The thought of taking the PE exam is enough to make anyone nervous or stressed out. However, you can breathe a little easier knowing it’s multiple-choice AND it’s an open book exam. But before you rent a pickup truck and load up all the engineering notes and books you can get your hands on, there are some guidelines you must adhere to when choosing what study materials and other items to bring into the PE exam, which I’d like to share with you in this week’s edition of Pass the PE Exam. There are also some strategies you should follow in selecting your PE exam study materials.
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As I mentioned earlier, the PE exam is an open book exam, and when I took it, I remember people wheeled in wagons filled with books, yes wagons.
So here is some advice on study materials based on my own experience, as well as conversations I have had with others who have passed the PE exam.
Think of Your Reference Materials in Two Levels: Primary and Secondary.
I believe big time in the Pareto Principle – also known as the 80/20 rule which tells us that 80% of our success in our careers and lives come from 20% of our efforts.
This theory translates to studying for and taking the PE exam. You will utilize 20% of the reference materials that you bring to the exam 80% of the time. Those are your primary reference materials, the rest of what you bring are your secondary reference materials, which you may use to answer a problem here or there.
You should also remember that your biggest opponent or barrier to passing the PE exam is not your knowledge, it’s most likely time, so you’ll need to answer the questions on the exam as quickly and efficiently as possible, and the more study materials that you are paging through during the exam, the harder it will be to finish problems efficiently.
Therefore, it is highly recommended that you utilize one or a maximum of two books as your primary reference materials, and these two books are the books that you should study 90% of the time, you can tab them up in accordance with guidelines, and you should study with them every single day, you should eat with them, you sleep with them.
For me, I chose the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (also known as CERM) by Michael Lindeburg as my primary reference book and used it for everything. I also had a book with reference tables and equations that I put together based on working on practice problems. Those were my two primary reference books. You can find a link to some helpful books here
Now, once you’re set on your primary reference materials, I recommend bringing more or less, all of your other engineering books with you in a crate or a wagon where you can easily see them all. These books should only be used when you face a problem that you cannot answer using your primary reference materials.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I sat for the PE exam, there was a qualitative question around the strength of concrete, something related to how quickly the concrete cures. I attempted to answer it using my primary reference materials and I could not, so I skipped the problem, and when I came back to it at the end of the exam, I took a look and my creative secondary reference materials I saw an old workbook I had picked up along my career journey entitled building construction for engineers. I flipped through the index of that workbook and looked up concrete, and sure enough, the book contained the exact information I needed to answer that qualitative question correctly.
Why is it an important story, because I just barely passed the PE exam, by one or two questions? So while it is important to have good primary reference materials that you utilize for most of your studying and most of the questions on the exam, secondary reference materials are also important and can be useful, in fact, they may help you to answer the one or two questions that you need to actually pass the PE exam.
Now, one last thing I want to note here, is that there are some guidelines provided by NCEES in regard to what you can and can’t bring to the exam, and a test administrator does have the right to review your material against these guidelines on the day of the exam. You should review the guidelines at the start of your study process, but let me review a few for you right now:
- No loose papers or pages
- Any notes taken on looseleaf paper must be bound in:
- A Three-ring binder,
- A Plastic snap binder
- Or with Screw posts
- Notes in a composition notebook or spiral notebook are permitted
- Pages must not be stapled together
- Sticky notes or flags are accepted only if attached to bound materials
- Any reference materials glued or stitched together, such as books, are permitted
Basically, as long as you don’t have any loose papers floating around, you should be OK. Keep in mind that during the exam, you may not rip out any pages or remove any sticky notes, and doing so may result in immediate dismissal from the exam.
I hope you found this week’s video helpful. Remember the 80/20 Rule in YOUR studying efforts and your reference material selection. In upcoming videos, I will walk through some more practice problems, but also talk about tackling qualitative problems.
We publish videos weekly on our Pass the PE Exam YouTube Channel. Be sure to visit our page here and click the subscribe button as you’ll get expert tips and tricks each week – to ensure your best success – that you can’t get anywhere else. Believe me, you won’t want to miss a single video.
Lastly, I encourage you to ask questions in the comments of the videos or here on this page and I’ll read and respond to them in future videos. So if there’s a specific topic you want me to cover or answer, we have you covered.
I’ll see you next week
Anthony Fasano, P.E.
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success
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