I passed the CSE two months ago. Before moving on to my next licensure path, I decided to write down a little bit about my path to the architect’s license.
I was trained to be an engineer for more than six years. I have a B.S. in Civil Engineering and a M.S. in Construction and Project Management before I got my M.Arch. I have worked as an architectural designer in San Francisco for 4 years now.
Technically speaking I spent around 8 months in total to pass all the AREs. I took my first ever ARE attempt (Construction Evaluation) on 08/30/2021 and I failed. I hadn’t even heard about the ARE handbook then and was not sure what the tests are about…Fortunately I never failed again after that.
I worked full-time when I was taking the AREs. I usually studied for 2 hours on weekdays and 6 - 8 hours on weekends. I took a one-month break after I passed the first three tests. Here are the amount of time I spent breaking down by test:
- Practice Management (PjM), Project Management (PcM), and Construction & Evaluation (CE): 2.5 - 3 weeks
- Programming & Analysis (PA): 4 weeks
- Project Planning & Design (PPD): 5 weeks
- Project Development & Documentation (PDD): 1.5 weeks or so
I studied for PjM, PcM & CE at the same time. And I also prepared for PPD and PDD at once. Overall I was happy that I took the tests in this sequence considering the amount of overlap in contents in these different tests.
If you are going to take the exams at a test center like I did, be aware that your time frame might be impacted by the earliest availability of seats. If you’d like to pass the tests quickly, you’d better schedule ahead of time.
Study Materials & Practice Exams:
⁃ ARE Handbook: I used it frequently to remind myself of the extent and depth of the knowledge areas that the test writers want us to know before taking the AREs.
⁃ AHPP (with the Wiley AHPP Study Guides: https://sganwdesign.com/wiley-publishing/) + AIA Contracts: most important materials for preparing for PcM, PjM, and CE.
⁃ Ballast ARE Review Manual: I scanned through it to familiarize myself with the key terms in each knowledge area, and read again before the test days to ensure I’ve built up a systematic knowledge structure and fill in any knowledge gap as needed.
⁃ Black Spectacles: After I scanned through the Ballast Review Manual for the first time, I watched/listened to the Black Spectacles video lectures to understand the logic of the ARE tests – which knowledge points are the most important, and how the questions/options will likely be structured in the real tests, etc. Black Spectacles lectures are actually well designed but I usually watched/listened at 1.5-2x speed.
⁃ Ballast ARE Mock Exam: Much more difficult than the real test but might be helpful to find out the very specific knowledge point that you are missing.
⁃ Black Spectacles Practice Exam: slightly easier than the real test in my opinion but useful to understand the logic and set up of the real tests.
After I passed all AREs, I found that I still needed another 40~ AXP hours before I could acquire the CSE eligibility. I had to wait for about four months to get all those hours. Then I studied for about 3 weeks on the test and passed at my first attempt. I spent about the same amount of time studying every day as I was for the AREs.
I used the study guide, 200 Q&A guides, practice exams from the David Doucette Whole Enchilada and went through some of the links mentioned in the study guides. Before the test day I also did the Woo’s mock exams. The Woo’s mock exams are similar to the real test in terms of set-up of the questions and the number of questions in each test section, but in my opinion they’re also slightly easier than the real test.
On your test day, be aware that some of the employees at a test center might not be familiar with the requirements for the CSE. On my test day, I was not given the hard copy handout for the project scenario questions at check-in until I asked for it.
Like the AREs, CSE is also an easy test that pretends to be tough. One of the reasons I said that is because I think there were too many non-scorable questions in the CSE. I feel like almost a quarter of the overall test time would need to be spent on answering the non-scorable questions (and I guess the non-scorable items are usually the trickier or more ambiguous ones…), which makes the test time unnecessarily long.
Many candidates might not know that AXP hours can be earned outside of an architectural firm. If you are interested, you may want to read through the Other Work Experience section in the NCARB AXP Guidelines (https://www.ncarb.org/sites/default/files/AXP-Guidelines.pdf). A handy hint for you is that, you can earn 10 Practice Management hours by completing the NCARB Professional Conduct CE online courses for free.
You are eligible to take the CSE only if you complete both the AREs and the AXP hours…So always plan ahead.
NCARB sent my profile to the CAB in around one week after I passed all the AREs and completed all my AXP hours. Another 1.5 weeks later, the CAB sent me a hard copy of the CSE application form. After I filled out the application and sent it back to the CAB with the fees, the CAB was able to process my application within a week. But the CAB didn’t notify me about the status. Instead they mailed me a hard copy of confirmation letter through usps, which didn’t arrive until another few days later.
After I passed the CSE and had my fingerprint scanned, and sent my licensure application to the CAB, they issued my license in 1.5 weeks. The CAB normally processes the applications quite promptly. But the CAB doesn’t reach out to you with status updates. You may want to try to reach out to them as necessary. The Examination Analysts and Licensing Technicians at the CAB are super helpful in general.
Finally, 1.5 months after the issuance of my license, I received my wall certificate from the CAB.
Many thanks to my supervisors Daniel and Steve at my first firm, and my supervisor Jeff at my previous firm. They have shared with me a lot of their invaluable insights in designing, project management, as well as professional communication, and have always encouraged me to work on different tasks in my first couple years as an architectural designer. I did appreciate the mentorship a lot. And I also enjoyed the open communication and the transparent workplace in both firms.
A few last words…People ask if the AREs are difficult. I would say it is not a tricky exam. Questions are dealing with general practical common situations that you might encounter on the job. To pass the AREs and the CSE, you only need to have surface level understanding of the knowledge areas. There is no rocket science involved in any of these exams. Everything is straightforward and again, surface level. Those who have been wanting to but somehow haven’t taken the tests should go for it.
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