How I passed the ARE Exam 3, Programming and Analysis, on my first try


This is a report from Emily Rachel Geppert on the ARE 5.0 Community.

She studied for this exam for 8-12 hours a week for a month, but she does do this as part of her work.

She recommends using the ARE Handbook, the 2010 ADA guides, the 2015 IBC standards, Planning and Urban Design, Site Planning and Design, Site Engineering for Landscape Architects, and Sun, Wind, and Light.

She warns people to always consider context when answering questions and to be aware that the case studies take a long time to load.

For more information, check out my guide on how to study for Programming and Analysis or read the original post below.

Original Post

Hey all!

I passed PA on my first try last week!  This was my first ARE, so I was definitely nervous going into it. I started studying for this exam in earnest about a month before, though I’d had it scheduled for several months prior.  I spent between 8-12 hours a week reviewing material, but was really fortunate that the bulk of my work at my job during those months was on projects that were in this phase of design. 

I only purchased one book, Sun, Wind, and Light, and found the others at the local library or through my work.  Try to find your resources for free before dropping thousands on them!  There’s a surprising amount of free information out there if you look.  My work also provided access to PPI and Black Spectacles.

The resources I used were:

  • NCARB Handbook – read it again and again and again and then one more time!  They tell you exactly what you need to study and what sort of questions you’ll be asked.  Backchecking the other resources against this was extremely valuable because it kept me from getting lost in the weeds on irrelevant information.  I definitely think keeping this fresh on my mind helped me be more targeted and efficient with my studying.
  • Black Spectacles – I watched all the videos, but don’t think they were that helpful.  I mostly used this resource for the practice exams.  The practice exams are nearly identical in format to the real exam, so you can get a feel for how all the tools work and how the exam system functions.  I also liked that you can take a full length, timed practice which allowed me to simulate how test day would feel.  Getting comfortable with that pressure is a great way to stay calm and collected on game day.  You want your brain to be focused on the questions, not how to rotate a program box or where the search function is on the resource material.  The tests were also good indicators of the holes in my knowledge, so I used that as a gauge for where to focus my studying.  DO NOT get hung up on the memorization-based questions in these exams.  The NCARB Handbook is clear that you are being tested on Understanding/Applying and Analyzing/Evaluating.  My highest score on these exams was 59%, but reviewing what I missed indicated I was missing rote memorization skills (I usually don’t remember things I can easily Google) but was doing well in application of concepts.
  • PPI – I glanced through this resource and found it to be repetitive to what BS had to offer.  I prefer BS’s interface, so I went with that.  Again, the value is in the cursory review of concepts and practice exams.
  • 2010 ADA Standards – understand the concepts.  I read through the code once and made sure I understood the basics for accessible design.  Spend the time memorizing the basics that are applicable to a wide variety of projects such as ramp length, slope, clearances, etc.
  • 2015 IBC – I read through chapters 3-7 and 9-11 because I don’t have a copy of Building Codes Illustrated.  Understand the concepts of use, occupancy, and egress and how to determine what is what.
  • Problem Seeking – I read the initial portion about the Five Steps and Four Considerations.  I read this first and it was a useful way to frame the rest of my studying.  I don’t think it warrants more time than that.
  • Planning and Urban Design Standards – I flipped through this book and looked at graphics and titles.  Anything that seemed interesting or foreign, I stopped to read the associated content. 
  • Site Planning and Design Handbook – Same as above.  This book provided lots of useful information for soils and brownfields.  Understand how soils work and their differences!  
  • Site Engineering for Landscape Architects – same as above.
  • Sun, Wind, and Light – read the chapters “Climate as a concept”, “Combining Climate, Program, and Form”,  and “Building Groups”.  Understand how external constraints (sun, wind, topo, etc.)  influence microclimates and how a building should be placed on a site.
  • Other – I fortunately work in a full-service architecture and engineering firm where about 80% of the designers are licensed, so I get a lot of interaction with many different disciplines that have a huge depth of knowledge.  This is a huge plus for these exams.  The folks outside your lane know a lot and generally like to share what they know.  Pick the brains of the architects and engineers you work with.  I have a feeling this will be even more useful for PPD and PDD.
  • In retrospect, the most useful resources were the ones provided in the Reference Matrix.  The secondary resources, like BS and PPI, were not nearly as helpful.

My test day strategy:

  • I was originally scheduled to take the exam on a Friday, but had a last minute test center closure and was rescheduled for the following Tuesday.  I am really glad this happened for two reasons: 1. I already felt prepared for the test, so spent the weekend casually reviewing topics between the everyday chores, and 2. it allowed me to relax after the BUSY work week I’d had the week prior.  I was much less stressed going into the exam after the weekend and I will be taking all my exams early in the week from now on.
  • I got a good night’s sleep (8 hours) the night before and gave myself enough time in the morning to go through my normal routine, including coffee and a nutritious breakfast.  This is way more important than getting another few hours of studying.  Your brain needs the rest in order to function well.
  • Once I started the exam, I went to the case studies first and wrote down what resources were provided.  I had a few questions that I was able to backcheck against these documents to verify my answers, so it was nice to know they were there.
  • I then went back to the multiple choice questions.  I read through each question carefully and judiciously applied the highlight and strikeout tools.  I found that I was often given more information than needed, so both tools helped me to ignore irrelevant information and focus on what I needed to know.  I tried to spend less than a minute on each question, and checked the clock every 5-10 questions to keep me on track.  Anything I wasn’t sure about or didn’t know, I flagged, selected my best guess and moved on within the minute.  I finished this portion in an hour.  I think I had 72 multiple choice questions.
  • I had two questions that looked like duplicates at first glance.  There were only slight differences between them, and answering one automatically helped me answer the other.  Watch out for answers nested in other questions.  I won’t say this will happen often if at all, but it’s good to keep your eyes open for the easy wins when they’re available.
  • I did the case studies second.  Be aware that the supplementary documents take a long time to load, so read through the basic information then skip right to the question.  I found that I didn’t have to look at every resource for every question, so I didn’t bother reading the resource until it was relevant.  I had about 23 questions between the two case studies, which is different than the 10 I saw on every practice exam.  Just be aware that there’s no set number of questions for each portion of the exam. This portion took about an hour.
  • I took my break after I ran through the test once.  I had an hour left, so I used the opportunity to stretch my legs, use the bathroom, get a snack, and just relax.  Since I had seen every question already, my subconscious was still working things out in the background.
  • I used the last hour to review the flagged questions.  I still had some more time after that, so I started at the beginning of the test and reviewed until I ran out of time. 
  • When in doubt, stick to your gut.  There’s a lot that you pick up from just being in a working environment.  You might know more than you can consciously recall just because you are around architects and engineers regularly.  
  • Be aware that context is important, so some of the answers would be right in a different context but only one answer is right for that context.  Same thing with the drag-and-drop and select-all-that-apply questions.  Some things are the right answer for a different (but similar) question.

Things I wish I’d known more about:

  • Rehabilitation, restoration, renovation, etc.  I wish I’d studied those concepts a little more! In retrospect, I would have looked at the National Park Service’s Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation. 

Final thoughts:

  • I found the exam to be easier than I’d anticipated.  There first few questions helped me realize that they truly are just testing baseline competency and that the questions were often things I faced in my day-to-day.  Once I relaxed, I was able to breeze through most of the questions.  I think having a positive attitude was a huge reason for my success!
  • The case studies and the supplementary information can take a long time to load.  Don’t stress, it will come up eventually.  I got frustrated a few times and pressed a few too many buttons, so my screen froze and the system looked like it was going to crash.  That was not a fun feeling.

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