Second of a two-part series
In this article, the authors discuss the format, requirements, benefits, and challenges of the new, two-day, 16-hour-long licensing exam for structural engineers (commonly called the SE Exam). In addition, the authors provide direct recommendations to exam applicants on ways to prepare for the exam (including a list of recommended references), as well as suggest valuable test-taking techniques to help maximize their score on exam day.
The 16-hour structural engineering exam is difficult. During the most recent exam, only 43 percent of first-time test takers passed the vertical component, and 25 percent passed the lateral component. For repeat takers, the results are even less impressive. But don’t be discouraged. If you commit yourself to rigorous study, passing the SE Exam on your first try is a realistic goal.
There is a lot of material to cover, so the best strategy is to start early. The exact amount of time you will need to spend studying depends on your experience, but successful examinees report having spent more than 200 hours preparing for the exam. Ideally, you should begin studying at least six months before the exam date and dedicate 10 to 20 hours each week to rigorous, independent study.
Step 1: Gather materials
Begin by obtaining copies of all the books you will need for the exam (see box on page 30).
The “required references” are the design standards listed on the NCEES exam specification. The “highly recommended” references are additional books that will help you prepare for the exam, and may help you answer a few questions on exam day. If you are looking for more guidance on a specific topic, the “further reading” references may be useful.
Note that some states do not allow bringing books written expressly to help you pass the exam (e.g., books published by PPI), or binders with compilations of notes and photocopies. Make sure to check. The required books can be expensive, so ask your employer or colleagues if they have copies you can borrow.
You should purchase (and learn how to use) an NCEES-approved calculator. The NCEES website offers a complete list of approved calculators. The best choice is a model with multiple lines of text display (such as the TI-30XS MultiView, TI-36X Pro, or the Casio FX-115ES). This will allow you to see the equations you have typed and check that you have not made an input error. To build your test-taking speed, use this calculator throughout your studying and also during your daily work.
Step 2: Start reading
The next step is to set aside blocks of time every week to study, ideally two- to five-hour sessions at least two to three times a week. Make a list of the topics you want to study each week, and stick to it. To help determine what sections of the code are most important, refer to the list of topics in the exam specifications. Most examinees are employed full-time while they are studying for the exam and finding time to study can be difficult, so it is important to create and follow a detailed study schedule.
The SE Exam is an open-book test. There is no need to commit any code text or equations to memory. The exam is about being able to find the relevant code sections quickly and apply them correctly. With this mindset, the following are good practices to follow when studying for the exam:
- Place tabs with written labels on the pages of your reference books to help you find important sections and equations during the exam.
- Write notes in the margins of the codes that help you understand the provisions better or direct you to other relevant code sections.
- If your state allows bound compilations of notes, consider creating hand-written summary sheets of the most important equations and code procedures, such as the step-by-step procedure for determining the base shear of a building. This serves the dual purpose of helping you to understand the code provisions better as you write them down, and also provides an easy-to-use reference on exam day.
- Compile a set of typical details as you study, as the depth problems will often require you to sketch structural details. If your state allows bound compilations of notes, photocopy connection and reinforcing details and put them in a binder organized by material type, so that you can easily reference the details during the exam.
- When studying tables and figures, be sure to read and understand all of the footnotes — the fine print is fair game for a test question.
- Supplement your code review by reading related sections of text books, design guides, and reference manuals to understand how the code sections are applied in design.
Review seminars and webinars are also available and may be very useful, especially if you are having trouble dedicating the time to studying on your own.
Step 3: Practice, practice, practice
After you have studied and tagged the listed reference standards, the next step is to do practice problems. You should dedicate the last several weeks before the exam exclusively to practice. When doing practice problems, try to simulate the exam-day environment: set aside four-hour blocks and sit down in your study area with your reference standards to see how well you are able to complete the questions in the allotted time. If you struggle, revisit the relevant materials and code sections.
