The FE exam, also known as the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, is one of two examinations (the other being the PE exam) that all civil engineers must pass in order to become licensed. Here are 10 tips to help you prepare and pass the FE exam on your first try.
1. Understand Your Own Learning Style
The type of learner you are can play a significant role in how you prepare for and ultimately perform on your FE exam. If you’re like most people, you probably learn best by reading and thinking through concepts on your own—but there’s also a place for group study and practice exams. Understand your own learning style, then take advantage of its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.
But what if you’re someone who learns best in a group setting? You may do better in an environment that encourages collaboration, like one of our review courses. Maybe you prefer online materials where you can easily interact with peers or mentors? There are plenty of options out there that have made studying for exams easier than ever before - so get creative and figure out what works best for you!
You may consider using our course, The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course, which provides support, lectures, practice problems, and more. Others like to go at it on their own, taking the challenge to find resources to help them as they hunker down and go at it. Either way is fine - my preference is with course study and support but understanding your own learning style is a key to preparing.
2. Know What’s on the Test
You won’t know everything on your exam, but that doesn’t mean you have to memorize all of it. A good portion of being successful on a test is not what’s on it, but knowing what is and isn’t on it. Spend time reviewing previous exams so you can make note of what types of problems might be included in yours and adjust your study accordingly.
If you are a repeat taker or if you've taken practice exams before then by reviewing your past exams, you’ll know exactly what types of problems are included in each exam category. If a section of multiple-choice questions has never appeared on a previous exam, focus less time on it. This will save you time for other sections of more concern or interest. Knowing what isn’t on your test is just as important as knowing what is.
Another key to knowing what is on the exam is by knowing your NCEES specification well. Understanding what they will ask you comes directly from this document so grab a copy of it and get a better understanding of what will be on your exam.
3. Manage Your Time Wisely
Many people have trouble with time management because they don’t know how long a task should take. If you can estimate how long you will spend on each task, you can more easily allocate your time accordingly. You might even find that some tasks don’t require as much time as you thought—allowing you to spend more of your day focusing on other tasks. Although it may be hard to learn how long various tasks should take, it is something that comes with experience and careful attention. This applies to the FE exam as well.
There are two real categories in managing your time wisely. The first is how are you scheduling your day and managing your time to prepare for the exam? You must block off time in your day to consistently study and prepare for this exam. Set up a regular routine to prepare for this exam for about 2 hours a day and more on the weekends. You'll also need 3 to 4 months of proper preparation to nail this exam.
The second category of time management is how you actually manage your time on the exam. If you can't get through an exam in the allotted time then you've got a real problem. The key to getting over this hurdle is to take practice exams well before the real exam in a real testing environment. Put pressure on yourself and see how well you do. You'll do much better as you do this.
Here are some other general tips to help you manage your time wisely. First, always show up on time. I know it's easier said than done but showing up late has a negative impact on how well you'll do in that exam. Second, read all parts of the questions first before answering any part of a question. If you're not completely sure of your answer then don't make an assumption; read it again or skip it and come back later when you are more confident about your response.
In short, managing your time wisely is an acquired skill that must be practiced as much as possible. Practice makes perfect and by using these tips you can improve your performance on future exams. Learn how long it takes to complete a task and then budget your time accordingly. Allocate more time for tasks you feel are not within your scope of knowledge. The better you manage your time, the better you'll do on those exams. It's that simple!
4. Use the FE Reference Handbook
The FE Reference Handbook is a great book if you’re preparing for your exam (let's be honest -it's also the only book). It’s published by NCEES and covers all major topics of engineering mechanics: statics, dynamics, fluids, thermal systems, and structures. If you can get a hold of it early on in your studies (it’s most helpful before you begin deep diving into each topic), it will serve as a strong reference throughout your studies.
Get a free copy of it by logging into your NCEES account and start practicing problems and using it as your sole reference. You should become intimately familiar with this book knowing the variables that are odd (because they won't match textbooks you've used), graph locations, tables, etc. Make sure to use the PDF version so you know how to use the search function. Knowing and understanding this resource will be a key to passing.
5) Use NCEES for Practice Problems
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, or NCEES, offers many practice exams to help aspiring engineers prepare for their board exam. And while these sample questions can’t exactly replicate what you’ll experience on test day—at least not yet—they are still a very valuable study tool and have been known to even nudge students into a passing score.
