OK, now that you have decided to take the exam and have just paid your registration (or exam) fees. It’s time to start studying! I hear you scream:
- “But the exam is months away!”
- “Is it enough if I just take a course…?”
- “I think I should be studying but I am really not sure where to start…”
That’s what I am here to help you with – to plan and to figure out how you are going to study and ace this test! Once you complete the exercises below, I am confident that you will have absolute clarity and will know exactly what you need to do each and everyday (i.e. no more spinning your wheels!). Let’s get started.
Overview (SE exam study planning)
This is the exact same method I used to study and pass my SE in one shot. I broke down the entire planning process into three parts:
- Overall planning (figure out what you need to do between now and the exam date)
- Daily planning (figure out what you'll be doing each day)
- Actual studying (how to make the times count)
OK let’s get into it.
Why do an overall planning? Because it helps you visualize what you need to accomplish by the exam date and whether you are on track or not. It also helps you determine whether your plan is realistic or not. Go grab a pen and a piece of paper, let me explain the basic premise (don't worry if the descriptions are a little over your head, there is an easier to follow example afterwards). At the risk of sounding like an IRS instruction, here it is:
- Figure out the total number of pages you have to go through. (If you have absolutely no idea, use 1200.)
- Figure out how many days between now and the exam that you can “realistically” study (make sure you exclude all the prior commitments such as family gatherings, weddings, holidays, Valentine’s day, birthdays…etc.). You should also subtract 2 to 3 days to account for taking the practice tests plus final review before the exam.
- Figure out how many hours you can study each day on average. Since weekday & weekends may be different, you can find the average by doing this quick calculations: [5 x (hours during the weekdays) + 2 x (hours during the weekends)] / 7.
- Based on steps 2 & 3, determine the total number of hours you can study (multiply the numbers from step 2 and step 3).
- Divide the total number of pages (step 1) by the total number of hours (step 4) = pages per hour that you need to go through on average.
You might be asking: “But doesn't my study speed varies depending on how easy/difficult the materials are?” Definitely true. That’s why we use average. Over 1000 pages of study material, the difficulties sort of average out and the number we get becomes reasonable. How does this help you? Let me demonstrate in the example below.
- Say you have roughly 1200 pages of study material.
- You can start studying on July 1st and the exam is on October 24th (115 days). You won’t be studying for 7 days due to various reasons (weddings, birthdays, vacation…etc.). Therefore, you have 108 days. Subtract another 3 days for practices test & review = 105 days.
- You are very dedicated and are planning to study 1 hours everyday between Monday to Friday and 7 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Average = [5 x 1 + 7 x 2] / 7 = 2.7 hours per day.
- Total number of hours you have = 105 days x 2.7 hours per day = 284 hours.
- 1200 pages / 284 hours = 4.2 pages per hour which is pretty reasonable based on my rule of thumb above (less than 6 pages per hour).
The idea is that you basically have three major variables: Amount of study material (# of pages), available time, and speed (kind of similar to the triple constraint in management – scope/cost/schedule). You cannot change one without affecting the other. So the first benefit of this exercise is to help you decide if your plan is achievable by connecting the three variables. Based on what you end up with, you may need to adjust your plan accordingly. The second benefit of this exercise is that you will know if you on track or not on any given day. Having this kind of clarity will reduce your anxiety which will make you study even more efficiently. To demonstrate (adding on to the example):
- Say it’s September 8th (46 days left) and you have used up 5 of the 7 days that you won’t be studying: 46 – 5 = 41 days left.
- 41 days x 2.7 hours = 111 hours left.
- 111 hours x 4.2 pages per hour = 466 pages left.
- 1200 – 466 = 734 pages. Therefore, you should be on around page 734 of the 1200 by September 8th. If not, you have to try and squeeze in more hours!
Note that once you have determined your overall plan, it’s not set in stone; this is an agile approach and you should adjust your plan periodically so that it reflects your current conditions.
Now that you have determined your study schedule, there are three main things you need to consider for your daily routine:
- When can you study?
- Where are you going to study?
By figuring out when & where ahead of time, your only job everyday would be to stick to the plan rather than spinning your wheels trying to figure out what to do.
1. When can you study?
It’s important to start thinking about what your day looks like outside of work. Answer these questions:
- What time do you wake up?
- What do you do in the morning before you leave for work?
- What time do you get home after work?
- What do you do before you go to sleep?
- How many hours do you need to sleep to feel rested?
For example, for me, my normal schedule during the weekdays looks kind of like this:
- 7:00 AM: Wake up.
- 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM: Miscellaneous (Shower, read for 10-15 minutes, take the dog out for morning potty, breakfast…etc.).
- 8:00 AM – 9:00 AM: Read/write/work on my website.
- 9:00 AM – 9:30 AM: Get ready for work & walk my dog.
