How to Study So You Can Pass the NCIDQ


This post originally appeared in 2012 under the title “NCIDQ I’m in ur base, pwning n00bs” and was one of my most popular blog posts of all time. It was cited all over the interwebz because, apparently, studying for the NCIDQ was so traumatic that no one could bear to relive the experience by writing about it. Fast forward a number of years and this blog post remains relevant with very few changes. I have retitled it because SEO is now a thing and also no one knows what it means to be “in ur base” anymore except old people like me.

For those of you who are not familiar with the NCIDQ exam, this is the standard professional exam for interior designers — like the bar for lawyers or the boards for doctors — that is meant to assess whether you meet the “minimum level of competence” to practice interior design. So, naturally, going into this I felt like it would reflect pretty badly on me, someone who teaches interior design if I couldn’t pass this exam. In fact, in a very literal and immediate sense, my job depended on my passing the NCIDQ exam. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? I passed.
I had been on pins and needles since I took the NCIDQ exam in September, waiting for the verdict. I returned home from NYC in December to find an envelope sitting on the kitchen table. My NCIDQ exam results:
Not at all scary.

Why I Got NCIDQ Certified

I’ve accumulated quite a few letters after my name; it’s getting a little ridiculous. But of all those, the NCIDQ means the most and I’ll tell you why. First, I got my undergraduate degree in interior design in Florida, a state where achieving and maintaining the right to be a licensed professional has been an ongoing struggle. We were taught to respect the rights we had earned and to take responsibility for protecting our profession and our allied professions. You could say I feel about getting my NCIDQ the way I felt about registering to vote – patriotic. Second, I had been told by some unkind person that I just might not be capable of passing the NCIDQ. Maybe that’s not the best reason in the world, but nobody puts baby in the corner.

And yes, I did have the time of my life, dammit.

Last, I am a teacher of interior design. I believe in this profession and I love it. Humans spend upwards of 90% of our time indoors. The spaces we inhabit shape how we feel, how we behave toward another. They shape our health and wellness. They shape our lives. Interior designers shape everything within our interior environment, from the places where we get our food to the spaces we go to be healed from illness. Interior designers shape our classrooms and libraries, offices and workstations, homes and houses of worship. Better spaces mean better lives for everyone in the community. Interior designers make it happen.

Was it Hard?

Let’s get real for a moment. “Minimum level of competence” be damned. That test is hard! Applying to be a candidate is like volunteering as tribute for the Hunger Games. What is wrong with you? The best advice I got going into it was from someone who told me, “I’m not going to tell you it was easy. I had been in practice for years, ran my own business, and a friend told me it was easy… I went in totally unprepared. It’s not easy.”

Good on you, sage advice-giver. The NCIDQ exam is not easy. And it’s as much a test of endurance as it is a test of applied knowledge. I studied every day for six months. I took several practice rounds of the section 3 practicum, now the computer-based exam known as PRAC, and one round of each practice test for section 1, now the IDFX, and section 2, now the IDPX. The exam itself was two days long (back in the olden days when everything was on paper). I was ill with walking pneumonia. I tried to take care of myself – drink plenty of water, eat right, get lots of rest – but I had totally psyched myself out. I got about halfway through the practicum and had to get up and be sick in the bathroom. For serious.

This is why I would add to the growing list of secondhand advice by adding my own: you are your own worst enemy. You will second guess yourself, dawdle, and freak yourself out. You have to get out of your own head and focus on the very practical reality of the problem in front of you. It doesn’t need to be good design; it just needs to meet the program. Just do it. After I got back from the bathroom I was superbly pissed off that I had let myself get so worked up. Anger was good. Anger was a fire under my butt that pushed me to get the thing done with 30 minutes to spare. Get angry if you have to, but absolutely slay the beast. (See figure 2, below).

Figure 2: Slay the beast. It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

How to Study

There are plenty of resources out there to help you prep for this exam… I’m not sure what to tell you that they haven’t already. I bought this well-known book and read at a very aggressive pace, enabling me to essentially read the book twice, highlighting and taking notes, before exam day. The NCIDQ exam is very much applied knowledge so I decided that flashcards and other simple memorization tools wouldn’t work for me. I’m a teacher, so what I did is take notes as if I was going to teach each chapter to my class. I ignored some minor details that would be too difficult to remember and focused most of my attention on how to use the info in each chapter to practice better interior design. Here are some other tips you may find useful, or tedious duplication of what you already know:

Know why you are taking the exam. If you have a goal beyond simply passing the exam you can use that to help you power through the tough spots. Use a highlighter. Not too much!

Make a plan of study and stick with it. Don’t beat yourself up if you fall a little behind, but if you’re going to ignore your plan completely you’re wasting your time, and the time of your study buddies (if applicable).

Get into the mindset that you are taking a test about NCIDQ’s take on design and professional practice. Focus on learning their interpretation and try to separate it in your mind from how you’ve done things in your own experience. It is definitely possible to overthink your answers, so the more comfortable you are with NCIDQ’s vision of the world the less likely you are to overthink things.

Yes, it’s a multiple-choice test, but don’t just focus on memorizing the answers to the multiple-choice questions in the book. Many of the questions on the exam will ask you to think – think?? ::gasp:: – about how concepts relate to one another, or to a project scenario.

If you take the practice tests provided by NCIDQ and do well then you’re probably going to pass the NCIDQ exam, but know that the real exam is more challenging than the study materials. Read each question carefully. Use the time you’ve been given but don’t dawdle. And remember that you know this stuff!

If you are currently studying for the exam, may the odds be ever in your favor!

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