BluPrint magazine interviewed the four Topnotchers of the Architecture Licensure Exams (ALE). These exceptional individuals shed light on the experiences and learnings that they got from their respective review journeys. They are Shaunn Remzzo Tupa Blanco (National University – Manila – #1 ALE JAN 2022), Bhing-Bhing Panagsagan Ko (UST- #1 ALE JAN 2023), Fritz Mari Sangalang Sendrijas (Ateneo De Davao University – #1 ALE JUN 2023), and Sherilyn Reyes Baniago (University of the East-Caloocan – #1 ALE JAN 2024).

How the Journey Began

Studying for the Architecture Licensure Exam.

It all starts with a dream. Each topnotcher describes how they decided that it was their time to take the Architecture Licensure Exam. More than just an exam, the ALE marks a significant milestone in an aspiring architect’s career as they hope to become full-fledged architects. Making this initial step can be daunting, but it is in moving forward where they are able to test their mettle and come out stronger. 

BANIAGO: I felt that I wanted to exceed the minimum years for apprenticeship because I wanted to learn more, which I feel will make me better equipped to take the exam. I really observed my mentors and everything good that I could get from them. Beyond passing the exam, I’m learning to be an architect and to be a professional. I closed the chapter first of my apprenticeship for a clean slate. I organized my personal review schedule and logistics (references and materials) to make my work more streamlined.

Read the syllabus and modules to make sure you cover all topics. School was the foundation but the apprenticeship was really where I learned a lot. Maximize your time in the apprenticeship, you really gain a lot of knowledge from the people you work with and their stories. It really felt like an advantage because I was able to better understand the technicalities. If you have no experience yourself, you won’t get the point of view of the examiner.

KO: I was thinking of reviewing for an entire year at first. However, I realized that it wasn’t a conducive way to spend a year so I decided by September to take the exam by January. As I made that choice, my goal was to read review material every day. Although I may not be sure if I will learn or absorb it, I did it diligently to have as much information and be as familiar with the knowledge as I can. You have to be prepared to tackle a lot of things so that when the questions are out, you’re well equipped to answer.

During college, I had a professor who tested us with board-exam-like questions. Architecture is not a simple question and answer, you have to think why this is the answer and what makes it the best. In the apprenticeship, I had a very detail-oriented mentor and every plan we made built up my patience. When it comes to the review, this is how it came back to me in dealing with repetitive or heavy materials. I also grew up in a family of contractors so the topic was always familiar to me.

BLANCO: I originally wanted to take the Architecture Licensure Exam in 2020 but unfortunately the pandemic happened. A major difficulty at the time was the constant change of schedule due to COVID 19. As such, I ended up reviewing multiple times while also working a full-time job. The cancellations at the time made my review quite irregular in terms of schedule and was frustrating to say the least. However, it allowed me to accumulate my learnings for a good year and to develop a good habit. Finally in January 2022, I was able to take the exam.

SENDRIJAS: I decided to rest at the time and work again at a different firm at first, where I spent 6 months there. From there, I was set on taking the June 2023 exam with a total review time of around 5 months. I knew that it would not be easy which is why I set goals to fuel my curiosity and commitment. My mindset when taking the exam was to be part of the Top 10.

Studying and Preparing for the Architecture Licensure Exam

IL City Study by Greater Dog Architects
Inside are several spaces where reading is peaceful and undisturbed. Image by Metaviz Studio

It is one thing to dream of being a topnotcher but getting there is no easy feat. The topnotchers shared their dedication in doing their best and how they navigated through the process of review. It involves much more than just studying the material, as one has to balance learning with daily life and what it brings. 

BANIAGO: At first I was super hard on myself and strict. If there was a day that I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do, I would feel so bad. However, I learned that it’s okay to adjust. You’ll come across subjects that you won’t immediately be able to grasp. You have a schedule to guide you and act as your checklist and it’s a game plan that you constantly engage with.

When it comes to studying style, it’s not one size fits all. I used to look at blogs and other reviews (like sticking notes to the wall). Eventually I realized I was wasting my time, we each have individual ways of learning that would be better for us. I wish this was something that I knew earlier as I only realized that it wasn’t working after the first half of my review. Review is really a mental battle, which is contending with anxiety. Same goes with anything else major in life. The fact that you tried is something to be proud of.

I also came from a place where I was doubting myself. Review is really a mental battle, which is contending with anxiety. Same goes with anything else major in life. The fact that you tried is something to be proud of. Just don’t let a day go by without studying something. You never know if it will make the difference. Just show up, go there, and review as best as you can. Take care of yourself, mahirap ibigay yung best mo if you yourself are not feeling your best.

