Studying through soil mechanics“Know where to find the information and how to use it – That’s the secret of success.” – Albert Einstein

That is the perfect quote for the PE Exam and is one of the secrets of success for passing. There are a lot of people who put in a lot of time studying for the PE exam but don’t pass.  Also there are a lot of people who spend thousands on courses and don’t pass.  The reason is, they don’t understand the real keys to passing this exam.  Once you understand these keys and you put some work in anyone can pass.  I spent 4 months studying for only one hour a night with very little background information and I passed.  Really…I am a school trained, Chemical and Environmental engineer, who never took a college course in transportation, geotechnical or water resources.  So if I can pass this Exam, so can you!!!

Key #1: Understand the test you are taking – Breath and Depth: This sounds simple, but make sure you truly understand the test that you are taking and the subject topics. The biggest thing is don’t spend any of your time with the other sections depth problems. You don’t need to be studying indeterminate analysis if you are taking the Construction Depth Civil PE Exam.   If you understand the test you will study smarter and not waste your time.  When you first get started trying to study for the PE Exam it can seem so overwhelming. A lot of people bounce around from subject to subject and just confuse themselves. If you try to read the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM) by Lindeburg you may die from boredom or overload.  Studying from that book is wrong in a lot of ways but most important is because that book covers a lot of depth portions that you shouldn’t be looking at.  Don’t get me wrong, the CERM is an absolute masterpiece and a must have, it is the #1 resource used during the test by far. I don’t think any Civil Engineer can argue against that however, it is not a study guide. The NCEES tells you exactly what to study and what references to buy, so pay attention to what you are doing.

Key #2: Buy your references and practice problem books NOW!: I can’t stress this enough, BUY THE BOOKS, you really do need them. Go to my Exam Material section and buy them now.  If you are really committed to passing the test this should be your first priority.  Skimming my website, searching the web, or looking over the CERM and doing some practice problems are far less important than spending the first day or so to get the material you need to study and reference. You need to get all the design standards, reference manuals, practice problems, sample exams and supplies.  The bottom line is you should buy all the design standards that NCEES recommends, the Civil Engineering Reference Manuel, a bunch of problem books, at least one sample exam, and all your supplies(binders/tabs/calculators).  If you don’t do this it is a huge mistake that a lot of people make. Many people slowly wade into studying and getting all the stuff they need. Then by the time they figure what they should have it is too late and they are getting the design standards right before the test so they don’t have enough time to understand how to use them. So what are you waiting for, you paid your application fee, your fee for seating for the exam, now it is time to pay the additional $600-$800 for the material so you don’t have to take this test again. The sooner you are working with the material the better you will be.

Key #3: Follow a study schedule:  This is also important in order to make sure you are studying the right material and not getting bogged down too long in one subject area.  Go to my study schedule and download it.  Make the changes as you want.  I put the schedule in hours and by module because that is how I studied.  If you have a different way that is fine just make sure to follow a plan.   I recommend at least 50 hours of studying for your depth section.  This is the majority of the exam so you better study the most for it.

Key #4: Commit Everyday: The test requires a lot of studying for the average engineer to pass. Depending on whom you are and how, when, where you are planning to study will dictate how many studying hours you need. The range of study hours is from 0 to over 300 hours for the exam. I believe the correct amount of solid studying time to be fully prepared is around 120 hours. I will talk more about what to study and how later, but as you can see an average of 120 hours of study time is no joke, and requires a plan and a real commitment. Now you might be thinking, “No problem I can do 120 hours”, I did at first but most people are only able to study for around 1-2 hours a day. Well I am still under the impression that most Engineers are real people, with real lives (sometimes that is true, sometimes not). SO, That is between 60 to 120 days, 2 to 4 months of consistent studying with no days off.  It is your  new hobby, so are you really committed to this? If so, tell it to yourself and make sure to get the support from your family/friends. So I reiterate, once you commit to this it is an everyday commitment. I used the quote by Brain Tracy to keep me motivated and working every day, which says, “If what you are doing is not moving you towards your goals today, then it is moving you away from your goals”. Another good strategy is to commit to a friend or family member by sharing your plan and goals and then report back to them about progress or lack of progress.  Another resource that helps with this habit, is going to the website or app at and signing up for the “study for the PE Exam” habit and make sure to not miss a day.

