Signed, Sealed, Delivered

November 23, 2015

It’s been over a year and a half since I started testing, but I can finally say that I’m done: I passed the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) on Saturday. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m an architect, though - until I get my papers back in the mail, calling myself an architect is still a criminal offense, as the license application itself helpfully points out.) Here are a few thoughts about all that.

The Prep

As soon as I finished IDP, I applied for CSE eligibility. That process took from August until October. Once I was eligible to schedule an exam, I gave myself six weeks to study and scheduled for November. I used the materials we had in my office: the 2012 edition of the David Doucette suite of materials and the 2011 edition of the Archibald Woo study guide, plus some flashcards of unknown source. I thought both sets of materials were underwhelming, to the point where I seriously considered going through them with a red pen and mailing the results back to the authors. The Woo guide lacked basic editing for grammar and sentence structure – I found the grammatical errors so distracting that I had a hard time concentrating on the material. The Doucette guide suffered from terrible formatting – it was annoying to read and had very little material per page, since it’s basically formatted for the web. Both guides were out of date, lacking updates for the 2013 code cycle and other basic information (for example, the California Department of Fish & Game has been renamed the California Department of Fish & Wildlife since 2012). I would strongly recommend getting the latest version of the materials, to avoid the confusion I had trying to figure out what information was still correct and what was outdated. I think both Woo and Doucette have updated versions available with the 2013 code updates. In any event, I went through all the materials I had available. I thought the practice questions for both guides were particularly bad, since the answer keys were poorly written and made me question the validity of all the answers. As it turns out, the questions also didn’t reflect the actual exam questions very well.

Exam Day

The California Architects Board (and probably all the boards within the Department of Consumer Affairs?) contracts with Psychological Services Inc (PSI) for their licensure exams. If you want to image what a PSI test center is like, picture the worst Prometric test center you’ve ever been to, then bump it down several notches on the classiness/cleanliness scale. This place was downright depressing. It was in a nameless office park that was so hard to find, I passed it while driving by it very slowly even though I knew roughly where it was supposed to be. The only potentially positive aspect was that they did have lockers, despite the warning e-mails I received to the contrary. So no, you don’t have to leave your wallet and phone in your car for someone to steal. The test center is so unprofessional, though, that they use binder clips on the locker keys, with the locker numbers printed out on regular paper and then cut out and taped to the binder clips, instead of key fobs like they have at Prometric. Very classy, PSI.

The CSE is 3.5 hours long and is administered without any breaks. Apparently it is also much longer than all the other exams administered by PSI, since I was one of the last ones seated for the 9am start time, but was the only person left in the test center by the time I finished. The exam is in three distinct parts, so there’s really no excuse for why there aren’t any breaks. Does CAB just like to torture us? In any event, as you can see from the e-mail you receive from PSI when you schedule your exam, there are actually two project scenarios and one general section. If you have an old study guide like I had, which claims there is only one project scenario, ignore it. You still have one hour per project scenario section, so it’s one hour for scenario #1 (30 questions), one hour for scenario #2 (30 questions), then 90 minutes for the general section (70 questions).

My experience was that the questions were significantly harder than the practice ones I studied, but not, as the study guides claimed, because they were confusing or poorly worded (that, in fact, was my experience of the Doucette questions, not of the actual exam questions). Rather than simple “what is X” or “when do you do Y” type questions, they were generally scenario-based, asking what you should do in different situations. I wish I had studied the AIA contract documents more, studied the California state agencies less, and studied the building code more. I tried to keep track of the questions I really didn’t know or felt very unsure about, and noted about 20 to 25 of them. Based on the Woo book, I thought I could pass if I missed about 20 at most, so I assumed I would be right on the edge of passing.

The Results

As soon as you complete your 210 minutes of torture, and emerge from the exam room around 12:30 pm sweaty and shaking, having not had a chance to eat, drink, or use the bathroom since 8:45 am, the test center guy has you sit down while he pulls up your results. Small talk isn’t really possible at that point. Finally he turns the screen around and points at your results. In my case, by some miracle, it said “Congratulations” and I nearly collapsed on the desk. Immediately I blurted out, “That means I won’t have to come back here in six months!” to which the guy managed a laugh. Thanks for that, test center guy. I didn’t really mean to insult you, even though your test center is horrible.

I’ll never know if I passed by a high or low margin, but overall I felt poorly prepared and extremely nervous throughout the exam. I wish I could have been better prepared if only so I wouldn’t have had to feel so terrible for the entire 3.5 hours. Alas, I don’t know of any better study materials, so I hope any future test-takers out there can find some!

And Now?

The big question - what’s next! First of all, thanks to all my family, friends, and co-workers for supporting me through this crazy 20 months of almost non-stop testing. It’s hard for me to believe it’s really over! I hope now to have more time to devote to writing less-terrible posts here, and finishing up some other projects that have been lying around the house forever.

Once I get the official papers delivered in the mail, I will finally be licensed, and I will also get to order my stamp. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for what icon I should put in place of the stars on the typical California stamp design. A tiny Millennium Falcon perhaps?