“Exam” by Leon Chan
Congratulations! I heard you just got approved to take the SE exam this upcoming October. For me, it was a bit of a pain to get all the paperwork signed and submitted to the Hawaii State Engineering Board. But once that’s done, all that’s left is to register with NCEES and fork over a thousand dollars for the 16 hour, two day exam. It’s definitely worth the money because if you pass the exam, you’ll be a licensed engineer! All practicing engineers have their licenses and its proof that you know how to design buildings. I’m writing this letter to you as a guide on what to expect in the upcoming months.
The fun of studying for this massive test starts about four months out, at least that’s what all my coworkers suggested. You’ll be spending most of your free time buried in reference manuals and practice questions. On most weeknights, I studied from just after dinner to about 10 pm, which is about two hours or so. Sometimes the study session stopped earlier because my brain was melted and couldn’t take in another equation. On weekends, I aimed to double my study time by having two sessions, one in the morning and the second in the afternoon. You should plan to spend about 15 to 20 hours a week studying.
The first two and a half months of studying was strictly focused on the Structural Engineering Reference Manual. This textbook is a must have and covers all the subjects on the test. It’s a good review of the analysis methods and design equations used to design structures. Make sure you have the relevant code books for each chapter in the Reference Manual. You’ll need those books to work though the examples and also to tab and highlight appropriate code sections. Tabbing is important because each of the four hour sessions fly by and you need to know where to find everything quickly.
About five weeks before the test you should be switching gears. From this point on, the focus of studying will shift to running through practice questions. I stopped studying from the Reference Manual around this time, even though I didn’t make it all the way through the book. I pulled sample questions from three main books: The 16-hour Structural Engineering (SE) Practice Exam for Buildings, Six-Minute Solutions for the Structural Engineering (SE) Exam Breath Problems, and Structural Engineering Practice Exam. I recommend saving the NCEES book for a mock exam a week or two before the actual exam. I also suggest timing yourself and simulating the exam environment when going through the questions.
While going through the practice books, I started with the multiple choice questions because it seemed more approachable, but it doesn’t matter where you start as you’ll need to study both multiple choice and essay problems. At first, you might notice that it takes about an hour to get through six questions; that’s about how long it took me. This is slower than the ten problems per hour pace required to get through all the problems on the exam. You might also see that your scores are low; I was only able to get one or two correct out of the six problems. Don’t be too concerned because you’ll learn from each of those problems and as a result get quicker and more accurate. Remember, this is one of the best ways to prepare since it helps you get used to the questions on the exam. Again, make sure to note how the problems were solved and tab the corresponding pages in the code books.
To me, the essay questions from the afternoon sessions appear easier than the multiple choice questions. I was able to find the appropriate section in the code books and get an idea on how to respond to the prompts. Additionally, the idea of partial credit for understanding the underlying theory and design process is comforting. That means you won’t be penalized too much for punching in the wrong numbers in the calculator. Remember to write neatly and have a straight edge or triangle for drawing details. The details don’t have to be fully called out but needs to convey how the connection will look like when constructed. I benefited from coordinating connection details for various projects at work.
With a week or two left to test day, you’ll want to spend a weekend doing the mock exam. I did the vertical section on Saturday and the lateral section on Sunday. This will help you get a sense of the pace of the exam. It will also test your stamina for the actual exam. You’ll notice that the morning multiple choice sessions pass by in a blink of an eye. I needed to make educated guesses on a couple of the answers because there wasn’t enough time to figure it out. The afternoon essay sessions seemed easier and less rushed than the morning. After the second day, my head was pounding but I felt relieved at being able to get through the 16 hours.
After scoring myself and reviewing the answers, I noticed a few important patterns. The CodeMaster design pamphlets for masonry and wood are very valuable. I leaned on those heavily when designing for those two materials. As mentioned twice already, you need to make sure that all pertinent sections of all code books are tabbed and labeled. The four hours given for the multiple choice test really isn’t that much time. You need to able to quickly find the section you need, answer the question, and move on. Finally, bridge and AASHTO questions appear more often than I thought. I know you only design buildings, but you need to get comfy with that massive code book and know how to solve those damn bridge problems.
