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10 Tips for Passing the LEED Green Associate Exam

Despite waiting till the last minute to study, I got a really good score and became a LEED Green Associate. Here’s where I spill all my secrets!
Paula Melton
August 7, 2018

Paula's tips for passing the LEED Green Associate exam

Paula Melton of LEEDuser shares her tips for passing the LEED Green Associate exam.

Originally published 03/13/2013, updated 8/7/2018

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t usually procrastinate.

But when I read that being a LEED Green Associate involved “basic” green building knowledge, I figured I had things pretty well under control. I started studying six days before the test.

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There’s a second thing that everyone should get straight on: the exam goes far beyond the basics. It assumes extensive knowledge of the LEED building design and construction (BD+C) rating systems, and the only way to pass the test is to read, master, and in some cases memorize key parts of the BD+C Reference Guide.

Owning the BD+C Reference Guide is not optional. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s cheaper than re-taking the test, and you’ll need it later when you start working on projects anyway. (Update: this is no longer necessary to pass the exam, according to alert readers! But I still think getting cozy with the reference guide is a good idea right off the bat.)

As a supplement, consider browsing around here on LEEDuser.com. We include a Bird’s-Eye View page on every credit: these answer FAQs and give readers the skinny on what each credit is really about. People frequently use the forums during test prep to clarify things they're not sure of. And like the Reference Guide, LEEDuser will come in handy later.

Also, consider this study guide and practice exam, presented in partnership with GreenStep Education. It is so comprehensive that GreenStep says you don't need the reference guide. Sure wish I'd had this thing when I was studying! You all are lucky....

Now for the secrets!

Here are my (once) tried and true (for me) tips for studying and passing the exam. I hope they help you too. With any luck, I’ll be back in a year or so with tips for acing the LEED AP BD+C exam as well.

(By the way, I took the exam under the v2009 rating system. I've updated this post to speak to the new v4 test—but the basic advice has not changed.)

Beyond the Reference Guide

10. Read the Candidate Handbook very carefully, especially the part where they tell you which material you need to know. Master all of it. They aren’t kidding about this—not even a little bit.

9. Explore LEED Online. Get to know all the rules about registration—including which rating systems different project types are eligible for—as well as certification and appeals, including details about:

  • Credit interpretation requests (CIRs)
  • Templates
  • Scorecards
  • Design-phase and construction-phase credit reviews
  • Timing of different sorts of communications with reviewers
  • Fees

8. Memorize the MPRs. You should be able to recite them like a child reciting Bible verses to the Sunday School teacher. What? You don’t know what the MPRs are? I hate to yell, but GO FIND OUT RIGHT NOW!

Inside the Reference Guide

7. Fully understand energy optimization, onsite renewables, and green power. These are the most important credits in LEED, and nothing will wreck your day like forgetting the rules for RECs. Except possibly not knowing which things count as onsite renewables (combined heat and power from methane, yes; from trash incineration, no).

And how do you sleep at night without remembering which building systems use process energy? or without knowing how to calculate your percentage energy savings above baseline according to the requirements of ASHRAE 90.1-2010 (with errata but without addenda), Appendix G?

6. Know your prerequisites. Be able to list all the prerequisites of LEED for New Construction by heart, and understand the intent of each one.

5. Know your refrigerants. Pay close attention to the difference between the prerequisite and the credit regarding refrigerants (hints: global warming and fire suppression systems). Know when CFCs in the HVAC system disqualify a project from LEED certification (hint: learn the single tiny exception).

Finally, commit to memory the table in the Reference Guide that shows a variety of CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, and natural refrigerants. Seriously: see if you can replicate the entire thing on a blank page without peeking. They might ask you absolutely anything from that table. Oh, and don’t forget the supplemental materials on refrigerants referenced in the Candidate Handbook either!

4. Know your standards and calculations. You should acquire a reasonable understanding of all the standards and calculations you see in the Reference Guide tome—but there are an awful lot of them.

