After having couple of cancelled/rescheduled exams due to covid, I was able to take my first test on July 11th, and took the last test on October 11th. Even though I failed my third exam, I didn't give up and continued taking exams. So, before I share my experience here, if you fail, don't give up, and just see it as an experience.
There is going to be some major changes on the exam in November, like having less questions, different rules, etc. So, your experience might be different, and some of what I did may not be applicable, so keep that in mind.
This might be long one since I will be talking about all 6 exams, so buckle up!
Before getting into specific exam sections, here are the sources I have used:
- Pluralsight ARE video lectures
This was one of the two main sources for my studies. These videos are great, short, and to the point! Some of their AIA contract videos are a bit on the boring side, but if you have the actual contract on the side, you can follow along which makes it a lot easier to understand. Combined with other sources, Pluralsight helped me a lot. Also, significantly cheaper than some of the other online sources.
The search feature on this website is a bit weird, so search the term "Prepare for the ARE". If you type ARE only, nothing comes up.
- Black Spectacles Lectures and Practice Exams
Black Spectacles was the second main source for my studies. I used this website mainly for their practice exams, but will get into how I used it in detail shortly. This is on the pricier side, but since I wanted to pass the exams quickly, I caved in.
- Schiff Hardin Lectures(Audio)
I didn't know about these at first, but a friend recommended these to me, and these were really helpful. For those of you who are not familiar with these, they are audio files taken from lectures, and helped me mainly on Practice Management, Project Management, and Construction & Evaluation exams. I have downloaded these to my phone, and listened to them almost daily at home, while driving around, etc.
The music players on my phone did not let me rewind 10/15 seconds, start where I left off the next day, etc. So, the best app that I have found that helped me listen to these lectures as an audiobook is called "Smart AudioBook Player", and probably only available for Android.
- Youtube Videos
Although I didn’t use Youtube a lot, it was really helpful on PPD, and PDD exams. There are great videos available on structures – shear and moment diagrams, connection types, etc. And I also watched some of the videos available on Amber Book’s youtube channel, such as the ones that talk about different types of lights, etc., and some of the "This Old House" videos were helpful as well.
- NCARB – ARE 5.0 Handbook
Before even studying anything, I read the introduction part of this pdf. Then for each exam section, I would read how the section is divided up, go through the sample questions, and learn about the references.
- The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice
This is an expensive book, but after seeing that this was referenced in the Handbook for all of the exams, I decided to buy it, partly as an investment to my career as well. I bought the kindle version to save a little. This investment paid off. It was super helpful for PcM, PjM, and C&E. And helpful on other sections as well.
- The Architect’s Studio Companion
I have had this book since college, and it was a great source for the PPD, PDD, and PA exams for me. It has information such as the advantages and disadvantages of systems, etc., which is really useful.
- Building Construction Illustrated
This is another great source, and helped with PPD, but especially PDD. I basically read through all the connections, assemblies, brick types, etc.
- Architectural Graphic Standards
Outrageously expensive book. But since I graduated in May ’19, which means I didn't have a lot of technical knowledge, I was worried about the PDD exam with all the systems, assemblies, detailing, etc. So, in order to avoid taking the exam multiple times, I caved in and bought the book. I told myself that it would be another investment to my career(to feel better a bit after paying all that money)
This book helped a little, but if I am perfectly honest, I knew most of what I went through on this book from the Building Construction Illustrated already. But keep in mind that, I’ve had only 3 weeks to study PDD, and only my last week was on books, so I didn’t have much to study this book. If you have more time, it might be more helpful to you, but for me, not so much.
- Building Construction: Principles, Materials, and Systems
This is another one of my panic purchases for PDD :) I bought the kindle version which is significantly cheaper than the hardcover. I didn’t get to read this book too much, but it seems like an easy ready, and a good source to have for the future.
- Site Planning and Design Handbook
I got this book after seeing it listed as a reference for the PA, and PPD exams on the ARE Handbook. It seems like a good read, but I was able to read couple of short sections only, like the types of trees, where/when to use them, and it was helpful.
Initially, I wanted to take one exam every two weeks, but after taking the PcM, and PjM only a week apart from each other, and passing, I thought maybe I don’t need to study that much, and relaxed. I took the C&E two weeks after the first two, and failed. So, that was a good slap in the face. After failing the C&E, I was more focused, and the studies were more structured. Even though I took most of the exams every two weeks, I will share the schedule I followed for the last 2 exams, which was based on 3 weeks. If you want to take them in two weeks as well, I would just combine week 2 and week 3. Also, I took all of my exams on weekends, mostly on Saturday, and last two exams on Sunday.
Week one was mainly for the Pluralsight lectures. But before starting anything, I would read the section on the ARE 5.0 Handbook, and write down what I need to study. And before the exam, I would go back to the list, and make sure I know all, if not most of the things I wrote down from the Handbook.
