Monday, March 4, 2013

Six-Week NCEES PE Exam Study Guide

You Need a Plan
Six weeks until the PE exam. Have you organized your study plan? If not, here is one I put together for future examinees, already registered, six weeks out from their PE date (next exam date: April 17, 2015).

Note: NCEES changed the reference books for the 2015 exams. The correct books are listed on the bottom of the page on this article for Structural Engineering Exam Practice Problems

The first thing you want to do is take a full PE practice exam. You need to know where you stand. Even if you have not yet prepared a detailed plan of study, you have most likely been studying various topics and double checking your reference books.

Whatever you have done up to now, from nothing to a military-style study campaign, you need to assess your strengths and weaknesses. First, let's be sure you know which topics are covered on the PE exam.

PE exam morning session topics: 

Each of five topics receives equal emphasis:

Water Resources and Environmental

Afternoon Session Modules:

40 Questions in 4 hours. You will choose one module for the afternoon session. The module options match the morning session topics: Geotechnical, PE Civil Construction, Transportation, Structural, and Water Resources and Environmental.

Most important study topic: The module you select will become 60% of your exam. The afternoon section is 50% (obviously) and the morning portion of this topic accounts for another 10% (.20 x .50 = .10). Your study schedule and PE practice exams will need to emphasis the topic of your afternoon exam.


Best sample PE exam books

Week 1
Study 6 days and take 1 day off. If you don't schedule relaxation, you will steal it wherever you can. Trust me, when you know you have down time later, it is easier to focus during scheduled study sessions.
This first week, take a full 8-hour practice exam.

If you start on a Saturday or Sunday, take the full 8 hour exam in 9 hours. Start at 8 a.m., take a 1-hour lunch from noon to 1, and work the 4 hour afternoon Depth Exam from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Analyze Results of Your PE Practice Exam:
Tabulate your results topically. Generate a score for each of the 5 topics. Rank them 1 to 5, with #1 being your strongest subject and #5 being your weakest topic.

For the first week of study, emphasize #1 and #5. Forget the other topics for now.

Here is why: First, your brain needs to get back up to pace in intensity. Your brain actually requires increased blood flow to operate at increased levels. The PE exam tempo requires an increased level. You must slowly work your brain back up to the high performance levels required in college. Second, these two subjects have the greatest potential to produce a strong score on exam day.

Your strongest subject area score on the first practice exam may not remain strongest on future practice tests and self-quizzes. The reason is that each subject has a wide variety of subtopics. I took 6 full practice exams, at 2-week intervals, with moderate study in between. My score on each topic varied up and down test to test (but trended upward overall). The subtopics randomly presented in each PE practice exam will vary. And, your resultant score will also vary. This variance should be greater in subjects with the greatest number of subtopics- Structural has the most material (subtopics) and self-tests will produce results similar to statistical sampling. Variation of results will diminish as you progress along your study schedule.

However, if you score high in Environmental and low in Structural (common), it is because your mind likes the topic of environmental, or you work in environmental. For some reason, you and environmental just get along. Build your strength in this topic to ensure you continue to produce strong results in all practice exams- and on the day of your PE exam.

In your weakest area, there is the greatest room for improvement. You will rapidly improve in this subject. It is likely your low score is due to two factors, both easily corrected with a little time:
1. You need to become familiar with variables.
2. You need to become familiar with the reference materials (to find the necessary equations).

Study 4 hours each day, in the following format: 

Study the topics of the day for one hour. Next, take a 66-minute (maximum) self quiz. This is 7 problems. Take 4 questions from your strong area (#1), and 3 from your weak area (#5).

For the remainder of the time, review the solutions for the questions you chose. To create these practice quizzes, divide up a sample exam book. For example, using 80 morning questions:
  • Quiz #1: Numbers 1, 12, 23, 34, 45, 56, and 67
  • Quiz #2: Numbers 2, 13, 24, 35, 46, 57, and 68
  • etc.
That will create eleven 7-question quizzes. 

How many questions for a self-quiz? 
Create quizzes using 7 questions. This way, 5 correct gives you 71.4%, which you should expect to be a passing score.

Week 2
In a 3-month duration of study, I recommend taking a practice exam every other weekend. However, with a shorter timeline, you will benefit from taking more practice exams. As you experienced during the first week's quizzes, learning is more effective under the intensity of taking a test.

So, test yourself. You will find you performed much better on this second exam. Likely this is primarily attributed to having become accustomed to intense focus from taking quizzes, and more so due to familiarization with your reference books.

Between my first practice exam (40%) and my second exam (58%), I saw my greatest improvement. I attribute this to the two reasons mentioned above.