- 9:30 AM – 10:00 AM: Drive to work.
- 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM: Work.
- 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM: Drive home.
- 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM: Eat dinner/watch TV/spend time with wifey.
- 9:00 PM – 11:00 PM: Miscellaneous (Read, play games, chores, pay bills, surf the web, workout, spend more time with wifey…etc.).
- 11:00 PM – 7:00 AM: Sleep.
When I was studying for the SE exam, I basically focused on 8 AM to 9 AM and 9 PM to 11 PM. I was able to get 2 to 3 hours of studying done every day. Do the same exercise and see if you can find your study time.
2. Where are you going to study?
Another thing you need to think about is where you are going to study. Dedicate a place in your house/apartment where you can layout your reference books and study materials. You will need to be able to study distraction-free so make sure whoever you live with knows that. Studying for “30 minutes non-stop” does not equal to “study for 15 minutes – chat for 5 minutes – go back to study for another 15 minutes”. You know what I mean?
Habit is developed through consistency. In other words, you will need to repeat your routine consistently everyday until the exam date. Let me explain. You will eventually run into burnouts & self-doubts; by expecting them, you will be less likely to be affected. For instance, these are the possible phases you will experience during your “journey”:
- The beginning – You feel excited and focused. You have a plan and you know how to execute it.
- The middle (similar to Seth Godin’s “The Dip”… just look at the picture on the book cover) – You feel tired and distracted. You begin to lose sight of your progress and may start to fall behind your original plan.
- After the middle – You are back on track and feel focused again.
- The end – You are weeks if not days away from the exam. You may feel anxious and may start to dedicate even more time to study.
The hardest part will be to try to get out of phase 2 (the middle). By having a consistent routine, you can dramatically shorten the duration of this phase. For example, say that you brush your teeth every morning and every night (I hope you actually do), if you were to skip a day or two, you are going to start feeling a little weird. Part of the reasons is of course that you started to get bad breaths; another reason, which is subtle and may not be too obvious to you, is that you are breaking an already developed daily habit. Your mind is so accustomed to the habit and it's warning you that something isn't right. As a result, you are more inclined and motivated to try harder to get back to your routine as soon as you can. Same thing applies to other activities in your life such as checking emails, showering, browsing Facebook (not a good habit), and working out…etc. Therefore, by developing a daily habit of studying before you get to “the middle” phase, your mind will help you re-focus and motivate you to get back on track when you are feeling tired and distracted.
Now that you have planned your overall schedule and have determined the best time and best place to study each day, it’s time to make sure you make those hours count. Below are the two key points:
- Retain information
Earlier I mentioned that I recommend you to schedule your study in increment of 30 minutes. This is actually an unique technique called the Pomodoro Technique and it’s very beneficial to help you stay focused. I’ll show you a couple of reasons why this works and then I’ll show you how to implement it into your studying routine.
Reason #1: You can only stay focused for so long
There’s a concept called “ego depletion”. The idea is that your “will power” is not infinite; instead, it’s a limited resource that depletes throughout the day. How does that apply to studying? Basically, you are drawing from your “will power pool” every time you sit down to focus and study. The longer you stay focused without taking any breaks, the faster it drains. In other words, when you study continuously for hours without taking any breaks, you are likely to burnout much faster which makes you less effective later in the day or even the next day. My recommendation of the 30 minutes increment is actually a 25-minute study session + a 5-minute break which I’ll explain more below in the “implementation” section.
Reason #2: There’s a something to look forward to
It’s kind of like running – you know there’s a finish line and you are running towards it. Can you imagine running indefinitely not knowing where you are going? Similarly for studying, you know at the end of the 25 minutes, you get to take a break, no matter how difficult or how boring the materials are. We all know that we tend to doze off when studying for something that we are just not interested in. By using this technique, you are more likely to stay focused and get through the material. Would you rather study for 1 hour and not knowing what you just read, or, study for 25 minutes and feel productive?
Reason #3: Easy to track your progress
Remember the “overall planning” that we discussed earlier? You have a total number of hours allocated for studying between now and the exam. By keeping everything in 0.5 hour increment, it’s easier to keep track and check to see if you are on track or not.
Implementing the 25-5 approach
Okay let’s talk about how we can actually use this technique. First, go download this free desktop app called the “focus booster”. It has both PC and MAC versions so you are good to go either way. (If you prefer, you can also skip the download and just run the online version). Once you install it, check your settings to make you've set your “session length” to 25 and “break length” to 5.
Now you are ready. Basically, when you begin your study session, start the timer and FOCUS! FOCUS means no distractions at all! No Facebook, no LinkedIn, no email, no text messaging…etc. In fact, I recommend:
- Mute/silence your cellphone.