On top of offering sample questions, NCEES also has a comprehensive study guide that covers all 12 sections you’ll see on your exam. If you really want to ace your test, invest in these resources and use them as a complement to your other study tools like practice exams. When it comes time for test day, you’ll be ready!
6. Practice, Practice, Practice...
The only way you’ll get comfortable with exam-style questions is by practicing, so make sure to review some of your past exams in preparation for your upcoming test. Another great method is to game practice tests from various resources—these practice tests will give you a better sense of what topics are weighted more heavily on which exams, and can help you tailor your studying appropriately.
It’s important that you don’t just practice test questions but also get familiar with each format of exam you plan on taking—knowing how much time each section takes, and having a sense of what kinds of questions are asked is crucial. The more familiar you are with exam-style questions, both in terms of content and structure, the more confident you’ll be when it comes time to take your FE.
We have a lot of video practice problems found on our YouTube channel for Civil Engineering Academy. You'll get a lot more by joining our course (plus avoid the ads and stuff) right here.
If I could emphasize any tip more than the other then it would be this one. The only way that you'll pass this exam is by actually practicing problems and putting pencil to paper. You have to get back into "homework mode" and really set the time aside to gather and practice problems. It's the absolute key to being successful.
7. Get a Good Night's Sleep Before Taking an Exam
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for tackling any test, but it’s especially important for passing your FE exam. Take your test early in the morning if possible, since you’ll have time to get some rest afterward. Don’t underestimate how much more mentally alert you’ll be after a good night of sleep—it can mean a big difference in terms of how well you do on your test. If you want to pass, make sure you get enough sleep beforehand!
Going into an exam well-rested will also help you stay focused. If you’re yawning, feeling dizzy, or struggling to concentrate as your test progresses, it’s easy to make careless mistakes. These mistakes will detract from your score on their own and put you at risk of failing—even if they’re only small errors! That’s why it pays to prepare yourself in advance and make sure you get enough sleep before your exam.
8. Don't Try to 'Wing It' at the Last Minute. Focus on Studying Topics you Don't Know well.
To pass a professional engineering exam, you have to know your stuff. If there are areas where you don't feel confident, focus extra time on those topics so that you'll be better prepared come test day.
I recommend two full-length practice exams, and with that, you'll have plenty of opportunities to try your hand at sample problems. It's easy to get distracted and take a practice exam before you're ready. Focus on learning your weakest topics first, and only take a practice exam when you feel fully prepared. If you want to see where your weakest points are you could take an exam a month into your studies and then one closer to your exam time.
Don't try to wing this exam. You'll fail it.
If you're struggling, revisit your weak points. Chances are that at least a few of them will appear on your exam. Don't assume you can guess these questions correctly—you probably won't! Do some more practice problems in those areas. Make sure you understand any formulas or theories related to these topics before moving on. If all else fails, find an instructor or course and schedule time with them to go over anything that's still giving you trouble so that it no longer is!
This exam is not impossible, it's just challenging. If you follow these steps and put in a little time, you'll be more than prepared come test day. You've got what it takes!
9. Stay Organized
Staying organized is always helpful and is a key to helping you pass the FE. Make sure you understand where you are taking the exam, the specifications for the exam, and what you can and can't do as you head into the testing center. Simply be prepared.
You'll also want to stay organized as you study. Keep problems you've gone through in a binder so you can reference them if you need to. Keep a schedule and a planner available (or your phone) to organize your time and study schedule. Write down important dates and deadlines so you can remember them and stay on track with your plans.
The last thing you want is to be stressed before, during, or after your exam. Stay organized so you can do well and not worry about forgetting anything when it's time for you to walk into your testing center.
10. And finally, have fun with it! (In case you're wondering, I failed my first attempt)
The last tip I have for you is to have fun with it. The exam is already stressful enough and preparing for it can look like an insurmountable task but I promise you can do it.
Enjoy the journey and have fun with it, and you know what, if you fail it the first time (like I did), don't let it suck your soul as you think about the time, energy, and money you wasted. Simply get back on the horse, prepare again, and you'll get there!
As you study, you might actually like understanding problems and concepts. I mean, you are an engineer, right? Once concepts start clicking you might actually enjoy this journey. Have fun, take breaks, and you've got this!
If you need more tips, practice exams, or even a full-blown course to help you on your FE journey then check out civilengineeringacademy.com.
Here are those links one more time to the courses as well as the articles ranking us the #1 best course for FE and PE exam prep!
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