You should take the day before the exam off to clear your head. Go out for a run or hike in the afternoon to tire yourself out for bed. Grab a suitcase and pack all your books, the admission ticket, a straight edge, and calculator; check everything twice to make sure nothing is missing. Head to the supermarket and buy bread, deli meat, and chips to make lunch for the next two days. Also buy a couple canned coffees to bring to the venue. Check the directions to the testing site and decide on a time to leave the house. Set your alarm and try to get some good shut eye.
The day of the exam is going to be pretty hectic. I woke up relatively early to get ready and eat a light breakfast. I got to the test site about half an hour before the time on the admission ticket. I knew I was at the right location because I saw a bunch of people standing outside with suitcases and boxes full of books. Most of them were taking the PE exam but a handful was taking the SE. At about the designated start time, the test administrators start checking IDs and directing people to their seats. Once I got to my table, I started setting up my references. I put the most used books right next to me, like the ASCE 7-10 and AISC Steel Manual, and left the AASHTO code on the floor.
Once everyone was seated, the administrators passed out the test materials and went over the prompt. Shortly after, the test begins and the next four hours flies by as expected from the mock exam. I skipped the hard questions and basically anything bridge related for later. Once I got most of the building problems out of the way, I grabbed the AASHTO code from the floor and got cracking on those bridge problems. Remember to look up at the clock every ten problems or so to keep pace. The 5 minute warning will sneak up on like it did on me. When you hear this warning, you should start looking at the problems left unanswered and make educated guesses. You will not have enough time at the 1 minute warning to do this effectively. In fact, I filled in the last bubble mere seconds before they asked everyone to put down their pencils.
You’ll get about an hour to clear you head, use the bathroom, and eat lunch. After the break, it’s time to head back to the afternoon session. From my experience, the essay portion feels less rushed than the morning. Grab the appropriate code for each question and read the prompts carefully before starting. When you answer the questions, remember to include where you found the equation or provision. Once again, make sure to stay in the lines and write legibly. If you get stuck on a question, explain how you would solve the problem. Keep in mind, they give out partial credit!
That’s pretty much it for the first day. My brain was barely be functioning after stumbling out of the testing room. I headed straight home and drooled in front of the TV. Try not to think too much about what happened, there is still another 8 hours the next day. You should watch TV, read some fiction, or play video games to clear your head.
The next day will be almost exactly the same as the day before. The only difference is that there are now only about a dozen people. When I took the test, it seemed like there are a ton of bridge problems on the 2nd day. This obviously sucks unless you were smart and studied up on AASHTO. If you didn’t try to stay calm and use your engineering judgement.
At the end of the second day, you should go out and have a couple beers. The next day your head will be pounding and it won’t be from the alcohol. But it’s alright because you are now done with the SE exam! Hopefully you passed and won’t have to go through it again.
P.S. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you didn’t pass the first time on either day. As a result, there will be another four months of studying, mostly following the previous schedule. To help prepare for the second attempt, I bought two additional books: Bridge Problems for the Structural Engineering (SE) Exam and 2012 IBC Structural Seismic Design Manual Vol. 1. The first book was used to gain familiarity with AASHTO and hopefully get enough bridge questions correct to push into passing range. The second book was used to brush up on the different provisions and exceptions in the seismic chapters of ASCE 7-10. Along with the additional books, hand written flow charts were created for different design checks and materials. I also took a new approach to the multiple choice sessions. Instead of tackling the questions from 1 to 40, I took the first ten minutes to categorize the questions by material. This reduced time during the exam switching between reference materials. Outside of the extra prep material, my study routine remained the same as the first go around. I hoped you read the P.S. and incorporate these bonus tips while studying.