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Why Take 20 Weeks for Your PE Exam Review?
When I first started teaching a mechanical engineering review course, sometime in the early 1990s, the course was taught in a classroom with PowerPoint slides and an overhead projector. I know, old school indeed. But I’ve learned a lot about what has and hasn’t worked by teaching variations of this course over the years. Finally, I discovered that 20 weeks of revision time was optimal for PE Exam revision. And that’s why all my online PE exam 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 look back at some of the experiences that led to this realization.
Already in the 90s, 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 a week. I remember taking the first part of my first night to provide an overview of the exam, exam strategy and other information about what to bring, or not to bring, to the exam. Then it was almost a firehose of information transfer.
Once we were asked by a former student to do an ME PE audit at their company. We decided to widen 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 further to 30 weeks, meeting only 2 hours a night instead of 3, with time off for summer vacation. That time frame turned out to be too long. Somewhere around 20 weeks seemed to be optimal, and we also realized that we needed more than just us presenting material. Devoting more time to work 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’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. This is it. To do this, you need to relearn things you once knew 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 many topics and subtopics. Really absorbing the information needed to understand these topics and practicing applying that knowledge takes time. This is not an exam where you can just fly it.
Fortunately, you are not learning everything from scratch. You relearn; 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 revision time must be devoted to that rehabitation, but only a part. A healthy portion of those 20 weeks must be spent solving exam-type problems. In other words: practice, practice, practice. And finally, you should 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 precious audit time, but should not be overlooked or its effectiveness underestimated. When you sit down to take the exam, you will be under tremendous stress. Without confidence in your knowledge, problem solving, and ability to find the information you need, it’s easy to settle or go into an instant panic. Building trust takes time.
Which brings me back to 20 weeks. That time frame takes into account that most people will review while also having jobs, families and lives that demand most of their time. So they will squeeze 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 a day, 5 days a week, most people can do that job. 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 get to 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 it’s 20 weeks.
Before I close, I want to offer some hope for those who read this and think, “I can’t devote 15 to 20 hours a week to my review, what should I do?” or “It’s only 12 weeks until 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 revision 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 of these courses. The key to making these shorter and longer reviews work is realizing that you’re pushing the limits a bit and working to make up for it. If your review is shorter, you will need to spend more time per week to make it effective. If your review is longer, you should make sure to give yourself time to revisit the material you learned earlier in your review as you approach 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 would like to leave you with some words of encouragement. You can pass this exam. Beyond the relearning and practice and organization, it’s 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, hone 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.
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