Monday, July 18, 2016

So Professional

Earlier this year, I studied for, took, and passed the PE exam in civil engineering. Along with earning my degree and getting a job, it's one of my top accomplishments in life. Yes, I am now a Professional Engineer (in the state of NJ).

I'm not an ambitious person so I wasn't that keen on taking the test. Plus, I really, really despise studying (I think I likened it to torture the last time I briefly mentioned this exam hullabaloo) and because we don't really 'stamp' things at my office, I didn't feel pressed to take it. However, my boss insisted and it was technically written in my offer letter so I finally took the plunge.
This story actually begins a few years ago. I filled out my application, got five of my former and current bosses to fill out references for me, sent in transcripts and my FE exam results, and then I waited. I waited for basically a full year before the office got back to me saying I could finally take the test.

I'm writing this post as a personal post for myself, highlighting the way I feel about my accomplishment, but also so that I can share some anecdotes in the hopes that it may help fellow applicants who get overlooked and tossed around by their local administrators.

The Application Process
My initial application was mailed in around November or December of 2014 along with my transcript and proof that I had passed the FE. I got my application number just a few weeks later. I handed out my reference forms in February 2015 with a June deadline so that I could get my application approved in time to take the exam in October.

I think the real hangup began when the New Jersey office had trouble reconciling the fact that I had taken my FE (the fundamentals of engineering) in New York. The test is the same across the nation but for whatever reason, it was an issue. So, I had to call and call and call both offices to straighten things out. The New Jersey office claimed it never received anything even though the New York office did me a courtesy and sent out the result notice twice (with a postal tracking number to confirm receipt). Eventually, I ended up just scanning my actual certificate and emailing it over and they accepted it; I'm still unsure of how that was acceptable but hey, I'll take it.
The next hangup was getting my application to the board. Even though I had all of my components in, for whatever reason, my folder sat in a cabinet or on someone's desk for months before it went to one of the monthly board meetings to get final approval. The woman I dealt with was either incredibly lazy or just totally incompetent; or maybe she was both. She assured me during every phone call that my file would make it to the next approval meeting but it took four months before it got approved and by then, it was September 2015 and it was too late for me to register to take the October 2015 exam.

Finally, I had to wait on my actual approval notice (the incompetent and/or lazy woman had given me verbal confirmation on the phone that I had been approved but that I had to await a letter in the mail with instructions and other information. Again, I waited and waited but a full month passed and I hadn't received boo. So, I called her back and she promised she would email me that second. Nothing came so I called again a few days later. She made a similar promise but again nothing happened. We played phone tag and emailed back and forth for another full month before I finally received my notice. This was February 2016; she attached the pertinent information and letter in an email with a lame apology. If there was a way to 'Yelp' this place, I would have ripped this woman to shreds.

By the way, I wasn't the only one to have problems with my application. One of my coworkers had a similar issue with his FE and PE exam locations being different and another coworker didn't receive her approval notice in the mail and only found out when she called the office out of curiosity (and subsequently found out she had been approved several months earlier).

Exam Preparation
I registered to take the April 2015 exam and signed up for a review course in late February, which gave me exactly 6 weeks to study and prepare. The timeline was decent but I was a bit peeved as I didn't get to take advantage of the discount that early registrants to the review course received but my office offered to reimburse me so it wasn't the end of the world for my bank account by any means. It was just annoying because I'm cheap as hell and hate getting screwed out of a good deal.

I opted to take the School of PE on-demand option for online courses. There were 80+ hours of lectures which meant that I forced myself to watch 3 to 4 hours of lectures every night after work and a little on the weekends for a month. I watched lectures while doing yoga and then I studied in my bed (the way I did in university) with my materials splayed out around me. The final few days I had left I spent doing practice problems, practice exams, and bookmarking my review materials.

I used my study sessions simply as a review of the material I hadn't dealt with in years. I work in geotechnical engineering so I hadn't really thought about structural steel or concrete since university. So, the lectures were a way to revive the dusty cabinets in my brain that housed that knowledge. I knew that if I felt like I was learning anything new, I was in trouble; luckily, it was kind of like riding a bike. Truss analysis and concrete column design came rushing back to me. And there was nothing in the review material that was so completely brand new or intimidating that worried me.
{my dog really helped me study}
As with any study session, I didn't rely too heavily on the answer keys in my practice books. I did the problems the way I thought was correct. Then, as I was checking my answers, I found mistakes left and right and confirmed the errata with the publishers' websites. This just boosted my confidence, as I felt like I was actually using my brain and not just robot-ing my way through the material.