KO: My review schedule really started when the classes for the review center started. During those times, studying was really the main task for me each day. If I’m not studying, then I’m working or running personal affairs. If we don’t have class, I diligently watch and study the materials that they gave. I think more people take the June exam because the January exam overlaps with the holidays. A major obstacle that we had was to balance holidays. It’s okay to take a break during this time to help prime your mind for constant learning. Staying motivated was also difficult as it’s easy to lose sight of the goal. I tend to overthink so I always remind myself not to worry about things that you cannot control.

For me, it was more helpful to have physical materials and copies to work with. It can be difficult to work with digital since you can’t highlight or go back to the content as easily. It’s a very big thing to have a support system that helps you purely focus on taking the exam. Family helped a lot in managing the chores.

BLANCO: I wanted to maximize the time that I had, which is around 4-6 months for review. I had to study alongside working at the time. I believe that you have to be highly motivated to balance it now. Despite being tired from work, you have to be able to pick up your material and get right into it. Staying healthy, physically and mentally, helps keep you consistent throughout the review process. You don’t have to review all the time, just as much as you can.

I really focused on determining what was my weak point and the subjects that I was struggling with. For example, I was not too exposed to construction during work which was why I studied building technologies more. I made it a point to prioritize understanding which helped me retain information better. I mapped out processes and drew things to learn things with more depth.

SENDRIJAS: There were a lot of challenges along the way and I was strategic about it. Before diving into reading, studying, and review centers, it’s best to understand yourself first. Whether it’s habits or coping mechanisms, strengths, or weaknesses; with that you’ll be able to achieve a more efficient and effective way of learning. For example, I’m not really into reading so I had instances when I would opt for other forms of learning such as attending conventions, group discussions, and etc.

Understand as well the exam format and syllabus. Aside from sensing the materials you need, you have to acknowledge that the scope is very large and you’re working with limited resources, time and mind power. I set a schedule to make sure that I could set aside time for review and alongside other parts of life. I also made sure to make time for myself with flexibility to avoid burning out, while leaving room for adjustment.

In the first few weeks, it can be counterproductive to aim to be a topnotcher because it adds to the stress and anxiety. I instead reframed my mindset into how I can become a better architect, as it’s the same result everyone gets after. Rather than the quantity, it’s really a time for quality learning and to look for information that is impactful (what do I need to know as an architect?).

Taking the Architecture Licensure Exam (ALE)

Studying for the Architecture Licensure Exam.
The RVA office at Strata 100, Ortigas Cente.

The days of the Architecture Licensure Exam can fill aspirants with a sense of dread and anxiety. It’s the critical moment where all of the years of schooling, apprenticing, and reviewing culminates. The topnotchers go into detail into how they handled themselves when taking the actual exam. 

BANIAGO: On the day itself, I was calm because I really felt that I had given it my best. It reassures and gives me peace knowing this and leads to confidence and composure. I was able to focus fully on my exams.

KO: The night before taking the exam, I slept early to make sure that I was well rested. I did not take this advice as I crammed and reviewed at the last minute, which I’m glad I did as there were questions that came up on the day itself. Bring some food with you since you can eat while taking the exam. In terms of questions, review centers make it hard on purpose so that you can be prepared for what actually comes out.

I was lucky to have a support system, such as family, that helped me focus on studying. Don’t be pressured by other people submitting their examinations earlier. The examiners gave you this time to also double and triple check your answers. If kaya, maximize the time given to you and constantly review both the questions and answers you’ve given. Lastly, be calm in answering and take it one step at a time.

BLANCO: I found good sleep and a healthy diet to really help, especially a month before the actual exam. It helped me focus and perform my best while answering the ALE. Afterwards, it’s good to enjoy and forget the exam after you take it. Avoid stressing after the exam as it’s easy to get anxious on whether you got the right answer or not.

SENDRIJAS:I was already expecting to be nervous on the day of the exam. I challenged myself to be confident as I reflected on the efforts of my review and composed myself for the exam. Having a healthy mindset while taking the board exam is essential in performing well. The nervousness faded as the tests went on as I was eager to pass already and become an architect.I noticed the trend of the questions is more analytical and technical, rather than just purely objective. You have to answer it as an architect and think like one. There will be three answers that all look correct but you have to choose what would be best for what the question calls for.

The Perks of Being an Architecture Licensure Exam Top Notcher

Studying for the Architecture Licensure Exam.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya:

All aspirants dream of performing well in the Architecture Licensure Exam and becoming a topnotcher. With that, the topnotchers share what it’s actually like and how their achievement has impacted both their personal and professional lives. 

