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Licensed tour guides have to pass extensive test of NYC knowledge

Test takers only need to score a D on the 150-question exam.

NYC Photo Journeys -- part tour, part photo

NYC Photo Journeys -- part tour, part photo shoot -- allows participants to choose the tour stops while the guides shoot the photos, according to owner Jessie Festa. Photo Credit: NYC Photo Journeys

What year did Times Square get its name? What’s odd about the ceiling at Grand Central Terminal? And what is the newest museum on Museum Mile?

These are just a few morsels that tour guides in the city must know in order to pass the city’s extensive exam and become a licensed sightseeing guide. The 150 questions range from the pertinent to the obscure, but the one thing they all have in common is a lack of official study material.

“You’re just told to study. It’s a lot and it’s kind of tough to figure out how to study,” said Jessie Festa, 30, who became a guide about four years ago and gives tours through her own company, NYC Photo Journeys. “A lot of the stuff I memorized I don’t think about now. The stuff that’s been helpful for me is the stuff that I’ve looked up on my own.”

(In an effort to see just how difficult the exam was, this amNewYork reporter took the test — needing two hours to complete it, and crossing her fingers that a cram study session was enough to pass. Thankfully, it was.)

Applicants need 97 correct answers to pass, and 120 to receive the coveted “gold star” — or a nod from the city that you’re a preferred guide. In 2016, 519 people took the exam, and 438 passed, according to a Department of Consumer Affairs spokeswoman. Only 265 scored 120 or better.

“Some of the things are easy-ish: it will ask you what a knish is,” said Festa, who grew up on Long Island. “Then you have others that are asking all this Staten Island history that most people wouldn’t know off the top of their head.”

Officially, the city recommends picking up the Blue Guide New York, a 600-page behemoth of Big Apple knowledge. But the guide can be overwhelming, and fails to cover some of the driving-related questions the test touches on. Some test takers prefer flashcards available on sites such as cram.com

Geovanni Rey, who has been a guide with Tours by Locals for six years, said the Blue Guide is “pretty large and pretty good at scaring people off from taking the test.”

“I think the most important thing is being passionate about learning,” said Rey. “I do very much love New York City. I’m one of those people who looks at it through rose-colored glasses.”

Tours by Locals accepted four of the 75 guides who applied to work for the company in 2016. Since August, a company spokeswoman said, only one in three applicants met the city mandate to be licensed.

Applicants pay a $50 test fee and can take the computer-based exam twice before having to pay again.

“I just tell anyone: pick up any book that will really give you any history about New York City,” Rey said. And if you don’t pass, he said, take it again “right away.”

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