Studying tips for the Civil PE exam, structural engineering

Articles > Studying tips for the Civil PE exam, structural engineering

When I started studying for the PE it was hard to find some good advice on what to study, how to study, etc.. a lot of it was contradicting information or incomplete so I figured I'd write a summary on how I studied and how I approached the exam and hopefully someone finds it useful. Before you continue reading this article is a great first read on PE civil exam.

Note: I took the Civil Structural exam


  1. Buy the CERM. This was the most important piece of study material I had and the most important book I brought with me. You don't need the most recent version, the CERM doesn't need to be up to date for the codes. You will use the code for the code questions, use the CERM as a general reference.

  2. Get every code you need, NCEES will give you a list of codes the exam you take will be based on. Find pdfs and print them, get them from work or ask to borrow codes.

  3. Buy the NCEES practice exam. The exam is 80 questions and uses the current codes. This exam will give the most accurate representation of the actual PE exam you can find. Don't use this for study problems as I will discuss later. You can get 15% discount using CIVEB promo code.

  4. Find as many practice problems as you can. I used mainly the six minute solutions. Scribd is a good resource, you get the first month free and you can download many practice problems as a pdf.

  5. Buy different color highlighters and colored sticky page tabs you can write on.


  1. Spend a day or two and tab the CERM, but here is the key, don't go crazy. On one side, tab out the main sections, I tabbed mine G, for Geotech, WR for water resources, S for structural, etc. and on another side tab out the chapters with the names and numbers (the index uses section numbers).

  2. Tab out your codes with major sections in a similar manor.

  3. Read the CERM. READ all the chapters that will be on the exam and do the problems as you go along. I did at least one chapter every day either at home or on my lunch break, many times I was able to get 3-4 sections a night. Highlight ALL the major formulas and procedures. One thing that drove me crazy with the CERM was the problem variables were all in the beginning of the section and not with the formula, so feel free to write variables that you may forget next to the formula and write some notes as well (don't use pencil!). Keep it simple though, this is only your first go through in the book, you are mainly familiarizing yourself what's in there and where to find info.

  4. Do problems. DON'T do the practice exam, don't even look at it (more on that later). Do other problems, don't worry if they are hard, likely they will be too hard or take too long, just go through them and get the procedures down and mainly reacquainted with doing problems and where to find info in the codes and the CERM. DO NOT tab the CERM with every single equation. LEARN how to find info in the CERM, use your section tabs, use the index. On test day I guarantee there will be problems you haven't done and you need to know where to find that info in the book and many equations you tabbed will be worthless. The exam is about knowing your resources and where to find information in an efficient manner.

Practice TEST

About 4 weeks before the exam, dedicate time to take the practice test. Spend two consecutive days, I spent a Saturday and Sunday morning. Saturday I blocked out 4 hours for the morning and Sunday for the afternoon. Do the exam and time yourself. This is important, approach it like it was the actual test with the two 4 hr sections. Skip hard problems, go back, check your work, etc. The idea is to get a feel for how long the whole test will take, how much time you spend on each type of problems, gauge the difficulty, etc. and when you finish each section, grade yourself and see how you did and how long you took. if you need to go over, do so. The idea is know how much time you needed in addition to how you scored.

After taking the practice exam, evaluate where you stand. Could you find info fast enough? do you need yo study more? did you have enough time? could you be more efficient with you time? MAKE the changes you need to make.

Go through each problem you got wrong and figure out why, did you make dumb errors? This is how you learn, by fixing mistakes. One problem I had on the practice test was that wrong answers were possible answers, so when I got an answer that was a choice I assumed it was right. I learned that I needed to leave time to check my work, more on this later.

Lastly, in my case this practice test was VERY close to the actual exam, the quantity and types of problems was almost spot on. I decided here to tab out my CERM to quickly find some formulas, equations for topics you know will be on the exam I guarentee you will see a horizontal and vertical curve, open channel flow, truss, shear/moment diagrams. Topics that kept popping up in my studies.

Test Day

The key to the exam is the morning session. You only need about a 70% to pass. that's 56/80 +/-, that means if you get 40 correct in the morning, you only need 16 correct in the afternoon to pass, think about that. 16/40 on the afternoon part if you can ace the morning. If you get 5 wrong in the morning you still only need half the afternoon correct. The morning is easier in that you aren't searching all your codes, almost everything is a generic concept covered in the CERM or maybe some other design table you brought with you or some other approach you studied. If you studied the CERM and know it, you should be able to figure out how to solve most problems.

I knew from my practice test, I could finish the morning with enough time to spare so I went through and did all the easy problems first, anything I could answer in less than a minute. Then I went back and worked on the harder ones or ones I needed to really search the CERM for. After an hour I had half the test done and I was finished the morning in 2.5 hours or so. Once I was done, I went back over the test and checked my work and reworked the problems and I FIXED a over handful of errors. I knew I was going to make these mistakes from taking the practice exam so I made sure to double check my work. I could bet I would not have passed if I didn't look back over my work. I highly recommend budgeting time to at least give a look over your approach and answers.

As you will see in the practice exam, the afternoon is completely different, not really harder, just that you will be spending more time looking through all the codes. I used up almost all my time in the afternoon. I took the same approach as the morning, do all the easy ones first, then go back and do the ones you have an idea on, and finally do the ones you need to spend the most time on. If you can knock out the easy problems off the bat you could increase your time from 6min/problem to 7 or 9/min per problem or more and you will need it.

Having the extra time, I was able to dig through the codes to find the answers to about 5 problems buried in those codes.

Extra tip, bring the practice NCEES test with you and other worked out problems with solutions and use it to help solve similar problems if they are on the text. I was able to work out 2-3 additional problems on the exam that were similar to the NCEES practice test.

I can't stress enough how knowing your resources is important, if you are fumbling through the CERM or codes on test day, you have no chance.

My area of focus is bridges, there wasn't one single bridge question on the test and I didn't open AASHTO once during the exam. 90% of the codes I used on test day I never used before for my job but I was familiar with the codes and knew where to find the information and that made my life easier.

Good luck to everyone studying and I hope these tips will help many of you pass the exam.

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