This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architecture Registration Exam Series.
When I first started studying for the Architecture Registration Exam I had absolutely no idea where to begin. I spent the first few months running in circles trying to just figure out and locate study materials for each exam. I remember looking at the A201-General Conditions document for the first time and being terrified and exhausted by the thought having to memorize and understand this document.
Studying for the ARE requires studying an enormous amount of content regarding the profession. I very quickly learned there are no shortcuts. Luckily I had a lot of practical knowledge from work experience, but still really needed to study everything. Some content areas more than others.
I learned that you can drastically accelerate the process by using the right tool (textbook) for the job. Passing the exams requires branching out and using study materials from all over the place to get up to speed quicker on various topics.
In this ULTIMATE List Of ARE Study Material 3 part blog series I will share with you all the study materials and information that I know of to prepare for the ARE. Hopefully this will save you from chasing that wild goose that I did.
In this Part 1: Study material overview – I give you a rundown of the basics to start studying, a guide to locating materials and a list of materials that I used for all of the exams.
In Part 2: Each specific multiple choice exam – I provide a brief overview of the content of each test, what the vignettes are like, what my experience was and then share the information that I found useful.
In Part 3: Passing graphic vignettes – I’ll teach you everything I know about beating the graphic vignettes like the low-tech architectural video games that they are.
Studying for the ARE
Having recently devoted the past several years of my free time studying for the Architects Registration Exam (ARE), I estimate spending about 75% of that time studying for the multiple choice questions and significantly less time on the graphic vignettes.
The ARE consists of 7 different tests. Each test is broken down into 2 segments. It includes multiple choice and the graphic vignette, which are both timed. Depending upon what exam you are studying for you will have between 80 and 125 multiple choice questions. The Schematic Design test is the only test that is entirely graphic vignettes and there is no multiple choice.
The content base that the National Council of Architecture Board (NCARB) derives their questions from is pulled from a vast body of knowledge. You could spend years studying for one exam before mastering all of it. In the moment it always feels like there is more you can do, but you simply do the best you can. There are a ton of great resources that are available to assist with each exam, and the outline below should help guide you to strategically obtain the resources you need.
Taking the exam is a self-guided process. Unlike Architecture School where you are working along a structured timeframe and syllabus, the ARE demands you cover a lot of content to complete 7 exams within a 5 year period. It may seem like a long time to pass, but you must consider that along the way you will encounter your fair share of challenges. You will likely need to retake at least one exam which means waiting through
a 6-month period 60 days before being able to re-take it. I’ve seen a lot of people lose momentum, get discouraged, lose focus throughout this process and even give up. Whether it was from the frustration of studying and failing, being too narrowly focused on the details and forgetting to zoom out on the big picture, or setting unrealistic expectations based on other people’s experience with passing. There are a lot of inevitable pitfalls along the way.
The goal of this post is to give you a comprehensive list of information and materials to help prevent you from going on the wild goose chase that I experienced trying to prepare for each test. When you are first getting started it takes some time to wrap your mind around the process of preparing for the exams, not just the actual studying.
Basics of ARE Study Materials
The two biggest sources of study material for the Architect exam are put out by two different publishers, Kaplan and PPI publishers, the latter written by Kent Ballast. Reading both Kaplan and Ballast were always the first place I started studying for each exam and I used them both pretty extensively.
Internet forums often debate one over the other. In my experiences I learned you really need both to get a holistic view of information required for each test. I read both books for all 6 divisions of the multiple choice exams. Often one book proved to be more helpful than the other, depending on the subject matter. For each test topic, one book usually seemed too general while the other too overly detailed, so it was helpful to cross reference between them. This made the most sense for me.
The Ballast book costs $250+/- for all 7 tests and the complete Kaplan ARE 4.0 costs $999.00. You can buy the Kaplan study guides for each 7 individual exams. Ballast publishes one book for all 7 tests and then sells practice exams seperately for each exam. My recommendation would be to purchase the Ballast book right away and buy the individual Kaplan study books used, and resell them after you pass each test. You’ll find it more economical, and easier to carry on the lonely walk to go study.
