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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 with PowerPoint slides and an overhead projector. I know, old school really. But I’ve learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t work teaching variations of this course over the years. Ultimately, 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 shortened and extended versions of these courses, but they are all based around 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.
In the 1990s, as now, the exam was offered twice a year, from early to mid-April and late October or early November. With the first few classes I taught, through the Industrial Extension Service of the North Carolina State University College of Engineering, the schedule was dictated by the college semester calendar. Consequently, the courses started 10 weeks before the exam. Teaching with a partner, we had one 3 hour lesson per week. I remember taking the first part of my first night to provide an overview of the exam, exam strategy, and other information on what to bring and not bring to the exam. So it was basically a fire hose for information transfer.
At one point a former student asked us 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 slowed it down even more to 30 weeks, only meeting 2 hours a night instead of 3, with time off for summer vacation. That amount of time proved to be too long. Somewhere around 20 weeks seemed to be optimal, and we also realized that we needed more than just submitting material. Spending more time on work issues was key to success.
Twenty weeks became my standard for PE exam reviews and has been my model review course ever since. Over the years of honing my reviews, I’ve 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 are trying to pass a very specific exam that tests you on the engineering concepts you learned in college. That’s all. To do this, you must relearn things you once knew and be able to quickly apply that knowledge in an exam setting. This breaks down into two key factors: (1) understanding and (2) the ability to apply that understanding. The PE exams cover many topics, with numerous topics and subtopics. Truly absorbing the information needed to understand these topics and practicing applying that knowledge takes time. This is not an exam where you can just pass it.
Luckily, you’re not learning everything from scratch. You are relearning; 20 weeks would not be enough otherwise. As you revise, you should shake off the cobwebs of concepts and equations you once knew well. So a certain amount of your review time needs to go into that refamiliarization process, but only a fraction. A good portion of those 20 weeks must 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 quickly access all of this information during the exam. That organizational process will take up some of your valuable review time, but it shouldn’t be overlooked or its effectiveness underestimated. When you sit down to take the exam, you will be under a tremendous 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 outright. Building trust takes time.
Which brings me back to 20 weeks. That time frame takes into account that most people will survey while having jobs, families, and lives that take up most of their time. Then they will squeeze their review into an already busy schedule. For my 20-week reviews today, I recommend 15 to 20 hours per week for review. 3 to 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, most people make it work. It’s about rebuilding your knowledge, your skill and your confidence. Start too early and your familiarity with the material and solutions may wear off 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 it’s 20 weeks.
Before closing, I want to offer some hope to those who have read this and are thinking, “I can’t spend 15 or 20 hours a week on my review, what am I supposed to do?” or “It’s only 12 weeks until the exam, is it hopeless for me?” While I strongly believe that 20 weeks is the optimal length of time, that doesn’t mean a longer or shorter review won’t work. In fact, I offer a compressed and extended version of my 20-week review and have many participants who do well in both of these courses. The key to making these shorter and longer reviews work is to realize that you’re pushing the envelope a bit, and work to remedy that. If your review is shorter, you will need to spend more time each week to make it effective. If your review is longer, you need to make sure you allow yourself time to revisit the material you learned earlier in the review as you get closer to the exam. In fact, even in my 20-week reviews, we recommend participants leave 3 weeks before the exam for previous material review and final preparation for the exam.
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 all about having a clear mind and calm spirit during the exam. If you take the right time to learn what needs to be learned, perfect the skills you need to master, and have all your resources at your fingertips, you’ll have that clear mind and calm spirit and you’ll pass. Experience has shown me this, year after year.
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