This week, you also want to spend some time reviewing and familiarizing yourself with required reference books, and especially with the CERM.

Tab your index pages. I listed the best index tabs for this purpose at the other end of the preceding link-test. Or, you can pick some up at the local office supply. I bought some excellent tabs in Office Depot. Your local office supply should have the same. Be sure to find tabs with a clear sticky base. This way, once attached, they will not cover any text. I found several options like this, which have good widths and assorted colors, or with wider tabs. The multiple colors will help you locate your favorite sections quickly. I used a red tab to mark the structural section of the CERM, for example.

Also in Week 2, start a Quick Reference Folder. This is a binder you will create to hold all the most referenced tables, charts, and solutions you find valuable.

This week, study the #2 and #4 subjects from your Week1 practice PE exam. However, on the fourth day, study last week's topics. This forces you to recall the data, and to recall the location of formulas and tables in the reference material.

Strengthen Recall- a Key to Exam Success

No matter which exam you are taking, from grade school to college to professional life, during an exam, you must recall. Recollection is a specific ability of the mind. The more you recall something, the easier and faster it becomes. This is another reason taking practice quizzes and practice exams is a very effective study method.

Week 3

This week, take a break from the 8-hour exam. Instead of using a new exam to determine the two focus topics for this week, combine the results of the previous two tests, and make a judgment call about which topic to add to #3 from Week 1. #3 is the one topic you have not yet focused on.

Week 4

Practice test time! Hurray!

Make this week's quizzes comprehensive. By this time, you should receive a score of 70% or better. Most of these points will come in the Morning Breadth Exam. In my first practice exams, I scored double on the morning exams as I did on the afternoon portions. As I began to score higher, this ratio dropped. Don't worry where you earn the points. Just focus on the total.

In my own practice exams, I steadily improved, with less increase in later weeks. I always scored more in the morning section. I took the structural afternoon exam. I passed both NCEES exams on the first try using this system.

Week 5

Take another comprehensive exam. This may seem like a lot of practice exams. However, this is where the lion's share of your improvement will come. Psychological studies have proven that people forget lecture material like their minds are leaky buckets. But, put something on an exam, and they might remember it for years. The added stress increases recall. Effectively, testing yourself on practice exams and on quizzes is like amplifying your time investment.

Assessing the effectiveness of time invested into each topic, plan your study time accordingly. Do not stress your brain by studying more than 4 hours per day. Be sure to get to sleep on time (not later than 11 p.m.) to allow your body to refresh and restore and regenerate. People who work with their minds require more sleep than people who perform physical labor.

Force your Mind to Recall Previous Learning
Mix up your quizzes, but continue to emphasize topics each day,  no more than two per day. Review all the questions you miss on your quizzes. Because your mind was heightened when you looked at it the first time, there is a good anchor in your memory onto which you can attach the correct solution.

For questions you almost solved, or which you understand very well, but missed, write out the solution and add it to a section of your Quick Reference Folder. I solved three questions on my Structural Depth module using solutions in my quick reference binder.

Week 6

This Friday is PE exam day. The brain operates like a muscle. You have trained it up. Now, like professional athletes, you want to taper it down.

Take a practice exam on Tuesday. If you can't get the day off (comp time, maybe?), at least take a 4-hour morning or afternoon practice exam.

Study for 2 hours. Review problems from previous tests, especially the previous day's practice exam. Collect all your books into one place. Double check your exam day checklist for the PE.

Take a 1-hour practice quiz. Review your results. Relax. Get to bed on time.

Wake feeling refreshed. Stretch out. On the drive to your exam site, drink a half cup of coffee without sugar. Find a place before your exam to exercise for 5 minutes before entering the exam room. The coffee and exercise will increase your blood circulation. These two techniques have been shown to improve test results by 5%.

Don't forget: calculator, exam documents, photo ID

Before you begin your exam, give thanks to God for preparing you. Ask for calm, focus, wisdom, and understanding.

Concluding Notes: 

Many suggest a minimum of 300 hours study. I believe this can be decreased using the intensity of self-administered practice exams and quizzes. If you have just six weeks to study, this is my suggestion. If you are planning when to begin, I recommend 12 weeks. The longer time frame permits the brain to develop its capacity to meet the challenge.

For more great tips like this one, I recommend Pass the PE like a Pro. It is an e-book, available for instant download from

Best wishes for a successful career! Peace.


  1. Did you use the same practice test each time? If not, where did you get the alternate practice exams?

    Thank you.

    1. A good tactic is to purchase sample exams. Be sure to purchase from different authors and publishers. But, be sure that you include the NCEES practice exam for your specific exam.
      This link will help you:


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