How to Attack the ARE Test Order

This post is part of a regular series on the Architect Registration Exam. The exam is often the final requirement for designers to evolve their careers into full-fledged architects.

Image Source:  NCARB

Image Source: NCARB

"A goal without a plan is just a wish."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


So, you've come this far. You've taken the first few steps towards becoming a licensed architect and you're ready to begin your exams. But, where do you start? I mean, there's not just one exam, there's seven! Well, there's a few possible paths you could take. In the end though, it's up to you to figure out which one makes sense for you alone. As we've discovered before (see Getting Started with the Architect Registration Exam), this entire process works when you first understand your commitments and your own expectations. Once you've made those decisions, take a strategic look at your options and attack the exam!


These aren't necessarily ‘real’ vocabulary terms, but rather a few words I've used before to explain some of the finer points of the exam process.


An exam that encompasses a lot of content from others like it. This type of exam is very comprehensive.


An exam that falls under similar content to that of the more comprehensive ‘Umbrella’ exams. This type of exam is very specific to its topic only.


An exam that focuses primarily on materials and construction methods.


An exam that focuses primarily on practice-based ideas and design theories.

Exam Overview

Site Planning & Design (SPD) // Component, Practical
Construction Documents & Services (CDS) // Component, Practical
Progamming, Planning, & Practice (PPP) // Umbrella, Practical
Schematic Design (SD) // Terms Don't Apply - SD is Its Own Computer Generated Monster
Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS) // Umbrella, Technical
Structural Systems (SS) // Component, Technical
Building Systems (BS) // Component, Technical



General to Specific

The first option you have is to take one of the Umbrella Exams, namely either Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS) or Programming, Planning, & Practice (PPP) and then take the Component Exams that fall in the same general category after. This may take more effort from you at first, but will allow you to study a little bit of everything and then focus on more specific topics as you go.

For example, PPP is concerned with Practical subject areas that deal with contracts, initial site planning, conceptual design phases, and construction administration. You could learn a little bit about each of those and then take something like Construction Documents and Services (CDS), a Component exam that deals mostly with contracts and construction administration. Again, the primary benefit of this process is that you have to know the content either way, but you'll only need a face-value understanding of say, contracts, when you take PPP versus an in-depth knowledge of specific contracts and how they directly apply to a construction project in CDS. The major downside with this type of approach is that you have to learn a LOT of different material in order to pass one of the Umbrella exams.




  • Generalist methodology - learn a little about several different topics, but you don't have to be an expert in any.
  • Umbrella exams feed directly into Component exams and will help you take them faster after you've completed it.


  • A lot of reading at first - hundreds of pages of reading, in fact.
  • A wide variety of materials. You'll have to search high and low for all of the materials you need to study when you're taking an Umbrella exam.



The completely opposite way of attacking the exam is to work your way towards the Umbrella exam by learning the content from the Component exams in detail beforehand.

The scenario looks something like this, say you want to take Structural Systems (SS) first. I personally think you're probably your own kind of crazy if you want to do that, but that's because it wouldn't have worked for me. I do know several people who have successfully done it this way though, so it may work out for you if you're that determined. There are far easier ways to strategically slay the ARE beast though. In either event, let's say that's your plan. You could learn all about structural materials like steel, wood, and concrete in detail and then know them already when you take the more general Component exam, Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS). Since BDCS is testing you on everything from fundamental construction methods to the types of materials you would or wouldn't use in a hypothetical scenario, having taken SS may help you out immensely. You'll already know about the major construction types at that point (yes, nitpicker, you do have to know about masonry construction as well - just seeing if you're still awake, haha). You can then spend your time learning all of the little bits of info like the fascinating differences between platform and balloon framing or what specification section that aluminum window might fall in (hint: it's between 7 and 9).

A word of caution - some of the Component exam study guides are so specific in what they prepare you on that you can actually lose the bigger picture of what the actual exam will likely test you on the day of. For example, the exams are testing your fundamental structural knowledge on the SS exam, not whether or not you have the ability to design swiss watch of a building using only toothpicks and luck. The study guides miss this point from time to time. When in doubt, go back to the NCARB exam guide for reference. They're testing you on what has been listed and nothing more.

Path 2 - Summary


  • Specialist methodology - if you can understand a topic really well by taking one of the Component exams first, that knowledge will allow you to study other things.
  • Component exams tend to be very directed in their subject areas and will provide you with focus when you're trying to study.


  • Some of the Component exam study guides may lead you astray from the bigger picture of what you're trying to accomplish.
  • You will have more success if you take the exams in quick succession to build up to a Component exam. If you don't, there's much less benefit.


(or just get started and worry about it later)

The final way you could conceivably go about this entire process is to just look at the roster of exams you have and start with the one you feel most comfortable with regardless of what makes sense long term. If you've chosen this path, congratulations, you're a badass. You're probably going to be voted ‘Most likely to die first in battle,’ but I commend you on your unbridled enthusiasm.

If you're really going ahead with this, I'd recommend you take a quick look at the entire list, read the NCARB exam guides, and then just pick one based on gut instinct. You should know what each exam section is testing you on at the very least.

On the off chance that you succeed using the process outlined directly above, you will be forever remembered in the NCARB halls of greatness. So, anyway…..




  • Renegade methodology - shoot first, ask questions later. At the very least, you'll take one exam.
  • I got nothing, do what works for you.


  • You may get yourself in over your head and not understand how you got there.
  • Diving in without thinking first may land you in a pool without water - ouch, that's gonna leave a mark.



(Personal Favorite)

My own path, admittedly, was a combination of all three (though I'll say much less related to Path 3). In a future post, I'll go in depth on my own ARE experience and how I ‘crawled through a river of sh!t and came out clean on the other side’ (bonus points for you today if you're awesome enough to know the reference).


Always remember one key fact - the Architect Registration Exam is testing your baseline proficiency required to practice as a licensed Architect on your own. It doesn't concern itself with your hopes and dreams (even if you plan on designing your own, personal ice cream store - just saying). It doesn't care what order you pass the exam sections in, just that you pass them. Plan it the way you want to and just get started. There's nothing saying that you can't change the order later, but you'll never get to the next exam unless you complete the first.

Alright, that's enough from me, I'm about to get destroyed in some Destiny Crucible (online multiplayer). I am so addicted to this game, it's unfair. Just think, when you're done with the ARE, you can go back to the things you like to do too! Just kidding, hang in there and get it done. You CAN do it. Know that from the other side, it's worth it.


Plan and then take action. Have you started your AREs yet? Where are you in the process? Let me know some of your thoughts in the comments below.

Michael LaValley