So we’re just over 2 weeks out from the exam. Chances are you’ve done some studying, maybe taken a practice exam or two, but you’re still looking for that knockout punch to maximize the study time you have left. Well here it is.
Let’s be honest. If you’re a top-performer in your field, there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to listen to some of the ridiculous information that’s out there about the PE exam.
300 hours? Are you fucking kidding me?
If you’re like me, the very thought of that makes you laugh. I can’t remember anything that I did where I spent that much time preparing. I spoke before about the way that I guaranteed you’d be able to pass the PE exam, and I figured maybe it’s time I get a little more in depth for how I spent my time preparing.
Your best friend for any exam like this is your reference manual. If you don’t know it backwards and forwards, you’re going to be in big trouble.
Throughout your engineering career you likely lean on Google as a crutch to help out on those little problems and equations that you knew at some time but forgot long ago. This manual is going to be the closest thing you have to a search engine, but unless your IQ is approaching 200 and you have an eidetic memory, you need to be intimately familiar with it.
In order for that to be possible, you need to be using this as you work through the practice exams from NCEES. Therefore, this should be the first thing you put your focus on – before ever hitting the books or working through your first problem.
So what goes in a PE exam reference manual?
The overall point of any manual like this is to have information handy which will help you with those questions that you don’t already have an answer to. Since the whole exam is about working problems, you need to have sample problems to pull from.
I figure the best way to show you how to build one of your own is to walk you through my manual.
The first little part of my manual began with a couple of great cheat sheets. For me (being an EE), that was a couple of pages dealing with single and three phase power systems and per-unit calculations. These had no examples on them; rather they focused on the fundamentals of all of electrical engineering.
Given enough time and focus, most problems related to your specific discipline should be able to be solved with the use of these pages.
For mechanical engineers maybe this is a HVAC and refrigeration sheet with all of the formulas and key terms. For structural engineers maybe a sheet on the fundamentals of structural mechanics going over bending, shear, and axial moments and stresses. You know your discipline a lot better than I do, and I’m sure you know what would be beneficial.
Quick reference sheets
Are you planning on bringing other reference manuals with you to the exam? Maybe some old college textbooks, that PPI reference manual I told you to get (yes, you really need to shell out $300 for it), or code references?
For this next section, I took the indexes from these references and put them directly into the manual. This allowed me to avoid having to shuffle books if I didn’t have the answers to whichever problem handy in my manual. I was able to easily grab whichever book was needed and turn right to the page I need. Let’s face it, when you’ve only got an average of 6 minutes to solve problems, the precious seconds saved add up quick.
If I had it to do over again, I’d have taken all of the indexes and arranged them in a single index so that I wouldn’t have to flip through four different indexes each time I needed them.
This is the crux of your manual and it should take up the vast majority of space. For me, it was 95% of what was in my 3” thick notebook.
To start filling in this area you need to know what sort of problems you’ll be facing on the exam.
Luckily the NCEES people are nice enough to give you that information. You see, your peers want you to succeed, they’re handing you the key provided you’re smart enough to do your research.
So now you should gather an alphabetic divider, and start finding some materials which are relevant to the breakdown above.
For example, if I was taking the Mechanical Thermal and Fluids exam, and I was trying to find information relative to this portion:
I’d just go down the list and do a quick Google search for each of the items listed. The first one would return me a Google page like this:
Obviously I’m not going to be bringing Wikipedia articles with me to my PE exam, so as you can see I went to the first link under the images.
This pdf was a 7-page excerpt which was well written. It has diagrams to explain some of the basics, an explanation of the principles and various well-known cycles, and even a lot of the equations that might be needed to work a problem.
This is a perfect addition to the manual you’re creating, time to move on to the next topic.
Doing all of this should take you under 10 hours. Those other 10 hours will be spent over the course of you taking 3-4 practice exams.
So you’ve got a basic manual, now what?
It’s time to start working problems.
If you struggle and don’t know the answer, that’s fine. Work through the exam with the manuals you have. Use the same calculator that you’re taking to the exam. Put your earplugs in and leave your phone somewhere else. Make this as close to the exam settings you’re going to be under as you can.
It’s been a long time since you last took a test. It won’t be easy the first couple of times. Put on a timer and see how many problems you can get in a 4 hour session.
Work out each of the problems you go through on a single sheet of paper.
When you finish the exam (and only then), go ahead and grade yourself. As you’re doing so, if you missed a question pick out a fresh piece of paper and rework it leaning on the solution manual as needed.
On the top right corner of each of the 40 problems you just worked out and have correctly answered, classify the question in a different color pen than you used to work the problem.
Now add them to your manual.
If you do this for each of the exams that you take, you’ll have built up quite a knowledge base and have a bunch of example problems to assist you in the exam.
With your very own Google manual built, the test should be a cake walk.
Best of luck, and be sure to let me know how it goes.