ARE 5.0: Why I Transitioned and You Should, Too

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

One of my goals last year was to take all divisions of the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) by 2017. I accomplished that goal by taking advantage of the ARE 5.0 Credit Model and switching to ARE 5.0—and you can too!

This summer, I took and passed three divisions of ARE 4.0 in three days. Based on NCARB’s announcements about strategic testing, I developed a plan to transition to ARE 5.0 and complete the ARE in five divisions instead of seven. For me, making the switch was an easy decision.

On November 1, 2016, the day ARE 5.0 launched, I logged in, transitioned, and scheduled my last two exams for the end of the month. I prefer to lump exams together, so I decided to take Project Planning & Design (PP&D) on November 28 and Project Development & Documentation (PD&D) on the 30th. I took PP&D first because it made sense project delivery-wise and aligned best with my work experience.

While I can’t tell you how to pass the exams (because the cut score process is still underway and it might be a little while before any of us know the results), I can give you some insight into what to expect and why you should transition.

The most common concerns about transitioning to ARE 5.0 are lack of study materials, confusion about what to study, concern about the unknown format, time to complete 4.0 vs. 5.0, anxiety over waiting for scores, and dropping pass rates after transitions.

As an advocate for candidates helping each other successfully complete the ARE, let me share my experience with 5.0 and respond to those concerns.

What do I study and where do I find it?

The first place you should look to understand what to study for 5.0 is NCARB’s website. Review the credit model, which shows how 4.0 divisions map to the new 5.0 divisions. 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 you’ll find from each content section. From those two sources alone you’ll know exactly what to study.

If you’re taking the five exam approach (combining ARE 4.0 and 5.0 divisions), then you’ll want to focus on the content breakdown of PP&D and PD&D. According to the credit model:

  • The Project Planning & Design content areas translate to 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 translate to 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: the new format is designed to align with the practice of architecture. The greatest variety and breadth of knowledge needed is typically during the design development and construction documentation phases, which are what PP&D and PD&D 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.

As with ARE 4.0, studying across content areas is a smart strategy. The tests can be specific and often seemingly obscure. Rather than trying to cram endless fragmented facts and tricks into your short-term memory, take a global approach and study big concepts. If you understand the overall picture, you’re much more likely to make the right educated guess. ARE 5.0 is designed for this kind of approach, 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 available, 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 have all the information you need. In fact, if you’ve had success with previous exams, I’d recommend sticking with your familiar 4.0 study guides. I used my 4.0 material and felt it was sufficient.

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

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.

The multiple-choice questions in ARE 5.0 are comparable with ARE 4.0 in terms of style and difficulty, so 4.0 practice exams will 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 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. My two biggest concerns were more in the design of the exam rather than the studies themselves.

  1. 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.
    How to work with this: If you’re mindful of your time throughout, you’ll do fine. “Mark for later” is a great tool—use it to return to questions you’re struggling with later on. If you think you’ll still have trouble, you can also navigate directly to the case studies at the beginning of the exam and return to the multiple-choice areas later.
  2. 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 not sized correctly. Additionally, the case study resources and the related questions don’t fit on the screen at the same time, and the test center servers can take a while to load pages.
    How to work with this: The sizing tools help, but they do take time to use, so be sure to budget enough time to deal with scrolling, zooming, and loading. Try the Demonstration Exam in My NCARB to explore using the case study tools.

But even with slow case studies, the change from vignettes was the right choice. Case studies test your ability to quickly assess design problems and solve them in a way that mirrors work in a real firm. If NCARB improves the interface, they’d be perfect.

And that’s all you have to expect from the new format. 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 showing that pass rates drop during transitions, and I can’t handle waiting so long for my results.

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 if you test strategically and take fewer divisions, you’ll most likely complete the ARE sooner in 5.0, even with the wait for results.

ARE 5.0 also makes economic sense! By testing strategically and transitioning, I saved over $600. How? ARE 4.0 includes seven exams costing $210 each, but by using the credit model to complete the ARE in five exams, you’ll save $420. On top of that, NCARB is giving away $100 Visa gift cards for each division of 5.0 you take before January 31—that’s another $200 earned for testing early.

So, yes, 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 finishing sooner than if I had stayed in 4.0. The timing and savings alone made transitioning a no-brainer for me.

Whether you stay in ARE 4.0 or jump into 5.0, you should strategically assess your path based on where you are in the process. If you only have a couple 4.0 exams to go, it makes sense to stick with it. And if you haven’t started yet, you’ll probably want (or have) to 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, so keep it up!

Leah Alissa Bayer, Assoc. AIA, is an entrepreneur, writer, and licensure candidate who graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 2014.