Based on my real test and the Everblue practice tests I took, these are some of the key standards, codes, regulations, and definitions you might want to get to know. No need to purchase or read the original standards, but make sure you understand exactly why and how each one is used in LEED:

  • ASHRAE 52.2
  • ASHRAE 55
  • ASHRAE 62.1
  • ASHRAE 90.1, including its relevance to light pollution
  • ASTM E 1980, including the difference between SRI, reflectance, and emissivity
  • CDPH Standard Method v1.1
  • EPAct 1992 as it relates to water conservation (this one’s important! memorize the tables in the Reference Guide!)
  • EPA definition of a brownfield
  • SCAQMD 1168 and SCAQMD 1113
  • SMACNA

LEED Green Associate Test prep and test-taking tips

3. Take as many practice tests as you can get your hands on. Since I didn’t start when I should have, I attribute a good deal of my ultimate success to the practice questions and tests I took on everbluetraining.com. I scoffed at the questions while I was reading them, but they turned out be really valuable for three reasons.

The test questions not only sent me back to the BD+C Reference Guide over and over but also gave me a genuine sense of the actual test content. They also taught me to slow down and read much more carefully so I wouldn’t do something stupid like get density and community connectivity mixed up (just to name a totally random example that I’m sure would never happen to me or anyone else!).

Although every test is randomly generated from a large bank of questions, I’m sure companies like Everblue pay employees to take lots of tests so they can write more accurate practice questions. I didn’t try out any other company’s practice questions to compare, but the Everblue ones ultimately turned out to be quite representative.

2. Read, re-read, and re-re-read. And then check your answers twice. They give you two full hours to answer 100 questions. I got through them in about 30 minutes, using the “mark” button to flag a few that I didn’t feel sure about.

Then I took another 30 minutes to go through the marked ones, reading even more carefully. I caught a couple mistakes that way, although two questions remained baffling (I used the “comment” feature to point out the ambiguities, but that only helps the next test-taker; as the Candidate Handbook explains, your score at the end of the two hours is final).

Finally, I used the whole remaining hour to double- and triple-check every single answer. Because really, who wants to pay $150 and drive two hours to take an exam and then do something daft like get geothermal and ground-source energy mixed up? Not me.

Most important of all

1. Start early. Give yourself at least one full, all-day stretch to study—read, take notes, digest, and test yourself on—each of the major credit categories. Give yourself similarly long stretches to study each of the following:

Finally, take a good twelve hours for reviewing it all, including any final practice tests you choose to take.

OK, fine. I didn’t try that last one, but I sure wish I had. (No doubt my preternaturally supportive husband wishes I had as well. Thanks, David!)

How about you?

I hope others will add their own tips and tricks for passing the LEED Green Associate exam in the comments. And hey, I wouldn’t mind some advice on the LEED AP specialties while you’re at it!

As for those who haven’t taken the test yet—it can’t hurt to take Tristan Roberts’ advice for me the morning of : Listen to “Eye of the Tiger” on your way to the exam. Also, study hard, sleep well, and good luck!

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Comments

March 15, 2013 - 2:25 pm

In the LEEDv4 drafts, they have also stopped the acronym/numbering system for credits. Maybe it's a conscious decision to make things seem less opaque and clique-ish. Just an uneducated guess, though.

March 15, 2013 - 12:19 pm

You left out my favorites.... SCAQMD, SMACNA, and WURAG. I wonder why they didn't follow AIA and do "LEED AP Assoc." for the second tier. Then there would be one less acronym.

