How Will.I.Am Studied For and Passed (on the first try) the Civil: Geotechnical Exam

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Will.I.Am PE

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I'll start with a couple Disclaimers. What I did will not work for everyone. There are some key advantages (and one key disadvantage) that I had going into the exam.

Advantages:

  • I have an ABET accredited bachelor's in civil engineering and a master's from an ABET accredited school, focused in geotechnical engineering. I also took several structural engineering courses as I was getting those degrees.
  • My work experience has primarily focused on geotechnical engineering, along with a heavy dose of construction observation and construction materials testing. Most recently, I'm been working on geotechnical aspects of water resources projects, which has really helped round out my knowledge on general civil engineering topics.
  • I'm a native English speaker. Obviously, the whole test is written in English, so speaking English as a first language is an advantage. However, this is particularly true of the geotechnical depth, which is heavy on conceptual questions that I can only imagine would be more difficult if English isn't your first language.
  • I was between two large projects at work, without a whole lot pressing on my schedule. So, I was able to get quite a bit of studying done without too much distraction.
  • I'm naturally a good test taker, particularly for multiple choice questions. I've been conditioned for decades to take multiple choice tests, and I picked up a few things. Thanks Public School System!!
Disadvantage:

  • I graduated with my bachelor's degree in 2010 and my master's in 2013. The reasons why are a story for another post, but by the time the October 2019 Exam rolled around, I was 9+ years removed from much of the breadth section material and 6+ years removed from much of the depth material.
Actual Preparation

I didn't take any prep course; it was all self-study. There's lots of discussion on prep courses elsewhere on these forums, however.

I started my preparations for the October 2019 PE Exam in November of 2018. I knew that I would burn out if I started too heavily, so I started out light. My first step was to email my supervisor, telling him that I was planning to take the exam in a little under a year and asking what assistance was available. (There wasn't as much as I'd like, but it was decent, and definitely helped.) From there, I spent most of the next 5 months just acquiring and tabbing references. I'll list all the references and practice exams I used a little later on in this post. 

As I got my references together, I always referenced them to the NCEES Specification for the Civil: Geotechnical exam. Between November and February, I went though most of my references basically page-by-page and tabbed the things that I thought were most relevant to the exam specification.  The only exception to this was the CERM. Don't go through every page of the CERM. For that, I went through each chapter that was likely to be relevant to the exam (based on the specification), and tabbed the most relevant equations, words, and concepts.  I've linked the page with the Civil Exam Specifications, below.

https://ncees.org/engineering/pe/civil/

Starting in about March, I began doing as many practice problems as I could get a hold of. I'll list them out, as well. I went through each practice exam and set of problems that I had twice during the course of 7 months, plus borrowed a few others from a friend.  In honesty, I probably didn't need to start so early. If was going to do anything differently, I'd start working the practice problems a little later. My relevant knowledge probably plateaued about a month before the exam, and I probably could have started in April, with about the same results. As I went through practice problems, I modified some of the tabbing that I had put in my references, previously. Some of the things that I thought were relevant weren't as relevant as I had thought, and there were things that I missed, which became more obvious as I was working out practice problems.

My study plan, basically from the beginning, was to study 2 hours at a time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I think around July, I added an additional day in there, either Tuesday or Thursday, depending on the week. I was pretty good at sticking to the study schedule, and often timed it, both to not lose track of time, and to better simulate exam conditions. In late September, I took a full Saturday and took a practice exam (NCEES Practice Exam c.2014), simulating exam-day conditions as well as I could.  I probably put in about 225 hours, all told.