I literally used the Ballast book from the very first day I started studying until the very last. I was reluctant to purchase it due to the cost, however by the end it was covered in markups and one of my most used study guides. It’s helpful to have all 7 tests under ONE cover so you can go back and forth and cross reference certain details that pop up on all exams. For example, I found that I needed a refresher on the AIA documents portion on my last few exams, because it had been a few years since I took CDS. I’ve used the ballast book countless times to look things up in the office, so I plan on hanging on to it. Click HERE for Link to Ballast Book on Amazon or you can Click here for a link to PPI, the Ballast Publisher. Use discount code YARCH for a 15% discount on PPI’s website.
I wrote a thorough review of the Ballast book that you should check out. Click HERE For my review of the Ballast Book
***Edit: In 2016 Kaplan was purchased by Brightwood University. They published new 4.0 products under the Brightwood name, although it is the same Kaplan material from previous years with a new cover on it.
I often found Kaplan to be easier to read than Ballast. What I liked about using Kaplan was the end of each chapter concluded with a short quiz, testing the information I just learned.
Like most textbook publishers Kaplan likes to publish new versions of their study guides almost every year. Remember in college they were constantly updating and rearranging the chapters of the textbooks so you had to buy the latest most expensive copy.
This is a good thing, because amazon has used copies of those old study guides at a significant discount and regardless of what Kaplan wants you to think, an ARE study guide from 3 years books are just as relevent today, my advice is to buy cheapest book, not the most current book. In part 2 I provide links to all the different Kaplan study guide versions.
If you purchase the Kaplan books, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing their vignette info or flashcards that are sold separately. I always reviewed it but never really found the vignette info that useful. The Kaplan flashcards appeared to be flashcards directly from the glossary. I made my own flashcards of that information as part of my flashcards for each test. See Part 2 of this series for links to the Kaplan Material.
The Ballast & Kaplan Practice Exams
Both resources offer practice exams that are sold separately. I found both practice exams to be worth their weight in gold and I highly recommend using both of them.
The Ballast practice exams do a great job wording their questions very similarly to how they actually are on the test. Often the ARE exam questions are very indirectly worded and it’s easy to get confused even if you genuinely know the answer. Over and over Ballast practice exams taught me the hard way to read each question more carefully and thoroughly. Both of these practice exams give you thorough explanations for the correct answers. I would answer two or three questions at a time and look up the answer which helped me integrate the information. Check out my blog post about how to use ARE Practice Exams as a studying tool, rather then a practice exam.
For more information on Kaplan check out my review of Kaplan ARE 4.0 Study Materials.
Other Study Guides Used For All Exams
How to Pass the Architecture Registration Exam by Michael Riscica
After spending many years of studying for ARE I decided to write the book, that hasn’t been written to help ARE Candidates be more successful with passing the ARE.
There are a million books filled with technical information to read. However there wasn’t any books written about how to navigate this challenging self guided process of taking 7 exams.
During my entire ARE process I watched many talented people take one test and never complete the licensing process. I share many of my personal opinions, experiences, things, tips and tricks I learned along the way.
How to Pass the ARE, takes a thorough look at the following topics:
- What is the ARE?
- Is taking the ARE even right for you?
- How to use all the study material.
- Dealing with setback
- How to mentally think about the ARE.
- Understanding how you learn.
- How to break down multiple choice questions.
- Things to consider on testing day
- How to survive the long haul commitment of 7 exams.
- Finishing the process and becoming licensed.
The inspiration of writing this book started from writing several of the blog posts on YoungArchitect.com. However, most of the content inside the book has not been shared publicly on the website.
Architect Exam Prep is new on the ARE scene. They started putting out products for exams that I had completed just as I was just wrapping up my last few exams. At the moment they have 6 of 7 sections . Each exam package is $100 and I must say it looks like they give you a TON of material to help you pass each section.
