I haven't commented since taking the exam a year ago because I didn't feel I had anything helpful to say but now I think perhaps I do. I will share my perception and hopefully it will be helpful to most and if not, early discernible as such. In any case, recognize that my experience is just one data point (maybe 2, if you count my buddy, mentioned below). And if you do not LOVE mechanical engineering, I suggest you do not read this at all. Also, if you have the same abilities as me but do not believe in or pray to God, you may not fare as well as I did. I do guarantee one thing - that I am writing this up purely out of the hope to help someone out, maybe help them succeed, maybe bleed a little less.
I am 51 years old, have worked as a designer/analyst in machine design, thermal-hydraulics, maintenance for 20 years. I passed the machine design PE on my first try last Oct. I should say, I was very in-depth as a college student. I always spent many hours deriving equations and applying them rather than just going to class, seeing how to do the problems and doing the homework. As a result, all that stuff seems to have stuck with me over the years. Plus having used some of it in my job has also ingrained it into my mind. I often hear engineers comment that they cannot remember anything; if you are such a one, you may need to study more than I did.
I bought a fair amount of bookage to prepare and made plans to march through the practice problems and everything beginning in July. I barely, BARELY made the decision to submit my application in time to squeak under the deadline to take the test in Oct. Thanks to kind colleagues, I got good input in time. I did have a little pressure, I guess, from the fact that I was paying for all of this out of my personal savings.
I did not come close to studying and practicing as much as I had planned. Commitment to clients who hardly knew what the test was about prevented me. But I never gave up; I was determined to give it my best shot with what I had left. As it turns out, I didn't actually start studying until August or September and I only made it through 1/5 of the Lindeburgh practice problems before I started doing just one problem from each chapter. I never had time to go back and do more, and I never even touched most of the machine design material toward the end of the book. I had bought a practice exam and 6-min solutions but never touched them. I had planned to tab my books and bought the stuff but never did it. I was prepared to fail the test, consoling myself that I could just keep studying and take it again, paying just a little more. Nevertheless, I continued to study as much as possible, and made sure I was ready on test day (well rested, good lunch, had wife drive me, etc.)
One thing that kept me sort of hopeful was the fact that my good buddy from college had recently passed the exam without hardly studying. He advised me to be smart and look for short-cuts, that is, logical elimination to determine probable right answers. He wasn't suggesting I didn't need to study but he did say that being so relaxed from his expectation to fail, he passed. He took the thermal-hydraulic (is that what they call it?) module, by the way.
But I was a little discouraged because so many practice problems seemed to be tricky and would bite my butt if I wasn't really really on my toes.
Come test day, I was hopeful but thought that I would most likely not finish or pass, but I was relaxed. As it turned out for me (in Pittsburgh), the day was beautiful. The room was perfect temperature, the food was perfect, the people were perfect, no noise, and it went really super fast. I really enjoyed myself. I had to peel off some layers before the test began because I had dressed for the worst cold. There may have been one other person there as old as I but I doubt he was. 95% were at least 20 years younger. Plenty of them finished early and left. As it turned out, I was surprised to find that I was able to finish the test. However, I was frustrated because I had saved 2 problems to come back to that should have been the easiest for me of all. One was a classic problem that I used to do in my sleep, but it had been years. The other was just like a problem I had practiced the week before or so! But on both of these, I was hitting snags for some reason. Still, I used my buddy's advice and tried to guess the answers based on engineering judgement. All the other problems felt like I had done them correctly.
So I had a very fun day. I enjoyed the test. And what do you know, I realized as I walked out that it was very possible I had passed! Moreover, I was glad I had taken it because now I had SO much better idea what it was like, so how to study (if necessary to take it again) would be so much more clear. Many weeks later, I learned I had passed.
The biggest impression I had of all was that the test was no more difficult than (and other than subject matter, not really different from) the FE, having gotten a murky impression from reading the advice in MERM and other places. The FE to which I refer is the one I took in Utah in 1986. I didn't study at all for that one. Nor did I finish any of the sections in it. And it wasn't as fun. But I passed.
It seems to me the best approach is practice the problems as much as possible, focusing mostly on thinking about the problem itself and not so much about the time it is taking you. Think more about the principles and less about the methodology, patterns and time-efficiency. If you train and plan and base your hopes on the outcome of your practice exam and how long it took you, you are planning out your future. Planning out one's future in detail is most often an impossibility that only brings panic and stress when things suddenly take a turn you did not expect. A problem may be different or more difficult than you expected. Maybe it won't be presented the way in which you were accustomed when you were timing your practice problems. You need to be able to THINK during the test to avoid the "tricky" pitfalls or the unexpected. Practice thinking, not speed. Speed will come naturally as you familiarize with concepts in your practice. You will be fast enough on the test even if you were slow in practice. In the test, you do need to move on when stuck, you do need to pace yourself, but as little as possible, think not about how much time you have left. Think not about how much smarter or better equipped or prepared someone else is. If you think only about the problem at hand, filling your head with nothing else, actually enjoy thinking about the problems themselves, one at a time, most of you WILL have time to finish comfortably. The advice in the front of MERM and elsewhere seems conservative, designed to scare you into training for the test like a shaolin monk to ensure your success. But many people for one reason or another are unable to study as much as they had hoped. Others, I suspect, are able to practice as much as they had planned, and then some, and perhaps burn or psych themselves out. In any case, calm yourself and DON'T LET IT MAKE YOU NERVOUS and don't get overwhelmed - because you do have time to THINK and THINK is what you have got to do.
I know that many tests are such that thinking has been designed out. The only way to pass them is to practice, learn how to do them in your sleep, and then fly through the test, such that if you need to stop to think, you have failed. The PE is not such a test. They want you to think some.
A word about reference materials: In my experience (taking the MD module), psychrometric charts in MERM were plenty adequate. And if I had used only MERM in preparing for the test, MERM would have had me covered for everything. I definitely did not need Roarke's. I may have looked in my college thermo text and/or Crane Hydraulic Data, but only because I was more familiar with them. I think I looked up an item or two in Mark's. I don't remember whether I needed my Machinery's Handbook but to me it is moot because I use it a lot in my work anyway, so why not carry it to the test. I may have used Shigley's MD - I think I did. But it is a new book to me, so I would have used it more but was not very familiar with it. But I was happy to finally get the classic edition I have seen floating in everyone else's office since 1989. I am very familiar with Frank M. White's Fluid Mechanics, so I took it but don't remember whether I needed it. I say (again, based on the one test I took), if you get familiar with MERM, everything else you take is just insurance. Unless you do the HVAC module - then I believe them when they say you need more psych charts, but I don't know much about that. My buddy experienced the same thing with reference materials but was careful not to give me any direct advice. Use what you are used to (as I have heard elsewhere) is good advice.
I will finish with one lighter note (what the heck): I bought a $10-$15 dollar engineering dictionary. In my preparations, I needed to look up maybe a dozen terms I was unsure of. I also looked up some terms I was familiar with, just out of curiosity. In every single case, the word was something very obvious to include in such a dictionary. And in every single case, it was NOT in there! Ha ha, I couldn't believe it. Rather than try to sell it after the test, I tossed it into the round file. I sort of got a kick out of that. I looked up everything I needed to know during preparation on that wonderful new-fangled web. Didn't need a glossary during the test.