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While studying for my own PE exam, I decided to make a site to gather the best tips I could find. I also provide resources recommended by readers for various exam disciplines. Check it out at www.peexamtips.com. If there's a tip you'd like me to add just let me know. I'm working on providing more resources and tips, thanks!
Civil PE Exam Help (aka “Giving back to Civil Transpo folks”) Alright, here’s the scoop: I passed the PE exam April (2013) on my first attempt. Am I the smartest person on EB? No. Do I have some amazing memory? I don’t think so. I think I am average amongst this cross section of folks. Why am I telling you this? Because too often we read about somebody’s approach to the exam without knowing if it’s a child prodigy who doesn’t really need advice or support or a plain ‘ol nut. Therefore reading this may turn out to be time wasted for some of you, but for others, this was written in the spirit of EB; a networking opportunity where occasional good tips are derived by folks willing to share their experiences. So how did I approach the exam? I knew that I could not relearn, or learn, every morsel. I understood that having the ability to bring resources was a blessing and a potential curse. Most of all I knew I had to develop a strategy and test it here at home. What I bought or borrowed in the way of books to prepare; Being a Transportation candidate I had the AASHTO suite of manuals: 6th Ed GDHS, 4th Ed. RDG, 2009 MUTCD. I had access to the full 2010 HCM but took only select chapters to the exam. To explain, there is so much of the new HCM that is absolutely meant for the class room or for the propeller heads of TRB to elucidate how a 57 character equation can be reduced to a statistically reliable predictor when crunched by some cosmic software system, that you won’t have access to during the exam, you don’t need it all. You need to understand that what can reasonable be asked an answered from within the application of the two volume behemoth in about 6 minutes may be on the exam. I decided, rightly or wrongly, to bring the example portions of the pedestrian, freeway and intersection chapters into my strategy. I did have access to the MEPDG mindbender too, but it falls into the same impractical category of resources to leave at home. I also had the following staples at my disposal; 12th Ed of the CERM* Lindeburg’s 4th Ed. Sample exams Goswami’s All In One (2nd Ed.) and his practice exams Dictionaries: Penguin’s Civil, McGraw Hill’s Dictionary of Engineering and Dr. Friebel’s Civil/Enviro. PCA’s Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures – 14th Ed Voigt’s Transpo Depth (1st Ed) * NCEES’ 2008 copyright Sample Questions & Solutions (its old but multi discipline AM) NCEES’ 2011 copyright Civil Tranpo “ “ “ “ Mike’s Civil PE Exam Guide Rajapakse’s Four Sample Exams for the Civil PE Exam PE-Exam.Com (2nd Ed.) Breadth Practice Exam for the Civil PE (PPI bought them up so get it there) Kim & Spriggs’ (3rd Ed) Civil Discipline-Specific Review for the FE/EIT exam Chelapati’s (9th Ed.) Section 8.1, 8.2 Highway Geometric Design, Highway Traffic * Roess, Prassas, McShane’s (3rd Ed) Traffic Engineering MY SECRET WEAPON – Mannering, Washburn (5th Ed) Highway Engineering and Traffic Analysis** (unfortunately I know where some of you are at. By that I mean its February, you’re getting anxious, you’re looking for insurance, or you’re just plain freaked so I won’t exaggerate but will honestly say this book is vital.) *What’s up with the asterisks? These books do not have the current AASHTO or HCM specs in them and that really bites because they are truly valuable otherwise. It’s either a time consuming fix of correcting them yourself or flagging the #@%& out of them to remind you what not to use and what to use. Choose the later. This is not a one book fits all exam anyway. **As you deserve, some things just work in your favor and you catch a lucky break. This sweet little gem of a reference is current through HCM2010 (with example questions seemingly able to be asked on a national exam), the 6th Ed of the GDHS, the 2009 MUTCD, even the insanely irrelevant MEPDG. BUY THIS BOOK. Do it now. Thank these fine Purdue Profs. when you pass. Seriously, minimize or logout and get to Amazon and buy this right now. Okay now that you have the bound equivalent refined wood pulp of a small forest you’re guaranteed… absolutely nothing. (WTH?) Here’s where strategy comes in. You need to work with these books night and day to know what book has what and where. To tab or not to tab, that is the question. Tab. Period. Tab what? Hmm, that’s difficult to say. I actually had an iterative process whereby some things I was sure I needed to tab, only to later determine I could pull them off the books. Wait, I am a Gigantic DoucheBag First there’s an art to tabbing. Establish a color code system, i.e., blue equals water resources, hydro, etc. so in that category it’s only a blue tab. Red equals structures… be consistent across your resources that a biggie. You said iterative! If there is a constant to prepping for this exam it is this – YOU MUST SOLVE PROBLEMS AND PROBLEMS UPON PROBLEMS to prepare. I found this was wildly easy to embrace, hence the many practice exams. I used most of them to prep and not as timed exams (more on that later). As I did more problems I found what I tabbed in fear didn’t need to be tabbed. It’s subjective, but you absolutely can