Thoughts on the Civil-Structural PE Exam

I wrote the October 2018 Civil Structural PE Exam in San Diego. This past week I was pleased to read that I passed. While the memory of the exam is still fresh in my mind, I felt I should write down my thoughts about preparing and writing it.

Preparation

My preparation routine consisted of three components:

  1. Aquire resources, most importantly the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM), codes, and practice problems.

  2. Familiarizing myself with the resources, including reading and tabbing out relevant sections.

  3. Practice Problems, and revisit step 2 as needed.

It’s not necessary to have the latest edition of the CERM - yearly editions feel like a bit of a money grab - but if yours is more than a couple years old or referencing old building codes, it could be a source of confusion. I mainly used the CERM for the Breadth portion of the exam, so having the latest design codes weren’t super important in my view. I would not recommend attempting the exam without some edition of the CERM.

I didn’t use any preparation/review service, though there are numerous onces available (PPI, EET, etc). If you had a decent understanding of the various civil topics in your undergraduate degree, I don’t feel they are necessary. They are also grossly expensive, which I suppose was the main reason I avoided them.

In preparing for the exam, I came in to the office early for about 30 mornings, which gave me 2 hours of study time x 30 days = 60 hours. I also spent the two weekends immediately before the exam doing practice problems = 40 hours. In total, thats around 100 hours of preparation.

Heading into the exam, I brought the following references:

  • CERM, 15th edition

  • ACI 318 (2014)

  • AISC Steel Construction Manual, 13th edition

  • NDS for Wood Construction + Supplement, 2015

  • ASCE 7 (2010) Chapters 1-12 (Actually, I found out I was missing the wind loads section during the exam, which caused a little freakout)

  • 6 Minute Solutions for the Civil PE Exam - Structural Problems (didn’t end up looking at this during the exam)

  • NCMA TEK documents for masonry (didn’t have masonry code, but these came in handy during the exam)

  • My solved practice problems (didn’t end up looking at them during the exam)

  • A handfull of other reference sheets that I assembled into a binder (beam tables, geometric properties, etc).

Noteably missing from my collection were the Masonry code, OSHA, and AASHTO. This resulted in me guessing on atleast 1 masonry and 2 OSHA questions.

Exam

The exam is split into two 4-hour sections, which are called Breadth and Depth. The Breadth portion covers general civil engineering and the Depth covers one of the Civil specializations (Structural for me). I found the Breadth portion to be quite manageable, and used the CERM almost exclusively during this portion. My exam writing strategy for multiple choice tests like this is to do a quick pass through all questions, lightly pencil in questions I am not sure of or guessed, and then come back on a second pass and figure out the remaining questions. My first pass took about 2 hours, and by the three hour mark I was satisfied I had answered all questions as best I could. The remaining time was spent fact finding to see if I could. The depth portion was much more time consuming, but my strategy was the same. With 15 minutes remaining, I had answered or guessed all questions, but my confidence was markedly lower than the breadth portion.

Final Thoughts

  • There were about 5-6 really simple questions, if you had brought the reference. I had to make some educated guesses, and given my result I guess I got atleast a few of them right.

  • Having tabbed out the references and knowing my way around them was almost as important as knowing what’s in them. Civil engineering equations and concepts are, for the most part, quite simple if you know where to find them.

  • The official and unofficial practice questions were quite indicative of the content of the exam. Being familiar with the concepts on the exam outline and then hammering through as many practice problems as possible is a good strategy (being sure to tab out your reference as you go).