Suggestions for Passing SE Exam Part 2 – by Andy Liu

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andyliu

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  • Two weeks before the exam date
  • Start to do mimic exam using the sample exam book. Strictly follow the time limit. You shall feel the time-crunch and develop your exam-taking strategy. I am going to talk more about the strategy in Item 11.

  • One day before the exam date
  • Suggest not drinking tea or coffee late afternoon, which might affect your sleep;
  • Check the testing site and the parking;
  • Check you have all the required document to attend the exam;
  • Check your calculator’s model to follow NCEES requirement (they do check carefully);
  • Take a watch with you;
  • Don’t stay up and keep reviewing – Roma is not built over one night;
  • Relax. Even you cannot sleep, it is fine. I did not sleep at all before the exams for various reasons, but I still passed the exams.

  • Exam date – before the exam starts
  • Eat breakfast as normal;
  • Bring snacks and bottle water/coffee/tea to the exam site (only allowed to be put on the ground);
  • Arrange reference books in your table;
  • Most critical – refresh your exam strategy in your mind, both AM and PM tests! --- I will explain why this is most critical in Item 11 below.

  • During the exam – Strategy: Time, time, time!
  • I would say 90% of the exam takers are not able to finish all the questions in either AM (multiple choices) or PM (essay) sections. One unique character for SE exam is that time is very, very, very limited. Answering questions in a smart way will decide your fate. I have heard too many heart-breaking comments, such as “I know how to do it, but I don’t have time”, “Why I don’t bypass the lengthy calculation for one AM question, but do the easy conceptual ones”, “I used up all my time in the first two/three PM questions, thus I had to rush in the remaining two/one question and did very poorly”

  • The following are tips for the exam (I hope at least you read below for this lengthy post):
  • For AM exam:
  • Quickly go over the entire 40 questions in 5 mins – answer all conceptual questions (no calculation needed)
  • If you are well balanced in all material subjects (concrete/steel/masonry/wood/lateral/AASHTO), after “Step a” above you can start from beginning
  • If you know you are very good in some material subjects, start with questions related to those subjects. It gives you confidence
  • If you know you are very bad in some material subjects, skip them if you have no clue after scan through the question for 30s
  • For each question, the average solving time allowed is about 5 min and 45s, since you need time to circle the answer sheet. You gain some time to compensate in “Step a”, but normally you don’t spend more than 12 mins in one question, and you shall bear in mind during the exam to limit the quantity of “8 to 10 mins for one question”. Most of the questions shall be answered in 5 min and 30s. Remember, you feel fatigue when the exam time is 30 minutes or 1 hour left.
  • AASHTO questions are not always difficult, so don’t just discard them.
  • Some exam skills for AM test – the four choices are not random but might include some hints. For example, if you know R=2 has to be used in the question, look for the choice that is indeed 1/2 of the other choice listed. Another method is to bound the results by assuming an upper and lower bound condition in the question. There are a lot more skills that are not listed here.
  • Reserve sufficient time to circle the answer sheets. It goes column by column. Certainly, you don’t want to miss-circle the wrong one, because it takes a while to erase it.
  • Never leave answer sheets blank. Even if you run out of time, circle an answer to all remaining questions. Try all C or all B might not help, because the sample pool is not large enough to increase your “correct” probability. In this case, it is all by your luck, so treat your loved ones well and do kind things to other people before the exam.

  • For PM exam:
  • Quickly go over all 4 problems in 2 mins – judge by yourself which one is easiest for you. Your judgement shall be based on the time you spent in the material subject during review and what type of design you do in everyday basis. For me, I always start with concrete because that is my expertise.
  • When starting each problem, spend the first 3 to 5 mins to read/understand the introduction to the problem. Spend the next 2 to 3 mins to go over all questions (usually there are four to five questions for each problem, and they are mainly independent of each other). Don’t rush at this beginning stage. You don’t want to answer the entire problem in the wrong direction, which not only cost time but damage your confidence.
  • After “Step b”, you shall know the answering procedure to some questions right away. Keep that in mind and encourage yourself that you are not going to get zero point out of this problem.
  • I still suggest you starting from question 1 of each problem, mainly because it is difficult to know how much space you shall reserve for each un-answered question. Also, some questions might be related and developed in a logic sequence.
  • If you really don’t know how to solve a question, write down as many bullet points as possible. For example, if the problem tells you site class, Ss and S1, you shall obtain Seismic design category, importance factor. If the question is related to SMF, you shall list R and Cd factor. If the question is related to deflection, you shall write down drift limit.
  • If you realize that you are running out of time, which is super normal in PM module, don’t do the calculation but explain your question-solving procedure. List the critical equations to be used; list the detailing requirement (for example, max./min. reinforcing ratio, rebar spacing, etc.); draw figures showing your final design (for example, even without any calculation, with max./min. limit and rebar spacing limit, you will have a reasonable design)

