Essential SE Exam Study Materials

The 16 hour Structural Engineering (SE) Exam is daunting. As a test taker, you are expected to know the ins and outs of the design standards, analysis methods, and material behavior. Luckily, you don’t have to memorize everything. The SE Exam is an open book exam.

However, the challenge still remains in knowing where to find the information and what to bring to the test. Just because you can bring everything, it doesn’t mean you should. The National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA) compiled a list of recommended books in their SE Exam Study Guide . This is a massive list that contains over 80 references.

I created a much shorter list of SE Exam study materials that were the most useful when I studied for the exam. You can jump right to the TL;DR if you want the condensed list without all my rambling.

Design Standards

Design standards are the most important items, not just for the test but also for the everyday practice of structural engineering. You want make sure that structures you design are code compliant. And there’s no way to know that without the standards of practice.

You should check the NCEES website for the references (and editions) used on the next exam. Although most things seem to stay the same between editions, I recommend getting the version listed by NCEES. You don’t want to miss a question because of a minor change in an equation or updated material strengths. Every point matters!

Here are some examples of changes between editions:

  • Bolt shear and tension strengths (Table 7-1 and 7-2) changed between the 13th and 14th edition of the Steel Construction Manual.
  • Wind pressures changed from service level to ultimate level in IBC 2012.
  • ACI-318 chapters were reorganized from the 2011 to the 2014 edition.

Help With Costs

These code books are often expensive. It can cost up to $400 for just one reference. This adds up when you have to pay for ten different standards, study guides, and exam fees. Although it’s beneficial to have your own copy of each references, I understand how you might hesitate to do so.

Here are some tips to help with the costs of obtaining these references:

  • Discounts are often available to members of the various structural engineering associations. For example, the AISC Steel Construction Manual (15th Edition) is $400 for non-members and $200 for members. If you are not a member yourself, consider asking if your company or coworkers are members and can get the lower price for you.
  • Borrow the design standards from your coworkers or your company’s reference library. Be sure to check that it’s okay to highlight and put tabs in the books (if it’s not already marked).
  • If your firm has the digital copy of the references, you can take the PDFs to a printing store like FedEx. They can print and bound the references for you. This is often much cheaper than buying the hardcopy.

SE Reference Manual

The SE Reference Manual ( PPI , Amazon ) is almost as important as the design standards when it comes to SE Exam study materials.

This book lays out all the topics that will be on the exam. It gives a comprehensive review of the analysis and design methods for multiple materials and structures. But it doesn’t spell out everything you need to know. Therefore, you still need to dive into the design standards mentioned above .

I used the SE Reference Manual to structure my self-guided study sessions. The table of contents served as the outline for my study format. I read the book from cover to cover. The examples and problem sets tested my proficiency in all subject areas. I developed a sense of what to expect on the exam and how to approach the problems.

I felt much more prepared for the exam after completing the SE Reference Manual.

Practice Exams and Problems

The best use of time in SE Exam prep was running through practice problems.

To get the most of your time, you want the practice questions to mirror ones on the actual exam. This will help you accurately assess your pacing and knowledge. So it’s great that the exam provider, NCEES, releases practice exams along with trusted sources such as PPI and SEAOC.

I focused most of my study time on completing as many problem sets as possible. I wanted to get in as many repetitions as possible. This exposed me to all the ways a concept could be presented.

A great place to start is the SE Exam Reference Manual mentioned in the previous section . There are 270 examples and 50 questions in this book. In addition to that book, I found these five practice problem books to be the most useful:

  • PPI Practice Exam ( PPI , Amazon )
  • NCEES Practice Exam ( PPI , Amazon )
  • Six Minute Problems with Solutions (PPI , Amazon )
  • SE Exam Bridge Problems (Amazon )
  • SEAOC Structural/Seismic Design Manual Volume 1 (SEAOC )

CodeMaster Pamphlets

As mentioned at the beginning, the main challenge of the SE Exam is locating the design equations and code prescriptions. CodeMaster pamphlets ( PPI , ICC ) are a great resource for doing just that.

These pamphlets condense information into a few laminated sheets. They contain design standard references, step by step design processes, and examples. It is much quicker to reference these sheets than to leaf through the design standards.

I found the following CodeMaster pamphlets to be invaluable:

  • The masonry design ( ASD , Strength Design ) pamphlet has step by step instructions for both in-plane and out-of-plane wall design. I always pull out this resource to design CMU walls.
  • The wood design pamphlet presents all the adjustment factors into one section for quick reference. It solves the biggest headache when designing wood members, which is looking all over the place for the adjustments factors.
  • The seismic design pamphlet lays out the seismic design process in easy to follow steps. I use this resource to quickly determine the seismic design category and base shear. I also lean on these sheets for seismic irregularity questions.

Design Flow Charts

Speaking of cheat sheets, one of the best ways to consolidate knowledge is to create your own design flow chart. This provides a quick design overview. It also acts as a QC checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything.

I created a set of flow charts for my second attempt at the SE Exam. These were key to passing the test. You can get the foundation design flow charts for free by entering your email below.


Other Items

The following items are not exactly SE Exam study materials but ones that are still vital to success in the exam.

Book Tabs

Tabbing your references is one of the best uses of study time. As mentioned multiple times, knowing where everything is monumental to success in the exam.

I placed a tab on every page that led to the solution of a practice problem. I then wrote a short description on the tab. Sections were color coded based on topics. For example in the ACI 318, blue tabs were reinforcing steel design and red tabs meant shear design. I was able to find information much faster after tabbing my books.

I marked my study materials with sturdier plastic books tabs . I didn’t want to worry about tabs falling out while flipping through the pages.

Scientific Calculator

To protect exam integrity, NCEES only allows certain calculators for the exam. You can see the list of approved calculators is on their website .

Get your calculator well before the exam. You should be using this calculator to solve practice problems. This helps develop a sense of familiarity. It also eliminates a potential source of stress during the exam. Don’t forget to bring a 2nd calculator to the exam incase the first one breaks.

I bought and used the Casio FX-991ES for the exam. I am still using it 5 years later. It replaced the TI-89 as my main calculator. It’s lightweight and solar powered, so I don’t have to worry about changing the batteries.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

The first steps in preparing for the Sturctural Engineering (SE) Exam is getting all required SE Exam study materials. The following materials are what I found to be the most important:

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