Monday, September 28, 2015

Tips on How to Study for the New Computer-Based FE Civil Exam

I recently earned my Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. After earning an engineering degree in any discipline, there are two additional tests an individual must take in order to formally become licensed for the state in which the individual wants to practice. The first test is the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which is also sometimes referred to as the Engineering Intern-in Training (EIT) exam. The EIT designation is because after having passed the exam, the individual can apply to be certified as an Engineering Intern (EI) within the state in which he or she took the exam.

The second test is the Principles of Engineering (PE) exam, which is a two-session exam where the morning session covers general engineering problems across all disciplines and the afternoon session covers a specific depth section designated by the individual based on what specialty the individual wants to practice in like geotechnical, transportation, environmental/water resources, or structural.

In any case, it took me three times to pass the FE Exam. Prior to taking the exam the first two times, I did not study to the degree I needed to in order to pass. The first time I took it, the FE Exam was changing from paper-based to computer-based and the FE Exam Preparation Course I was taking had not been augmented to prepare students for the change in format. I also had purchased the less than ideal FE Exam Review Manual for the general exam instead of the specific FE Civil Exam Review Manual, which was much better for studying purposes. We had not gone over the difference between manuals and that different manuals existed, so this truth also inevitably hindered my performance.

Tip 1: Buy the Discipline-Specific FE Exam Review Manual and not the General One


Granted, the general manual is better than nothing. I did not do horrible on the exam I took while taking a preparation course and using the general manual, but I did not pass it either.

Next, the FE Exam requires rigorous practice sessions for about 2 weeks before taking the actual exam. After I read the entire 62-chapter manual, took notes on practice problems and chapters, and felt like I had a good overview of the entire expanse of the test material, I had to formulate a strategic plan of rigorous study to pass.

This realization did not happen until after I had taken the test a second time and did worse than I did the first time. During the first test attempt, I was still attending university engineering courses. The daily exposure to engineering problems counts for something because the engineering student is likely to perform better. When I took the FE Civil Exam the second time, I was working as an Engineering Intern I at a land development firm full-time. Thus, my mental stamina was too exhausted everyday trying to learn about a new job to be able to study properly for the FE Exam. As such, I had been out of school for six months, took a practice test the day before the test, and went in to take the exam. As a result, I failed the test again.

Something to keep in mind when studying for this monster of an exam is that working full-time will impact how much mental stamina a person has available for other scholarly pursuits. Thus, extend how many months you intend to study and move the exam appointment if you do not feel ready to take the exam.  It is both for the good of your sanity and your wallet: an administrative fee to move the exam date will be less costly than the entire fee for another exam appointment date. There's no shame in moving your exam date if life got in the way of studying. We're human.

Tip 2: Set aside at least 2 weeks to rigorously study before the exam date (more time if your life is busy and your mental stamina is spent up regularly).

Tip 3: Make a Strategic Plan Using the Reference Manual for Your Specific Exam.

Something the professors do not usually mention is that there are pages in the back of the reference manual giving students a list of the topics the exam covers and the approximate number of questions that appear on the exam within each topic. I used that information to order how I studied for the exam. I studied for the topics that were more likely to have more questions on the test first and then studied the subjects having less questions likely (greater number of questions first to least number of questions last).

The Reference Manual looks like the following image:


The page you want to refer to for the FE Civil Exam looks like this:

and is in the back pages of the Reference Manual after the index. My dry-erase board ordering the subjects by how I studied looked like this after I studied.
The way the board is set up is by topic, the # of questions likely to show up on the exam, and a checkbox showing whether or not I studied that section. I also put notes on sections to revisit them if I did bad on the diagnostic quiz I took. (5/10 and 50/50 meant the same thing = I got half of the questions on the diagnostic quiz correct, so I am weak in these sections.)

Tip 4: During the studying process, determine sections you are strong in and weak in for decision-making during test.

As seen above, I took notes on how I performed on diagnostic quizzes available to take within the Review Manual. As such, I knew where I was strong and weak, so I could allocate my time more effectively when taking the exam.

Strong Sections-Easy Problems: Do These Questions First
Strong Sections-Medium Difficulty Problems-Flag the Question and Come Back
Weak Sections-Better off guessing (just accept where you're weak and guess, 25% chance is still a chance)

Tip 5: Dual-Book Studying

Since the person taking a FE Exam only has one reference, the Reference Manual, in which to use to find formulas and reference information during the test, the person taking the test must become familiar with where to find things in the reference manual while taking the test. Hence, the person should try to answer the diagnostic quiz questions inside the Review Manual using the Reference Manual (thereby, using both manuals in conjunction with one another).


This tip is the most essential tip I could ever give you. Aside from the tests and quizzes taken in school, we are not used to timing ourselves for answering questions for extended periods of time. When you take the FE Exam, you have about 3 minutes/question for 110 questions over the course of five and half hours. As such, the best way to study involves pacing yourself to perform within that time constraint.