BANIAGO: Being a topnotcher, it personally helped me restore my confidence in myself. In terms of career, it’s a given that it will always be part of your record and portfolio. It’s a big advantage in a resume and it opens doors to events and interviews, leading to an expanded professional circle and opening up possibilities.

KO: I was in denial at first. I never thought that I would’ve been a topnotcher. During those times, I received a lot of congratulations and overwhelming responses. It is a big feat but I myself believe that I have a lot to learn. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being a topnotcher because people expect you to know everything. However, learning really is a never ending process.

BLANCO: It’s really overwhelming after the results came out. There were a lot of interviews, especially from my alma mater. In terms of career, it really boosted my standing and I received numerous offers. Ultimately, I stayed at my company, under the mentorship of Richard Garcia, where I wanted to give back and to learn more from them.

SENDRIJAS:There’s no choice but to adapt to the spotlight that comes with it as it’s something I wasn’t used to. Until now, I still process managing to topnotch the exam. The benefit is that you’re able to share your story with others and help future aspirants. It comes with a lot of expectations and it’s up to you on how you handle it.

The Biggest Thing

Amongst everything else, BluPrint asked the topnotchers what they felt was the biggest contributing factor to their success in the Architecture Licensure Exam. It’s these core ideas that have helped them succeed and hopefully it’s something that we can all learn from as well. 

BANIAGO: I really held on to the vision that I had the goal I wanted to achieve. Whenever I faced challenges and struggles, it was something I could hold on to. If you really want to be a topnotcher, then you have to act like one and review like one to deserve to be one. This reflected in how it pushed me to continually study and always do my best.

KO: Support system is really number one. From loved ones and family, they made it easier for me to review with their support. Secondly, I don’t really force myself to study really hard. I don’t restrict myself, I still get to go out and hang out with friends albeit less. It gives a much needed break to get right back into studying when I get home. Thirdly, my mentor really instilled in me the knowledge and values of this industry. When my mentor signed my logbook, he always said that it was easy because what you’re doing is the same as what architects are doing. For him, review shouldn’t be a big deal because you practice it at work.

BLANCO: Don’t take the apprenticeship for granted as it makes up the majority of the things that the ALE asks about. It bridges the gap between college and being a full-fledged professional with the experience and learnings that it brings. I was also fortunate in having a father, who is a contractor, that I could go with on the weekends to sites.

SENDRIJAS:Don’t forget about what happens after the ALE, which is becoming an architect. It helps a lot to reframe the review as a means of preparing yourself to be a full-fledged professional. It makes learning more enticing and motivating as it becomes geared towards improving your practice instead. A positive mindset really brings out positive outcomes.

Words of Motivation

Architect’s Drafting Room, 1884, 1935/1942 – National Gallery of Art

As a closing note, the topnotchers gave us a final word of advice for future aspirants of the Architecture Licensure Exam. Their words of motivation harkens back to what inspired them to do their best. It’s a reflection of the hardships that they had to overcome and how they look forward to what the profession has in store. 

BANIAGO: Prepare for what you’re hoping for. The story doesn’t stop at praying and hoping at being a passer. As we pray and hope, we have to be ready to put in the work and effort to make our dreams and visions into tangible realities. It is our responsibility to give the best in everything we do and leave it up to God to do the things that we can’t.

KO: Since you’ve already studied architecture for 5 years and undergone 2 years of apprenticeship, you are already architects in the making. The work helps train you to do that work. When you answer the exam, think that you are answering it as an architect already. Those questions, as I observed, they’re asking for opinions and solutions. The examiners are like clients asking for your expertise in dealing with the problems in the questions. When you take the exam, claim it and manifest what you want to become.

BLANCO: Remember the hardships that you went through college and review to get to this point. The exam is a culmination of your aspirations so don’t take it for granted. The journey really starts when you become an architect and it never really stops even after.

SENDRIJAS: Looking back, I was emotionally prepared to be an architect when I took the exam. The ideal time to take the exam will never really come but the decision is what will push you to take it. Look for a firm or a mentor that will really mold you into becoming an architect. I really give recognition to them as what I’ve learned and gained came from there.

Becoming an Architect

The Architecture Licensure Exam marks the beginning of an architect’s journey. Perhaps the common denominator amongst the top notchers is how they established a relationship with learning. It’s in their pursuit and dedication to understanding architecture that really brought out their best. With that, we also wish all future aspirants of the examination good luck and for a fruitful review along the way.

Read more: In the Eyes of the Top 3: An Interview with New Architects of 2023

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