How NOT to study. MY MISTAKES. Civil-Structural, Mechanical, Electrical.

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Oct 24, 2020
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I passed 3 PE exams. 

I tried classes, independent studying, a lot of stuff that wasted my time, plus all the normal forum bouncing to "look" for the best way to study in order to 1) procrastinate 2) avoid actually studying and 3) avoid all the $ it costs to become a PE.  Noticed people want to tell you how they passed (what vain me is doing right now 😎) and avoid telling you what didn't work.

Single disclaimer:  This is all my personal opinion and is not true indication of which test is hardest, which makes the smartest engineers, and what works best for you.  Mine were all pencil-paper tests.

What didn't work:

  • Plan A was to read and do all the PPI reference manual.  Don't waste your time and valuable motivation on extreme algebra/calculus/etc., what all the reference manuals start with.  The hardest part is "what do I do," and usually not the math.
  • Treating the NCEES practice test like it's equivalent to all other study material.  That practice test is your most valuable resource.
  • Thinking you can buy all the NCEES practice tests for your subject to get extra breadth practice questions.  Turns out all breadth sections are the same.  E.g. Morning practice test is same between civil-structural, civil-construction, civil-transporation etc.....
  • Thinking a non-NCEES practice test will be indicator of test hardness.  Most start good, then 20 questions in become impossible.  Feel I failed every non-NCEES practice test I've taken.  Made 80+ on all tests so far.
  • Thinking I would be able to "know" the whole test. After test 1, I planned on completely guessing on 1-2 questions in morning and 4 in afternoon.  Expect not to have a clue on a couple questions.
  • Thinking I could be cheap and only get away with buying the PPI reference manual.  Sorry folks, way better to dive in or wait til next time.  Get used to hitting that buy button online.
  • Thinking a study plan from one of your study guides is a good idea.  Focus on the areas you miss practice questions in, not on a generic hours/subject list.
  • Trying to figure out the cut score.  It's a magical black box that either NCEES or your state calculate, no one TRULY knows it seems.

  • Plan on changing your life 3 or so months before the test.  You will be seeing your friends less, eating more fast food, and generally being less healthy physically and emotionally.  Think 10-20+ hrs/week depending on how your first run of that NCEES practice test goes. 
  • If you're on the bubble, a pass or fail on this test is decided by stupid mistakes and that last step you didn't do because you got too excited your written answer matched an answer choice.  These tests are INCREDIBLE at having your wrong answer choice available every time.
  • Practice problems are the key.  Especially the NCEES ones.  Understand those inside and out.  More importantly, understand what stupid mistakes you're prone to make.
  • What worked great for me - doing practice problems in black, correcting them in red.  Reviewing that red and what trick you fell for constantly, have fun in finding that one engineering detail that they hope you skip over.  By the end, I had 300 or so problems with satisfyingly less red gradually.
  • I suck at motivating myself at the beginning.  What I found most motivating, taking the NCEES practice test first (WITHOUT writing on it and working it on scrap paper), making that 32/80 early, and seeing what I was weak on (what didn't make sense even after I saw the solution) and what I wasn't weak on (those things that started to come back to me after I saw solution). 
  • Actually taking the NCEES practice test 1-2 weeks before and grab the last bits of low-hanging fruit you can see.
  • Buy most practice exams you find on Amazon/etc.
  • Find a group, forum, or easy way to get answers.  Nothing's more frustrating than getting a practice question wrong, seeing the solution, and not understanding why the answer is double what you think it should be.  Go to that resource rather than googling/flipping through a book for 3 hours.

  • NCEES - The practice test in Civ-Str I just took was copyrighted in 2014.  Get yourselves an up-to-date copy.  You make us buy in date resources while we have to pay money to take your test.  Give us more practice questions, please.
  • University did a poor job of prepping me for exam.  Studied about the same amount for the tests I didn't have a degree in..

  • Mechanical (Systems)

    Borrowed a test masters (I think) book from a friend.  Felt I was better off with practice questions.
  • The 6 minute practice questions got super hard way too fast and took way longer than 12 min each.
  • My most valuable resources

    NCEES practice test
  • MERM
  • Shigley's (used the cantilever/simple beam appendices a few times)
  • Shoulda done more practice tests but I was cheap at the time..

[*]Electrical (Power)

  • It's crazy to think how new electrical is compared to other engineering.  There was a lack of material in general (especially practice problems).
  • Zach Stone ( i think) is my hero.  Only class I would pay for if I did it again.  No way he can still be as responsive as he was with email/etc.  Zach should definitely branch out and hit the other tests.  Beginning was annoying, but he makes it where sections have subsections and you can skip around when you understand where you're weak.  And.  There's videos/sketches that look cool.  Zach, if you read this.  Thank you.  Part of me wants to be you..
  • Most valuable resources (power reference manual was aweful - so bad, left it misspelled - although I'd probably buy it again since it's the only thing to open when you don't have a clue and go to index)

    NCEES practice test
  • Graffeo's (mainly for another practice test in the back)
  • Made a binder from Zach Stone's stuff


  • OK, you guys/gals are CRAZY.  Y'all should come up with a better way to organize things then having a committee for everything.  Got to be a better way than having to have people buy the:  CERM, wood book, concrete book, steel book, loads book, weird bridge book, building code, plus some I've already forgotten.
  • EET - honestly couldn't make it through your lectures and gave up because my normal watching at double speed solutions/etc. were difficult (please find an easy way for people to do that).  Was excited to get your binder, but it was as helpful to me as I was hoping.  Y'all should take a gander at Zach's electrical stuff so thing's are easier to find and have practice problems close to the section you need them.  Don't get me wrong, think everybody in EET is way smarter than me, just try to get better at relaying information down to us lay-folk.  Again, just my personal opinion, I didn't learn great in college, and they are very college-lecture-ee.
  • Morning portion was easy.  Afternoon was terribly difficult.
  • Most Valuable Resources

    NCEES practice test (this one wasn't as useful as others)
  • CERM
  • Practice tests (PPI2Pass structural depth practice exams book better than other non-NCEES)

Best of luck you future P.E.s.  :)