So You Want to Be an Architect... / by Sustainable

Written by: Steve Socha


Everyone knows that law students write the bar exam to becomes lawyers. Medical students take on months of residency to become doctors. But how does an architect become licensed? Few people are familiar with the ExAC (Examination for Architects in Canada), which is a grueling, 2-day, 4-part exam held once a year in November.

After a couple of years to reflect on passing this exam, I’ve compiled some advice for those about to take on this monumental task. Whether you are someone who is preparing to write the ExAC, an aspiring architect, or just curious about what it takes to become a licensed architect, these 12 tips are for you.

#1. You can’t read it all

The reading list for the exams is huge. If all you did was read for several months before the exam, you might be able to get through it all. But this is hardly the best use of your time. Focus on the primary resources listed on the official website. The secondary list is much longer, and a lot of the material is harder to find. Generally speaking, the more difficult the book is to obtain, the less important it is.

#2. Make a Study Schedule

I gave myself about 4 months, with roughly 1 exam to be focused on per month. In reality, there is a lot of overlap between the exams, but this schedule provided a framework for how much I should cover in a month. My other goal was not to take any time off from my job at Sustainable, and only study during off-hours. It is possible as long as you dive right into the deep end at the 4 month mark.

#3. Don’t study the weekend before

If you followed #2 and studied hard for 4 months, you will be ready. Anything you can cram in your head in the last couple of days isn’t going to help you much. I recommend taking a break and letting your brain rest for the big event.

#4. Take the practice ARE exams


No one I talked to was able to track down any practice ExAC tests. This is likely because they don’t exist, (or maybe they are just kept under strict lock and key). The American exams are called the ARE’s. They provide plenty of practice exams that are quite long and challenging. Take the practice ARE’s a couple times each and you’ll be ready.

#5. Sleep

Not just the night before the exam - all the nights leading up to the exam. Staying up late to read the Building Code is counter-productive, and barely even possible. You probably won’t remember anything you read when you’re tired. It’s always better to get some rest and start again tomorrow.

#6. Study alone (But Have Study Partners) 

You could join or start a study group, but if you’re anything like me, this would be counterproductive. Group study sessions lack focus, and will have you dwelling on the problems of others, which is not where to focus your attention. Study alone, and touch base with others to see where they are having difficulty.

#7. Talk to someone who’s done it before

There is no better resource than someone who has written the exam before (preferably as recent as the year before you). Although the specific questions can’t be discussed (and they change every year anyway) you will at least be able to get some insight into the exams. The added bonus is that most people who have written the exam, have all of the study material, their own study notes, and maybe even a copy of the National Building Code.

#8. Borrow the National Building Code


Provincial Building Codes are used in day to day practice, all of which are based on the National Building Code, and all of which are very similar. That being said, there are differences between them, so you definitely want to use the National Code and not your provincial code. After the test, you will likely never use the NBC again, so don’t buy it if you can at all avoid it.

#9. Take the Index out of the building code

If you’re using a version of the National Building Code that is in a binder, take the index out and staple it together. This way you can flip through the code the various sections you need, without having to constantly refer back to the index. If you’ve never seen a Building Code before - they are huge! Flipping back to the front of the binder is no easy task. If you’re using a bound copy, photocopy the index for reference.

#10. Learn your costing


Most architects are notoriously bad at predicting how much things cost. This is why books like “Hanscomb Yardsticks for Costing” exist. I didn’t study this enough, and it appeared several times on the exam. Take the time to understand how costing charts work, including the factors that influence costs - like location.

#11. Pack a lunch


I can’t speak for other provinces, but the Ontario ExAC is not located in a lunch-friendly zone. Given the length of time you have for a lunch break, going out for food and returning is a risky endevour. Packing a lunch is a much safer bet. I recommend brain food. 

#12. Celebrate


It’s tempting to go home to bed after 2 full days of exams. But you worked hard so go out and celebrate - you deserve it!