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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


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.

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Thanks JMT.

A co-worker who read my post advised that I need to clear up a few things.

Roess, Prassas, McShane’s (3rd Ed) Traffic Engineering book is also not current to the 6th Ed of the GDHS or the HCM 2010 (sorry of I misled anyone there...). I listed it because the "fundamentals" of; traffic signal timing, traffic stream characteristics, speed studies, travel time, ITE jargon, etc are all still very relavent. If I was only going to buy/bring one book of the two text books though, I would choose Mannering/Washburn's hands down.

Regarding the Irvine Institute recommendation I need to clarify that at the time, it was the only choice I found for a la' carte reviews so all I can speak to is their transpo offering. Pat Gibson did a great job simplifying concepts to actually teach how to solve problems. If they updated the references I would say its a good investment. If the School of PE now offers a la' carte reviews, their transpo material is spot on. Again, economics tend to drive your decision and some folks may only want to get help in their depth topic versus the whole CE cross section. It's a tough one, but your call just the same.

Some more thoughts:

Consider adding an index of solved problems by topic to your binders. Of course only identify the ones that really caused you to question your ability. Let's face facts, unless you work at a small firm you probably handle a discrete portion of CE and of Transpo. Being the whiz at signal timing, queuing theory and the impacts of platooning does not get you 60 to 70% of exam content so the signal specialist needs to get the geometry and capacity stuff too to pass. Its similar in the AM, some topics are off your radar so its natural to have some struggles. Rajapakse's book is indexed with summaries of what was being asked for in the index. You dont need an index of "page 31, problem 8 - highway geometry",.You need an index like Rajapakse offers that includes something like this "page 31, problem 8, HSO problem with SSD unkown for CL of roadway - not CL of lane."

Brush up on your accident physics skills, i.e. two cars travelling "X" mph a distance "Y" feet apart in the same direction collide after the first applies its brakes, etc , what's the resulting moment of the following vehicle?. (easy points)

Just as you can tab too much, you can bring too much stuff with you. If there is one great section of an Eng Econ book you used in college that lays waste to ownership versus leasing along a horizon of 6.2 years with a depreciation amount of 2% in year one, 39.7 % in year two..., then just copy what you need and put it in the AM binder and leave the book at home. Where the PE exam is not the speed drill that the EIT is, wasting time picking up and setting down books (think small table and books stacked at your side)

having to thumb pages upon pages to "find" what you know is there will beat you down.

Basic test taking tips

Its an MC exam - take an educated guess but leave no blanks.

Scan the exam before you start.

I am not the full on "rank the probelms and proceed by difficulty" type. I am the, "qualitative first, quantitative second" type. Again, if you miss the chance to look up an answer directly from a governing manual (think MUTCD) because you struggled to remember how to properly interpolate numbers from a table to use that value in a longer equation of the 3rd order - 1) you'll never know and 2) it happens more than you want to believe. Trust me, I have been told by a guy who knew a guy who knew a girl whose half cousin said that in a hypothetical parking lot wherein a hypothetical post exam recap of hypothetical exam experiences the half cousin's friend revealed that it couldn't believe how easy the last 5 problems were and the hypothetical half cousin hypothetically turned a hypothetical whiter shade of pale and then hypothetically burst into hypothetical flames. Yep, its true.

Reverse engineer the solution.

If you've done all you can and are down to one problem as foriegn to you as the Vince Lombardi trophy in San Cristobal (or San Cristobal for that matter) that has numerical answers, start plugging it into the equally obtuse equations. You just never know. If that dosen't work, with a convention that your pointer finger is "a" and your pinky is "d", slap your four fingers of your dominant hand on the table in one swift motion and bubble in the corresponding letter of which of the four stings the most.

Make an assumption.

An honest story that won't lead to the NCEES staff hunting me down... the very last problem of my PE PM exam was a geotechnical problem I should have known. I solved a couple just like it while prepping. I was spent and couldn't recall how to tackle the problem. I knew a few important behavioral fundamentals about a consituent used in the problem. I isolated the variable that I could confidently apply my very sure understanding to and plugged it into an equation that solved for the variable the overlords of licensing were seeking. My answer was close to one of the 4 available so I went with it. I am as confident today as I was then that I got that problem correct. By way of absurd, non-NCEES ire drawing comparison, lets say that you are positive that no more than 7 fruit loops fit on a teaspoon. Because of your confidence you can solve for the annular area increase created by their expansion in 1% lowfat milk for 28.97835123 seconds when constrained by the equivalent of tablespoon. (if one of you MIT grads solve this for the thrill of it..., don't tell me. I wanna save this for Alex Tribec. "oh so sorry Alex, but your faux-toucan pronounciation of the wrong answer was indeed impressive.)

Now go solve some more problems!

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October Transpo Test Taker here.....I'm printing this thread out.

Thank you very much!

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So I did buy the Mannering/Washburn book today based solely on this glaring review. I like the fact that the examples are using up to date references unlike the 6MS. Did you find the example problems as PE worthy? Too easy? Too hard?

This book likes exactly what I need to get into right now, as a thorough refresher (and introduction to some topics)...still buying 1 book a paycheck for the test, but I moved this one up in the que. Thanks again for all of the info.

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Might I inquire where you took School of PE? Your recommendations mimic the exact same tips I have been teaching for years - I wonder if you were my WR/ENV student?

Regardless, glad to read you passed!