A FREE WAY TO TIME YOURSELF: Go to, type in "timer" into the search bar, and press Enter, which will give you the following page.
At the top of the search results, a timer shows up. If you hit the blue text "Reset", the page changes to the following page.
If you move your cursor to the zero to the left of the s for seconds and click your mouse, you can type in a six-digit time designation.  This timer can be set up to several hours. For a diagnostic quiz having 10 questions, 10x3 = 30 minutes. Hence, the person would type 003000 into the timer and the page would look like the following page.
While doing timed practice quizzes, the computer setup should also have a window containing the pdf version of the Reference Manual available for referencing on the computer next to the timer webpage. A copy of the current reference manual in pdf form can be accessed from the NCEES website, so ideally the student would either save the pdf on their computer or on a thumb drive for studying-on-the-go or convenience. I saved the reference manual pdf on my thumb drive and used an external monitor to display the timer webpage and the pdf concurrently for my access.

The general setup would look like the following screenshot image.
To make the pdf searchable, type in CTRL+F to make a search box manifest itself to make the pdf searching experience more test-like. I also had the Review Manual open to a Diagnostic Quiz page in my lap and used graph paper and black and blue pen to work out problems during this process. During the actual test, you cannot erase your work, so it is better to get used to an eraser-less universe now rather than experience it firsthand on test day (yuck!). Get used to crossing your work out now.

Tip 7: After you have done timed studying and know where you are strong/weak, it is time to take a Practice Test and put what you have learned about yourself and pacing into practice.

Note: Purchase your practice test when you register for your FE Exam on NCEES because there is a special discount if you do so. Saving money is always wonderful.

Make sure you do not start your test until you have already studied and understand yourself. It is more useful if you have that information before you take it, so you can make wise decisions during the practice test and hopefully the actual test when you take it.

Note: Also, do not hit "End Review" when you finish your PRACTICE test. Just close the browser (click that x-box in the upper right-hand corner of the webpage). This allows you to reopen the practice test to continue working on it if you need to break up the test time. This also allows you to retake the test by setting up the Google timer webpage and timing yourself if you need to do so.

It is true that every practice test has a time limit for about 3 months from when you start it to have access to it, but it is better to have access to it for as long as possible.

Tip 8: You do not have to restrict yourself to PPI practice tests that they create. The Review Manual itself has tons of example problems that you can write out in a Sketch book to provide yourself with extra practice problems for timed practice. I'm a visual-kinesthetic learner, so writing them out can also benefit you as a learner based on your learning style or how best you learn.

This method is more for the extreme studiers who are frugal like myself. If an individual is too busy for this method of study, buying the practice problem booklet might be more beneficial. I just figured I would let others know that this type of method is possible, if they want to save their pennies.

Tip 9: Study at your own pace.

Fast-paced studying by itself is not for everyone. I was born a tortoise, so my studying pace is slow. It took me almost an entire year to get through that 62-chapter long beast of a manual. Some people are tortoises like me. Others are hares and can study for two days straight and pass a big test. It is beneficial to understand who we are, so we can tailor our studying timeframe to best serve our purposes. Embrace who you are, as I have embraced who I am. People are amazing and different. If we were not different, the world would be boring and genetic variation is useful for the propagation of animal species (in this case, human engineers).

Another thing I found that happened to me while studying is that I became tired after every few hours of rigorous studying and would have to take naps. I encourage taking naps if you feel tired. Sleeping helps the mind sort and retain the knowledge it obtains. EMBRACE NAPS! YOUR MIND IS TRYING TO HELP YOU!

Tip 10: Take the break in between sessions on TEST DAY. Plan ahead. Bring a non-digital watch to keep track of the break time and bring food and drink with you (because you do not have time to forage for food elsewhere and take a pee break before going back in the testing room with only 25 minutes).

I brought chewy granola bars, rice and meat, a bottle of water, and cans of Mountain Dew with me. I drank a whole can of Dew during the break. I love my Dew (!), but everyone has their preferred energy source of choice. Granted, I also drank some water because it has benefits too.  Sometimes drinking an energy drink can make one's mentality worse by increasing the test taker's anxiety. As such, energy drinks or caffeinated beverages are not necessarily best for everyone.  I did well drinking a can of Mountain Dew, but what is best for me is not necessarily best for other people.

NOTE: A person taking a different discipline can use these tips and tailor them to different fundamentals of engineering exams. I tried to provide strategies that would help other aspiring engineers pass their FE Exams. I understand the struggle of taking the test multiple times before coming up with a proper studying strategy that succeeded.

ALSO: I do not own the rights to Lindeberg's Review Manuals, so I only showed partial page shots for that reason. I do not feel bad about showing pictures of the book covers themselves because I'm providing free advertising.  I HIGHLY recommend these review materials.

FURTHER: Please DON'T GIVE UP if you fail a few tests. I know that failing a test can be discouraging. If taking the tests to become an engineer were easy, everyone would be an engineer (and then we would have too much competition for jobs in industry..blek). 

I hope that these tips can help other people. Everyone who works hard and tries their best deserves to have the opportunity to become a licensed professional.

The next hurdle for me will be the Principles of Engineering (PE) Exam. I wish my readers luck in their engineering licensing endeavors.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

East Las Vegas Downpour on June 14th, 2015

The funny thing about this downpour was that we received a severe thunderstorm warning yesterday saying winds expected in excess of 60 mph, could knock down trees, etc...but our part of town did not receive even a sprinkle of rain. Yet today, we received the winds, a rainstorm knocked down a portion of our tree in the backyard, and we might have received the downpour of the summer.

Thankfully, my Dad and bro had been working on his car and had just finished before the rain struck.  We had also harvested 4 ears of corn.