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Why Take 20 Weeks for Your PE Exam Review?
When I first started teaching a mechanical engineering PE exam review course in the early 1990s, the course was taught in a classroom setting with PowerPoint slides and an overhead projector. I know, old school indeed. But I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t by teaching variations of this course over the years. In the end, I found that 20 weeks of review time was optimal for a PE exam review. And that’s why all of my online PE exam review courses are based on a 20-week period. I offer abbreviated or extended versions of these courses, but they are all based on this 20 week ideal. So what is it about 20 weeks that works so well? Let’s go back to some of the experiences that led to this realization.
In the 1990s, as now, the exam was offered twice a year from early to mid-April and in late October or early November. With the first classes I taught, through the North Carolina State University College of Engineering Industrial Extension Service, the schedule was dictated by the college semester schedule. As a result, classes started 10 weeks before the exam. Teaching with a partner, we organized a 3 hour lesson per week. I remember taking the first part of my first night to give an exam overview, exam strategy, and other information on what to bring and what not to bring to the exam. Then it was pretty much a fire hose of information transfer.
At one point, a former student asked us to conduct an ME PE exam at his company. We decided to expand the course and slow things down. We went from 10 to 15 weeks, which worked much better. We were asked to take the exam the following year and we slowed it down further to 30 weeks, meeting only 2 hours a night instead of 3, with time off for summer vacation. This delay turned out to be far too long. Around 20 weeks seemed to be optimal, and we also realized that we needed more than just introductions. Devoting more time to work issues was critical to success.
Twenty weeks became my standard for PE exam reviews, and it has been my model review class ever since. Over the years, as I have refined my reviews, I have become more convinced than ever that this is the optimal time frame for a successful review. To understand why, it helps to think about what you’re really trying to do. You’re trying to pass a very specific exam that tests you on the engineering concepts you learned in college. That’s it. To do this, you need to relearn things you once knew and be able to apply that knowledge quickly in an exam. This breaks down into two key factors: (1) understanding and (2) the ability to apply that understanding. PE exams cover a lot of ground, with many topics and subtopics. Truly assimilating the information necessary to understand these topics and practicing the application of this knowledge takes time. This is not an exam where you can just ride it.
Fortunately, you don’t learn everything from scratch. You relearn; 20 weeks wouldn’t be enough otherwise. As you revise, you should get rid of the cobwebs of concepts and equations you were once familiar with. So some part of your exam time should be spent on this re-familiarization process, but only part of it. A good portion of those 20 weeks should be spent solving exam-type problems. In other words: practice, practice, practice. And finally, you need to spend time organizing your references and resources so that you can quickly access all of this information during the exam. This organizing process will take up some of your valuable review time, but should not be overlooked or its effectiveness underestimated. When you sit down to take the exam, you will be under a huge amount of stress. Without confidence in your knowledge, problem-solving skills, and ability to find the information you need, it’s easy to get bogged down or panic. Building trust takes time.
Which brings me back to 20 weeks. This time frame takes into account that most people will be studying while having jobs, families, and lives that require most of their time. They will therefore fit their exam into an already busy schedule. For my 20 week exams today, I recommend 15-20 hours per week for the exam. At 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week, most people can get this to work. It’s about rebuilding your knowledge, skills and confidence. Start too early and your familiarity with the materials and solutions may fade before you reach the exam. Start too late, and the information won’t sink in and you won’t have time to practice enough or get organized. So 20 weeks is.
Before I wrap up, I want to offer some hope to those who have read this and are thinking, “I can’t dedicate 15-20 hours a week to my review, what am I supposed to do?” or “It’s only 12 weeks until the exam, is that hopeless for me?” While I firmly believe that 20 weeks is the optimal timeframe, that doesn’t mean that a shorter or longer review won’t work. In fact, I offer a compressed and extended version of my 20-week exam, and I have many participants who do well on the exam in both of these courses. The key to making these shorter and longer reviews work is to realize that you are pushing the limits a bit and working to catch up. If your exam is shorter, you will need to dedicate more time per week to make it effective. If your exam is longer, you should be sure to give yourself time to review the material you learned earlier in your exam as you get closer to the exam. In fact, even in my 20 week exams, we recommend that participants leave 3 weeks before the exam to review prior material and final exam preparation.
Finally, I would like to leave you with a few words of encouragement. You can pass this exam. Beyond relearning, practicing and organizing, it’s about having a clear mind and a calm mind during the exam. If you take the time to learn what needs to be learned, hone the skills you need to master, and have all your resources at your fingertips, you will have that clear, calm mind and you will succeed. Experience has shown me that year after year.
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