- Tell your spouse (or roommates) that whenever the timer is running, do not disturb you unless it’s very important (they may get slightly upset but they’ll understand – the more focus you have right now, the more study you can get done, and the more quality time you’ll get to spend with them later).
At the end of the 25 minutes, the program will automatically start a 5 minute timer. (The next 25 minutes won’t start until you press the button so potentially your break can be longer than 5 minutes). Now, occasionally, you may get so focused and in the zone that you would study past the 25 minutes. This is perfectly fine! The idea is to make sure you get at least 25 minutes of focus. If you can do that (or more) each and every time, I would say that the session is a success.
2. Retain Information
Now that you have a good grasp of how to stay focused, let's talk about how to remember things. Everyone has their own ways of retaining the knowledge they obtained. The worst feeling is when you come across a problem during the exam that you don't know how to solve even though you know you've studied that particular material! I’ll show you a few things I did to “retain” as much info as I could.
Set Up a Familiar Environment
The idea is that when you study, you should organize and keep all (or most) of your reference books in front or next to you the way you would lay them out at the exam room. (I prefer to section them out by different materials or focus: concrete, steel, wood, codes, seismic…etc). By doing so, you’ll get really familiar with where the books are and you won’t get flustered when you are trying to find something during the exam. If you remember from taking the PE exam, usually two examinees are assigned to one 72” x 30” (W x D) desk (like the one shown on the right). So an idea would be to clear out a 36” x 30” table space so that you are able to gauge how many books you can comfortably stack in front of you. Note that during the exam, you will also be able to put your other books under the desk or next to you (in a case or box) since not all of the books will fit on the table. Obviously, the less used ones will go here.
Use Your Highlighters and Pens
I studied mostly using the Structural Engineering Reference Manual. One of the reasons I recommend having your own book is so that you can write and highlight in it all you want. This is really important because when you come back to the same page in the future, having your own notes will help you remember roughly what is there without having to re-read. Sometimes the author may write things the best way he understood it which may not be the best way for you to remember. By writing it down in a different way, it ensures that you understood the concept. For example, in the Reinforcement Requirements section (page 1-27 of the Structural Engineering Reference Manual), the books says:
ACI Sec. 10.9 limits the area of longitudinal reinforcement to not more than 8% and not less than 1% of the gross area of the section.
Well that's a mouthful – typical engineering code jargon. I figured the best way to remember it is to just write down:
ρmax = 8%, ρmin = 1%
Done. No need to spend time deciphering the language. When I come back to this page, I don't have to re-read the whole thing again to try and figure out what it means.
This also helped me create flow charts when necessary (which I'll talk about next).
Create Flow Charts
As I have mentioned in previous posts, concrete design is not my strongest suit. I know how to do them but haven’t had a lot of practice so I tend to miss a lot of the little details (i.e., minimum reinforcement, max spacing…etc.). I figured, there must be a better way then flipping through the ACI back and forth to figure out what I am supposed to do. So, I created a series of flow charts to help me remember how to design things. Here is an example of beam design (click to enlarge):
This saved me a tremendous amount of time and it also helped me gain a better understanding. I could essentially create similar charts for other subjects but I am fairly comfortable with the NDS and AISC 360 so I didn't create any for those. In the future, I am considering building a library of flowcharts to help other engineers but that’s still a work in progress. I keep a small binder of all the flow charts that I created so that they are easily retrievable during the exam.
Review & Practice
We don’t all have photographic memories so there’s really no way we can remember everything we studied – especially for something that we looked at months ago. It helps to go back and flip through stuff once in awhile to refresh your memory. This also kind of ties into the previous part. When you create your own “flow charts”, you are in a way, reviewing the materials. And by using these “flow charts” when you do the practice problems & practice exams, you are essentially doing more reviews which will definitely help you remember things.
Practice with the Calculator(s)
One last important thing that you need to do is to get really familiar with your main calculator and your backup calculator. There are two reasons for that.
- First is pretty obvious: Get familiar so that you know how to use them during the exam. For example, a lot of people actually didn't know that on a HP33s calculator, you can switch the input mode from “Reverse Polish Notation” (RPN) to “algebraic” (ALG); they end up freaking out because they don't know how to enter in RPN mode.
- Second reason: The exam has a limited time so the faster you can think/write/calculate, the better chance you have to pass. If you get really good and fast with using your calculator, you'll gain a noticeable advantage in the area of speed and accuracy.
Summary & Actions to Take
There you have it, I've shown you how I studied and how you can do the same to ace your exam. Steps to take next:
- Figure out your “overall plan” – how often and how long to study based on a reasonable estimate .
- Decide on your “daily plan” – where/when to study and be consistent.
- Finally, stay focused and use the tactics I've shown you to retain the information you learned.
Thank you so much reading. Any comments or questions? Let me know below.