SE exam is very extensive and covers a huge variety of topics. To the best of my abilities, I am going to try and explain what it's all about.
The “Structural Engineer” (SE) exam is a 16-hour exam (!) that tests your proficiency as a practicing engineer. In many states such as California (where I am at), the title SE is required if you want to “design” schools or hospitals (as defined by the law).
I put quotations around “design” because I've actually worked on school & hospital jobs with an EIT & PE for a few years under a licensed SE. So realistically you'll be able to design these building but you can't legally take the responsibility of the work.
(Why would you want to be responsible? That's a whole other topic for another post so I'll explain that a little later.)
Anyways, in other states they'll have different requirements which I am planning to list them all when I get around to it. This page from engineering.com has some info but it's slightly outdated. It's a good start though if you just want to see a quick overview.
OK back to the SE exam.
In a nutshell, it has an 8-hour “vertical” portion on the first day and an 8-hour “lateral” portion on the second day. If you have worked in the construction industry, you probably have a pretty good idea of what “vertical” and “lateral” means.
Both days consist of two 4-hour sessions – morning breadth and afternoon depth. You'll need to know how to design with the major structural materials: concrete, steel, wood, and masonry. There's also a little bit about prestressed concrete, cold-formed steel.
For the codes, you'll have to know ASCE7 and IBC (which isn't too bad since most of it is based off the ASCE7). You'll also need to be (somewhat?) familiar with the AASHTO for both morning sessions.
AASHTO was actually one of the most difficult parts for me since I've worked only in the building industry. Although the engineering principles behind the two are similar, there are a lot of concepts in AASHTO that I had no idea what the heck was going on… I'll talk more about this in future posts.
The NCEES has more info about the exam (see specs) but let me see if I can give some examples to give you a taste of what you might expect (note that the exam comprises such a broad spectrum, my examples probably only cover a small portion of it):
Vertical (first day)
|Material/Code||Quick Example of Questions|
|Concrete||What's the nominal capacity of a beam?|
What's the minimum area of reinforcement required for a given section and load?
Determine the capacity of a concrete column.
Use the direct design method and figure out the moment distribution in a two-way slab.
Determine the development length.
Detail a concrete beam with the extend of its reinforcements.
What's the spacing of stirrups required for a given beam?
Determine the maximum moment of a continuous beam using the approximate method.
|Steel||Check whether a beam is adequate for a given load (need to check flexure, shear, and deflection).|
Determine the capacity of a bolted or welded connection (may include eccentricity).
Check the number of studs required for a composite beam to achieve full composite.
Determine the capacity of a column or beam-column.
Determine the capacity of tension member.
Determine the maximum stress in a beam with an added WT (need to calculate out the new Sx).
|Wood||Determine the capacity of a glulam or saw lumber beam or column (apply all factors - sometimes they give you some factors but not all).|
Check the adequacy of a connection given its configurations (nails/screw/bolts...etc).
|Masonry||Determine the anchor bolt capacity.|
Check the wall for gravity load (moment comes from the eccentricity).
Determine the required reinforcing for a retaining wall.
Determine the development length.
|Foundation/Retaining Wall||Determine the maximum soil pressure for a pad footing with applied moment.|
Check overturning & sliding for a retaining wall.
Check the moment/shear capacity for a combined footing.
Check a pad footing for punching shear.
Design the reinforcement required for a retaining wall (concrete or masonry).
|Prestressed Concrete||Determine the top or bottom fiber stress after prestressing force is applied.|
Determine the flexural strength of a beam with bonded or unbonded tendons.
Check the shear capacity of prestressed beam.
Determine the deflection caused by prestressing force based on tendon profiles.
|Cold-formed steel||Determine the capacity of a screw/bolts or welded connection.|
Determine the maximum allowed moment of a stud.
|ASCE 7 & IBC||Giving the roof/floor loads (live, snow, dead...etc), determine the axial load applied to a column (using load combinations and live load reductions).|
Calculate the snow drift given the ground snow load and building geometry.
Determine whether a certain special inspection is required.
|AASHTO*||Determine the capacity of a concrete/steel girder.|
Calculate the braking force applied to a span.
Determine the maximum load applied based on the load combination limit state
Determine the factored live load considering design lane load, truck/tandem load, multiple presence factor, and dynamic load allowance.
Determine a deck's width of equivalent strip and distribution factors.
|Miscellaneous Analysis||Determine the internal load in a truss member.|
Determine the reaction in a indeterminate beam.
Determine the influence line profile of the shear at a certain location in a beam.
Lateral (second day)
|Material/Code||Quick Example of Questions|
|Concrete||For a special moment frame, given the unfactored moments & shear in a beam (D, L, E), determine the required flexural and shear reinforcing.|
Given the layout of the reinforcing of a special shear wall, determine if boundary element is required.
Determine the required reinforcing area for a coupling beam.
