10 Things to Consider While You Prepare for Your First Architect Exam

10 Things to Consider While You Prepare for Your First Architect Exam

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.

People ask me all the time…

 How Long Does it Take To Study For Each Architect Exam?

And it’s really hard to give a good answer. I always just answer for myself and say something like…

For me, it took about 3 months per test—from beginning to end. Generally speaking, it was approximately 100 hours of studying per exam.

Many people do it in less time. I failed the Building Systems exam when I tried to shorten my studying time to 8 weeks.  I always leaned to the side of giving myself extra time to study because when I tested, there was this nasty thing called the 6-month rule. If you failed an exam, you had to wait 6 months to repeat that division of the ARE. That rule was recently shortened from 6 months to 60 days.

So maybe I over-studied for a few exams, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I guess it builds character or makes me a better architect.

Spend More Time Studying For Your First ARE

I recently started a virtual ARE study group called The ARE Boot Camp. We have been meeting weekly to discuss the content and everyone in the group will take the CDS Exam around early December. This is basically everyone’s first ARE. Several people had taken CDS many years ago and didn’t pass.

When I designed the ARE Boot Camp, I decided to make it 10 weeks long and considered making it even longer. Several people told me it was too long, but I strongly disagree.

Most people don’t consider that anyone just getting started on the ARE with their first exam is at a disadvantage from the learning curve of just getting started with this process.

I really think one of the best ARE testing strategies is to spend more time studying for your very first exam—and maybe even planning on over-studying. It will pay off in the long run.

The Disadvantage of Studying for Your First ARE

It’s no secret that these exams certainly build on each other. There is also TONS of overlapping information between all of the exams, and you will frequently see questions on one test that absolutely belong on another exam.

Often, many of the things you will need to know, do not neatly fall into the content for one test or another.

This is why I created a list of…

10 Things to Consider While You Prepare for Your First ARE

1. Building Codes

The International Building Code (IBC) comes up over and over again, all throughout the ARE. Unfortunately, this topic doesn’t neatly fall into one specific exam. I would highly recommend reading the chapters in Ballast about building codes.

Even better, I highly recommend buying and reading Building Codes Illustrated by Francis Ching. I recommend reading the whole book; it’s actually a quick read because it’s mostly a picture book. It’s certainly not imperative that you memorize this book, but it is important to get a feel for what the IBC is and how it works.

There are several different versions available. For the scope of the ARE, having the most expensive, up-to-date version may not be necessary.  I have the 2006 version and think that would be just fine for getting a broad overview of the IBC.

Here are links to all the different versions on Amazon: Ching, IBC Illustrated  20062009, 2012, and 2015.

2. ADA and Accessibility

This is another topic that constantly comes up on the ARE. ADA applies to every single exam in a slightly different way. Spending some time making sure you have a clear understanding of ADA and Accessibility for the first exam would be a solid approach.

One resource I really like—but is often debated in the forums—is the Fair Housing Design Manual. Fair Housing focuses mostly on multifamily housing, and it is a different standard than the ADA uses—sometimes less strict. What I really like about the Fair Housing Design Manual is that it does a beautiful job of teaching the intent behind many ADA codes, and most importantly, it’s filled with pictures.

Fair Housing is a great primer for understanding the real ADA codes in the IBC, which can be stricter.

I would try to learn everything you can about as many different types of ADA and Accessibility codes as possible before your first exam.

You can download the Fair Housing Design Manual here.

3. Contracts

A very popular ARE testing strategy is taking Construction Documents and Services (CDS) first. The logic behind this is that the CDS exam really gets into the intricacies of the AIA Contracts. Contracts certainly come up on every exam, so by nailing them down early, you’re ahead of the game. This is a good approach, and I agree with it.

I’m not sure if you’ve taken the time to study an AIA Contract lately, but they are really boring. During The ARE Boot Camp, we’ve been studying the AIA Docs B101 and A201 (with commentary). These 2 documents take all the legal wording and break it down into common English line by line,—to help you better understand how these contracts work.  Using these commentary files is the most efficient way of learning how to interpret AIA Contracts. You can download AIA Contracts with Commentary A201 and B101.

Another valuable resource which we use in the ARE Boot Camp for understanding the contracts is studying the Life of A Project Infographic. The infographic graphically displays all the phases of the project, at what point to use which contract and most importantly the relationship betweens: Architect, Owner, Contractor, Time and Money.

