Why Smart People Fail the ARE?
In my opinion, passing or failing the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) can happen to just about anybody. While the actual exam questions are intended to measure a candidate's achievement through education and experience, how a "smart" a person performs on the exam is a completely different matter. To me, intelligence (being "smart") is very broad and reflects more on a person's ability to navigate the context of their environment through rational thoughts and actions.
The bottom line here is that yes, it is surely possible that smart people fail the ARE, and there could be several things tripping them up. In this blog, I will offer my perspective.
First, the ARE is part of a process that (when passed) leads to architectural licensure. Further, licensure itself has often been described as the demonstrating the minimum competency required to practice architecture. So, the content of the exam is concentrated on touching the aspects of the practice of architecture that are a sort of "baseline minimums", or "core" aspects of the profession. This can be a little tricky to prepare for when you consider how broad the practice of architecture really is. To get a sense of what makes-up this baseline, I suggest reviewing AIA documents (contracts, instruments of service, etc.), reading through your State's statutes regarding practice, and interviewing people who have recently took and passed the ARE. This might provide you with some idea of the boundary that makes up the core elements of practice and give you specific targets for concentrated study prior to taking the exam.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the exam is timed. One might be very well prepared and very smart, but when you take the exam, you are working against the clock, and sometimes that can trip you up. As previously mentioned, with the idea that the ARE is focused on this minimum core baseline, you could give these areas most of your effort in terms of preparation. That may help you when the time is flying by during the exam. One tip I learned many years ago about timed exams is to first skim-read all the questions in the exam. Then note the ones that feel the most difficult and do them last. This will help you establish a pace and prevent you from investing too much time on a few questions and putting you far behind as you race through the remainder of the exam.
The last bit of advice I'll share is about trying to avoid "over-thinking" things while taking the exam. As a personal example of this, I will share that I once was given a question in an oral exam to obtain reciprocity to practice architecture in another State. At that point in my career, I had a good decade of experience as a licensed architect, but I got tripped-up on a question by over-thinking it. The question was situational based and went something like: "You are an architect on a job site and you observe that the interior walls are being painted a color that the owner/client has told you he or she is wanting to change. What do you do?". When I provided my response, it was very broad with statements made to accommodate many possible variables to the situation. I was over-thinking it. All the examiners were looking for was: "Inform the Owner/Client of my observation, but do not attempt to direct the contractor to stop work". Again, this reflects consistency with the idea that the exams focus on issues that are core to the practice, and generally are not overly complex.
Hopefully my perspective will be of some use to you as you prepare for the ARE. Good luck!