Determine the maximum spacing of transverse reinforcement in a special moment frame column.
Given the lateral load and shear wall configuration of a floor, determine if the diaphragm is adequate.
Determine the required longitudinal reinforcement in a shear wall boundary.
|Steel||Determine the required design load for the connection of a special concentric frame.|
Given an inverted chevron special concentric frame, determine whether the beam is adequate.
Determine the link shear strength of an eccentric braced frame.
For a frame column, calculate the maximum design axial load (whether to include overstrength factor or not).
Decide if a special moment frame beam is adequate at its reduced beam section.
Determine if a special moment frame configuration meets the "strong-column-weak-beam" criteria.
Determine whether a section meets the seismic compactness criteria.
|Wood||Given the uplift and lateral load, determine the nailing and hold-down requirement for a shear wall.|
Determine the number of nails required for a top plate splice (based on chord/drag force).
Determine whether a plywood diaphragm is adequate.
|Masonry||For a flexible diaphragm, determine if the anchor bolt connection the ledger to the masonry wall is adequate.|
Determine the required shear reinforcement in a masonry wall.
|ASCE 7 & IBC||Given the data for a building, determine its seismic design category and seismic base shear and the forces at each floor (using vertical distribution).|
For a building with torsional irregularity, given the rigidity of every wall in a floor and the total lateral load applied in the floor, determine the load in a particular wall (need to account for accidental eccentricity and the amplification factor).
(In a multiple choice) Determine which configuration will induce vertical or horizontal irregularities.
Determine the design diaphragm forces for a multistory building.
Determine the wall anchorage load for a flexible or rigid diaphragm.
Calculate the collector/drag/chord forces.
Calculate the required lateral for the anchorage of an equipment.
Determine the required wind load based main wind force resisting system or component & cladding.
Given the data, determine the site class.
Given its lateral displacements at each floor, determine if the building meets the drift criteria.
|AASHTO*||Given the unfactored loads, determine the design requirement based on Extreme Event I limit state.|
Given the geometry, determine the total wind load applied to the superstructure.
Given the necessary data, determine the elastic seismic response coefficient
Determine the maximum moment on a pier produced by the water lateral load.
(*Note that AASHTO has its own material sections (i.e. concrete, steel, wood…etc) which uses different equations and Φ factors compare to what we normally use for buildings.)
Morning vs Afternoon
Both vertical and lateral have morning and afternoon sessions. The major difference is the number of questions and how detailed they are.
Let's start with the morning sessions.
Each morning session has 40 questions which you have to complete within 4 hours – this averages to about 6 minutes per question. In reality though, questions can range from very simple (that takes you less than a minute) to super time consuming (10 minutes or more).
For example, they could ask you what is the building's seismic and wind importance factor given that the building is a hospital (once you finish studying, this should take you less than a minute).
Or, they could give you the following values and ask you to calculate the story force at the 2nd floor:
- Building is a hospital utilizing steel special moment frame
- Building height and number of stories
- Site class
- Weight of each floor
Now in this case, you'll have to calculate the Cs value, then the base shear, then vertically distribute the force to each floor. It's relatively time consuming to enter all these numbers into the calculator.
If you are not already pretty familiar with this, it can really throw you off on the timing.
Although time consuming, this type of questions is pretty straightforward – you can answer them as long you know the procedures and the steps to arrive the the answer.
(Note: my goal is to able to simplify this to a flow chart so that you don't have to flip through pages of codes and try to remember what you studied. This will come in a future post so stay tuned!)
Ok let's talk about the afternoon session.
Afternoon session is also 4 hours and has 4 major questions (for buildings) – each major question has 3 to 6 sub questions. The answers you get from previous sub questions may or may not be needed for the next sub question.
Some sub questions can be pretty similar to what you have to do for the time-consuming questions in the morning session – except you have to show your work.
For example, they could ask you to calculate the following in the sub questions:
- The story force (just like the example above)
- Calculate the drag force required at certain location.
- Design and sketch out a connection detail that works for the drag.
The sketch part could be difficult for items that you have never seen or done before in real work. So it could be a good idea if you bring some drawings and details with you for references just in case.
The 4 major questions are all separate and they try to cover the 4 major materials (steel, wood, concrete, masonry) plus foundations.
For me, the concept behind the questions wasn't extremely difficult but the calculation was time consuming.
In a few of the questions, I didn't have enough time to calculate out all of the numbers so I ended up just writing down the equations hoping for some partial credits.
I did create a couple of tables to help me calculate a few things slightly faster which I will post these in future updates.
How do you feel after reading this?
OK that's the gist of it. I tried to cover as much as I can but obviously it's impossible to cover everything.
Do you feel like you have a good handle on the scope and know what to expect after reading this? Please let me know in the comment below if you have any questions and if there's anything else you'd like to know!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more updates!