References

  • PE Civil Reference Manual** (CERM) 16e, by Michael R. Lindeburg - Definitely a solid reference for the breadth section. It's pretty much all I used during the morning session. There's a lot of useless information, but if you reference the Exam Spec, mentioned earlier, there's also a lot of useful information.
  • PE Civil Companion** 16e, by Michael R. Lindeburg - Is literally the index to the CERM, printed out and bound. Like many others on this forum, I highly recommend having the index to the CERM printed out and bound, even if you don't get it from PPI.
  • New Dictionary of Civil Engineering*, by David Blockley - I only used this a couple times to confirm things that I wasn't 100% on and it wasn't particularly helpful. I think it could come in handy, particularly if you're not very strong with vocabulary.
  • Principles of Geotechnical Engineering** 9e, by Braja M. Das - Very handy for the depth section, and I even used it a couple times on the breadth, as well.
  • Foundation Design Principles and Practices ** 3e, by Donald P. Coduto - Also very handy. Has a strong, succinct discussion of a number of concepts, which was helpful for some of the many conceptual questions in the depth section.
  • Geotechnical Engineer's Portable Handbook* 2e, by Robert W. Day - This is must for the conceptual questions in the geotechnical depth. I didn't use it a ton, but it was definitely helpful.
  • An Introduction to Geotechnical Engineering* 2e, by Holtz, Kovacs, and Sheehan - This was the go-to textbook for my master's program. I used it a few times in the exam, but not much. It probably has the best discussion of both consolidation settlement and frost heave of any of the books I have.
  • OSHA 29 CFR Part 1926* - I just printed these off from the interwebs. Very handy for answering precisely one exam question.
  • Geotechnical Earthquake Engineering*, by Steven L. Kramer - I had this book from my master's. It was also handy for 1-2 exam questions.
  • Soil Strength and Slope Stability, by J. Michael Duncan - Another book from my master's. Probably didn't need to bring it.
  • ASCE 7-10 - I had this from my master's. It's a required specification, but I didn't use it for this particular exam.
  • Principles of Geotechnical Engineering 6e, by Braja M. Das - Used this in my undergraduate soil mechanics class. It has a couple items that weren't included in the ninth edition. I didn't need it for either of those items. 
* - Used on the PE Exam.

** - Used extensively on the PE Exam.

Practice Exams

  • NCEES Practice Exam c.2014 - The most representative of exam questions. They're generally a little easier and more straightforward than the exam I took, but a must-have.
  • NCEES Practice Exam c.2011 - There are a decent number of questions that aren't repeated between this and the 2014 practice exam, but I was expecting there to be at least a few more than there was, particularly given how much money it tends to run, these days.
  • NCEES Practice Problems c.2008 - This has a good number of unique problems, though I have issues with a couple of them. I paid like $28 for it, and for that, it's worth the price.
  • NCEES Practice Problems c.2000 - The exam specification has changed so much in the last 20 years, that there are a significant number of problems that are no longer relevant. This, combined with the repetition of problems in the 2008, 2011, and 2014 versions, results in actually very few unique, relevant problems.
  • Six Minute Solutions Geotechnical Problems 3e, by Bruce A. Wolle - Definitely a good set of practice problems. Relatively few of them take six minutes, or less, but still really good practice. This was the first set of depth problems that I started on for my preparation, and I recommend doing it that way, because it set the table really well for me, personally.
  • Practice Test Kit for the PE Civil Exam: Geotechnical, Part 1, by Ali Sheikhbahaei - These were probably the hardest (at least the trickiest) practice problems that I encountered and were actually fairly representative of the depth questions on the exam I took. There were a handful of errors, but I contacted the author and he seemed willing to hear me out. I haven't heard back from him since reporting the errors, but he probably at least looked them over.
  • Practice Exam for the Civil PE Exam Breadth + Geo. Depth, by Indranil Goswami - The questions in this practice exam were definitely more time-consuming (and generally a little harder) than the average questions in the actual exam I took. However, they were definitely representative of the harder and more time-consuming problems on the actual exam. Don't expect every question on the exam to be as involved as this practice exam. There are also a number of errors that are well-document, but weren't too difficult for me to deal with.
  • Civil Engineering PE Practice Exams, by Ali Asadi - I feel like these problems were fairly representative of the average-to-easier questions on the exam that I took. There were about 2 or 3 errors on each of the 5 practice exams.  However, the author was responsive when I contacted him and I believe he addressed anything that was erroneous. For the price, I think it's a solid source of a fairly large number of practice problems.
  • Civil PE Practice Exam, Breadth Version A, by PE Prepared - These were definitely easier and more straightforward than the actual exam, but are still decent practice problems. They're also very responsive, so I expect that most of their stuff should be pretty accurate.
  • Civil PE Practice Exam, Geo. Depth Version A, by PE Prepared - Pretty much the same commentary as the above. There were a few more errors in this one, but they assured me that they had been updated after I contacted them.
  • PE Civil Practice Problems, by Michael R. Lindeburg - 0/10, Would Not Recommend. Best used as a doorstop, thanks to its thiccness. A significant majority of these problems are just not relevant to the current specification of the Exam.  Much like there's a lot of useless information in the CERM, there are a lot of useless problems in this book. Then, even the relevant concepts are often presented in an outdated format, that's not relevant to the multiple choice Exam. Example: One of the problems asked me to graph a plot on semi-log graph paper... Admittedly, I could have found something on the internet to print off, but to what end? 
Other Items

