How To Pass The New York City Sightseeing Guide Exam

I recently took — and passed with a star, meaning a score over 120 (I got a 123)! — the New York City Sightseeing Guide Exam that is given by the City's Department of Consumer Affairs, which means that I am now a licensed sightseeing guide.

The sightseeing guide exam was rewritten in 2003 because it was outdated (9/11 changed a lot, not least of which apparently being several questions related to the World Trade Center). The new exam is apparently more in-depth than the last one, and is intended to better test the abilities of the tour guides that the City of New York licenses. The accuracy of the information from guides on certain buses has been called into question over the years (see also) so I guess the City owes it to tourists to get some stuff right.

Jen took — and passed! — the new exam several years ago, but she was no help when I asked her what was on the exam. I don't think she was being competitive either — she just didn't remember. So I asked another person we know who took — and passed! — the exam and she had some good advice: "Major rule is the Charter buses cannot go north on Park Ave past ….I think 23rd St. That is the one they really care about. Also study FDR. AIA guide book is very helpful. Random….make sure you know what Wave Hill is!!!"

These are good tips — part of the sightseeing exam, as they'll tell you when you read the study guide (.pdf), is knowing the rules for charter buses. Even if you're not driving a bus, or if you think of tours as walking tours, DCA expects you to know the rules for charter buses. Here is a link that has everything you need to know. And just so we're clear, the rule is actually that charter buses can't drive on Park Avenue north of 42nd Street, which makes sense if you think about Park Avenue north of Grand Central. And if you've ever rented a U-Haul, you already know that you can't drive it on the parkways, so that's what she meant about using the FDR. I had visited Wave Hill before, so I knew that part, but the test is pretty inventive with one question I had (they cycle through several versions apparently) that combined both charter bus rules and Wave Hill, giving you a choice of four routes to take to Wave Hill that presupposes you know not only where Wave Hill is but how to avoid the FDR while getting there.

One of the books they suggest you study is Blue Guide New York by Carol von Pressentin Wright, so I checked it out of the library and studied it over the course of a couple of weeks — not a lot, but I definitely read Francis Morrone's architecture section more than once (New York City architectural styles are important to know).

Feeling macho, I resisted Googling "New York City Sightseeing Exam Questions" for a while . . . until I finally did, and found these links: 1) An NPR piece about the new exam with some sample questions; 2) Norman Oder's criticism (and other criticism) of the new exam; and 3) Justin Ferate's sample quiz (Ferate wrote the new exam). (This blog entry also had some useful tips.)

I'm glad I came across the NPR piece because it featured this question: "The physical size of the Bronx is approximately the equivalent of what European city? (a) Paris, France, (b) Copenhagen, Denmark, (c) London, England, (d) Brussels, Belgium." My first response was "Are you fucking kidding me?" There's that old Brooklyn booster piece of trivia about how if Brooklyn were its own city it would be the fourth largest in the U.S., but who really cares that the Bronx is geographically similar in size to Paris? (I had to look that one up on the Wikipedia, and convert square kilometers even — it was a pain!)

I think Ferate explained (or I surmised — can't find it right off the bat) that the exam is written to be educational for the tour guides themselves — so it makes sense that they'd drop in seemingly impertinent details like the geographic size of the Bronx. That said, one tip I have is to read the long (sometimes really long) text for each question and skip questions that you're not sure of because the test questions often have answers embedded in them that pop up in later questions. Although I read each question in its entirety, I didn't skip any — if I had I would have scored higher for sure. One question I missed that I shouldn't have missed given that I used to work at the Parks Department was about Robert Moses. The gist of the question was that Moses built or had a significant impact on basically all this stuff in New York and elsewhere; I overthought it by first questioning Moses' substantive impact on Central Park (he didn't build most of the stuff he wanted to build there, and I think the plans for the Great Lawn predated "his" involvement in the WPA-era project, though yeah, he put a lot of playgrounds in there for sure) and Moses' impact on Van Cortlandt Park (I don't think he did all that much in Van Cortlandt Park actually — it dates to the 1880s — though yes, I guess there's that highway he ran through it). But no matter — I knew about the Bronx-Paris question beforehand, so we'll call it even. Oh, and a "FAM Tour," if you didn't already know (I got this question wrong) is a "Familiarization Tour" — I gather that's an industry term or something . . .

It was fun to visit DCA — they have all sorts of licenses, and if I wasn't worried that they'd freak out if I pulled out a camera, I would have taken a picture of the wall of license applications that feature everything from Bingo Game Operator to Laundry Jobber to Motion Picture Projectionist (really?). New York City loves to license stuff. And the staff was really nice — everyone I talked to was really psyched that I scored a 123 . . . I felt proud!

So now that Jen and I both have our NYC sightseeing guide licenses, what will we do with them? We had this idea to do tours — not the typical There's-The-Empire-State-Building Tour but rather a sort of Come-Hang-Out-With-A-Real-Life-Person Tour that would replicate the experience of coming to New York and visiting a friend of yours. It's not completely hashed out in our minds, but I think it would combine the usefulness of a so-called "FAM Tour" with the kind of fun stuff you'd get from visiting someone you know. Sort of like, hey, there's the skyline and that's X, Y or Z building and then here's the Newtown Creek, which has more oil spilled down there than the Exxon Valdez — i.e., stuff that maybe goes off of the typical NYC & Company message. I really enjoyed all the tour guides we had when we went to Peru back in July, and after we got back I started to think more seriously about it — that and it's actually a lot of fun to show people around — even if I'm not 100 percent clear about the difference between Federal Style and Greek Revival architecture on Washington Square North (it's the latter, if my Blue Guide study was correct)

In the meantime, Not For Tourists, the guidebook people that Jen and I have done some work for over the years, is doing a Chinatown "Exploration" on November 6 that I will lead, assuming they get enough people to sign up for it. (I tried to get Craig to call it a "Not For Tour" but maybe it was too strange sounding.) It's $50, but for that price you also get some street food, a drink at the end of the "tour" and also a typo-free copy of the 2011 Not For Tourists Guide to New York City, which I had the privilege of proofreading.

And if you're interested in Jen and me taking you and your (hopefully not too well-informed) buddies around, feel free to e-mail us at info -at- . . .

Posted: October 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Do The Hustle | Tags: , , ,