Everything about this exam had my anxiety turned up to 11. Not just a loud 10, a full 11. Its the most failed exam, the biggest (baddest?) 5.0 exam, and if you're reading this you know what I am talking about and you're looking for something to make it a little more tolerable. I feel for you all, because I had all of that inside me before taking this exam. I dont get nervous before exams historically, but these AREs are very hard and very important to me personally, so they hit hard pass or fail.
All that being said, I did actually pass on the first attempt, and I hope I can shed some light on how to do that without reading every single thing people post here, paying a bunch of money for classes, and spending your whole life on this exam. After all, they are supposed to be passable after 40 hrs of study, right?
To be frank, I don't know exactly how long I studied, but I know it did not feel like too much even for this exam, or even particularly more than other exams. I think that's the key. It's the same as other exams, but so much more material. What I do advise, and what I did not do: don't take forever studying for this exam. I was scared of this one and so it froze me in my tracks for several months, and that caused me to have to re-study over half the material. It didn't take as long to review as it did to study the first time, but if you can help it, don't do this to yourself. It was very tiring. Take 1-3 months max, and just get it over with.
What I studied:
ARE Handbook 5.0 Ballast + practice problems + practice exams
The Architects Studio Companion "rules of thumb"
That's it, but I'll tell you what made me nervous not to have, and what I wish I hadn't bought with retrospective from knowing what was covered on my exam.
From what I can tell, consistently, it seems that people who use the ballast 5.0 for the 5.0 exams seem to have more success. People who use both the practice problems and practice exams also seem to feel more confident and have more success. I'm not a fan of these typo-riddled, content that hardly matches testing questions, expensive books, but that does seem to be the case and if you haven't bought them, just bite the bullet and save yourself some grief. My pattern with these is to read through all the chapters in the ballast handbook pertaining to a test, and take cursory notes (this took the most time for this exam, probably 20 hrs-ish++). Then, I take the practice problem "test", grade myself reading all answer material and review material based on what I missed to prepare for the practice "exam". Repeat, but with preparation for the real exam next. I try to take the real exam a week after the practice exam problems to keep it all fresh.
The architects studio companion helped to shore up areas that I knew I needed to review, mechanical equipment and structural systems, and it was also extremely helpful for understanding the IBC building area and height charts. 10/10 I recommend this book for general practice as a PM let alone the exam. Particularly the steps at the beginning of the book and the charts beginning these chapters were helpful. I did not need the Ching illustrated books, although I bought them. If you feel like your work experience has not covered occupancy/construction type codes, accessibility and egress, you may want to grab these volumes. Although, the ARE handbook seems to cover enough for the exams, especially when combined with the studio companion. I'm a budget person, I wish I hadn't bought the ching books.
Overall, the primary topics on my exam included evaluating sets of scenarios having to do with occupancy, egress, fire ratings/construction type and general planning. The scenarios usually presented information all mixed together so skills in discerning how to tell if a building is one category or another in these areas is essential to this test. This might be where it's most discouraging when figuring out what to study since this is so much information, but it is where I feel the tests are actually the most true to my work experience because you have to resolve design solutions based on these categories ALL THE TIME and no one is sorting the information out for you. However, you can use references rather than memorize and it's not timed, that's where the test is kinda goofy. Again, the studio companion was very helpful breaking it down, better than my work experience for simplicity.
What I wish I had some published material on was site analysis having to do with environment & site based design. I can't speak to it but I think the NCARB handbook has a book on this topic listed as the first primary reference for PPD. (EDIT: The book is "Sun, Wind, and Light: Architectural Design Strategies", and is not listed in the reference section for PPD but is listed as a reference in the handbook practice problems!) This is a clue from NCARB, it would have been better if I had payed attention to it. In the end, I recognized my weakness is this area through ballast practice problems I kept missing and really focused on this topic with the materials listed and previous study material from the ARE ballast handbook. Identifying weaknesses in your own knowledge/evaluation skills is important for this exam since there is just that much more to study, memorize and most importantly apply. The practice problems really helped me in this regard.
Overall, I think I landed between 40-60 hrs of study +/- a long stint of ineffectiveness from nerves. I fully believe a person could spend just 40 hrs studying and I hope this review is helpful to somebody else shaking in their boots preparing for the big one!
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