have too many tabs and misplace their value by thinking, “oh I have that tabbed and its plug and chug so I am all set”. Here come the tips. If you want to work by topic area, fine. If you want to rapidly expand your breadth, grab a practice exam and go at it. One caution, traditional “studying” is not prepping. Sure there are passages to read and breakdown into your lingo, but there are problems to solve with pen paper and a Casio fx-115ES too. Problems that call upon tables found in governing design manuals that you may not use everyday (think tabs). Unless you will be taking the exam in a place that does not allow you to write in your books…, write in them. Be extra geeky like me and use a colored pencil. Why? To be ready to show the overzealous do-gooder proctor that I was given one graphite pencil (which I will keep thank you) and what is in the book was written in red and says “see pg xyz of GDHS. Remember the left graph is for two lane roads”. Define the units otherwise unlabeled in the variables. There’s no reason to literally risk it all, so make sure this is not going to be an issue and ask somebody what’s acceptable in your State as far as books, writing already in them, etc. (I read something crazy once about books not being allowed to have writing in them…) We’re going to stick with “prepping” When you are prepping, leave the clock, stopwatch, hourglass and sundial alone. Come home, eat something and head to the proverbial woodshed. (this is a good time to say prepping in an area that replicates the exam is reasonable. Don’t go overboard, remain comfortable, but try to cut the distractions out of view or listening range, and be organized. You simply won’t be able to have 6 books open at once across a 6’ table standing up swaying to and fro as you try to decide whether you need to floc the wastewater during the exam) Maybe you’ve got a handle on all this already and you prep by doing a problem in under 6 minutes and do only 10 a night. Good, fine, but I want to discourage you from being a clock-watcher right now. If you go to bed at 9PM or 1AM while pursuing this, so be it. I can’t tell you how much time to set aside. I found that I needed to first understand conceptually what was being tested and then narrowly what it was I had to solve for. Remember, we want to be licensed to accept the risk of our design or decisions and for that I want to know why I did something. That is to say, if in December January or February I take 15 to 30 minutes to look in three books to see if can figure out what the heck they are after in a question I am okay with that. By mid-March I will have seen enough problems to have a working knowledge of breadth concepts and can pop to the tables, graphs, equations I need quickly. I found Goswami’s book instructive in ways the CERM was not but both are invaluable to prepping fro the exam. When to give up on a problem while prepping. Not sure how to tackle this, but let’s face it, you’re not getting a 100 on the exam. There I said it. Don’t be insulted, be practical and admit the breadth section covers crap you don’t, won’t and can’t do. So I will answer a bit politically, make your own mind up, but do so knowing that as civil engineer you should have a working knowledge of all areas tested in the AM. Maybe a bit comforting to you should be that for this reason arcane, one off, gotcha problems are not coming your way in the AM. Being critical of the master. Ah yes Belmont, CA home of that publishing goliath that has been trusted by wannabe engineers since… oh who cares! The CERM? YES! The corresponding practice problems? NO!!! I was fortunate to get a copy of an incredibly old leather bound book originally written in 1872 by John C. Trautwine. He rips on the other available manuals and references of his contemporaries in his “The Civil Engineer’s Pocket-Book” because they have written their books for, in his words, “savants”. My friends, I sat for the exam and am sitting here this Sunday morning pouring out my thoughts for the express purpose to encourage and help you achieve your goal so when I say look at what I didn’t refer to in my list of books, please know I bought many others that I can’t recommend in good conscience. Aside from NCEES, and hey they write the exam so we’d be foolish not to use what they offer when prepping, the others, excluding Goswami’s at times, are so realistically comparable that I suspect in time they will be passed around offices to future examinees like baby wipes at the nursery. I will make one exception; Voigt’s 6 minutes Transpo and AM related Geotechnical are worth plodding through for two reasons. These books are at times waaaay harder than exam questions, but they get to the “why” and drill concepts very effectively. Sorry, its hard work for a reason. Besides anytime a book explains an answer, and does not just show the derived calculations, you’re getting some value. What else can you do to prepare? I highly recommend taking a refresher course. I took the School of PE course. A couple of the sections where too fast and undersold but WRE and Transpo were spot on. If you can swing the $$$, do it. If you can only swing $, I recommend the Irvine Institute of Technology’s online offering. (If they updated to the current GDHS and HCM2010 that is.) I took it prematurely thinking I could sit for the exam when my State chose to smite me with a rejection letter. The high value of being organized I did build two binders to accompany