Suggestions for Passing SE Exam Part 1 – by Andy Liu

Professional Engineer & PE Exam Forum

Help Support Professional Engineer & PE Exam Forum:


Dec 26, 2021
Reaction score
  • Why am I writing this post?
  • Structural Engineers design for buildings worth billions but they don’t get paid equally to the value they create. They still have to study hard to pass many exams, including: FE, PE, CA Seismic, CA Surveying, SE Gravity, SE Lateral, etc.
  • I am with all of you, especially when you were waiting for the exam results or when you got a red “Unacceptable” in the NCEES account. I have read many posts in structural engineers’ forum and heard too many sad stories. Some have taken the SE exam multiple times (3 or 4) and even started to think about changing career path. I am hoping my suggestions below will help you a little. To be clear in front, the followings are my own strategy and might not be suitable for everyone, so I don’t take responsibility if you don’t pass SE exam if you use the suggestions below. At the end of the day, you control your study and you take the exam, not me.
  • My personal opinion is that if you spend time well (during exam-review and exam-taking), you have a high chance to pass the exam. The SE exam is fair to everyone and it is certainly not a competence test. It is not science, you always have an answer to each question that exists in the materials you have or have not reviewed.

  • Exam-review process – When shall I start? How many hours shall I put in?
  • I knew a few people started 6-8 weeks before the exam, spending 1h to 2h each day and 8h to 12h during weekends, but most people started around 3 to 4 months before the exam with 1h to 2h each day and 4h to 8h during weekends. Closer to the exam date the weekend hours usually greatly grow. It also depends on you take on gravity/lateral at the same time or not.

  • Do I need to take a review class?
  • I did not take any class, just studied by myself. Reading through the posts in engineering forum, some exam-takers felt worthy of taking classes. My opinion is that if you need a group-study environment and have lecturers giving you a fixed review schedule each week, you probably shall take classes. Since I did not take classes, I had no position to say how much help the class would provide.

  • What review materials shall I use?
  • All code required by the exam. I strongly suggest reading all code section and mark your books for lateral seismic (ASCE 7-16); lateral wood (SDPWS); lateral steel (Seismic Design Manual – AISC 341 part 9.1). They are all pretty short and you are going to use them in your daily design anyway.
    SE Structural Engineering Reference Manual by Alan Williams – This is mostly for Gravity exam. It lists most of the basics.
  • Seismic and Wind Forces by Alan Williams – This is mostly for Lateral exam. It summarizes most of the topics.
  • Bridge Problems for SE Exam by David Connor – This is for bridges problem in AM test. It is written per AASHTO code section.
  • Sample exam book by NCEES / 16 hour SE practice exam by Joseph Schuster/ Six-minute Solutions for SE by Christine Subasic - Obviously sample problems are necessary for you to practice for time-monitoring.

  • How to tab the books?
  • For the code books that you are not familiar with, tabbing is necessary. List some examples:
  • Steel – SMF/SCBF/EBF/BRBF in Seismic Design Manual;
  • Masonry – LRFD or ASD design methods (pick one); shear wall reinforcing requirement
  • Wood – nail capacity table (wood to wood)
  • Concrete – SMF/Shear wall detailing/Coupling beam
  • Wind – MWFRS/ CC (Each have two methods and simplified version); Non-structural (chapter 29)
  • Tabbing the AASHTO is certainly a must. Use David Connor’s book to guide your tabbing.

  • For the reference books, tabbing the pages showing design procedures. List some examples:
  • SE SERM – Masonry wall vertical/shear reinforcing design example
  • Seismic and Wind Forces – Concrete moment frame detailing and design example

  • Do not over-tab your books. Too many tabs will only cost you time to flip through.

  • How to cross-reference the review materials?
  • Most of the time, the review materials (such as SE SERM, Seismic and Wind Forces) will reference the associated code section. List some examples below:
  • In SE SERM wood chapter, there are multiple tables referencing different adjustment factors in SDPWS. I suggest you writing down on the SERM book about the pages referenced in SDPWS
  • In ASCE 7-16 wind section, there are a lot of tables/figures are far away from the text where they are cited for the first time. I suggest you writing down the pages that the tables/figures are actually on (might be 10 pages away)

  • How to prepare cheat-sheet?
    Maybe review classes provide some cheat-sheets, but I have to say you need to be very familiar with the content in the cheat-sheets. I created all cheat-sheets by myself. Also, the SE SERM (for gravity) and the Seismic and Wind Forces (for lateral) have included most of the design procedure and design examples that you can follow.
  • I also printed out some cheat-sheets that included often-used contents (for example, rebar area page in ACI 318, load combinations in AASSHTO), mistakes I always make (wood shear wall/diaphragm capacity needs to divided by 2 in ASD), etc. I end it up using these general cheat-sheets often during the exam.


Jul 13, 2022
Reaction score
Miami, FL
I'm starting by first going through untimed and AsMuchAsPossible not looking at the answers from both the NCEES sample exam and the PPI practice book to see where I'm at. The plan is take Vertical in April'23 and Lateral October'23.