  • Seat Cushion - I took the exam at the Cleveland Public Auditorium, which had decent enough chairs, but a seat cushion was definitely nice, particularly during the afternoon session.
  • Analog Watch - There was no clock in the room where I took the exam, so having a watch was a must. Smart watches are a no-go and I didn't want there to be any confusion about a digital watch being a smart watch, so I just brought in an old-school, battery-powered analog watch.
  • Clear Plastic Ruler - Not necessary by any means, but was really nice for picking up values off of graphs/charts. The clear variety was even nicer, because I could see the whole graph/chart through the clear plastic.
  • Water Bottle - I took my vacuum-sealed, steel water bottle, which had to be kept on the floor.
  • Protein Bars - Took 3, only ate 1.
  • Ear Plugs - Didn't need, but if you're bothered by the sound of hundreds of rustling papers, definitely a good idea.
  • Excedrin - Also didn't need, but wanted to have, just in case.
I stayed in a hotel the night before the exam. It was probably a 45 minute drive from where I live to downtown Cleveland, and it was nice to be basically right across the street and have someone else make a hot breakfast for me, ready at 6 am. I also took a sleep aid two nights before the exam, which left me a little hazy the day before the exam, but actually made it fairly easy to fall asleep the night immediately before the exam, despite being fairly nervous.

I walked out of the exam feeling fairly confident that I passed. I was able to make at least an educated guess on each question, with only a few in each session that I wasn't sure of. At the time, I felt like I got about 36 +/- 3 on the morning breadth and about 33 +/- 5 on the geotechnical depth. So, probably somewhere between 61 and 77, which is almost always plenty to pass.

I think that's about all I've got. If anyone has any questions, feel free to reply in this thread or to PM me. Good luck as you prepare to slay the dragon!

 

wedyan

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@wedyan, this is the post that I told you about earlier. Let me know if you have any questions.
thank you so much for the mention, definitely helpful information and references. I did save this to write down a lot that I seen will be helpful on my next attempt. best of luck for you 😊

 

Mohican

Member
Joined
Sep 24, 2017
Messages
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Location
San Diego
I'll start with a couple Disclaimers. What I did will not work for everyone. There are some key advantages (and one key disadvantage) that I had going into the exam.

Advantages:

  • I have an ABET accredited bachelor's in civil engineering and a master's from an ABET accredited school, focused in geotechnical engineering. I also took several structural engineering courses as I was getting those degrees.
  • My work experience has primarily focused on geotechnical engineering, along with a heavy dose of construction observation and construction materials testing. Most recently, I'm been working on geotechnical aspects of water resources projects, which has really helped round out my knowledge on general civil engineering topics.
  • I'm a native English speaker. Obviously, the whole test is written in English, so speaking English as a first language is an advantage. However, this is particularly true of the geotechnical depth, which is heavy on conceptual questions that I can only imagine would be more difficult if English isn't your first language.
  • I was between two large projects at work, without a whole lot pressing on my schedule. So, I was able to get quite a bit of studying done without too much distraction.
  • I'm naturally a good test taker, particularly for multiple choice questions. I've been conditioned for decades to take multiple choice tests, and I picked up a few things. Thanks Public School System!!
Disadvantage:

  • I graduated with my bachelor's degree in 2010 and my master's in 2013. The reasons why are a story for another post, but by the time the October 2019 Exam rolled around, I was 9+ years removed from much of the breadth section material and 6+ years removed from much of the depth material.
Actual Preparation

I didn't take any prep course; it was all self-study. There's lots of discussion on prep courses elsewhere on these forums, however.

I started my preparations for the October 2019 PE Exam in November of 2018. I knew that I would burn out if I started too heavily, so I started out light. My first step was to email my supervisor, telling him that I was planning to take the exam in a little under a year and asking what assistance was available. (There wasn't as much as I'd like, but it was decent, and definitely helped.) From there, I spent most of the next 5 months just acquiring and tabbing references. I'll list all the references and practice exams I used a little later on in this post. 

