Winning the NCARB AREs (or any exam, really)

Version 0.9.1

​This is a strategy for how to study—specifically for the NCARB Architecture Registration Exams (AREs), but the ideas could be adapted to pretty much any type of studying/exam preparation.

I’ll be updating this page periodically if necessary. So what you’re reading now is version 0.9.1. Enjoy!


The key to quickly winning at NCARB AREs is, I think, to always remember that your goal is to pass the exam (NOT to know everything), and studying efficiently basically means being aware of what you know and what you don’t. People who just start blindly reading the Kaplan/Ballast study guides either don’t have or have lost this awareness, and thus waste a lot of time.

So, you have to track it. I used Evernote to track my studying (it does checkboxes fast and easily), but you could use a spreadsheet or Word document, etc. I maintained an ongoing list as I was studying of questions or topics I knew I needed to study more. If something was checked off, I knew I had at least some basic understanding. If unchecked, it represented a gap in my knowledge to be filled. (Example entry from Building Systems: “[ ] review plumbing terms: stack, arrestor, trap, vent, valve, cleanout” or “[ ] sensible heat vs latent heat?” )

This is the concept of “known-unknowns” and “unknown-unknowns” that Rumsfeld got panned for. It’s actually a crucial distinction. So your job in studying is to (a) discover the unknown-unknowns, (b) track the then known-unknowns, and then (c) turn them into known-knowns using efficient, targeted studying efforts.

It’s really hard to say exactly what you will need to study, because there are thousands of questions in the NCARB pool and they can come out of nowhere. Better, I think, to have an overall strategy for filling your brain, since everyone’s personal benchmark coming into the exams will be a bit different. For example, I had a great academic track record, 3+ years work experience, plus I was LEED AP and I’d done an intensive Passive House course—all before writing most of the exams. This experience wasn’t always directly applicable, but it definitely gave me a head start in some areas.

The good thing about this technique is that it acknowledges a key motivator: You probably know more than you think!

I think it’s true that you’ll just need to study what you’ll need to study—which is different than what I needed to study. Use the practice exams as your barometer. You should feel pretty confident going into the exam with practice scores around 70+% (or 65+% maybe) by the end.


I passed all 7 divisions on the first try. I tried to record my cumulative study time, listed here in the order I took the exams:

  • BDCS: lots, too much, wrote this one first (probably 40+)
  • SPD: unknown (not much, fairly straightforward exam, if I recall)
  • CDS: 18 hrs
  • SS: 24 hrs (+ Thaddeus course)
  • SD: 12 hrs
  • BS: 9 hrs (+ Mibelli course)
  • PPP: 20 hrs

I suggest studying in the 3-5 weeks before the exam. Too long before is a nice idea, but it’s hard to stay motivated, and you’ll forget stuff anyway. Three weeks is good time pressure, but not much time to study, so 4-5 weeks is ideal. Some might say this is cramming, but I say there are better things in life than studying for exams.

I don’t know if order of the exams matters too much. I’d suggest doing a few of the supposedly easier ones (SD, SPD) first to build some momentum and get a feel for the Prometric “experience.” SS, BDCS, and BS are generally thought to be the most difficult. I wouldn’t leave all hard ones until the end, however. CDS and PPP are meant to be more practice-based, I think, so pushing them to the end (after you’ve potentially logged more work experience) makes some sense.


Before you go any further, I highly recommend you read Paul N Edwards’ guide, “How to Read a Book”:

I didn’t use his exact strategy. Instead, I used a slightly modified version, applicable to any piece of study material—especially anything 100+ pages long.

  1. I usually copied out the Contents to understand the book’s structure, and then I’d skim through to find important parts, taking note of content I felt comfortable with and keeping a list of questions I had or things I definitely needed to read.
  2. Go back and read the necessary parts in more detail

This doesn’t mean you’re just browsing the book. Sometimes you’ll feel like you need to read a whole chapter, so if that happens, do it!


These are the best way to uncover your “unknown-unknowns.” You should try to do all practice exams available to you (Ballast, Kaplan, etc). I usually started with the NCARB exam guide, to get a sense of the overall content and begin generating my study list. I would list any question/topic I didn’t know the answer to (while doing the practice exams) and then at the end, I’d add any practice question I got wrong. Correct answers are usually “known-knowns” and you should be wary of spending any more time on them.

List in hand, then you study. Kaplan is pretty good, Ballast is decent, Google/Wikipedia is great for general knowledge items. I also used the Kaplan Flashcards iPhone app. It’s quite expensive, but it’s nice to have something to review during your commute or when waiting around…

Your study list at first could be quite long. If your first practice exam score was low-ish (say <60%), use the study guides/books to generate more topics you need to study and study them. The practice exam score doesn't matter so much, but 70-80% is a good place to be I think, and I've heard of people passing with practice-exam scores in the 50's (myself included).

After that, time to do another practice exam. Add topics to your list, then study, then do another practice exam. Repeat until you run out of time.


(I heard they’re changing the vignette software, so this advice might be out of date soon.)


  • You MUST download the practice software from NCARB and practice using the drawing tools. They suck, but you just have to get over it and pretend it’s an architectural video game (NOT AutoCAD).
  • Use the Norman Dorf “Solutions” book as your vignette Bible. Do whatever is required to get a copy of this.
  • Alternate vignettes can be loaded into the software in DWG format. You can find many of them on ARE Forum, but they aren’t well sorted: (lots of study content there, too)
  • The vignettes are mostly tests in being organized and following rules. Practicing will help you come up with a protocol for each vignette, which usually involves parsing the instructions and making notes on your sketch paper in an intelligible form, and then swiftly executing the actual vignette. Dorf has a protocol for each exam. You’ll probably adapt it a bit to your own way of working.


I did both the Thaddeus Structures course and the Mibelli Building Systems course. If they’re offered in your area, I highly recommend them. It meant spending ~$300 on each course, but you can think of it as highly compressed, targeted study time. It’s the only way I was able to write and pass Building Systems with just an additional 9 hours of studying.


I used a pretty basic exam technique:

  • 1st pass: read quickly and answer the questions as you go. The system lets you mark any question for review later, so mark anything you don’t know or are guessing at.
  • 2nd pass: review marked questions and answer. You might have come across answers or clues in other questions during the first pass. Now you should have all questions answered, and likely some still marked.
  • 3rd pass: Re-read all questions from the beginning and check answers

Before each exam, I’d also do the math and know how many minutes/question I’d have (usually <2 minutes/question). This helps for pacing. The system's "mark for review" function is OK, but I also made a list of the question numbers on my sketch paper (during the initial 10-minute computer introduction) so I could manually mark questions for review, or check off ones I knew were correct or had checked to the best of my knowledge. There's no way to mark a question "Definitely correct; Do not spend any more time on it" on the computer, so the list on paper can be handy.

Hope that helps! Good luck!


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