Passed PA - here's how it happened

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

This is the last part of my specifically Programming and Analysis “trilogy”. Previous two posts dealt with two aspects: pacing and managing resources. This one will pack everything into my subjective story that points out the mistakes I made, and makes recommendations so that you can go through this process with less pain than I did. Due to some explanations, I reached out to NCARB to make sure I was on the safe side and not revealing too much about the test. Under no circumstances does it make sense to engage in discussing the details of the test. The chances of you getting the exact same question are sort of pretty slim, anyway. It doesn’t do anyone any good. If you’re still a bit unclear on how much is too much, this article can help you.

Indeed, it took me three sittings to pass PA. This gave me enough time to learn and figure out what really goes into this beast of a test. First time I didn’t pass because I wasn’t really ready, second time I didn’t pass because I studied and revised until right before the test and I fried my brain too soon. The third one, that I ended up passing, was brutal. Probably the hardest exam I’ve taken so far. Let me tell you what I did for each of my PA attempts, what worked for me and what didn’t.

I took my first PA test on June 1st, roughly two months after I passed ProPrac (that took me about two and a half months). I felt like I got this ARE game down, knew how to study, and I thought I was strong enough to pass PA on the first try. Lol! First PA fail was… a rather Sit down, be humble kind of experience. I wrote about that, too.


This test seemed generally heavy on calculating efficiencies. Also lots of awkwardly worded questions. This exam also threw at me some really weird looking ADA diagrams. I deal with ADA stuff at work fairly frequently, and I am not a complete noob to ADA, but I had a hard time understanding what is being asked. There were some soil questions, shadow questions, and yes, the puzzles. It’s quite difficult to prepare for puzzles. Plus, they can take forever to solve. I would recommend making sure to do a good job revising zoning, as well as calculating efficiencies during programming and budgeting. I scored Level 2 on Sections 1 and 3, and Level 3 on Sections 2 and 4. Yes, this exam had many weirdly worded questions, but objectively speaking, I didn’t have enough knowledge nor calmness to make my best guesses answering them. Compared to the third attempt, however, this exam was chamomile tea.

I took the second PA on August 30th, almost three months after the first fail. I studied really hard, wanting to fix everything and not go through the embarrassment of failing the same test twice. I mean, how awful would that be? Well, I learned and wrote about that, too.

Second PA test started with questions that seemed like a perfect fit for me. Gone were the weirdly worded questions. More soil, site plans, some history, urban sprawl... everything right up my alley. Decent amount of attention was given to adaptive reuse. Some puzzles looked familiar, but they were tweaked just enough. I felt way more confident on them this time around. I studied so hard for this retake, and during first 40-50 questions I felt like I was crushing the test. I didn’t bother to look at the Exam Summary first. Ooh, what a mistake! I calibrated my brain to expect that 70th question will open the first case study. Not so. Five more questions. Those five questions made me SO dull, and I lost stamina. Fatigue that I had felt at the 60th question grew exponentially. I took a break but that didn’t help. It was too late. I came back just as frazzled. Looking back, case studies were not hard. Calculations were basic and one step based. Some questions required finding specific information in given references, and not much further processing. Even that seemed impossible. So I failed again. This time I scored Level 2 on Sections 1, 3 and 4, and Level 3 on Section 2. Darn code and regulations! I was proud of passing Building Analysis, tho. :D

During fall, my life got a bit busier. Also my parents came from Croatia for a one month visit, which eventually put a hold on my studying. It was over a year since I had seen them, and I wanted to spend quality time with them. So I took the third test four days before Christmas. There wasn’t really anything new that I learned content-wise between the second and third attempt. I did get to experiment with more mindful and self observing exam taking techniques and parameters, however. They helped me SO much, and ultimately gave me a solid Christmas present :)

Third PA was a completely next level compared to the previous two. It felt as if NCARB plucked the hardest questions from previous two exams, tweaked them and mashed them into this one. I’d say 15-20 questions overall looked familiar, but they weren’t identical. Non-case study questions were heavy on calculations (make sure you go over occupant load and parking requirements), puzzles, site plans. Generally I felt that there weren’t very many questions that I could answer right away. Many times they almost seemed like mini case studies, because they required me to look at something in order to make my judgement. Some questions also seemed like they could fit into PjM, rather than PA. In situations like this, it is important not to panic. Case studies were legit hard, the hardest from all PA exams I took. They made me think that digging deep into Site Planning Design Handbook was finally worth it, as well as looking into PPD materials. Calculations were evil. They were mostly multi step stuff. I think I’m good at math, but these questions can easily make anyone’s head spin around.

So how did I pass what it seemed like the hardest version of this beast of an exam? It definitely wasn’t luck or knowing tiny facts. I haven’t logged all my hours, but my estimate is that I cumulatively studied for around 120 hours. I feel like I could have studied and revised for another 50, but without following this sequence of crucial steps that I gave to myself after my second fail, it would all be in vain.

  • Read ARE Handbook every other day throughout your prep time.

  • Don’t let practice questions shake your confidence. Practice reading them properly, that’s super important.

  • Stop studying and revising three days before the test.

  • I know that previous step may not always be realistic, so you can take a sneak peek at stuff until the day before. Not very intensely, though. Just to make yourself more confident. The day before you do nothing related to the test. Now it’s time to turn off your studying mode, and turn on your relaxing mode. Your body and psyche need to relax and prepare for the test.

  • On the night before, or morning of, make a pacing schedule for yourself. The goal is to create a road map that will inform your timing during 3hr and 15min you'll have. Now it’s time to solidify your decision whether to start or end with case studies. This will do you a huge favor and help you not panic about time running out. If you don’t fret about running clock all the time, you can focus more deeply on questions. These questions need your sharp focus. And calmness. Focused and calm. Focused and calm. Those are your keys to answering questions that seem intimidating. And trust me, there will be a lot of intimidating questions. You’ll have to use what you do know to answer what you think you don’t know. You can do that only if you’re focused and calm.

  • Before even looking at the first question, take a look at the Exam Summary. See how many case study questions there are. See how that jives with your roadmap. Go back to the first question or start your case study, whichever you had decided before.

  • Before you look at the question you chose to start with, take a deep breath. In English, or in your native language, write down on your scrap paper “You can do this. You will do this.” During the test, every once in a while take a quick glance at these two written sentences. They will give you a mini boost of courage. My study buddy Kayla recommended this to me, and I loved it.

  • Rock on, don’t lose confidence. Focused and calm. Focused and calm.

This time I decided to take case studies first. I think if I had left them for the very end, I may have failed again. Case study questions were really hard, but the freshness of my mind helped me answer them. Once I finished them, I had three or four flagged questions. With a little less than two hours left, I went back to the first question. I do have to say that it was a bit unusual and somewhat scary to be on the twentieth question with an hour and a half left, but I kept reminding myself Hey, you already answered twenty hardest questions. At fortieth question I took a break. I was slowly getting tired, and there were 35 more questions to go. I came back feeling refreshed this time around. I gave myself some more pep talk about how the worst questions were behind me, and that I just need to wrap up this whole exam in a positive way. I knocked out a few challenging and math questions right away, and gave my best to answer the rest of them.

During the post exam survey I felt a bit upset about the level of difficulty, yet proud and happy with my performance. I clicked the magic button to see my provisional result. This time I wasn’t visualizing anything, I was just staring at the blank white background that quickly spelled out in bold blue letters “ will likely pass this division.” I spent a couple of seconds looking at the word “pass”, making sure that I am not imagining it. It really was a pass. Inside I burst into a mixture of laughter, pride, tears, and happiness. Outside I was shaking a little. I passed PA.

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