Monday, January 7, 2013

PE Exam Tips

How to Pass the PE Exam: Exam Tips for Winners

If you want to pass the PE on the first try, take these tips from a master of taking tests. I have taken a lot of schooling over the years, in the military and at 10 different colleges and universities- on both coasts and overseas. Here are some excellent PE exam tips to facilitate your passing the NCEES exam as well as the California state specific surveying and seismic exams.

1. Give yourself plenty of time to study.
2. Sacrifice an unnecessary routine event, like television or movies.
3. Make a REGULAR, dedicated schedule. Keep it over all else.
4. Take practice exams regularly during your engineering review program.
5. Analyze your PE practice test results.
6. Using practice test results: study your strengths first, weaknesses second.
7. Purchase the Civil Engineering Reference Manual as soon as possible. Know it better than your calculator.

Above are the main aspects of preparing for the NCEES and state specific exams to receive a professional engineering license. Below are more detailed explanations of the above exam tips to give you an edge above those less-blessed EITs who did not  find this blog.

Professional Engineer Exam Tips Expanded

1. Time: Give yourself as much time as you can. Six months is not unreasonable. Start with a full practice exam. The brain breaks things down into chunks. As you learn information, the mental platform holds 5 to 9 items which it can compare and process. (This is called the magic number in psychology, 7±2). Items repeated in groups or frequently paired together become one item, called a chunk. Chunking is not a rapid process. You need to give the brain time to form new neural networks.

2. Sacrifice: Prior to implementing your review course, each day before today was filled with some activities: work, sleep, eating, and optional activities. Some of these optional activities must make way to provide the time you need to take practice exams, to work problems, and to familiarize yourself with reference books.

3. Regularity: The mind-body system responds well to routine. It likes it. Capitalize on this. I recommend taking a full 8-hour practice exam every other Saturday (and Sunday, if you live in California and will take the seismic and surveying exams). If you have Fridays free, take your practice exams on Friday. You want to duplicate the actual conditions of test day as closely as possible.
Find a test area similar to the situation of the test room (well-lit, open space, folding table) conditions where you will take your exam. Arrive at the time you need to be seated in the exam room. (For example, in some states you must be seated at 7:40 when the instructions begin to be read. NCEES policy does not allow examinees to enter after this time.) Begin the exam exactly at the time scheduled in your state. Give yourself a 1-hour break between each 4-hour practice test. Take a practice PE exam as in conditions as close to the real exam as possible.
Between taking practice tests, set a regular study time. An hour and a half after a reasonable dinner is a good time. For example, if you eat your evening meal at 6:30, study from 8 to 9 Monday through Thursday. Give yourself Friday off. On non-practice-exam Saturdays, sit at your desk by 8 and study for at least 4 hours. If ennui sets in, study anyway. It is better to put in 20 minutes of a scheduled hour than to skip the hour entirely. The 20 minute investment keeps your study habit alive. And, the first part of a review period and the last part of a review session are the most valuable in terms of remaining in memory. So, 20 of 60 minutes is closer to a 50% kept goal than it is 33%. 

4. PE Practice Exams: Take these regularly. I studied for three months. I took a practice exam every other Saturday. If you live in California, you may also want to take a seismic practice exam and a surveying practice exam the following day. Practice exams familiarize you with not just the material, but also with time management, reference materials, and the process of moving your reference books, exam, and other materials around in your test area. (I had half of a folding table, it was 5 or 6 feet long by 2'6", I think). Regardless of how well you studied or did not study in the interim between exams, be sure to take the exams according to schedule. I was surprised to find I did much better on my third practice test than on the previous two- despite a weak study performance the preceding two weeks. Chunking, reference book familiarization, and time management had all improved, which affected my score. Also, an 8-hour exam requires some mental training, some mental conditioning.

5. Develop Strength: Analyze your results by type of problem. What percent did you correctly answer in Chemistry? In Environmental? Geotechnical? (and etcetera...)

6. Strengths and Weaknesses: The test you completed included questions from all main areas of the PE exam. However, it could not possibly cover every area of every subject. However, the subjects in which you scored best represent the areas in which you are most likely to score points on your exam date. So: practice heavily in the one or two subjects in which you scored highest. Also: look at your two lowest subject matter scores. Read material in these subjects (the CERM is good for this) and work practice problems. You will need to buy a few different PE sample exams. Study these three or four subjects for the next two weeks, until the next scheduled NCEES practice exam on your schedule.

7. Buy the Civil Engineering Reference Manual as soon as you can. Mark the index with tabs that don't fall out if you shake the book. Use this book for your practice exams. Familiarize yourself with it. I learned to open the index, write down the page numbers indexed to my topic, and then check each in turn until I found the solution process needed.

8. Purchase two approved calculators, not one. Choose different models, practice with both, and choose the one you prefer as your primary. NCEES permits just one on the desk. But, a reserve calculator is encouraged. An exact duplicate has the advantage of not requiring any new learning. However, a carefully selected back-up engineering calculator will compliment the functionality of your primary calculator.

9. Get a good guide book to walk you through the non-studying part of preparation for the PE exam. You need to know where to source the best prices for books, how to get discounts, how to lay out an effective study plan, how to force your brain to work and learn, what to bring to the exam, and much more. For that, there is really just one quality book: Pass the PE like a Pro
(Sometimes $1.98 or less.)

If you have not yet purchased your code books and review books, I have another advantage for you: I painstakingly reviewed the available options on Amazon, and put them together on one site. They are categorized by type of exam: Mechanical, Civil, etc. For the Civil, I compiled separate pages for each of the five afternoon subject areas.

I included only current versions. From these, I also booted out material with poor reviews. See all these pages at: PE Exam Study Materials. I have placed the best materials at the top of each page.

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Update: Here is an article from the American Psychological Association. It explains how studying in shorter sessions, spread out over a longer time period, with more time between sessions, creates stronger long term memories than does studying the same total of hours packed into a shorter time frame. For example, 2 hours a night 3 times weekly for 14 weeks will produce better results than 2 hours per night 6 times weekly for 7 weeks. Both programs total 84 hours. But, according to the article, the 14-week plan will produce up to 26.5% improvement. This is a very good article. It recognizes some of the more important techniques I used to derive the study plans presented in Pass the PE like a Pro. Read Study Smart.


  1. MfM,

    Did you "create" your own practice exams, or where did you find them? I have a practice exam book published by NCEES, but there is only one version, and repeating the same test over and over would make me good at only those same problems I keep seeing.



  2. Melanie,

    I used Exam Cafe, an online product/service from PPI. I purchased an enrollment. If you prefer a physical exam, I compiled a list of the quality ones at the following link. I have literally read through all the reviews and selected only the ones with value.

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