When I first started teaching a mechanical engineering PE exam review course, sometime in the early 1990’s, the course was taught in a classroom with PowerPoint slides and an overhead projector. I know, old school indeed. But I learned a lot about what worked and didn’t work teaching variations of this course over the years. In the end, I discovered that 20 weeks of review time was optimal for a PE Exam review. And that’s why all my online PE exam review courses are based on a 20-week time frame. I do offer shortened 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 take a look back at some of the experiences that led to this realization.
Back in the 90’s, as now, the exam was offered twice a year in early to mid-April and late October or early November. With the first classes I taught, through the Industrial Extension Service of the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University, the schedule was dictated by the university semester calendar. As a result, the courses started 10 weeks before the exam. Teaching with a partner, we held one 3-hour class per week. I remember taking the first part of my first night to provide an overview of the exam, an exam strategy, and other information about what to bring, or not to bring, to the exam. Then it was it was pretty much a firehose of information transfer.
At some point we were asked by a former student to conduct an ME PE review at their company. We decided to expand the course and slow things down. We went from 10 weeks to 15, which worked much better. We were asked to do the review the following year and we slowed it down even more to 30 weeks, meeting for only 2 hours a night instead of 3, with time off for summer vacations. That time-frame turned out to be way too long. Somewhere around 20 weeks appeared to be optimum, and we also realized that we needed more than just us presenting material. Devoting more time to working problems was critical to success.
Twenty weeks became my standard for PE Exam reviews, and it has been my review course model ever since. Over the years, as I have refined my reviews, I have become more convinced than ever that it is the optimal time frame for a successful review. To understand why, it helps to think about what you are really trying to do. You are trying to pass a very specific exam that is testing you on the engineering concepts you learned in college. That’s it. To do that, you need to relearn things you knew at one time and be able to apply that knowledge quickly in an exam setting. That breaks down into two key factors: (1) understanding and (2) ability to apply that understanding. PE exams cover a lot of ground, with numerous topics and subtopics. To truly absorb the information needed to understand these topics and to practice applying that knowledge takes time. This is not an exam you where you can just wing it.
Fortunately, you’re not learning it all from scratch. You are relearning; 20 weeks would not be enough otherwise. As you review, you should be shaking off the cobwebs of concepts and equations that you once knew well. So a certain amount of your review time needs to be devoted to that re-familiarization process, but only a part. A healthy portion of that 20 weeks needs to be spent solving exam-type problems. In other words: practice, practice, practice. And finally, you need to spend some time organizing your references and resources so that you can access all this information quickly during the exam. That organization process will take up some of your precious review time, but should not be overlooked or its effectiveness undervalued. When you sit down to take the exam, you will be under an enormous 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 go into an outright panic. Building confidence takes time.
Which brings me back to 20 weeks. That time frame takes into account that most people will be reviewing while also having jobs, families, and lives that require most of their time. So they’ll be squeezing their review into an already packed schedule. For my 20-week reviews today, I recommend 15 to 20 hours per week for review. At 3 to 4 hours per day, 5 days a week, most people can make that work. It’s all about rebuilding your knowledge, your skill and your confidence. Start too early and your familiarity with the material and the 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 get enough practice or get organized. So 20 weeks it is.
Before I close, I want to offer some hope for those who have read this and are thinking, “I can’t devote 15 to 20 hours a week to my review, what am I supposed to do?” or “It’s only 12 weeks to the exam, is it hopeless for me?” While I firmly believe that 20 weeks is the optimal time frame, 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 review, and I have many participants who do well on the exam in both these courses. The key to making these shorter and longer reviews work is to realize that you are pushing the bounds a bit and work to make up for it. If your review is shorter, you are going to need to devote more time per week to make it effective. If your review is longer, you need to make sure to give yourself time to revisit the material you learned earlier in your review as you get close to the exam. In fact, even in my 20-week reviews, we recommend that participants leave 3 weeks before the exam for review of earlier material and final preparation for the exam.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with some words of encouragement. You can pass this exam. Beyond the re-learning and practice and organizing, it is all about having a clear mind and a calm spirit during the exam. If you take the proper time to learn what needs to be learned, perfect the skills you need to master, and have all your resources at your fingertips, you will have that clear mind and calm spirit and you will pass. Experience has shown me that, year after year.