So you just sat down, you've organized all of your resources for the exam, you've started to fill out all the information they require at the beginning of the test and the moderators say you are good to break the seal and start the test! You break open the breadth or depth section that you are going to taking and you hit that first PE problem. What are you thinking about? Are you still mulling over meeting other college classmates you just met up with in the hall, or maybe you are already thinking about what to do after the PE exam is all over, or maybe you are worried that the moderator is going to think you are doing something fishy for no reason at all and call you out as they walk up and down the isle?
Hopefully you aren't thinking of those things. Hopefully you've come prepared mentally and physically for this important moment in your life. The PE exam can be daunting and running through the problems can be stressful. As you open up the exam and read that first problem here are some things that you should be doing to get through them quickly and efficiently. These things should only take a few seconds.
The very first thing to do is to determine what type of problem you are looking at. Is it a geotechnical problem, a transportation problem, hydraulic, construction, or structural problem? Then ask what category of problem it fits into. Is it a survey problem? A vertical curve problem? A retaining wall problem? Open channel, etc.
After that you should immediately find out what they are specifically asking for. Is there some odd ball information that they are asking you to look at to find the answer or is everything right there in the problem. You're then going to quickly determine what equations you think you are going to use and find them in your reference material (unless you have them memorized-good for you!). If you know what equation to use but are not sure where it is then quickly flip to the appendix of your Civil Engineering Reference Manual and look it up back there. You will want to be practiced at looking in the appendix and quickly turning to areas that you need to go, because you aren't going to have absolutely everything tabbed up. Your book would look ridiculous and it might be just as hard to find.
After you've made those assessments your going to quickly solve the problem with the information given and the equations you have just found. If you get stumped here then just remember where you left off or what you tried. You've left all your notes there to come back to and it might just take going away from it and coming back to solve the thing. After that write down the answer you solved and mark it on your sheet.
Marking it down in your answer book will help you know how you solved the problem and if you ever question what you did you can remember why you chose that answer. You might notice coming back that you missed unit conversions or maybe just missed some information.
So there you have it. A quick run mental checklist when solving a problem on the PE exam. What do you think? Shoot me and email and let me know what strategy you recommend or have used. Maybe you did the same thing and I just spelled it out.