ARE Prep: Schematic Design

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As I journey towards my goal of becoming a licensed architect, I want to share my experiences so that others on this journey can learn and be encouraged. As you may remember, my goal is to complete my six remaining exams in six months. Before the details get too fuzzy I wanted to share what I did to prepare for Schematic Design.

As a reminder, ARE candidates are not allowed to share specific exam content, so please don’t ask. That being said, I’ll keep the format simple:

  • Materials I used + References to any websites or specific knowledge
  • Timeline for studying
  • General content to focus on or ignore
  • General tips and tricks

 Materials I used for Schematic Design

Given that this exam has no multiple choice questions and only tests using the graphic vignette software, I practiced with the NCARB software which you can find on their website here. Also available through the link is an exam guide for each section. I read through this before beginning on the practice software to get a good understanding of the type of content that would be covered. Beyond this, I uploaded one solution each for the Interior Layout and Building Layout graphic vignette to the ARE Forum. There, other members will critique and advise on possible errors. I found that my first practice vignette raised a few red flags from members, which helped me realize which items to pay more attention to the second try. After uploading my second attempt and receiving no ‘error warnings’, I practiced the Interior layout once more and moved on to the Building Layout vignette.

Timeline for studying

I practiced the software for about 3 weeks, on the weekends only. In that time I felt I had plenty of time to go through the practice software instructions, try 3-4 interior layout vignettes and complete 2-3 building vignettes (including posting them to the forum for feedback). Practicing should help improve speed and drive home the techniques.

General Content Focus

Schematic Design is not about design. It is about fitting program into a pre-determined area and avoiding life safety issues. Focus on meeting the requirements called out in the program and spend your time reviewing that all of the technical aspects are met (Did you measure your corridor width? Did you remember to create a wall opening between adjoining corridors? Do your doors swing the correct direction?).

General Tips and Tricks

In general, the ARE Forum can be a bit tricky to navigate and takes a lot of time to get through to the good information. I’ve started a spreadsheet where I copy down links to important or useful threads as well as to outside content that may be useful to studying. This way I don’t have to reference the website as often, and in the future I hope to provide it as a comprehensive e-book (hey, maybe I could recoup some of the costs of exams?!).

That being said, I found this approach to the interior layout vignette to be helpful: when you begin the interior layout, draw a pile of turning circles (5′-0″), egress circles (3′-0″) and door push/pull boxes (4’x4′, 4.5’x5′). This way you can just move them around instead of having to participate in the tedious movement known as ‘drawing’ in this software.

I also found these links to be helpful in trying to get the ‘alternative layouts’ (problems created by users to practice the interior and building layout problems) working:

That’s all for Schematic Design. I received a PASS on my first try and felt really good on timing and technique. I felt I had adequate preparation (possibly even too much) and I didn’t feel rushed during the exam. Up next: Construction Documents and Services on February 1.



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  • Recent Grad

    Hi, someone sent me a link to this post, and I’m excited to see you write more about the ARE process. I’m a recent grad so just wondering if it makes any difference taking the AREs right out of school versus at the end of IDP? Do you think is it easier to study for the tests with all the IDP experience under your belt?

    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by. I would say ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you begin testing right out of school or wait to gain experience. There are pros and cons to each method, and ultimately you need to be in the right mindset to take them more than anything else. Taking them right out of school means you’re still in tune with a study schedule and it can feel like an extension of college. The upside is that you won’t have a skewed perspective of terms or protocols based on your work experience. Not all firms follow standards, and these tests definitely do not test you on ‘how your firm operates’. I see a lack of experience as an advantage in this case. Becoming familiar with the test material will also help make your job make sense. Instead of asking your boss to explain the bidding and negotiation process and how to respond to payment applications from contractors, you’ll already have a base knowledge of how they work from your studies. On the other hand, if you gained this knowledge from your workplace, studying becomes that much easier for you since you’ll recognize and be familiar with basics. That type of working knowledge is especially important when you get questions about hypothetical circumstantial scenarios. Again, I see that there are pros and cons to each method, and ultimately you just need to be ready to study, ask questions at work and put in the time to really understand the concepts. Stay tuned for more posts!

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  • Katherine

    YAY! Thank you so much for this post! Very helpful!

    • Thanks for reading, Katherine! Glad you found it useful.

  • Dawn Michele

    ARE Forum has been down for a long time – or is it just me?!?!?

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