Friday, January 9, 2009

Seven Surefire Steps to Passing the LEED AP Exam

A LEED Accredited Professional is someone who has passed an 80-question multiple choice exam which tests their ability to apply the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™. Currently three versions of the exam exist, for New Construction, Existing Buildings and Commercial Interiors. New exams are under development and major changes to the rating system and the accreditation process will come on line later in 2009. LEED for New Construction (LEED NC) is the original system and the mother of all the others.

Since I became the second Hoosier to pass the LEED AP exam, it has gotten harder, but there are many more people taking the exam now as LEED has become the standard metric of achievement for green buildings. There are more LEED APs in Indiana now (675) than there were in all of America then (500). Currently more than 65,000 LEED APs exist in the world and the pace of accreditation is accelerating. I have had numerous requests to teach people how to pass the exam since 2001, including a request from an engineering firm in Dubai (signs of Peak Oil?). Since USGBC is coming out with a new series of exams this year, I have gotten a lot more requests than usual lately for tips on how to pass the old exam before the new ones (presumably harder) come on line. If you pass the current exam, you will not have to take the new exam. You will be a Legacy AP. You will, however, have to eventually sign an ethics agreement and maintain your credentials through continuing education once the new system is up an running. You have until March to register and until May to take the old exam. If you wait, you will have the opportunity to take exams for the LEED for Homes or LEED for Neighborhood Development rating systems later this year as well as newer versions of the three exams currently available.

I have happily offered my services as a teacher on an almost voluntary basis (I typically teach this course one-on-one over a decent long lunch) for dozens of would be LEED APs over the years, including an energy guru of a multi-billion dollar real estate investment company and a facility official for a large higher education institution.

Some people drop up to $1400 attending all-day workshops, webinars, fancy flash cards and computer software, but I recommend some old-fashioned methods that are relatively inexpensive but involve some good old-fashioned hard work. So far, nobody that I coached one-on-one has failed to pass when they followed my:


1. COMMIT: Chisel an exam date in stone. Register. Put money on the line. Tell your family and co-workers. Post the date over your desk and your refrigerator and your bathroom mirror. Get a t-shirt printed with LEED AP OR BUST! on it. Whatever works for you. The point is, COMMIT! Don't stretch this out forever. Set the date for no more than six to eight weeks out (I have coached some successful candidates who only had two weeks to prepare, but I wouldn't recommend it). More than eight weeks invites procrastination. Start your journey by going to the Green Building Certification Institute and read the LEED AP Candidate Handbook. Do this before the next moonrise.

2. READ: Buy a copy of the LEED NC Reference Guide (unless you are an operations and maintenance professional or an interior designer, this is probably the version of the test you will take). This is the only big dollar investment other than your testing fee you may have to make. See if your employer will pay for your Reference Guide and your Testing Fee and let them know when you will be taking the exam and that you want the test morning off. Many employers will pay for the exam ONCE, which provides additional incentive to succeed. I recommend you have your own copy, if possible, so you can mark it up. When you have the fat guide in your hands, read through it thoroughly and underline or highlight those passages you feel are important, add numbered tabs and make separate summary outline notes on a separate notebook. By reading and taking notes, your brain is forced to utilize multiple neural pathways repeatedly and this helps build your ability to understand and later recall the information. Finish in two weeks or less.

3. FLASH YOURSELF: Make your own flash cards (uh, question on one side, answer on the other). Yes, this seems primitive and almost like hard work, but we want your hands and your left and right hemispheres fully engaged to begin to hard-wire all those neural pathways to success on the exam. Making your own cards causes you to summarize long passages again and rewrite with primitive tools and it causes you to plow back through the reference guide again (repetition is one key to success here). I recommend to my students that they prepare one flash card (standard 3.5 index cards) for each of the six typical sections (Intent, Requirements, Technologies and Strategies, Reference Standards, Submittal Documentation, Definitions) of each credit or prerequisite (62) or 372 cards. Add to this any general flash cards required to cover more general questions (see the Outline of Exam Content). Plan on buying 400 index cards. Block out time over a weekend or make this your lunchtime routine until you get all your cards done. Finish in week two or three, then add to and edit as you find out more below.

