I finally passed my last ARE test (PDD) this past weekend and want to share my study and exam prep experience. My background and approach are a bit different than the majority of study routines I’ve seen posted in the forums. Suggestions such as spending 40+ hours studying every week, reading textbooks cover-to-cover, and other similar approaches were non-starters for me. There are several roads to take to pass the ARE exams, none more wrong or right, but it took me awhile to figure out what worked best for me. This post is long winded but my intent is to offer a different perspective that may be helpful to people in formulating their own study routines.
My quick background is that I am in my mid-thirties, have been out of (grad) school for 7 years now, and work a full-time job (45 - 50 hours / week average) as a construction project manager at a mid-sized high-end residential construction company in the Northeast. I have worked in high-end residential construction on and off for over 10 years, working for architects as well as contractors, gaining a base knowledge for how each approach and execute a project from start to finish. One full disclosure is that I do not have children so this absolutely played a part in my flexibility of lifestyle and time management when preparing for the exams.
Approach - I scheduled the exam with NCARB before I started my study routine. Scheduling the test at the beginning made it real. Having a firm timeline put the pressure on but also forced me to sharpen my focus and have a finite end goal to strive towards.
Timeline - I've had a long and winding road with the AREs starting in 2017, but this post focuses on my approach going into my last exam, PDD, which I failed twice before. For my third attempt, I spent a total of 13 weeks preparing for the PDD exam, about 20 hours a week on average. My typical schedule was as follows:
- Monday – Wednesday = 3 hours of studying each night after work
- Thursday = Exercise after work and sometimes an hour or two of study afterward.
- Friday = My day off, no studying after work.
- Saturday = Long study session (Typ. 6 - 8 hours of studying with a lunch break) and then allowing myself social time in the evening.
- Sunday = Another long study session, leaving the evening for relaxing, cooking a homemade dinner or prepping for the upcoming work week.
The balance between work, studying and rest/relaxation was critical for me. Being consistent and keeping to this routine were also key to not being overwhelmed and setting myself up for success.
Resources - Reading and ‘intaking’ information alone was not enough. I needed to constantly test myself on the items I studied, like daily, or almost daily. This was the foundation of my study approach and important in retaining knowledge that better prepared me for the reality of the exam format. There is far too much information and topics to memorize, so I needed to actually learn the subject matter. Here is a list of the study materials I used and how I applied them:
- Amber Book - This was my main study resource. Michael Ermann and his team put together an incredible resource that synthesizes the information into an approachable format that covers all the bases. Even if you are taking one exam, you should complete the entire Amber Book course. There are several items on the actual ARE exam that I was able to answer specifically because of the information and questions I studied with Amber Book. The course is expensive but you can get a deep discount through Hyperfine and in my opinion it is worth every penny.
- Hyperfine – This was more of a secondary source for me. On a previous PDD attempt I completed every lesson in the Hyperfine course but his time around I used it more for areas where I needed to brush up on specific details (building codes, fire separation, acoustics, etc.) After I finished a chapter in Amber Book, I would use Hyperfine lessons as mini-quizzes to test my knowledge on certain topics.
- Ballast – I had access to old Ballast ARE 4.0 study materials. I did not read the source material here but rather used the practice questions as a knowledge check after I finished a specific topic or subject matter section in Amber Book. From my experience, the Ballast questions have a lot of extraneous information you will not see on the exam and in many cases are more difficult than the actual exam questions. Depending on the topic, there are a lot of in-depth math problems that are far more complex than anything on the exam. I mostly skipped those types of problems but did at least read through them to understand the subject matter better.
- Designer Hacks – I used Hacks fairly often as a quick hit quiz on nights where I had low energy or wanted a general gut check on the overall PDD knowledge base to see which subject areas where I needed improvement. After a while, I used Hacks for speed runs for 10Q or 25Q quizzes. I found the questions here are good in they cover a wide range of topics but from my experience these questions were much easier than the types of questions you will see on the actual exam. Do not rely on these as your only practice questions / practice test as alone they are not enough. I learned this the hard way on my first PDD attempt.
- International Building Code (IBC) – Know how to navigate this resource. You do not need to read it all the way through, but you should spend some time in the raw resource and learn where the major charts and tables are located (building heights, mixed occupancies, occupancy loads, egress, etc.).
Textbooks - I typically used these for deeper dives on subject matter after completing a topic section in Amber Book. Here is a list of the books I referenced
- Building Codes Illustrated (Ching)
- Building Construction Illustrated (Ching)
- Building Construction: Principles, Materials, Systems (Mehta, Scarborough, Armpriest)
- Fundamentals of Building Construction: Materials and Methods (Allen, Iano)
- Heating, Cooling, Lighting (Lechner)
- The Architect’s Studio Companion (Allen, Iano)
Study Guides / Standards
- ADA Standards
- Fema 454: Designing for Earthquakes (Chapters 4 + 5)
- Jenny’s Notes: Construction Design and Services
- Kaplan: Site Planning & Design
- Karins PPD and PDD Summary Sheets
- MasterFormat Divisions (50 Division Format)
- NFPA 101: Life Safety Code
- Project Documentation Axon
- US National CAD Standards (for drawing set organization)
If you took the time to read this post I want to say thank you and hopefully it will also be of some help and motivation to let you know that even though the road can be tough and the exams are difficult, they are not impossible. Finding a realistic balance in your study approach, staying consistent in your routine and focused on the end goal of passing the exams will help you establish a mindset for success.
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