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How to prepare for PE Civil Exam in 26 weeks; my personal experience

Articles > How to prepare for PE Civil Exam in 26 weeks; my personal experience

I wanted to do a write-up to share my experience of how I studied for the exam and ultimately came out with a passing grade so that those that are currently studying or are thinking of studying have some kind of reference to go to instead of grasping at straws the way I did in the beginning. For reference, I was not the best student in college and graduated with a 2.8 GPA for my B.S in Civil Engineering and absolutely struggled to get that. I studied my a$$ off and just couldn’t get good grades throughout my college career, it comes naturally to some but I unfortunately was not one of those. I feel like its important to state this to I can bring some context to those who can relate and if you can’t, it will again hopefully serve as a useful reference. Lastly, I took the PE Civil Exam and Construction depth a little over 4 years after I graduated. To be quite honest, I never needed a scientific calculator to do any of the math I was doing post-graduation primarily because I was on the Construction side of things so it was manly quantities and “simple math”.

To start, I want to recommend that you will need between (6) months of studying from knowing nothing to becoming fluent in your material and respective depth topic, I will highlight a rough schedule later on. I used School of PE (SoPE) to guide me through and I will rate them an overall 8/10 in helping me get to where I was and being a good resource overall. You’re obviously free to use whomever you wish but again this was my journey. The AM sections are roughly divided into the following main sections: Geotech, Hydro, Construction, Structural, Transportation, Economics. For me, my Depth Construction section put more emphasis on these AM topics in certain situations which made studying the Depth a bit easier because I already had a grasp on the knowledge because of the order in which I studied.

For those starting with a blank slate like I did (knowing nothing), I recommend the following schedule over the 6 months of studying to help get you prepared. Note that I personally studied 6 days a week with Friday being my only day off so I can try and be human. Monday through Thursday was roughly 3-4 hours after work and Saturday and Sunday being 6-7 each respectively. Yeah, the commitment sucks but so is taking it twice which I’m sure nobody wants to do.

Lastly, for the following week breakdown aside from Week 1, you can choose your topics in whatever order you want but I’m sharing as I personally did it. Again, I used SoPE as my resource and that’s what I’ll be referencing as I go through the schedule.

WEEK 1

Go over Binomial Algebra such as solving for X, inverse functions such as e^ being the inverse of ln when solving for a variable X. Getting comfortable with how to manipulate equations will ultimately save you from the learning curve of doing that and learning your topics in your studies. After doing this for roughly 3 days or so, switch to trig particularly getting comfortable with 90 degree triangle functions, non-90 degree triangle functions, finding surface areas/volumes/areas for various types of shapes (use your imagination here). By the end of the week, you should feel comfortable doing everything described and being developing your study habits.

WEEK 2 & 3 – Geotech

Spend the 1st week going through all the SoPE videos and tab accordingly in your SoPE notes, SoPE textbook, CERM etc.

During the 2nd week, go through all of the practice problems pertaining to Geotech from SoPE and your outside resources. At the end of the 2nd week (Saturday), take a “practice exam” of all the questions you have completed, new questions and spend time on the tough areas tripping you up. Tomorrow (Sunday), you will begin studying your new topic.

WEEK 4 & 5 – Hydro

Again, spend the 1st week going through all the SoPE videos and tab your notes. Spend the second week doing example problems from all your resources with again taking a “practice exam” on the Saturday at the end of the week.

WEEK 6 & 7 – Structural

I’m sure you’re understanding the rhythm here so I won’t repeat myself however I want to note that I would place your structural studies on trusses such as zero-force members and forces in members. Become very familiar with finding center of gravities, moment of inertias etc. SoPE went really into depth in structures, which is good but didn’t really help me overall with realistic exam problems.