I work from 8-5, so I would wake up at 6:30/7, and listen to couple of lectures while having breakfast. Sometimes I was too tired and woke up too late to be able to listen to any lectures, so it is okay to sleep in once in a while :)
At lunch time, if I felt like I was in the mood for a lecture, I would listen to a few, but I left the lunch time mainly for non-work, or non-study related stuff to relax.
After work, between 5-6, I tried to walk or do something that is relaxing, or keeping me sane, like driving to parks, etc. to get some fresh air. Dinner at/around 6, and start watching videos again around 7/8. I would watch videos until like 9:30 or so, and before getting ready for bed at 10:30, I tried to relax, for me relaxing during this period was movies, tv series, etc.
Once I finish all the pluralsight lectures, usually at the beginning of the weekend, I would take the first practice exam on Black Spectacles usually in the morning of a Saturday. Or, if I still had some videos to watch, I would use Saturday to finish up, and use Sunday to take the practice exam.
After couple of hours of break, I would usually go through the answers in the evening. For those of you who are not familiar with Black Spectacles, they let you see the answers at the end, and there is usually a short explanation for each answer, which is great to learn. Even the questions you got right might have something important written.
I should also mention that I took notes of important things, and things that I wasn’t familiar with while watching the videos. And while taking the practice exams, I usually wrote down terms that I wasn’t familiar with, or forgot during the exam – vent stack vs. stack vent for example. And I will get to how I used these notes on week 3.
Week 2 was dedicated to Black Spectacles videos in general. Black Spectacle videos are way too long in my opinion. It is great to learn architecture in general, but not great if you are doing an exam schedule like I did. For example about 30hrs of videos for PPD on Black Spectacles, vs. 7h40m of videos for the same section on Pluralsight. Some other section lengths are comparable, but for PPD, and PDD, I tried to watch the parts that I am not familiar with first, then if I have any time left, watch the remaining. Oh, and I watched the videos at 1.25/1.5x usually, otherwise, it would be impossible.
At the end of week 2, I would take the second practice exam on Black Spectacles, and follow the same weekend schedule.
Week 3 was mainly for book studies. If I saw anything important on a page, I would write the name of that exam on top of the page, so I would know where to come back to on my review day. For example, if I was getting ready for PDD, and if I saw anything important, maybe a detail that I wasn’t familiar with on Building Construction Illustrated, you would see a note on top of the page saying “PDD”, which can be done by using filing stickers as well, or something like that.
At the end of the week before the exam date, I usually requested PTO from my work for the Friday afternoon. I would use the Friday afternoon to go over the notes I took during the lectures, and exams, and make sure I knew all of them. If I didn’t, I would research it online till I understood it completely. In the evening of the Friday, I would start the third practice exam on Black Spectacles, and immediately finish without answering anything. So, I could see the answers. Then I would go through all the questions, read them, and read the correct answers, as a final summary.
If my exam was on a Sunday, I would use the Saturday as a summary day, which worked out a bit better, but not every test center has Sunday availability, I think.
- Practice Management(PcM), and Project Management(PjM)
The reason I have these together is because I took them really close to each other, and had similar sources. And I feel like these two could be taken close to each other in my opinion, since there is some overlapping information. I used Pluralsight videos, some of the Black Spectacles Videos for each section, Black Spectacles Practice Exams, Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, and the AIA contracts(Schiff Hardin Lectures)
- Project Development and Documentation(PDD), and Construction & Evaluation(C&E)
I feel like these two have some overlapping content as well. Initially, I had taken the C&E test prior to studying the PDD, and failed. And then I took it again after the PDD test, and there was some overlapping content that helped me on C&E as well.
For the PDD, my main sources, aside from the video lectures were Building Construction Illustrated, and youtube videos on different construction related topics – even some of the “This Old House” videos helped(such as how to insulate a basement, etc.) :)
And for C&E, my main source was AIA A-201, and The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice. I had the sample contracts printed and followed along the pluralsight lectures. Watched the entire Black Spectacles videos for this section since I had failed it once.
- Programming and Analysis(PA), and Project Planning and Design(PPD)
These two can be taken close to each other as well in my opinion, some of the content is similar, and even some of the study materials referenced on ARE 5.0 cover both of these exams.
For both of the exams, and aside from the lecture videos, I used the international building code, The Architect’s Studio Companion, and ADA. I should also mention that throughout my internships during college, I worked mainly on the Programming, and SD phase of projects, some I have some personal experience as well.
In general, if you fail a test, look at it from the glass full side, learn from your mistakes, and see it as an experience. And always pay attention to details, even one word, or one symbol can change the way you answer a question, such as a north arrow.
One last tip for the test takers, especially if you are experienced in the architecture field, is that how something is done by the book, might be different than how we do it in real life, or at your firm. For example, per AIA A-201, the contractor starts the punch list, and then the architect can add on to this list. However, in real life, this might be the exact opposite. So, not knowing too much of the ins and outs of the construction was a plus for me, but I can see how it might throw someone with more experience off. So, make sure you don’t answer based on how you might do something at your firm, but rather how the contracts say you should.
Wishing you all the best, and hope this helps!
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