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Strategies for Passing the PE Civil Exam

  • 25 January, 2021

The PE Civil Exam really is unlike any other exam you have taken throughout your collegiate and professional career. It is comparable to the FE Exam in that it is an eight hour exam. What is challenging about it is the volume of material and the number of problems to complete in eight hours. Here are some strategies to think about that have helped me and others I know pass the exam.

1. Take a review course. Whether it's in person, virtually, live or Ondemand, it helps by creating the outline for studying and focusing you on the specific material you will need to know. It's one thing to know steel construction because you work in the field, it's another to understand what types of problems will be on the exam and how to use the steel manual to answer them. I personally did virtual on demand classes. It allowed me to do 1-3-hour classes at a time so that I could spread out my studying. There was an option to do twelve live classes each weekend, six weeks prior to the exam, however I was not in a position to dedicate six weekends. However, I have no doubt they would have been just as effective.

2. Buy the PE Civil Exam Review Guide: Breadth (CERG). Buy the right edition for the exam you are taking. It's about a $240-dollar investment but it is absolutely necessary. It is a concise and essential resource for your morning breadth exam. It has all the information and plenty of examples and problems that will help prepare you for the breadth portion of the exam. You will likely use it in your career after the exam because it is a one stop shop for so many topics and you will become comfortable navigating it. If the price tag scares you (it scared me), see if your company will reimburse you for it. Most companies will pay for at least a portion of professional development training or licensing costs.

Strategies for Passing the PE Civil Exam

3. Use tabs. Or sticky notes. The PE Exam is open book, which actually makes things much more difficult. The Civil/Structural Exam has nine code books to bring, plus the CERG, plus any other bound reference material you think you'll need. If you are constantly using the indexes or table of contents to find pages with formulas or tables, you are wasting precious time. Tab everything out before sitting for the exam. It's easy to do as you study and as you do practice problems.

4. Take timed practice exams. Along with doing timed problems as you study, it's important to take a full practice exam or two. I personally did them in four-hour chunks, taking only the morning breadth or afternoon depth exams in a given day. If you have the time and mental bandwidth to do a couple eight hour days, more power to you. What's important is you time yourself and treat it like a real exam. I had my wife time me and come in with 30 minutes remaining, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute. I had all of my reference material available and open. My cell phone was in the other room. The key is to get to a place where 60-75% of the problems you can do comfortably without scouring through reference material to find an answer or a formula. I either could solve the problem quickly, knew the answer instantly, or I knew what table or formula I needed and could flip quickly to the tabbed section of my code books.

5. Use an approved calculator from the start. Be sure to buy an approved calculator (remember to see if your company will reimburse you) and do practice problems and exams with it. You'd be surprised how awkward it is at first trying to find the square root or exponential function on a new calculator. Make sure you are comfortable prior to sitting for the exam.
About the Author: Alex Berlin

Mr. Berlin has worked in both the design and fabrication industries for 10 years. He has worked at Vigor (previously OIW) for 9 years. Previous experience includes work in commercial fabrication for the solar renewable energy sector, structural design for the commercial and power sectors and seismic analysis and rehabilitation. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Structural Engineering from The University of California, San Diego. He holds a PE License in the State of Oregon.

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