As an example, I’m looking at their PPP package and it includes: a printable study guide, a practice test, flashcards, 7 hours of audio about the content (this sounds interesting), a vignette guide, a vignette workbook w/ sample problems, access to an online mock exam simulator, videos walking you through the vignettes and they are working on a mobile app for the Fall of 2014. After you purchase, everything is downloaded and there no actual physical products or cd’s, contrary to the picture above.
Oh and they also blog and podcast pretty regularly about the exam.
Designer Hacks Practice Questions
Designer Hacks has fantastic web based practice exams for the ARE. They give away 25 free practice questions for all ARE 4.0 divisions and have premium practice questions currently for CDS PPP and SPD. I highly recommend using Designer Hacks as soon as you start studying.
Mr. Gang Chen
I used Gang Chen’s books on my last few exams and found them to be extremely helpful. His books consist of a practice exam and a step-by-step guide through the graphic vignettes. He brought a lot of value for the Building Systems test that really helped me understand how to do the calculations rather than be intimidated by them. I wish he had published his materials several years earlier. Here are links to Gang Chens Books: CDS, PPP, SPD, SD, BDCS, SS, BS and the California Exam EDIT: I recently purchased several of Gang Chen’s books and wrote this review.
The International Building Code
I tried to avoid using the actual IBC to study, as much as possible because it can be tedious to read, however on some exams it is unavoidable. In the office I use it on a regular basis. I have always prefered using the free online version, then the expensive hard copy version. This book is enormous and its alot of paper.
ARE Advisor takes the NCARB practice vignettes and thoroughly breaks down step by step teaching you how to arrive at the final solution. He does a really fantastic job of demystifying the process of the NCARB Vignettes. This product came out after I had completed the ARE’s, however I purchased the entire set so I could write a review and was very impressed with this project. Click here for my review of the ARE Advisor Vignette Series.
I got my hands on every single practice exam I could. I answered 2 or 3 questions at time and then looked up the answers in the back. Getting the correct answer while the question was still fresh in my head helped me to learn faster. Practice exams also helped me get into the rhythm of answering questions rather than getting massive information intake by reading material. The test format is all multiple choice questions so the sooner you get used to answering questions about the content the better.
The NCARB ARE Facebook Group
There is a very active Facebook group of people chatting about the exam. Before you start talking about the exam, make sure you understand how to talk about the exam.
The first rule of the ARE is: You do not to talk about what you saw on the exam.
The second rule of the ARE is: You do not to talk about what you saw on the exam.
The third rule of the ARE is: If someone talks about what they saw on the exam, dissassociate yourself and stay far away from them, because the NCARB Police will come after them. They have done it before.
NCARB is very serious about not wanting people to disclose what they saw on each exam and they have explicitly defined how to talk about the ARE.
#AREsketches by Lora Teagarden
Lora is a colleague and friend and I wish she had started her #AREsketches when I was studying. Instead, we were both studying in the same timeframe and she has since started to publish her “study sketches” for others to use.
They are informative and fun, taking some of the pain out of studying. She tells me that she hopes to publish them in a book someday, but until then keep an eye out on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #AREsketches or go to her website.
I studied a lot of old material from the ARE 3.1 that was useful. Just be careful as codes, agencies, building technology, sustainability, ADA, AIA docs etc. have evolved since that information was published. If you find material from Architectural Licensing Seminars (ALS) this is basically the old version of Kaplan. Kaplan bought ALS many years ago and rebranded it with their name on it. The NCARB 3.1 ARE study guides are also still very relevant. Click HERE for Link to NCARB 3.1 ARE Study Guide
Classes at your local AIA
My local AIA in Portland, Oregon offered several classes to help study for the test. They usually brought in a professional or someone who recently took that exam to lead each class. The classes spent about 2-4 hours on each exam and ran through the test study guides discussing them in depth. I got tons of great information and found it extremely helpful to be in a classroom setting during this self-guided experience. The AIA also had the entire set of Kaplan study guides available to borrow. The AIA is your friend and genuinely wants you to succeed.
