet wet things will pan out one way or another, and so I hope this article will give you an overall idea of what it’s like and make the first step a little easier. Please feel free to share it and/or leave me some comments. Good luck fellow ARE-takers!

Visualizing ARE 4.0 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]