  • Most Critical Things for PM design!
  • If you start with the subject that you are most familiar with, the following time allocation shall be followed:
  • Problem 1 – 50~55 mins, Problem 2 – 55~60 mins, Problem 3 and 4 – 60 mins
  • No matter what, don’t spend more than 1 hour for each problem. If you are running out of time, write down question-solving procedure, even in Problem 1. The reason is: you feel fatigue/hungry during the later time of the exam (let alone you have been through 8h in day 1 and 4h in day 2 morning), and to make it worse you are dealing with the problems you have the least knowledge. Therefore, reserving enough and actually more time for Problem 3 and 4 is critical.
  • Keep in mind, PM problems are testing your overall grasp of the subject (wind/seismic/steel/concrete/wood/masonry). Make sure your answers are showing your understanding of the main body of the problem. Numbers are not most important.
  • To pass the exam, from what I learned through many exam-takers, an “Unacceptable” in one of the four problems in the PM module will fail your entire gravity or lateral exam. Therefore, emphasize one more time, balance your time in all four problems! All you need to remind yourself before the PM module starts is – 60 mins most for each problem! Remember to check your watch from time to time during the exam.

  • Reflex of recent SE exam:
  • AM questions for GRAVITY are difficult, so don’t lose fate after day 1 morning section. There are a lot of conceptual questions that really test your basic knowledge of structural engineering (for example, zero-force member)
  • PM questions for GRAVITY are not difficult. You shall try to get A, A, A and 1 IR
  • AM questions for LATERAL are neutral, bridge questions are reasonable as long as you put in time during review
  • PM questions for LATERAL are difficult, either due to time-crunch or wide-range topics. You need to have a deep understanding of the code (for example, structural irregularity)

  • A few more words about SE exam
  • Overall, the SE exam is a great test that helps you really understand the design code. Although the process is exhausting, I do feel upgraded to another level after spending time on different material subjects, especially masonry/wind/steel/wood. Even the bridge problems have some merit to me, at least I know the typical truck load.
  • I personally become even more confident after finishing the exam-preparation process. So, if you are struggling, start thinking about how good you will be after this process
  • Passing SE is certainly good for your career, because you can start focusing on your next step instead of preparing for the exam.

  • Suggestions to NCEES
  • In the test site, especially in the PM module, consider reminding time every 1 hour.
  • In the AM diagnosis report, list the score for the bridge subject independently
  • In the PM diagnosis report, list the score for each problem. This is good for exam-takers to really know their weak points

  • Next step for me to assist in the Structural Engineer community
  • I really want to write a short exam-review book, including the following subject:
  • General exam-preparation tips, including Cheat-sheets that I created for each subject (concrete/steel/masonry/wood/wind/seismic/AASHTO)
  • General exam-taking skills for AM questions. Plan to include some sample questions for each subject
  • General exam-taking skills for PM problems. Plan to include four sample questions
 

JNS

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  • Two weeks before the exam date
  • Start to do mimic exam using the sample exam book. Strictly follow the time limit. You shall feel the time-crunch and develop your exam-taking strategy. I am going to talk more about the strategy in Item 11.
I agree with your post except this. I suggest to anyone who has the time to take the practice exams at least a month to a month and a half before. Two weeks is not enough time to address deficiencies you might find while working on the practice tests. Agree that you should mimic the exam... That helped me a lot during the real exam to keep pace. I finished all questions in both AM sections and managed to do everything in PM lateral. PM Vert was weird for me because I just punted on one problem ( just wrote code sections and tables) because I didn't have any idea how to do it. So I had extra time to do all the other problems and managed to pass... Still great advice overall.

Also I suggest not overdoing it with the resources during the exam. I saw people during the exam bring in a library's worth of books. You should basically bring just the referenced codes, SERM, a worked problem book or two and a binder of quick reference sheets. You absolutely won't have time to shuffle through much during the exam, you should maintain your resources manageable.
 

andyliu

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I agree with your post except this. I suggest to anyone who has the time to take the practice exams at least a month to a month and a half before. Two weeks is not enough time to address deficiencies you might find while working on the practice tests. Agree that you should mimic the exam... That helped me a lot during the real exam to keep pace. I finished all questions in both AM sections and managed to do everything in PM lateral. PM Vert was weird for me because I just punted on one problem ( just wrote code sections and tables) because I didn't have any idea how to do it. So I had extra time to do all the other problems and managed to pass... Still great advice overall.

Also I suggest not overdoing it with the resources during the exam. I saw people during the exam bring in a library's worth of books. You should basically bring just the referenced codes, SERM, a worked problem book or two and a binder of quick reference sheets. You absolutely won't have time to shuffle through much during the exam, you should maintain your resources manageable.
This is valuable suggestion. People shall definitely consider it. Just don't lose confidence if you do the first mimic exam, it is not always good.
 
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