Key #5: Prepare individual binders: – This is another very important idea to make sure you are studying smartly. Keep a three-ring binder per discipline you are studying, so you should have 5 binders in the end. In the front of the book keep a notes page and add your important notes you learned during studying.  I would write down key equations (Void Ratio(e) = Vv/Vs), material properties (water = 62.4 pcf), conversions (1 CY = 27 CF) and where to find key tables and charts. When you write some of this stuff down, I think it also absorbs into your brain better.  I would also put all of my solved practice problems in that book and the notes from the online lectures. Make sure you separate the practice problems using tabs by subsection (ex. for Geotechnical: subsections a. Subsurface Exploration and Sampling, b. Soil Mechanics Analysis).

Key #6: Make Two Cheat Sheets: – This is another very important concept that I took from Tim Ferriss, when he talks about learning skills quickly.  He recommends condensing subjects into 2 one page cheat sheets.  One of the pages should be equations, conversions, etc (as described in #5).  The other page should be practice problems.  This is related to Key #5 as you write down all important concepts during studying.  Near the end you should condense the ” important concepts” into the “very most important”.  When you do this you are getting the 20% of the material that you will see 80% of the time.  This will force you to understand fully the things on the exam that will show up most of the time.

Key #7: Tab smartly (color code): – It is really up to you for what you want to tab, there is a fine line between too much and not enough.  I think a good rule of thumb is, if it is an table or equation and you use it in a practice problem go ahead and tab it. Also another trick to tabbing is to color code your tabs. So Water Resources is blue, transportation is yellow, etc, etc, etc.  This helps because in the CERM there are lots of tables and charts that you need to tab and during the test it is quicker to look through when you come to a Water Resource problem and you know all you need to do is look through the blue tabs.  Also don’t just tab the CERM, you should tab your problem books and obviously your design standards.

Key #8: Practice Problems, Practice Problems, Practice Problems – This really could be the three steps, it is that important. The key here is to do a bunch of practice problems right after you study the subsection area. Don’t study the entire Geotechnical section, and then try to do the problems. Study one aspect and then do multiple problems on that aspect (ex. shallow foundations). This will put your retention into the 75% instead of the 5-10, which is the key. The goal is to ask questions, and get caught up on a couple of problems, so your brain can really absorb the information. Let’s say you are studying the Transportation portion of the exam, and for the next 3 hours you have scheduled to cover Horizontal Curves. The key is not to spend the whole 3 hours studying the theory of Horizontal Curves. You should spend maybe 30-45 minutes listening to the lecture online and skimming through the CERM to make sure you get the general understanding of the material. Then you need you dive right into solving horizontal curves problems. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t understand every problem some of the practice problems are a lot harder than the real exam (six minute solutions). Just keep working through the problems.

Key #9: Find a study partner and/or a forum: The best way to stay motivated and accountable is to find a partner who is studying with you.  It could be someone at work, or I even heard of some people meeting up on Skype a couple of times week to talk. This is important to stay focused and motivated. Another good tool is to find a good community studying like you are so you can bounce ideas off of people and ask questions about anything you don’t understand. Join this early too so it is easy for you to ask questions. The only caveat to this advice is don’t spend too much time on the forums, you do need to use your time actually studying and working problems.

Key #10: Test Taking Strategy: I believe the only strategy for this exam is to go through the test three times. The 1st time you should only work the easy problems, the problems you can do without having to look anything up or you know exactly where to find the answers. These problems should take no more than 2-3 minute each. If you studied at all, you will be surprised how many questions fit into this category. This first round should be a huge confidence boost.  During the first sweep through you should mark the other problems into two categories, #2 and #3. The #2 problems are the ones that you think you can do however, you need to do a little referencing and double-checking to confirm that it will be correct. Then the #3 problems are the last questions you want to do and you think are the hardest ones. Hopefully, there will be less than 10 or so of these and you can work them at the end. There are multiple reasons why I consider this the only technique/strategy to use.  One, it gets your head into the exam and gets you solving problem and answering questions immediately. This makes you start thinking positive about the exam and your abilities.  Two, it really allows for better time management and takes away the stress when you are able to see that you answered 15-16 questions in the first hour. Three, some of the easy questions help remain you about issues and equations that are needed to solve the harder questions. Four, I loved it when I saved some hard questions for the end and then I started to settle down and tried to solve them and they became easy too. The feeling of getting to the last four or five questions that you thought you didn’t know and being able to solve them is really motivating and helps with confidence on both AM and PM.

That is it – given these keys and you should be able to pass the PE exam, no problem. I really believe that.  However, you do need to take action and focus to make this happen.  Please write to me if you have any questions, I am here to help you pass.