March 14, 2013 - 2:32 pm

Thanks for a great post, Paula! I took the exam in December 2010 as a Cornell student, and I didn't use the BD+C reference guide. Instead, I used the study guide that came with the course that I took, created flash cards from it, and took as many practice tests as I could (which I agree, is essential for passing the exam). I passed with a 95% - without ever reading a reference guide, going on LEED Online or reading USGBG's other "references" in the Handbook. The BD+C reference guide contains a lot more information than you need to know as a LEED Green Associate (it's really meant for the LEED AP BD+C exam) - and study guides are usually much more concise, cheaper, and contain additional information that you need to know that isn't in the reference guides (like LEED Online or CIR info). Since I'm a visual learner, I found writing my own flash cards and testing myself was very important for passing the exam. You can buy them, but I think that writing them out myself really helped. Now, since I graduated, I work with Poplar Network, which has it's own brand of LEED exam prep products. Based on my experience studying for the exam and listening to a lot of green building professionals questions is that they don't know how to prepare once they have the right materials. For this reason, we created a memorization guide that explains how to study for the exam based on the way that you learn (audio, visual, kinesthetic). It also explains memory tricks from memorization experts who have won memory contests (yes, they exist!), and how you can adapt them to the LEED material. I thought the people reading your article about how to study might be interested in this guide. This comes for free with our LEED Green Associate study bundle (sold for $149). One thing I do wish we had at Poplar, like you mentioned above, is the ability to mark questions to go back to in our exam simulator. Each time I've taken the exam, I've prepared with exam simulators from various companies that don't have this feature, but found it extremely helpful on the actual exam, like you said. We'll work on adding this to our system so that people can learn how to make the most of it while they practice.

June 28, 2013 - 4:55 pm

how do you learn about LEED Kinesthetically? Change a bunch of air filters? :)

March 14, 2013 - 4:01 pm

I appreciate the helpful tips, Claire, and information on Poplar's offerings.

March 14, 2013 - 9:13 am

Great post, Paula, and congratulations!

We'd love to hear questions and comments from other LEED Green Associates who have taken the exam, or are thinking about it.

I'm guessing we might get some comments from representatives of companies promoting study materials. Based on experience, I will have a couple of conditions for approving those posts:

1) Offer a tip about studying that doesn't relate to choice of study guide. 2) Diclose your affiliation in your profile and in your post. 3) Tell us one good thing that is unique to your company's materials. 4) Tell us one thing you'd like your  company's materials to improve upon. 5) Tell us about cost of your materials. Thanks!

July 4, 2014 - 12:51 pm

Hello Paula, and everyone! Thank you, Paula, for this very helpful article and tips! (I just signed-in today.) :) I plan to take the LEED Green Associate exam, hopefully, this year. This is really a helpful site.

Yoseika, congratulations! I really want to follow your "self-study" route. What were the materials that you had used and how long did you prepare for it? I will also try to check if I can email you directly.

Thanks, everyone! Keep the tips coming! Happy weekend!

Cheers,
Mei

June 16, 2014 - 3:46 pm

The v4 User Guide is a good place to start, you can download it for free here: http://www.usgbc.org/resources/leed-v4-user-guide

June 12, 2014 - 4:49 pm

hello evereryone ! I am looking for a good guidebook leed v4. Anyone can recommend me something- which contains the info about the v 4 system?

May 14, 2014 - 9:47 am

Hello everyone
I have decided to take the exam just before the system changes to V4.
I ha a couple of questions:
1- Comparing the specifications of 2009 and V4 , it seems the latter is much more simplified. Now I am wondering if I should just reschedule and take the V4?
2- If I should go for 2009 exam , I have one month to prepare. Are all the references (14 I believe) equally important or I can spend more time in few and just flip through the rest?
Thanks a lot LEED community for your advice
Cheers.

December 26, 2013 - 5:26 pm

Thanks for sharing. I think LEED GA is a registered trademark by another organization. That is why the USGBC and GBCI is not using it.

November 18, 2013 - 8:34 am

Thanks for your comments, Luis! I agree that the test doesn't go beyond those documents. However...just reading the rating systems isn't enough. You need to be very familiar with the referenced standards within them in order to succeed at the test. The Reference Guide isn't the only way to accomplish this, but it's a reliable way.

November 14, 2013 - 10:23 am

Everything OK, but for one detail, i started studying 6 months before the examination and i concentrated only on the list of documents on: http://www.usgbc.org/credentials/leed-ga/prepare , and i also reached an excellent score, what i could confirm is that the test does not go beyond these documents, i mean any additional knowledge is not bad for anyone but i read your article three days before the test and i got really discouraged because i thought i still would need to master the whole reference guide content, but it was not so. If you only concentrate on understanding the material indicated by USGBC you will surely succed.