As I got my references together, I always referenced them to the NCEES Specification for the Civil: Geotechnical exam. Between November and February, I went though most of my references basically page-by-page and tabbed the things that I thought were most relevant to the exam specification.  The only exception to this was the CERM. Don't go through every page of the CERM. For that, I went through each chapter that was likely to be relevant to the exam (based on the specification), and tabbed the most relevant equations, words, and concepts.  I've linked the page with the Civil Exam Specifications, below.

https://ncees.org/engineering/pe/civil/

Starting in about March, I began doing as many practice problems as I could get a hold of. I'll list them out, as well. I went through each practice exam and set of problems that I had twice during the course of 7 months, plus borrowed a few others from a friend.  In honesty, I probably didn't need to start so early. If was going to do anything differently, I'd start working the practice problems a little later. My relevant knowledge probably plateaued about a month before the exam, and I probably could have started in April, with about the same results. As I went through practice problems, I modified some of the tabbing that I had put in my references, previously. Some of the things that I thought were relevant weren't as relevant as I had thought, and there were things that I missed, which became more obvious as I was working out practice problems.

My study plan, basically from the beginning, was to study 2 hours at a time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I think around July, I added an additional day in there, either Tuesday or Thursday, depending on the week. I was pretty good at sticking to the study schedule, and often timed it, both to not lose track of time, and to better simulate exam conditions. In late September, I took a full Saturday and took a practice exam (NCEES Practice Exam c.2014), simulating exam-day conditions as well as I could.  I probably put in about 225 hours, all told.

References

  • PE Civil Reference Manual** (CERM) 16e, by Michael R. Lindeburg - Definitely a solid reference for the breadth section. It's pretty much all I used during the morning session. There's a lot of useless information, but if you reference the Exam Spec, mentioned earlier, there's also a lot of useful information.
  • PE Civil Companion** 16e, by Michael R. Lindeburg - Is literally the index to the CERM, printed out and bound. Like many others on this forum, I highly recommend having the index to the CERM printed out and bound, even if you don't get it from PPI.
  • New Dictionary of Civil Engineering*, by David Blockley - I only used this a couple times to confirm things that I wasn't 100% on and it wasn't particularly helpful. I think it could come in handy, particularly if you're not very strong with vocabulary.
  • Principles of Geotechnical Engineering** 9e, by Braja M. Das - Very handy for the depth section, and I even used it a couple times on the breadth, as well.
  • Foundation Design Principles and Practices ** 3e, by Donald P. Coduto - Also very handy. Has a strong, succinct discussion of a number of concepts, which was helpful for some of the many conceptual questions in the depth section.
  • Geotechnical Engineer's Portable Handbook* 2e, by Robert W. Day - This is must for the conceptual questions in the geotechnical depth. I didn't use it a ton, but it was definitely helpful.
  • An Introduction to Geotechnical Engineering* 2e, by Holtz, Kovacs, and Sheehan - This was the go-to textbook for my master's program. I used it a few times in the exam, but not much. It probably has the best discussion of both consolidation settlement and frost heave of any of the books I have.
  • OSHA 29 CFR Part 1926* - I just printed these off from the interwebs. Very handy for answering precisely one exam question.
  • Geotechnical Earthquake Engineering*, by Steven L. Kramer - I had this book from my master's. It was also handy for 1-2 exam questions.
  • Soil Strength and Slope Stability, by J. Michael Duncan - Another book from my master's. Probably didn't need to bring it.
  • ASCE 7-10 - I had this from my master's. It's a required specification, but I didn't use it for this particular exam.
  • Principles of Geotechnical Engineering 6e, by Braja M. Das - Used this in my undergraduate soil mechanics class. It has a couple items that weren't included in the ninth edition. I didn't need it for either of those items. 
* - Used on the PE Exam.