At this point, the structures professor I had said it the best and I found it to be true: “Most PE questions are 1 and a half-ers. What this means if you’re not able to solve the majority of the questions within 1-2 lines of math and you find yourself going on some strange tangent, you’re most likely doing it wrong. The questions are more or less designed to be completed with 6 minutes so the examiners have to take that into consideration when giving these problems. Not all will be 1 and a half-ers but again, most will”

I found this piece of advice to be extremely helpful and factual.

WEEK 8 & 9 – Construction

Do the 2 week video-question routine as mentioned but its worth pointing out that I am stating “Construction” here because that is how SoPE labeled there videos and it covers a wide variety of topics listed on the NCEES specifications and overlaps partially to the prior studied topics. This is where things should hopefully begin to somewhat overlap and you can begin fine tuning your studies

WEEK 10 – Transportation & Economics

I would place more of an emphasis of studying on transportation than economics simply because there are more questions on transportation than economics. The professor from SoPE who taught the class was very good and I highly recommend taking notes from what he says, a lot of it helped with practice question. Also, the SoPE textbook has formulas towards the end of the chapter that aren’t in the notes that I needed such as sight distance of vertical curve, free flow speed etc. On a personal note, economics was a complete crapshoot for me. I didn’t really understand it despite all the effort I put in and this was one of the very few “wing it” questions. As much as I hate to say that, my efforts were better put elsewhere and I wanted to share this to hopefully connect with the reader to understand that this situation does come up but don’t make it a habit. It’s a very, very slippery slope.

WEEK 11 – AM Practice Exam

Congrats, you made it through all of your AM topics and you still have all your marbles so you’re going to be the coolest kid in the playground now (feel free to chuckle).

In all seriousness, this is the week where you’re going to review EVERYTHING you just spent the last 10 weeks studying. Go over you’re not-so-confident areas, go over your tabs to make sure they are easy to see, easy to read and most importantly: you can find the material you’re looking for. When it comes to tabbing, put yourself in the test day situation and think about how your brain works finding material.

I color coordinated mine to each topic such as green tabs for Geo (dirt has grass and grass is green so green tabs), blue for Hydro (water is blue) etc etc. I found that using a label maker not only sped up making the labels but made things extremely well organized and easy to read. I did my best to ensure that no tabs would “block each other” for a topic so everything could be found easily. I used 1” tabs on the top of my SoPE textbook to separate each chapter (again by my color scheme I saw fit) and used ½” tabs for each topic. For example, Geo would have a green 1” tab that said Geo and I would have non-overlapping ½” green tabs along the side of my textbook on topics I thought were important.

This is when you’ll take your first (of many) practice exams. That Saturday you are going to take a timed, AM practice exam consisting of 40 questions over 4 hours yielding 6 minutes per question. Some can be solved faster than others but this is your chance to get a sense of what your emotions will be, your weak areas, strong areas and how well you organized yourself. If you cheat here such as extra time, pausing the time etc, you’re ultimately cheating yourself of an accurate gauge of your skills. For some kind words here, don’t take the grade too much to heart because it’s your first attempt and we all have to start somewhere.

Lastly, the following Sunday, go over all of the (40) questions and work them all out. I don’t suggest doing it right after the exam itself because you’ll probably be mentally shot and some time away does have its benefits. If you can great, take the Sunday off but if not, review on Sunday. You’ll begin the Depth topic on Monday.

WEEKS 12 THROUGH 22 – Your Depth Topic

At this point in your studies, you should have established where you’re at, become comfortable with the material, how to tab and how your mind works. This is the point where I’m going to give a bit of tough love where if you’re floundering at this point, get your sh*t together. You’ve invested a lot of time and effort to this point and there’s no turning back now, keep going as best as you can and you WILL succeed. It took me a long time for things to start clicking and I just had to take it on the chin and keep persevering. If you put in the time and effort, your dividends will pay off. Just keep pushing through.