Harry (aka, Dr. Friebel)

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John Q.,

The probelms in the book are indeed comparable. I was most impressed with the ability to use the book as a depth reference throughout the exam. I stumbled onto the book while trying to find a resource for the HCM2010. (its amazing what you can search for...) If I am not mistaken the authors were on the TRB panel for the development of HCM2010 and maybe even the GDHS?? My rationale in taking the leap to buying it was; deriving the equations, etc for the manual are one thing, presenting it to be taught in class was another.

Good luck.

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Dr. Friebel,

I took SoPE online. I don't think you were the instructor though. I'll confess, I was told by a collegue who took the class in person the that a SoPE prof advised to take the PPI exam a couple weeks out and expect to fail but then take the NCEES exam later to regain confidence as it was more indicative of the actual difficulty (which made waay too much sense). If that was your tip - thanks it worked. As an "older" examinee, I did get lots of encouragement and tips from folks almost half my age who raved about SoPE. That's also where I learned of your dictionary. I believe I used it for about 4 answers, so another thanks to you. The "slap your four fingers..." technique came from my former boss who attributed it to an old TV show, and for the record, I didn't use it...

I regard the SoPE class as my best investment to prepare for the PE despite being disappointed with the Construction section and Geotechnical section. To explain, the Construction section was just too fast and not very well organized and the geotechincal was voluminous and seemed to reach into the "depth" realm. Just my opinion. Unlike some others, I have not and will not distribute what I was provided by SoPE. It's obvious that the system they utilize is not only tested but proven by the pass rate. If you are responsible for the WR/ENV coursework at SoPE, you should be a professor somewhere.

Because my State smited my first application, I actually took that extra year to read a lot on EB and the many blogs (too many) on the Civil PE exam and wasted a lot of money along the way buying and trying "recommended" resources. I started this thread simply to try and help some folks pass while not going broke in the process. It is starting to become widely known that a certain Belmont CA outfit isn't the only option but it was succesful in running off Merle Potter's program before that was realized. Then again, maybe I've read too much.

Thanks for the congrats on passing. SoPE was a big factor.

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where to begin... PPI is the best resource bare none. its harder to some but its the best prep. if you can do them you can pass, easily. stop harshing on them. i thin pereview has most of the same tips, but a blogging chick who got a cake made with her stamp logged alot of these same ideas. TKE houses have been pushing the solve for the variables approach for years. college profs think they stone you when they pull that stuff on exams. when i passed i just tabbed my cerm and rocked it but a bud from encino did the binder gig that he got from course he took at stanford setting up indexes and al and he passed so its whatever it takes. HAIL TO THE HILLS WESTWOOD!

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Hey Bootstrap ... any chance you acquired the solutions for the Mannering Book? I'm currently arguing with the sales rep from Wiley, but he won't give them up unless I buy multiple copies of the book (apparently self-study is not seen as a viable need for the solutions).


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John Q.,

I hope prepping is going well for you.

I had no luck with Wiley either, eventually gave up. Coveted college stuff we'll have to believe... with Transpo as depth I did invest in Voigt's 6 Minute Solutions. I didn't list it above because its dated material in regard to the HCM and GDHS editions NCEES lists. With that said, if you can get your hands on a used 3rd edition for cheap, the vertical and horizontal curve work in the breadth section is good prep work if your looking for more on those topics. Sight distance, vertical and horizontal clearances, where to put the drainage structure in the sag type problems never go out of style based on NCEES published sample stuff. Mannering's is enough practice for those as there aren't too many variables to solve for (but unit voodoo is highly possible). I tabbed Mannering's book with those in mind and found whatever the source of example problem, his book lead me to setting up the solution.

All that to say - don't sweat not being able to pry the solutions from the publisher.

As you know, its not a matter of passing the AM/PM separately so be sure to put some eggs in the AM basket. Easy points exist in the AM. If you can swing the $, get "Mike 's ...", Rajapaske's and the books listed above. Very similar in difficulty and format. You will boost you confidence using them too.

keep at it and good luck

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Thanks again, for all your help. I actually had a long discussion with Dr Washburn himself last week regarding the solutions manual. They aren't gving it up, but he told me that the solved problems in the book are what he uses in the review course he teaches, and he feels they are adequate for preparation.

So if I run inot problems (I'm still compiling references and tabbing books at this point), I will just bring them here. We can all figure it out.

Thanks again.

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Hello Bootstrap,

I, along with other instructors, did teach School of PE WR/ENV online last fall so I may have been your instructor? Another online instructor is one of my former students so he may very well have continued the "tradition" of spreading these and other tips.

Regarding practice exam order: Yes, I highly recommend taking PPI's first and then NCEES last as a confidence builder exercise. Slapping your fingers is a one I have never heard before.

Thanks for the very kind words regarding the dictionary. As an instructor I found myself needing to recommend one yet the only viable option was Len Webster's. Don't get me wrong, Len's is great (I in fact used it on my exam) but it's now out of print and very expensive. That's why I wrote A Dictionary of Civil, Water Resources & Environmental Engineering. I didn't want students paying a fortune for a dictionary. I consider a dictionary insurance, hopefully you never have to use it, but if you do'll be darn glad you have it. What's the price for getting a extra 2-4 problems correct? Glad it help you on your exam.

I was an adjunct professor at Rowan University where I taught Hydraulic Design to both undergraduate and graduate students. You are doing the right thing passing on these valuable tips and pointers. I teach because I love to (or as my wife says) because I love to help others.

Good luck to all those studying for the exam this Spring!


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