4. Sustainability

Here is another wildcard. This topic shows up and relates differently to all the ARE Exams. The very best way to cover yourself is to look at what you are already studying and ask yourself: “How does sustainability relate to this topic?”

Learning the intricate details of how a solar panel works wouldn’t be necessary for the Construction Documents and Services exam, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to understand the basics about LEED and how sustainability relates to budgets, schedule, documents and project management.

5. Learning That Damn NCARB Vignette Software

If you have never used the NCARB software, you need to factor in the learning curve of getting used to it.  It’s really goofy, and it’s more reminiscent of MS Paint from the 80s than actual drafting software.

One good thing about the CDS exam is that the Building Section Vignette on that exam is actually one of the easiest vignettes to solve. This helps because there definitely is a learning curve while you’re getting used to the software.

You should check out the Ultimate List of ARE Study Materials Part 3 which is all about the vignettes.

6. You Don’t Have Knowledge from Other Exams

Like I said earlier, these exams often have a serious overlap. As you move through the process, you’ll start to be able to tap into your knowledge from former exams. In The ARE Boot Camp, as we get closer to test day, we’ll also be reviewing some of the materials for PPP and SPD, as there is quite a bit of overlap between the CDS, PPP, and SPD exams.

Most importantly, you don’t have to go nuts, but try to find the areas where your exam overlaps with the other exams’ content.

If you’re studying for…

CDS, PPP, or SPD, I would recommend reviewing the other two.

BDCS, I would recommend reviewing SS, SPD, and BS.

SD, I would recommend PPP and lots of ADA.

SS, check out BDCS, SPD, and PPP.

BS, review parts of BDCS, SS, PPP, CDS, and SPD.

7. You’re Just Starting to Build Your ARE Vocabulary

Each exam has a ton of words and terms specific to that exam. Focusing on learning vocabulary is a really effective studying tactic. I liked to start studying for each exam by learning the vocabulary that I didn’t already know, with making flashcards.

For your first exam, make sure you have mastered that exam’s vocab list, but also peruse the vocabulary of the overlapping exams listed above.

Studying vocabulary is as simple as just reading the Kaplan Glossary or focusing on the headlines or italicized words in the Ballast book. Did you know that the Kaplan Flashcards are nothing more than the Kaplan glossary, except printed on flashcards?

8. Learning How to Use the Forums

The Forums are a goldmine of information. Unfortunately, it feels like mining for gold to find the valuable information. It takes a little while to get used to how to use the forum.

As a person that has spent quite a bit of time on the forums, one of the most annoying things in the world is when someone posts something like:

Hey Guys,

I just started studying for the PPP exam. Tell me what the best study materials are and what I need to know.



This question has been asked thousands of times before. It’s rude, and honestly, it just pisses off everyone who uses the forum. Don’t use the forum as an alternate to doing a Google search.

I tell everyone to search the forums before you actively ask a question. Make sure you read the rules, as well as all the sticky threads at the top, before you start posting.  Also, understand that NCARB is super-serious about people discussing what they saw on the ARE.

9. Finding ARE Study Materials for the First Time

Getting started on your first exam and figuring out the right ARE study materials can be a daunting process. Luckily, now is the best time ever in ARE 4.0 history to study for this exam. In the past few years, there have been many new players added to the ARE Study Material world.

After I took my last ARE, I wrote a blog series called the Ultimate List of ARE Study Materials Part 1Part 2 and Part 3., which provides an overview of all the ARE Study Materials available. This is a great place to get you started.

10. And lastly… The Stress of Your First Exam.

Just getting started is always the hardest part. Visiting the Prometric Testing Center is kinda weird. They typically have strict rules because they are hypersensitive about people cheating inside the testing room.

Whether it’s your first or last ARE, it’s always stressful. Generally, it’s more stressful the first time because everything is new. After you’ve been there a few times, you start to learn tricks to maximize your resources while the ARE clock is ticking.

Plan on Over-Studying for Your First Exam

The more people I meet and talk to about my ARE Boot Camp, I more I find that many people grossly underestimated the amount of work taking their first ARE would be. They usually get their butts kicked the first time, and sometimes, they never come back to complete the process.

If I was just getting started on the ARE, a solid approach would be to plan on over- studying for your first exam and to really consider all the items listed above. In the long run, this will accelerate your studying during all the remaining exams.

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.

For additional reading about getting started with the ARE also check out:




Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, Founder and Head Coach of the ARE Boot Camp Coaching Program & Online Study Group.

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