4. EXPERIENCE: If you are associated with the building industry (and don't we all spend 90% of our time in one?), apply your new-found knowledge to an actual project. Score it. Teach the system to others you are working with. Ask them what it would take to achieve a particular point (hmm, do I have an actual "view" from my workstation per EQ Credit 8.2?). Make it real. Practice it in real life. Apply your knowledge. You will find if you have to open your mouth to explain this to somebody else, your brain will be on full alert and your neurons will be firing like nano-machine guns. Peruse case studies of LEED Certified projects and, if possible, take guided tours of certified buildings (contact your local USGBC Chapter for upcoming tours). Do this after completion of steps 1-3 and continue after you pass the exam.

5. IMMERSE: Surf the web for other resources where you will find a wealth of information on LEED and also on the specific objectives of the test along with sample test questions and vivid descriptions of the test-taking process. A growing number of other web sites cater to future LEED APs with tutorials, webinars and sample tests. Visit the indespensible Real Life LEED blog to follow vicariously a real LEED AP, Joel McKellar, in action and browse his outstanding list of resources for exam success. He also has links on his blog to examples of actual LEED submittals posted by Harvard University and the University of California, along with many other valuable links.

Visit the unofficial LEED exam prep site: intheLEED. Here you will find a treasure trove of useful free stuff like the blank study guide, which I highly recommend. The Colorado Chapter of USGBC has a number of exam prep resources including their excellent LEED-NC Study Guides, which include sample exams. You can also get advice and a free sample exam from

Don't take the tests yet, just get familiar with the nature of the test by looking at some of the free exam questions available through USGBC and others and the resources that are out there. Surf and immerse yourself in the culture of thousands of successful exam takers. Adjust your flash cards accordingly. If you have unlimited resources, by all means invest in some of the LEED workshops, webinars and online LEED AP exam prep courses (see U.S. Green Building Council, Green Building Educator Services, Professional Publications, Inc.). The more ways you process the information, the more likely your brain will retain it. Do this only after step 3 is complete, lest you get distracted by bright, shiny objects.

6. MEMORIZE: Memorize 100% of your flash cards one card at a time. Brute force. Use mnemonics. Doodle. Make up acronyms, silly songs, whatever works for you. Toss the easy cards aside and concentrate on the dwindling pile of those you couldn't answer. Repeat until your child (or your boss) can quiz you on the entire deck and you appear to be a genius. Finish at least one week prior to the exam date. Repeat often, but not while driving.

7. PRACTICE: Now, take sample exams until you consistently pass 90% of 80 questions in less than two hours. You want to be able to do this with 24 hours to spare before taking the exam so plan backwards and gauge your progress. If you can accomplish this, you can rest easy the night before and be well rested for the exam. If you can't accomplish it 24 hours in advance, cram through the night until you get it. You only have to stay awake for 2 hours during the exam. You can sleep in your car afterwards. You will know your result instantly.

You will pass. You will be a LEED AP.

Welcome aboard!

Where are we going for lunch?


Graeme said...

Just passed my LEED exam, used your website as a study strategy and it worked perfectly. Thanks once again for the advice.

Anonymous said...

Looking for additional LEED GA/AP exam preparation resources?

Adding to this LEED video would be the list of LEED-related articles and tips, centered on LEED AP, GA, BD+C and other disciplines at 100Questions Exam Portal ( . There are articles on sustainable green design, heat island effect, and LEED-related definitions as well.

The only thing is that it is not a pure LEED site but also contains other exams, but it's neat interface makes it easy to find the LEED resources.

The other good thing is that you can test your LEED knowledge and prepare for the exam via the exam library, which contains free-to-try exam questions. The LEED section could be accessed from the drop-down menu, and because the portal covers several topics, it could be confusing initially due to the enormous amount of data, but if you spend some time navigating the contents you might be well-rewarded!

Susan Williams
100Questions at

Vendela pinto said...

Thanks for sharing such a great Post! As, i also love to grab LEED Exam Prep steps which is best suitable for architects, designers, engineers and students and want to crack all exams.

Monirul Islam said...

I am very excited for my LEED exam. I think LEED exam very important for all who want to know about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. you can learn it easily. It is not so hard for us to learn. So you can attend your LEED Green Associate Exam Prep without any hesitation.

Ella Mark said...

The best LEED exam study tool for me was to continuously take online practice exams. A good LEED study guide is also very important. Try They have an excellent study guide and courses.