The exams are always conducted on a Friday for whatever reason so I took off work the Thursday before too just to chill out to give my brain a break. On Wednesday night, I packed my car with my reference materials so that I wouldn't be tempted to look at them at all on Thursday. Then, on my day off, I went for a hike with my dog, watched some garbage television, did a puzzle, and cooked an elaborate dinner (cooking is one of my favorite hobbies), and then got into bed early for a good night's sleep.

The Exam
Luckily, it worked out that my normal work alarm would get me up perfectly in time to take the exam in the morning. So, I followed my normal morning routine of washing up and getting dressed. I packed a lunch and some snacks, grabbed a few water bottles, and then drove to the exam.

I signed in and settled into my seat and laid out my references. I had worn a big blanket scarf (it was a chilly day) which ended up serving as a cushion for my seat. The seat was really uncomfortable and a bit low compared to the table (made extra unbearable due to my already short height) so the scarf helped. The morning and afternoon portions were 4 hours each so it was important to get comfortable.

And then the rest is history. I took the test and felt mildly confident in myself but I also had my doubts as the tests are smartly designed so that if you make a typical error, you'll still see your answer as one of the choices. Plus, the pass rate of the previous exam was 60% so I just had to hope that 40% of the nation was dumber than I was. But, it all worked out and I passed and now I can say that I'm a professional.

Aftermath
After the test results, I also had to do a law exam (specific to NJ) before I got my license. Again, I had to hassle the office about getting my paperwork to me - I dealt with the same terrible woman that I spoke with during the application process - but once I finally got everything sorted out, it was fine.

TL;DR?

The costs:
  • $75 application fee
  • $1,190 review course
  • $365 test fee

My top tips for the application process:
  • Stay on top of the office administrators to check the status of your application. The phone number of the office is listed on the website but when you get a chance with a real human on the phone, ask for an email address too. That way, you have a way to reach people after hours.
  • If your FE and PE exam states are different, have a scanned copy of your FE exam certificate on standby; it may come in handy.
  • Plan on starting the application process early because it may take more time than you may expect.
  • Register to take the test with NCEES. I used my old login information from back when I took the SATs; ah, nostalgia.
My top tips for studying:
  • Design a personalized study routine based on your personality. Even though the 6-week study period I had for myself was a result of bad communication and some application annoyances, it was what I would have given myself regardless. I know I wouldn't have the discipline to study for months or even a full year like some people. Know your limits and your needs and don't compare your routine to anyone else's. If you need more time, give yourself lots of time. If you prefer to do small cram sessions and work under pressure, then wait to the last minute.
  • Study in your ideal environment. If you need the quiet of a library, if you prefer the bustle of a coffee shop, or if like me, you want to lounge about in your bed or on top of a yoga mat, just make sure you're comfortable and you're somewhere you can really concentrate and be productive. But also be aware that the testing environment may be completely different; if that will affect the way you work, then try and recreate the testing environment to practice.
  • The answer key is not god. Don't wholly trust the answer key, as sometimes publishers make mistakes. If you're unsure of a solution, check for errata on the publishers' websites.
  • Bookmark, highlight, and really get to know your reference materials.
  • Snack while you study and plan on eating the same snack during the exam to activate sense memory.
My top tips for the exam:
  • Pack up your reference materials, approved calculator, and exam entry confirmation in your car the evening before and make sure your car is fueled up and you know where you're going and where to park. Only bring reference materials you are familiar with; there's no use wasting time flipping through new material on the day of the test.
  • Get to the exam location early to guarantee a parking spot.
  • Bring snacks and water and wear light clothing and layers. You never know if the heating or air-con will be blasting so be prepared for all temperatures.
  • Leave your cell phone in your car; it will taken away. By a similar token, you don't need to bring writing instruments; they will be given to you.
  • Read through the entire test first and start with the easiest questions and work your way to the hardest. All questions are weighted evenly so you might as well answer the ones you know. Plus, it will boost your confidence and ease you into test-taking mode.
  • During lunch break, enjoy your meal in your car in solitude. Everyone else will be chattering about the AM portion; don't stress yourself out unnecessarily.
  • Relax and do your best. There's nothing more you can really do.
After the exam:
  • Go to the bar to meet your friends and celebrate that you've finished.
  • After you pass, remember to thank your references and anyone that helped you with your studies. If you fail, read through your diagnostic so that you know where you need to improve if you plan on retaking the exam.
  • Fill out any remaining paperwork or extra steps that your state may require you to do.
  • Relax and enjoy your new professional status!
xoxo.

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