In the following weeks, study your depth topic, well, in depth. It took me about 3 weeks to go over all the SoPE videos because of how little I actually knew and the overall complexity of the topics. It sucks, it happens, but I got through it. The remaining 6 weeks I did nothing but practice problems referencing the videos as I saw fit. 9 weeks may seem like a long time but think about how much material there is to cover along with that material possibly needing your specifications. A lot of self-study is needed here on top of whatever study resource, if any, you choose to use. I would personally rate SoPE 7/10 here.

Note that this is why I am recommending 6 months of studying so you can slowly absorb the information, organize yourself and be comfortable with the material. Some people might be able to do it faster and better but again, this entire write-up is a reference and you can adjust as you see fit. Want to do all of this in less time? Go for it and let us know what happens, I support it all.

Now for specifications, this is where a lot of Practice Problems and the SoPE failed in my opinion (although the SoPE professor who stated this was absolutely correct). The exam is going to specifically call out the specification it is asking you to use, it’s not some arbitrary thing you’re inherently supposed to know. One practice problem I was doing asked for the max deflection under some sort of loading (it was clear indication of a specification reference) but didn’t list which one. 30 minutes later I luckily found it but this is not what you’re going to see. The exam is going to say, for example, “PER OSHA CFR 1926 SUBPART X SECTION 1926.XX, WHAT IS ___________?” You have 6 minutes per question and NCEES knows that, can’t spend all that time flipping through pages right? So when you’re doing example problems and they don’t specifically call out the specification, I wouldn’t waste too much time on it. Spend 5 minutes or so and if you can’t find it, glance at the solution for the specification and then try to solve it out.

Lastly, Week 22. This is where you’re going to take a PM, timed practice exam covering everything you learned. Again, go over all your notes, tabs, trouble spots and prepare yourself for your Saturday practice exam. The following Sunday (or same day as the exam) you’re going to go over all of the problems to figure out where you went wrong exactly like you did for the AM portion.

WEEKS 23-26

Congrats, you’re rounding 3rd heading for home full of almost a half of a year of knowledge that you’re soon to forget right after the exam at your local watering hole to drown out your misery (kidding).

During the last remaining weeks, you’re going to take (3) more practice exams except they are going to be the real deal. Full (8) hours, timed with a lunch break in between the AM and PM topics. The purpose of this is to again, put yourself in the seat of exam day and to feel what its like. By going through several test iterations, you’ll not only boost your confidence in your abilities, but become more familiar with how the real exam day will feel like. I want to note that I would absolutely purchase the NCEES practice exam off there website and make this the final practice exam before the real deal as it probably the most thorough. When it comes to it being realistic, you’ll only know how well it prepared you until after the exam.

The way I did my studies here was take the exam on Saturday, then go over all (80) questions from Sunday-Thursday with using Friday as my day off. Needless to say, going over all of the questions gets you familiar with the wording, formatting and general jist of how the exam will be. I cannot put enough emphasis on doing practice problems, it is ultimately the key to your success.

By the time exam day comes, you should be able to find anything and everything you need in your material you’re bringing with you in your tabs. It should become second nature at this point because you’ve used it extensively in your studies right?

On exam day, be confident, be alert and most importantly, know that you spent the last (6) months studying your a$$ off for this moment. Don’t let it intimidate you, you intimidate it. Take a deep breath, do the motions over the next (8) hours and know that you’ve done everything in your power to get that green PASS on your NCEES portal.

At some point, you’re going to ask yourself “Am I ready?” My answer to this that you’ll know when you’re ready when you see a problem, spot the mistakes as I mentioned previously did and simply know if the questions will be on the exam. It’s just a feeling that comes to you over time over the numerous questions and practice exams you’ll do. If you can get to this point approaching the exam day, I’d definitely say you have a good shot at things.

And finally, I wish best of luck to all those taking it, retaking it, thinking of taking it, or genuinely like reading lengthy reddit posts. I hope this will serve of some help in your endeavors and give you a positive outcome so we can (literally) change the world around us.


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