Advice from Structural Engineering (SE) Examinees
“Been There!”—Advice from Structural Engineering (SE) Examinees
This page is a compilation of comments contributed by engineers who have recently taken the Structural Engineering (SE) exam. We have also compiled advice for the PE exam in general, and advice for the Civil PE exam.
Some of the advice on both pages may seem contradictory—sometimes engineers disagree. Nobody received compensation for mentioning any product.
As you read this advice, keep in mind that the exams change from administration to administration. Subjects that are emphasized on one exam may not show up at all on the next exam.
If you would like to contribute to this compilation, email us with the subject line “Structural PE Exam Advice.” In the body of your email, please note your exam section and exam date.
The time I spent studying for the SE was the best investment of time I ever made professionally. It forced me to go back and study areas of practice that were not part of my day-to-day work. It forced me to get into the design codes line by line to make sure I was dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" in my design procedures. Hardly a week now goes by that I do not go back and consult my review notes for a procedure or a code reference. Taking the SE exam made me a better structural engineer.
Make sure you study all the possible topics...you never know what the test is going to focus on. I didn't do any bridge design work, and unfortunately there were a lot of those questions on the exam.
Study everything. I have taken this exam twice and I can say that the content has thoroughly varied each time. Do not trust the content percentages that NCEES provides. They may be an average, but they do NOT represent any single exam.
This exam, it seemed like NCEES was intent on trying to ensure that everyone purchased all the recommended design manuals. Buy, beg, borrow, or steal them--you'll need them all.
Make sure you have the correct editions of the design codes.
I was surprised by reference questions that can only be answered from the building codebooks in sections outside the structural chapters.
I was surprised that nearly every question involves a new design situation. This is more time-consuming than what you are shown in the sample exam, where there are 3-4 questions for each situation.
In-depth structural analysis methods are not required on this test. The level of analysis was not very deep. If you find yourself spending too long on a problem, you may be overthinking it.
Don't bother studying complex analysis methods or long, in-depth problems. All the problems could be correctly solved in less than five minutes IF you could find the correct reference information AND you knew the basics.
Some of the questions that looked really complex on the exam turned out to be relatively straightforward statics problems. So don't be intimidated, just read the problem through and ask yourself what they're really looking for.
I used the AASHTO code and the ASD Green Book constantly during the exam.
I can't stress enough: learn bridge design using AASHTO code or it's curtains for you.
Know your bridge and seismic material.
Know basic load takedown techniques for buildings and diaphragms, and also have a good sense of retaining wall overturning and resistance.
Have a good grasp of the charts in your design books for every material, particularly steel and wood. This will save you a lot of time and is also the most sensible way to approach many of the shorter problems.
Know your Structural Engineering Reference Manual (STRM) is great. It is very compact compared to the other engineering review manuals, but I thought it was almost 100% on target.
Buy or borrow STRM and work all of the practice problems. Spend at least one week on each chapter--two weeks each on concrete, steel, and bridges. Also understand the fundamentals of finding shear and moments in beams and frames, and finding the center of rigidity in a building.
STRM was helpful--I was able to use it to answer a few questions that I would otherwise have had no clue about.
Read STRM word-for-word and work all the NCEES practice problems diligently. This worked for me.
Be aware that STRM only covers LRFD. Most engineers I know use ASD, and this is an option on the test. If you want to use ASD, you'll need additional references.
Tab your main books according to problem type. This will save you a lot of time during the exam.
STRM is helpful, but do not count on using it in lieu of the code books. It doesn't have the code information you need on the exam.
When you study, you need to supplement STRM in some areas--for example, lateral loading and diaphragm loads.
I was surprised how good the index is in STRM. I looked up some pretty obscure things and found them.
I used the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM) and was glad I did. It was a goldmine in the exam.
I actually found CERM to be more useful than STRM during the exam.
Know terminology, codes, and formulas cold--or at least know where to find them fast. Be expert at taking moments.
The October exam was no masonry, all diaphragm loads, shear walls, and LOTS of wood questions. Study everything. Expect anything.
This exam had more problems on geotech, rigidity of diaphragms, and shear walls than I expected.
Learn as much as you can about the stiffness of elements and the distribution of lateral forces in building systems. Shear walls, columns, moment frames, etc., are often not covered well in texts with regard to these matters.
Be prepared for questions on tank design. I wasn't.
Learn bridge design. It's absolutely necessary.
The April exam was all about bridges. If you don't know bridges, get some textbooks and learn about them.
I was shocked by the number of questions on AASHTO. I had not wanted to pay the $350 for the required reference and hoped that I could get by with my other books (STRM, etc.), but that was not the case. Be forewarned: take AASHTO with you.
Know how to find the modulus of elasticity for a building. If you use modeling software to do this on the job, you may be rusty at doing it manually.
Learn basic concepts and know your references thoroughly so you can look anything up. Have a strong grasp on the concepts of vertical and lateral load paths.
Expect lots of seismic-related questions.
Know the differences among design load, superimposed load, allowable load, service load, etc., and which ones get safety factors or phi factors.
Know your flexible and rigid diaphragms. Many diaphragm designs showed up.
Time is the killer on this exam. The problems aren't that difficult, really--there are just so many of them. Practice working problems quickly. Time yourself.
By the time you get to this test level, you either know it or you don't. The best you can do is to review where to find code-related material. Get the code books specified on the exam (they're usually old) and familiarize yourself with the layout of each one.
Pay special attention to studying the code-related material. If you're taking this test, you're probably doing design every day, so you're more prepared for that side.
The design questions can and do cover all building materials (masonry, wood, concrete, steel), so know them all. You can't know what's going to show up on your exam.
Know how to solve indeterminate structures and frame analysis backwards and forwards, without even having to think.
The huge 4-hour problems are a killer. There really aren't any practice problems like them that I was able to find. The NCEES Sample Questions are the closest.
If you want to pass this thing the first time, you need to know all four building materials cold. Or get lucky.
Be very familiar with the codes that are specified for this exam. And be sure you're using the exact editions that are listed.
Expect the unexpected. In other words, study it all.
Pick one building code (like UBC) and know it VERY WELL. Read the footnotes--everything. Nothing is too obscure for this test.
Study the obscure parts of the BOCA code, because that's what you'll be tested on.