How I passed Structural PE Exam on the first try: a journey

Articles > How I passed Structural PE Exam on the first try: a journey

I took the structural PE exam after about a decade of experience. I took it late because I am genetically prone to procrastination, but I passed it on the first try.

AM

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the CERM is a great desk reference that every engineer should have. But it has WAY more information than you'll need to pass the PE. You'll need to know what you're looking for and know how to find it quickly, and unless you've spent a considerable amount of time with the CERM, it's not going to do you much good.

As for practice problems/exams, buy past/sample exams from NCEES. Those are the type of problems you can expect to see on the exam. As for other sources, the "Six-Minute Solutions" books are pretty decent, but don't bother with the CERM companion book. Unless it's changed in the last few years, that book is filled with multi-part problems that take much longer to solve. That's not how the PE exam is structured; every problem is self-contained and should be able to be solved within 6 minutes (i.e. there aren't multiple parts where screwing up during Part A cascades into your answers to Part B and beyond are wrong as a result, nor are there problems that you should spend an entire hour working on).

PM (Structural)

Again, the NCEES practice books and any past exams you can get your hands on are going to be your best bet. Also, I didn't bring any codes with me aside from the AISC steel manual, ACI 318, and the ASCE 7, many of which were outdated by the time I took the exam. I never studied masonry engineering, and I'd done a very limited amount of timber engineering, so I didn't know those codes very well and I figured my study time would be best spent honing my skills on things I did know rather than trying to learn things I didn't.

Studying

I had the luxury of taking a refresher course that my employer paid for, and I can't recommend that enough. It structured my studying (and re-learning of things I hadn't done since I was in school) and gave me a much clearer idea of what I should expect the exam to look like. I took my refresher course at my alma mater, but I know that there are online options too. Can't vouch for the latter, but I can tell you that I probably would not have passed if not for the refresher course I took.

As far as studying, I really only did that for the month leading up to the exam. I spent at least 2 hours each night during the week and then somewhere around 4-5 hours per day on weekends. I also made sure to give myself a break here and there. I did not study at all the night before the exam. I figured by that point, if there was something I didn't know, I didn't want to stress myself out about it.

Other Pointers

Don't be afraid to bring textbooks. I found them to be far more useful than the codes I brought. I don't think I even opened my ACI 318, I just used the reinforced concrete textbook I'd had since college. Again, a book that was outdated, at that point it was over a decade old.

Also, don't be afraid to buy cheaper, older editions of books and codes. They'll still be useful and your answer that you're able to get may not be 100% accurate, but it'll be close enough that you should get the right answer. Don't blow a ton of money on books if they aren't relevant to your current job or what you want your career to look like. I could have purchased the timber and masonry codes, but I chose not to, and it was a good move. I only had two timber problems and one masonry problem on my exam, and I was able to make an educated guess on one of those and the other two were total shot-in-the-dark guesses. Certainly not worth dropping several hundred dollars on books for.

On that note, immediately sell off any books or codes that you won't have any further use for after passing the exam. These are books that generally keep their value until the next edition or revision comes out, and there will be a new crop of young engineers looking to take the exam in another four months.

Something I wish I'd done differently was get a hotel closer to the exam location. Mine was about 45 miles from my home, so I had to leave the house by about 5 AM (I'm not a morning person, btw). If your location is far away from your home, consider doing that.

One thing that I did that I highly recommend was that I let myself have fun after the exam. At that point, there was nothing I could do except wait for the results to come in, so I met up with friends, ate a gigantic cheeseburger, and drank all the whiskey ever. Maybe that's not your bag, but make sure you do something for yourself to celebrate the fact that you just took (and hopefully passed) an exam that the vast majority of the population couldn't pass if they tried Googling all the answers.

Finally, focus, but take care of yourself during this time. Give yourself a night off from studying every week or so. Don't just hole up in your house for the sake of studying until the day of the exam. There's still a world out there and you hopefully have a support system of friends and family who can support you and help you. Remember that this is just a test. It's one that brilliant people have failed and that complete morons have passed.

Best of luck!


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