my purchased books. A fair amount came from the School of PE, but I went a bit further. So as I prepped I found from my 15 to 30 minute “what in the world is this” puzzle solving endeavors that I could condense and summarize a lot and sometimes sketch the path of how to solve what I previously did not know how to do (think water treatment jive). One binder (monster 4” so that the papers could be moved in the rings) that had the containing breadth topics and one for depth (smaller 2” binder). In either case I built them with this in mind, there are items that without a doubt I have to refer to that I don’t want to shuffle books for, so I copied those items from the other books CERM, GDHS, etc and put them together in my three ring binder as my toolkit. For example, for transpo I had a tabbed section in the binder that was for horizontal curves. In that section I had the “go to” tables of the GDHS, the common equations, and sample problems. I mean hey, there are only so many ways you can ask about the darn things. What I geeked out on that I was later so proud of was taking equations across the entire breadth and depth of the PE exam and solving them for each variable. Take the Darcy Weisbach or Hazen Williams equations for example wherein you have 3 or 4 variables; I would solve for each variable to be on the left side of the equation and plaster that crap onto a piece of paper so that if I was given the headloss and needed to know the diameter of a pipe in a hypothetical scenario I wasn’t spending valuable time crunching the old Casio just to get my variable isolated. Besides, do you want to find out in the middle of the PE exam that you don’t remember how to complete the square? Some of these variations are tabulated and some are not so assembling a master list may be a day well spent. If I get a chance I will dig mine out, scan them and post them. You’ve heard they monkey with units on the exam and you’ve probably said “No biggie, I can handle that”. And true enough, you can handle it, but do you know which ones are most common to mess with and where to go to get the multiplier? Are you ready to see 10, otherwise straightforward, problems suck up your exam time? The CERM is hands down an amazing reference. It goes well beyond unit conversions, we all know that, but because it is so comprehensive it can be unwieldy. Its not a bad idea to copy them from the covers of the CERM and place them in the front of each section in your binder. Same with the index, bind it separately. How about beam deflections and shear and moment diagrams? Yea the CERM has them neatly tabulated too but in the appendix… somewhere…. Throw that sucker on the copier and put them front and center in your binder at the structures section. Better yet, crank out the possibilities of solving for the variables of conjugate depth at a hydraulic jump and put that at the front of your WRE section. You get the idea. Put the time in now to sharpen your axe. (Paraphrasing Abe Lincoln – If you give me 8 hours for an exam, I will take 252 hours putting my binders together.) If you’re a transpo guy or gal, you know your tools. Or do you? If you do not work with the GDHS or RDG, you will find that they are written for daily practitioners, thus the GDHS index is not friendly when wanting to find skewed intersection design considerations. You will invariably have what I call “seek and find” problems on the exam where you just look up the value. Go through these manuals and make the personal decision of what to tab passed the most common tables and graphs. There are very few moments during the exam in which your confidence grows quicker than using just 26.8 seconds of the theoretical “6 minutes” getting an answer right. It’s nice to have time to play with that one problem you don’t want to give up on just because you know you’ve got the time to do so before the proctor advises “pencils down”. I think I am ready for the exam. Two weeks before the exam I used Lindeburg’s sample exams to gauge my readiness. I did it under a timer in exam-like conditions. It sucked. I scored like a 62. I was smoked. But I also expected to fail. Why? Because like I am doing here, friends told me that the Belmont, CA stuff was worse than the real thing. Nonetheless, I tore apart my mistakes and doubled down. The next weekend I took the NCEES practice exams (AM and PM using the old book). I scored an 84! Hot d@mn I was indeed ready. In conclusion I am not saying these ideas are original or that they guarantee you anything if you follow them. I can just say am living up to my commitment to share my experience and approach with future exam takers. I compiled the best advice I got from colleagues who got there before me, or that I read or that I paid for and put it here for others to consider. Take the exam as seriously as the profession. When you get a stamp/seal you are bestowed with a bit of a slight and a lot more responsibility. The slight comes in from you will have been found “minimally qualified to practice engineering” in your State. The increased responsibility comes in that when you affix your hard earned stamp or seal you have bought at least a high level of personally responsibility if not sole responsibility. When you pass, go to the new PE dinner that your NSPE Chapter will host. Join the Order of the Engineer. Be proud. You will deserve it. I was 46 when I did but felt pretty young that night. Good luck. Work hard and know that it will happen for you.