Jan 02

Taking The Construction Documents ARE Exam First

Even though there is no right or wrong order to scheduling your ARE exams, taking the construction documents ARE exam first may be something to look in to. I’ve always stressed that your ARE exam order should be based on your personal comfort level with that material, but there are definitely some benefits to knocking out the CDS exam first.


Traditionally, I tend to advise people to start off with an exam that covers topics that they are most familiar with. For most people, this is based off of what they’ve learned in the workplace. For example, some ARE candidates may have plenty of work experience dealing with schematic design and programming so they might consider starting off with the SD or PPP exams. Then there are others that may have experience in other related fields such as MEP or structural engineering so they might want to look at taking BS or SS first.

But from what I’ve found, a vast majority of ARE candidates really only have experience as entry-level drafters that spend most of their day detailing and producing drawings. These candidates (including myself at the time) really don’t have too much experience with other aspects of architecture so they can closely relate to SOME of the material on the Construction Documents and Services (CDS) exam.

Before we take a closer look at the pros and cons of taking the CDS exam first, keep in mind that these are just my individual opinions based on my personal experience and talking to other candidates. You should still start off with whatever YOU feel comfortable with in terms of the content on the exam. There’s nothing worse than starting off the ARE process feeling even more over-whelmed than you already are.

What The CDS Exam Covers

Without getting too detailed regarding the actual content of the CDS exam, it’s important to understand what exactly this exam covers because there is a common misconception regarding it’s content.

Many people assume that the Construction Documents and Services exam just covers how a set of drawings is put together. This exam does cover general ideas about a set of drawings, but there is a whole lot more that makes up this exam that candidates need to be familiar with.

The main content areas on the CDS exam are:

– Project/Firm Management
– AIA Contracts
– Specifications
– Construction Administration
– Construction Drawings
– Bidding and Negotiation
– Building Section Vignette

As you can see, this list of content areas covers a lot of topics that entry-level candidates may not be familiar with, but that shouldn’t scare anyone away from taking the CDS exam first. In fact, most of these content areas can easily relate back to construction drawings, which most ARE beginner candidates are comfortable with.

If you’d like to see more about the specific content areas on the ARE Construction Documents Exam, see here!

Benefits To Leading Off With The CDS Exam

I’m sure by now you want to hear exactly why I think starting off with the CDS exam is a good idea for less experienced candidates. As I mentioned above, many entry-level candidates will already have experience in some of these areas such as construction drawings and specifications. Being familiar with how drawings and specs relate to one another is very important on this exam.

In addition so some general familiarity with the exam content, the CDS exam has a lot of useful resources for studying. For instance, being familiar with the AIA documents is essential for success on this test. Fortunately, candidates can download free versions of the documents to use as a study resource for this exam.

Although the CDS exam is quite diverse in the content areas of the test, candidates seem to have an easier time with this information than they would something more detailed like the BS or SS exams. Even though some content areas are new to candidates, a lot of the terminology is commonly used in an architecture firm so candidates should be familiar with most of the areas.

Finally, the building section vignette portion of the CDS exam is one of the “easier” vignettes so it may be beneficial for a lot of candidates to start with this one. Believe it or not, many candidates don’t prepare enough for the vignette section of each exam and because of this, many candidates will fail entire exams because of critical mistakes on the vignette. Fortunately, the building section vignette is fairly straightforward and is really just an exercise in understanding a floor plan. If a first time ARE candidate started with an exam such as BDCS, they would more than likely become overwhelmed with the vignette section alone.

For more information on the Building Section Vignette, see here!

Concerns With Taking CDS First.

Of course, there are always concerns when it comes to taking your first exam so let’s take a quick look at some of the common concerns that people have when it comes to taking the CDS exam first.

Since it’s rare that some entry-level candidates will have experience dealing with construction administration and AIA contracts in the real world, taking the construction documents exam first can worry a lot of candidates. Even though candidates may lack work experience, I personally believe that the content on the CDS exam is easy to understand and learn while studying for the exam. The concepts themselves are not as thorough as some of the other exams so if you’re going to need some time to learn some concepts, now is the time if you take the CDS exam first.

Another reasonable concern that candidates seem to have is that a lot of the questions that appear on the actual CDS exam don’t really relate to what was in the study material. This shouldn’t be as big of a concern because this is the case with all ARE exams. There will be a lot of questions that will completely stump you on test day and you’ll have to make the best educated guess. This is always extra surprising when you take your first ARE exam so don’t let it alarm you.

My Own Experience

When I first started taking the AREs in November of 2010, I did a lot of research and collaborating to figure out which exam I wanted to take first. At the time, I only had about 3 years of experience with an architecture firm mainly doing construction drawings with only a little exposure to construction administration.

After taking a brief look at the content areas of every test, it was clear to me that my best chance was with the CDS exam. Granted, starting with something like SD or PPP might have been “easier” but I knew that the content on the CDS exam also related to some other exam divisions.

Since this was my first exam, I probably gave myself WAY more time than I would have if it was later on in the process, but this was a good thing because it gave me plenty of time to read through the additional study resources.

In addition, starting with the CDS exam also gave me some time to become familiar with the vignette program. Since the building section vignette is fairly straightforward, I was able to use some of my study time to get used to the software that NCARB uses for the vignettes. This proved to be valuable later on when I took exams with more difficult vignettes.

All in all, taking the construction documents ARE exam first was a good decision for me. Keep in mind that just because it was a good decision for me means that it will be good for you. Keep in mind your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to choosing your first exam because you will want and need all the confidence you can get going into the first one.

Remember, you really can’t make a bad decision here as long as you prepare yourself properly for the ARE.