Use your time studying the code to master the material, and use your time doing practice questions to master your test-taking techniques.
Step 4: Ace the exam
To pass the SE Exam, there is no substitute for rigorous study. There are some basic strategies that you can employ on exam day to help maximize your score.
Keep track of the time. During the morning sessions, you have an average of six minutes to answer each multiple-choice question. If you’ve spent more than five minutes on a question and aren’t getting close to an answer, move on and come back to that question at the end. During the afternoon session, don’t spend more than about one hour on a single question — your accuracy will slip if you end up rushing through the remainder of the questions. If you get tripped up on a sub-part of an essay question, make an assumption that allows you to move on to the next sub-part.
Answer all the questions. There is no penalty for incorrect answers on the multiple-choice sections. You’ll want to maintain a pace that gives you 15 minutes at the end to review the questions you found tricky and check that the bubbles on your answer sheet correspond with your intended answer. For any questions that required significant computational effort, reenter the equations into your calculator to check. Spend the last five minutes to make sure all your bubbles are dark and fully filled-in and make educated guesses on any questions you weren’t able to answer.
Read the questions carefully. Exam questions are mostly straightforward. Test writers want to determine your competency and their aim is not to trick you. However, on some questions, there may be a key piece of information that is easy to overlook. For example, does the question specify lightweight concrete? Does the steel reinforcement have a strength of Fy = 40 ksi? Does the question specify the loads in kips but ask for an answer in tons? It is easy to miss these types of things if you are rushing.
Know some shortcuts. There are many ways to simplify the code equations. For example, rather than solve a quadratic equation, the expression As =Mu/4d can be used to approximate the required area of flexural steel for tension-controlled concrete members. In addition, it is common for code sections to list several equations, where only the largest or smallest calculated value is applicable (controls). To save time, during the preparation period you should write down in the margins of code sections when each equation controls. Knowing can help you minimize the number of calculations you need to perform on exam day.
Skip around as you see fit. The multiple-choice question order generally follows the topic order listed in the exam specification. However, questions that cover similar topics are not always grouped together. Some examinees find it advantageous to solve problems out of order by grouping together problems with the same reference standard.
Expect the unusual. You are bound to come across a few questions where you have no idea where to begin. The best approach is to look in the index or table of contents of the referenced design code. Often, this can help you to quickly find the relevant code section.
Be kind to the grader. Each essay question is graded by two subject experts. NCEES does not publish any information about exactly what is required to get a passing score on the essay questions, but it can reasonably be assumed that the graders are looking for you to display good engineering judgment and competency. Getting the right numerical answers is important, but equally important is whether or not you have displayed sound engineering judgment, have used the correct code provisions, and haven’t skipped any applicable code checks. In general, you want to make it easy for the grader to follow what you are doing. With this in mind, here are some tips for the essay questions:
- Reference the code section you are using by adding the section number within the text of your answer or in the right margin
- Clearly note any assumptions that you’ve made and why they are appropriate
- Write as neatly as you can while still keeping the time limit in mind
- Start each equation on a new line and maintain a uniform margin on the left
- When drawing sketches, use a straight edge and label everything you think might be relevant
- If you run out of time, describe in words how you would complete the problem and reference the code sections you would use
Step 5: Wait for exam scores
NCEES typically doesn’t release scores to state licensing boards until at least two months after the exam date.
Studying for and passing the SE Exam is undoubtedly challenging. There is no substitute for spending long hours reading the codes and doing practice questions. But the process is also bound to make you a better engineer. And when you receive the notification of a passing grade, it will all seem worthwhile.
|Recommended references for the 16-hour SE Exam
Joseph S. Schuster, P.E., S.E., works for Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. in New York City. He is the author of, 16-Hour Structural Engineering (SE) Practice Exam for Buildings. Milan Vatovec, Ph.D., P.E., is a senior principal at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. He heads the structural engineering practice at the firm’s office in New York.