I think the biggest fear for anyone starting to take the ARE exams is the same one I had and many others before me have had, “what if I fail?” Failure is never something you hope for in your life. And it’s never something that you exactly plan for either. But, the unfortunate reality is that failure is a necessary part of life.

When my husband and I both began taking the ARE’s (yes, at the same time, and yes, we are still married), we felt the pressure that every other aspiring architect feels when they began testing – the pressure not to fail. Of course we wanted to pass them all on the first try, who wouldn’t? But more than that, we didn’t want to fail – for quite a few reasons. We didn’t want to come across as dumb or stupid, we didn’t want to let our office down, we didn’t want to pay to retake it, and most importantly, we didn’t want to let ourselves down. But guess what eventually happened – we failed a test. And yes, we were disappointed. We were mad and upset. We had studied all the material, completed all the mock exams, and practiced the vignettes over and over – and yet we still failed and didn’t understand why. We went and moped and threw ourselves a pity party for the night and tried to keep it quiet at work the next day, but eventually someone asked me “so how’d you do on the test?” and I had to accept my fate and tell them “I failed”.

And you know what happened? The world kept turning. My office kept working. The person that asked about it said “I’m sorry to hear that, but I know you’ll get it next time. And don’t worry, I failed a couple, too.” My failed exam was no big deal. No one was disappointed in me, or thought less of me, and our day continued as normal.

Finally I realized that failing was okay. Yes, it sucked to have to take it again, but you know what? I’m kind of glad I failed (in a really weird way). It taught me some things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. And my hope is that the things I learned from my failure may help and encourage you as face your next exam.

1. Failure is not the end of the world. As I mentioned, I was definitely not looking forward to having to go to work the next day and admit that I failed. But guess what – No one mocked me for it, no one was disappointed in me for it, no one thought I was stupid. It was the opposite. I think we forget sometimes that all architects have gone through the same miserable testing experience that we have. They remember how stressful and difficult it is and how desperately you want to pass the first try. So, they have sympathy for you and offer understanding because they’ve been there before. They provide encouragement and advice and tell you “don’t worry, you’ll get it next time” and the world moves on.

2. Everyone’s fails are going to be different. Everyone’s “hard’s” and “easy’s” are not the same. I know there are some of the exams that people classify as “easier” than others. I had been told that Site Planning and CDS were the easier exams of the seven. I had been told that Structures was going to be the hardest. That was not the case for me. Building Systems was my hardest and Site Planning was an easier one, but only because it was the last one I took. If I took SPD first, I would probably answer that differently. And, if you ask my husband, Schematic Design was the easiest and BDCS was the hardest. Everyone’s hardest and easiest are going to be different – and more than likely it is very different than yours. So don’t get discouraged if you fail one of the exams that someone told you was the “easiest exam”, because your easiest and hardest IS NOT the same as theirs.

3. Failure gives you a dose of humility. I was feeling pretty good about myself for passing my first four exams the first try, and then Building Systems came along and gave me a nice slap in the face. It gently reminded me how much there is to learn (even after you pass all of your exams). It also reminded me that everyone passes and fails at different rates, so where I had failed on number five, someone else may have failed on number two. It’s all the same no matter what number gets you. It also gave me the reality check that I could easily fail again if I didn’t try and study hard enough. And, no one likes an arrogant architect – there’s plenty of those already.

4. Failing (or passing) doesn’t make you a bad (or good) architect. Face it, the ARE’s are just what they are – tests. Testing is not what defines us as architects. In fact, we don’t even take that many tests in architecture school. While passing these exams is part of the process to becoming a licensed architect, don’t judge yourself as a good or bad architect based on the results of these exams. I’m sure there are plenty of good test takers in this world that could study hard enough and pass these exams – that doesn’t make them a good architect now does it? Just the same, I’m sure a good test taker could study hard enough for the LSAT and probably pass it, that doesn’t mean they should be a lawyer. Passing these exams is part of the process to becoming a licensed architect, but knowledge, practice, and experience is what makes a good architect. So don’t interpret a failed exam to mean you are a bad architect.

5. You learn from failure. I think this is the best thing that comes from failure. Sure, success is great and gives you a nice confidence boost, but you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Failing that exam made me reevaluate what I knew and what I didn’t know. It showed me that having to adjust my game plan so that I could still meet my goals is a normal part of life. It forced me to talk about my failure so that myself and others could learn from it. It taught me to be humble about the passes and thankful for the failures.

And most of all, it taught me that failing was and is okay.

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