If your intention is to go on to the next step and become a LEED AP, then you must master oll of the Reference Guide.

October 29, 2013 - 7:54 am

Congratulations, Yoseika!

October 28, 2013 - 6:58 pm

yeeeih am a LEED NOW :D thanks to you I was able to organize my self to study alone, very helpful info & tips you rock!

October 7, 2013 - 1:55 pm

Heather, Paula's post follows the rules that I set out earlier, which was easy for her since she was providing a broad range of tips and is not affiliated with an exam prep company. Again:

1) Offer a tip about studying that doesn't relate to choice of study guide. 2) Diclose your affiliation in your profile and in your post. 3) Tell us one good thing that is unique to your company's materials. 4) Tell us one thing you'd like your  company's materials to improve upon. 5) Tell us about cost of your materials.

Thanks for the tip on the sunset date.

October 7, 2013 - 1:19 pm

Hi Tristan,
I agree with the comment about keeping comments non-proprietary. One thing I value about LEEDuser is exactly that rule. That being said, I would ask that the reference to a private company in Paula's post above be removed, as there are many companies that provide good practice question. By the way, in case people haven't heard, USGBC has posted the official information on the sunset date for the current version of the exam (based on LEED v2009 material). The deadline to take the exam is "before June 2014" which I guess means by May 31, 2014. Good luck everyone!

September 26, 2013 - 6:19 pm

another good tip that wasn't mentioned here:

Make a 1 page "cheat sheet." Copy this sheet over and over again.

Then when you get into the test you have 10 minutes to "practice using the computer." For those of us born after 1960, we probably don't need to practice using the computer mouse. Take that time to instead "dump" all the information you know onto the piece of paper/marker board they give you at the testing center. ASHRAE 90.1 = Energy, ASHRAE 62.1 = ventilation, HFCs have ODP of ~0 but high GWP, etc. That can help you keep your cool when you get asked some question 'cause you can just refer to your "cheat sheet"

September 26, 2013 - 6:07 pm

If the building is connected to an existing chilled water system... you can demonstrate that phasing out the CFCs is not feasible. That must be done by a third party... if the simple payback period is longer than 10 years then the phase out is considered not economically feasible.

September 26, 2013 - 3:25 pm

what is the single tiny exception of the CFC´S in HVAC?
am confused! haha it is that there is no win-win solution?

September 17, 2013 - 8:14 pm

chatted briefly with a 0 waste contractor in my area about getting into what he does and he said the 1st thing to do would be getting a LEED green associates. What makes getting a LEED green associates so important and what kind of opportunities does it open for you? I really want to work in sustainable construction and i'd like to know if going through with this is really the right choice for me.

May 26, 2013 - 9:59 am

I agree on the abbreviations portion.
It got me rather confused at the beginning of my exam preparations for LEED exams!

March 14, 2013 - 2:15 pm

I passed without the BD+C Reference guide. I bought practice tests and a book by Michelle Cottrell (showed up on Amazon when I searched for LEED Green Associate) then I got stressed 3 days before the test and bought the USGBC Study Guide which didn't really have new information just some new quiz Q+A. I think one of the quiz sets I got was from Studio 4 LLC. I'm not affiliated with any of those study materials.

When I was studying for the LEED AP O+M test I'd put little notes on things like cleaners/pest control products to remind me which credits were associated with those products (easier to memorize than just words on a page). I also read the credit language out loud and recorded it using my iPhone and would play it while I was in the car... so I never wasted a minute when I could be studying!

quizes are the most important I think because they show you where you are weak and where you might have misinterpretted the credit language.

March 14, 2013 - 1:49 pm

Great post Paula!
That was earily similar to my Green Associate exam content, especially the refrigerant part. I was surprised at all the refrigerant questions, and the in-depth detail of the questions. Definately spend time on the refrigerant chart and referenced standard "The Treatment by LEED of the Environmental Impact of HVAC Refrigerants".