NCARB ARE 4.0 Study Guides
NCARB has their own study guide which predominately focuses on the breakdown (percentages) of ‘Content Areas’ for each exam. It provided a helpful overview of content and it helped me understand passing vs. failing solutions to work through vignettes. The practice test included the answers, but did not include explanations for the answers, which wasn’t much help as a “study guide”. Each exam guide provides a list of references to other study materials to go deeper into the subjects. Click HERE for Link to NCARB ARE 4.0 Study Guides
When I took the exams I made my own flashcards, but a significant amount of people are using Archiflash flashcards. They now offer a digital version as well as actual flashcards. I never actually used Archiflash but many people on the forums have spoken highly of them. Click HERE for Link to Archiflash
JennyPDX Study Guides
Jenny (A fellow Portland Oregonian) wrote a wonderful blog about her experiences with the test and shared her study guides from each exam. I found these useful to find any gaps in my studying and areas that I may not have touched upon. Click HERE for Link to ARENDURANCE
I used YouTube quite a bit to find videos about whatever topic I happened to be studying. I would typically search for whatever topic I was studying at the time. Sometimes it’s easier to watch TV (YouTube) then it is to read a book. Click HERE for Link to ARE Youtube Videos
ADA and Accessibility
Accessibility questions are all over every exam. Accessibility standards seem to change every few years. Be careful with old materials. Several of the clear space requirements have changed over the years. Study whatever the current codes are. Check out the International Building Code (IBC). The ARE will turn you into an expert at identifying ADA issues and implementing accessible design. Click HERE for the Link to ADA.Gov
Ching’s Building Codes Illustrated
This book was extremely helpful in demystifying the International Building Code. It taught me how to get through the language barrier, that I often struggle with in how the IBC is written. I highly recommend buying this book and reading it immediately. Like many ARE Books Im not sure having the latest most expensive book is totally necessary. The beauty of this book is the big picture overview it gives of building codes. IBC updates are typically outside the scope of the ARE. Here is all the different editions 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2015
Ching’s A Global History of Architecture
I bought this book to study Architectural History. I love Architectural History and I am a huge fan of Frank Ching, so the ARE gave me an excuse to buy this awesome book. Click HERE for Link to A Global History of Architecture
Frank Ching has been one of my greatest architecture teachers from the very moment I decided to become an architect many years go through studying for the ARE’s. I own every single book of his and recently listed them all on the Architecture Student’s Christmas list. Ching’s books are incredible reference guides and should be on every architect’s bookshelf.
Architectural Graphic Standards
I used Graphic Standards about a dozen times to look things up. There are a few random sections that are very helpful. Click HERE for Link to Graphic Standards.
Annnnd that’s about it for now.
In Part 2 of this blog series I will go through, in detail, each exam and discuss the materials that I found helpful.
There are many other study materials that I never used or touched that are not mentioned in this post. Please feel free to leave a comment if you know about a resource that I may not have mentioned but deserves to be.
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Good luck with your exams.
Read the full series
This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architect Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architect Registration Exam Series.
If you enjoyed this post, you should also check out:
- How To Pass The Architecture Registration Exam
- 5 Common Reasons Why (Smart and Talented) People Don’t Finish the ARE.
- The Life of an Architecture Project – Infographic
- Where do you study for the Architect Exam?
- Building Momentum with studying for the Architect Exam
- Is Your Local AIA Helping You Prepare For Your ARE’s?!??
- Why I Studied Everyday
- Review of The Ballast ARE Review Manual
- ARE Study Schedule – Step by Step Guide
- Study For One Architect Exam at a Time
- 5 Tricks to Accelerate Your ARE Studying
- The ULTIMATE List Of ARE Study Material (Part I: Study Material Overview)
- Throwing Money at The Architect Registration Exam