** - Used extensively on the PE Exam.

Practice Exams

  • NCEES Practice Exam c.2014 - The most representative of exam questions. They're generally a little easier and more straightforward than the exam I took, but a must-have.
  • NCEES Practice Exam c.2011 - There are a decent number of questions that aren't repeated between this and the 2014 practice exam, but I was expecting there to be at least a few more than there was, particularly given how much money it tends to run, these days.
  • NCEES Practice Problems c.2008 - This has a good number of unique problems, though I have issues with a couple of them. I paid like $28 for it, and for that, it's worth the price.
  • NCEES Practice Problems c.2000 - The exam specification has changed so much in the last 20 years, that there are a significant number of problems that are no longer relevant. This, combined with the repetition of problems in the 2008, 2011, and 2014 versions, results in actually very few unique, relevant problems.
  • Six Minute Solutions Geotechnical Problems 3e, by Bruce A. Wolle - Definitely a good set of practice problems. Relatively few of them take six minutes, or less, but still really good practice. This was the first set of depth problems that I started on for my preparation, and I recommend doing it that way, because it set the table really well for me, personally.
  •  - These were probably the hardest (at least the trickiest) practice problems that I encountered and were actually fairly representative of the depth questions on the exam I took. There were a handful of errors, but I contacted the author and he seemed willing to hear me out. I haven't heard back from him since reporting the errors, but he probably at least looked them over.
  • Practice Exam for the Civil PE Exam Breadth + Geo. Depth, by Indranil Goswami - The questions in this practice exam were definitely more time-consuming (and generally a little harder) than the average questions in the actual exam I took. However, they were definitely representative of the harder and more time-consuming problems on the actual exam. Don't expect every question on the exam to be as involved as this practice exam. There are also a number of errors that are well-document, but weren't too difficult for me to deal with.
  • Civil Engineering PE Practice Exams, by Ali Asadi - I feel like these problems were fairly representative of the average-to-easier questions on the exam that I took. There were about 2 or 3 errors on each of the 5 practice exams.  However, the author was responsive when I contacted him and I believe he addressed anything that was erroneous. For the price, I think it's a solid source of a fairly large number of practice problems.
  • Civil PE Practice Exam, Breadth Version A, by PE Prepared - These were definitely easier and more straightforward than the actual exam, but are still decent practice problems. They're also very responsive, so I expect that most of their stuff should be pretty accurate.
  • Civil PE Practice Exam, Geo. Depth Version A, by PE Prepared - Pretty much the same commentary as the above. There were a few more errors in this one, but they assured me that they had been updated after I contacted them.
  • PE Civil Practice Problems, by Michael R. Lindeburg - 0/10, Would Not Recommend. Best used as a doorstop, thanks to its thiccness. A significant majority of these problems are just not relevant to the current specification of the Exam.  Much like there's a lot of useless information in the CERM, there are a lot of useless problems in this book. Then, even the relevant concepts are often presented in an outdated format, that's not relevant to the multiple choice Exam. Example: One of the problems asked me to graph a plot on semi-log graph paper... Admittedly, I could have found something on the internet to print off, but to what end? 
Other Items

  • Seat Cushion - I took the exam at the Cleveland Public Auditorium, which had decent enough chairs, but a seat cushion was definitely nice, particularly during the afternoon session.
  • Analog Watch - There was no clock in the room where I took the exam, so having a watch was a must. Smart watches are a no-go and I didn't want there to be any confusion about a digital watch being a smart watch, so I just brought in an old-school, battery-powered analog watch.
  • Clear Plastic Ruler - Not necessary by any means, but was really nice for picking up values off of graphs/charts. The clear variety was even nicer, because I could see the whole graph/chart through the clear plastic.
  • Water Bottle - I took my vacuum-sealed, steel water bottle, which had to be kept on the floor.
  • Protein Bars - Took 3, only ate 1.
  • Ear Plugs - Didn't need, but if you're bothered by the sound of hundreds of rustling papers, definitely a good idea.
  • Excedrin - Also didn't need, but wanted to have, just in case.
I stayed in a hotel the night before the exam. It was probably a 45 minute drive from where I live to downtown Cleveland, and it was nice to be basically right across the street and have someone else make a hot breakfast for me, ready at 6 am. I also took a sleep aid two nights before the exam, which left me a little hazy the day before the exam, but actually made it fairly easy to fall asleep the night immediately before the exam, despite being fairly nervous.

I walked out of the exam feeling fairly confident that I passed. I was able to make at least an educated guess on each question, with only a few in each session that I wasn't sure of. At the time, I felt like I got about 36 +/- 3 on the morning breadth and about 33 +/- 5 on the geotechnical depth. So, probably somewhere between 61 and 77, which is almost always plenty to pass.

I think that's about all I've got. If anyone has any questions, feel free to reply in this thread or to PM me. Good luck as you prepare to slay the dragon!
The amount of effort you put in to write this useful post is a clear testament that you deserve to pass on the first attempt. I'm amazed you got all those earlier version of practice problem by NCEES. I cannot even think about collecting 2008 version let alone 2006 and 2000. Great job.

 

Log1baba

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@Will.I.Am PE Thanks for taking the time to share this, I plan to take the exam in April 2021 using the guidance you listed up

 

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