ARE Prep: Structural Systems

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Following up on my final three ARE 4.0 exams, I will review my preparation methods for Structural Systems. Be sure to read the other ARE Prep articles for more tips, tricks and resources for each exam and learn how I got through 3 exams in just 6 weeks before the blackout.

As a reminder, ARE candidates are not allowed to share specific exam content, so please don’t ask. These are general overviews of what worked for me in terms of how to prepare.

photo credit: anitakhart via photopin cc

photo credit: anitakhart via photopin cc

Materials I used for Structural Systems

The Structural Systems exam consists of 125 multiple choice questions and one graphic vignette: structural layout.

For the vignette, I practiced with the NCARB software which you can find on their website here. Also available through the link is an exam guide for each section. I read through this before beginning my studies to get a good understanding of the type of content that would be covered and browsed the sample questions to gauge my knowledge on the topic and establish a baseline for my study timeline. I practiced the vignette once, using the NCARB example and posted my solution to the ARE Forum for comment and feedback.

For the multiple choice, I used the following materials and resources:

NCARB Exam Guide

Ballast structural sample problems

David Thaddeus Online “@ Your Pace” Seminar (45 days of access to videos). I had taken David’s course live a few years back but never ended up sitting for the exam. This time around, the live session was scheduled for my city the weekend I needed to sit for the exam, so I opted to do his online seminar. Overall, I liked the online version better for a few reasons: I could take breaks as necessary to let material sink in or clear my head, I could repeat portions I missed or misunderstood and I could get the same content in the comfort of my own home (or on the road). If you’re the type who wants to ask a ton of questions, the live seminar would be better. If you can understand concepts from simply listening to lectures and testing yourself, this is the way to go. Fair warning, the organization of the videos leaves something to be desired; there are several videos that repeat the same content (taped during multiple live sessions, perhaps?). However, once you realize this, you can recognize which videos are repeats and skip them.

FEMA – Designing for Earthquakes. I skimmed this entire thing, focusing on any areas I was unfamiliar with.

Random browsing through Forum posts from those who passed and failed the exam

Be sure to check out links to all of the online and free study materials I’ve used for ALL exams here.

On this exam, I did not read any of the sections from the Ballast review manual
 (comprehensive study book on all ARE divisions). I felt that the Thaddeus seminar would cover all of the basics in a shorter amount of time than it would take me to read and comprehend all of the written material.

Timeline for studying

I studied for building systems, structural systems and building design and construction systems cumulatively for 6 weeks. I spent a dedicated 1.5 weeks on structural systems material and felt okay going into my exam. Given that I passed, it is very doable, but I would recommend at least 4 weeks if the material is unfamiliar to you, and to allow time for concepts to really sink in and leave room for more review. I also recommend studying for Structures and BDCS concurrently.

General Content Focus

Structural Systems kept most of the focus on structural concepts, but there were a handful of questions where BDCS knowledge came in handy. I would recommend overlapping Structures and BDCS studies as they are complimentary to one another. It is a lot of material to take in at once, but knowledge in both subjects will be beneficial come test day. The hardest part about Structural Systems is the quantity of questions. It is a draining test that just never seems to end. While it seemed to focus on concepts more than math, know the basics of the math and try to memorize the important formulas – you do get a ‘formula sheet’ in the exam, but I found it to be of little help, especially when pressed for time. Spend a week or two reviewing formulas and how they apply to various types of questions and concepts. Quiz yourself by doing problems without formula sheets. The math itself is not difficult, it is just knowing which formula to apply in each question that can trip you up.

General Tips and Tricks

The vignette was straight forward and simple. Pay attention to the instructions and make sure you take your time to support each structural item from below. Pay attention to efficiencies, and try to minimize the number of joist/beam sizes needed for your solution.

I’ve created a spread sheet with links to all of the materials I’ve found and you can find it here. There is a tab for each division and items in bold are things I felt were especially helpful. Don’t forget you can also check out my Amazon store for direct links to study books if you need to purchase them. I find that the Ballast and Chen books in combination with the NCARB practice exam are enough for me to feel confident in the material.


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Consider using the free Kindle to read your ebooks – I used this for the MEEB book (because who wants to carry that thing around?). The upside is you can have ALL of your study books with you wherever you go. The downside is you can’t re-sell the books when you are finished. Either way, the app is Free!

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  • architectrunnerguy

    All 125 multiple choice questions should have as their last choice:
    E- Consult a structural engineer.

    Hey, we’re architects. If I wanted to design structural systems I would have been a structural engineer….well duhhh!

  • Pingback: Resources – Structural Systems (SS) | AIA-PGH YAF ARE REVIEW()

  • Jeremiah Russell

    You should probably note that the ARE Forum is now closed. ARECoach is the new forum for the ARE.
    Great post! This is my last exam before retaking PPP and then I’m done! 🙂

    • Thanks for the heads up – I knew it was having issues after the blackout, but I didn’t realize it was closed permanently. That is quite a shame, since it had so much great content. Good luck with your last ones – you’re so close! 🙂

  • A Rao

    How many hours did you spend studying? I have my exam in 4 weeks but with work and family, how do you dedicate time? I have some past experience in SS exam, but would love any sort of suggestion to get this one done…!

    • I only spent about 1.5 weeks dedicated to structures, but that typically included 2-3 hours every evening and then at least 8-10 hours Saturday, and again on Sunday. All in all, it was about 40 hours dedicated to structures alone. Since my husband was also preparing for professional exams simultaneously, we basically ate nothing but frozen meals, did only enough laundry to make it through a week and put off all other responsibilities as much as we could. If you are balancing family time, plan to study at least 1 hour every evening, and review flashcards or notes during your lunch break at work every day. Then dedicate at least 4 hours on Saturday and again on Sunday to focused studying, video lectures and practice exams. Over the course of 4 weeks you should be able to cover 60-70 hours of material over 4 weeks (assuming you test the last weekend, and study the other 3). Give yourself at least 40 of those hours dedicated to structures, and at least 10 or 15 to reviewing BDCS material if you haven’t taken it yet. Good luck!

  • Good information.

    Gang Chen, Author, AIA, LEED AP BD+C (

    • Thanks Mr. Chen! I appreciate all the books you have written to help us pass our exams.