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).

I studied every single day for the Architect Registration Exam

While this wasn’t always the case, eventually this statement became true, and daily studying is what ensured my success on the exam. 

When I first began to prepare for the exam, my study schedule could hardly be called a schedule—it was sporadic. I studied an hour here, another two hours a few days later, and sometimes took week-long breaks in between. I used to compare my study habits to a switch: they were either on or off. After I passed CDS, PPP, SPD, and SD, I made the very worst mistake any ARE candidate could possibly make: I convinced myself to take a little break from the exams because I thought I was burned out.

An object in motion stays in motion

What began as a one-month break quickly became two months. Because I have a black belt in procrastination, I told myself I needed even more time off from the exam. The reality wasn’t that I was burned out. The reality was that I was terrified of my remaining exams, and avoiding them was how I coped.

I rebuilt my social life, read great books, and embraced several new hobbies. I was acting like all my non-architect friends who didn’t have a self-guided test to study for. This went on for about two years. I had a lot of fun, but deep inside I was becoming depressed because I was allowing myself to get further away from my goal of becoming an architect.

My reality check came later on during a conversation with a friend. I explained, “I only have three more tests to take, and NCARB gives us five years to finish all seven exams, it’s plenty of time.” At which point, I started to panic. I was running out of time.

I realized that with all of my experience in architecture, I should have been licensed by now. I spent way too much time avoiding the last three, what I consider, the most difficult exams. Two days later, I began studying again. Beginning to study again felt like trying to climb up a waterfall—a feeling that lasted until I started studying every single day.

How do you study every day?

It sounds more aggressive than it really is. “Studying every day” means breaking down the material in a manner that allows you to address some of it little by little. Some study days include some difficult reading, other days are simpler. This means identifying small tasks that need to be completed. These small tasks don’t involve digesting massive amounts of text. You then work out a study plan that allows you to work the small tasks in on the days that you just don’t have the time or mental clarity to sit and read the ARE material for an extended period of time.

There is magic when you make small and big moves every single day. You quickly start to build massive momentum with studying. Taking small bites out of the exam makes taking consistent, bigger bites easier.

Taking small bites

When I started testing, I realized that there are a lot of small tasks that have nothing to do with actual studying. These include: 

  • Scheduling a test date
  • Installing the vignette software
  • Finding study materials for each exam
  • Printing study guides or information from the web
  • Uploading vignettes to various forums and reviewing the vignettes of other candidates
  • Buying index cards so I could make my own flashcards
  • Selling study materials from exams I had already passed
  • Reorganizing my calendar so I could work full-time and still have time for long study sessions on the weekends

All these little things add up. I worked 40 hours a week while I took all seven tests. After a hectic work day, the thought of reading anything technical would make me sick to my stomach. When this happened I would:

  • Read something light related to the exam
  • Watch YouTube videos
  • Look at sample vignettes
  • Call up my study partners and see how they are doing
  • Briefly scan all of the chapters in a new book

On difficult days, I may have only had the mental bandwidth to spend five to 10 minutes studying. But, it didn’t matter as long as I continued to make small moves with daily studying. A few days later, when I had the mental capacity to dive deeper into the study material, the small moves I had made previously set me up for success. What does a “big move” look like? Digesting massive amounts of information; learning how to do the vignettes; or spending an extended amount of time focusing on the exam.

The cardinal rules for studying every day

I’ll leave you with the two cardinal rules for studying every day:

  1. Do not stop studying for the exam! Make small moves as needed until you can devote more time to making big moves.
  2. If you miss a day, you are not allowed to beat yourself up. Make up for it the next day. No big deal.

The biggest regret I have is taking a two-year hiatus from studying. In hindsight, I can now see that having earned my license earlier would have opened new doors, improving the course of my architecture career. Don’t flip the off switch on your studying. Be an object in motion and stay in motion.