EET Seismic Principles Course Review

I want to write an honest review about the Seismic Principles exam prep course offered by Engineering Education and Training (EET), and taught by Ahmed Ibrahim. After much practice and dedication, I passed this exam on my first try thanks to Dr. Ibrahim. I cannot say enough good things about this course or professor.

The Seismic Principles exam is a 2.5 hour, 55-question computer based exam offered by the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists (BPELSG). This test is no joke, especially for those with a non-structural focus, since you need to understand some pretty complex concepts if you want to pass. Also, at roughly 2.7 minutes per question, with many of them requiring you to lookup information in various references, you can’t afford to make many mistakes. If you have no structural background like me, you absolutely CANNOT self-study for this exam.

EET’s course was recommended to me by many people at and my coworkers, so I decided to give it a shot.

The course was $500 when I took it, and includes everything I’m discussing below. It sounds like a lot, but you really get your money’s worth.

Lecture Quality
EET offers their seismic course in a live (in-person or online), and on-demand video format. I took the on-demand version, and it’s nice that you can rewind when necessary and view the videos whenever you want. The on-demand course uses recorded lectures from the previous online class. The courses and other content are accessible through a browser-based software called Adobe Connect.

In total, there’s about 60 hours worth of video content, and you can view the videos as many times as you’d like. In the videos, Ahmed goes through each page and example in the provided textbook, and adds tidbits of comments and extra examples to help you understand the concepts. There’s also a chatroom where you can ask questions or post answers to Ahmed while he’s teaching (in the on-demand course you can still view the chatroom).

To me, Ahmed’s commentary was the most useful. Dr. Ibrahim lets you know what you should highlight or make extra notes on. He also goes over common mistakes, and what is likely to appear on the exam. He’s an expert on the subject, so there are some extra topics that are in the book for completion’s sake, but are not necessary. However, he knows this and he makes sure you focus on what’s important for the exam.

Class Textbook
Ahmed has actually written a textbook for studying and preparing for the Seismic Exam, and it provided in the course package. The book assumes you have no prior structural experience, and starts from learning about what causes earthquakes, to calculating the shear capacity of a wooden diaphragm. The book is too dry to read on your own, and is a bit theoretical, but the class lectures are entirely based on the book, so if you just follow along with the course videos, you’ll be able to go through the entire book. There are 14 chapters in my version of the book, and at the end of each chapter there are anywhere between 10-150 practice problems, along with an appendix containing the solution to each one. The book comes in a comb-binding, and you’re allowed to bring it into the exam room.


Reference Materials
I’m no structural engineer, but from how I understand it, in California, building design is based on the California Building Code (CBC), which has adopted much of its regulations from the International Building Code (IBC), along with some amendments. The CBC includes seismic design requirements. Many of these seismic requirements are based on a document published by the American Society of Engineers (ASCE), called the “Minimum Design Loads of Buildings and Other Structures” or ASCE-7. Most of the equations/design criteria on the test are based on ASCE-7 and the CBC. Some other organizations, such as The Masonry Society and American Wood Council, have their own design criteria for their respective building materials.

ASCE-7 Cover

It’s quite daunting how much reference material you need to have on-hand for this exam. Thankfully Dr. Ibrahim provides you with all of the necessary codes, equations, and references you need. You absolutely do not need to print or buy anything else beyond what’s provided by the course.

Here are some photos of my reference binder that includes all of the reference materials provided by the course. I used this binder to answer about 90% of the questions on the test, while using the book’s index for anything I couldn’t find. Please note that you really need to know all of your references inside and out for your binder to be effective. I highly suggest writing your own personalized notes and adding tabs so that you can quickly lookup information.


Practice Quizzes/Workshops
The course also provides you with “workshops” and practice-quizzes. The workshops are PDF/printable and contain additional questions with step-by-step tips for solving the problems. After solving the workshops you can look at a video where Ahmed covers each question in depth.

The practice quizzes come in PDF/printable form and are useful for gauging your mastery on chapters with tough concepts. Questions on these quizzes are for the most part much harder and longer to solve than the actual exam’s difficulty. These practice quizzes come in handy as an additional study tool to the CBTs.

Computer-Based Tests (CBTs)
The CBTs give you a good feel for what the exam day will be like. Ahmed’s course is setup so that you complete the entire book, videos, practice-quizzes, and workshops before you take the CBTs. He recommends you take the CBTs starting the week before the exam, and its good advice because it gives you enough time to prepare mentally for the big day.

The CBTs run on a software that is very similar to the one used at Prometric (the testing company that administers the test) . There’s a countdown timer and you can flag questions. However, I believe one of the features that were missing in the CBTs versus the actual test is the ability to cross-off eliminated answers by clicking the right mouse button.

There are three CBTs, ranging from (1) tricky, (2) lengthy, to (3) about-what-you-should expect. I’d say that all of these exams, including the third one, are a good representation of the actual exam difficulty. You can take the CBTs over and over until you master them.

After completing the test and wiping off the exam sweat, you get your score right away. The answers are not online, but instead they are in a solutions booklet that is provided in addition to the class textbook. I believe you can buy this booklet separately on Amazon if you don’t plan on taking the full course:

The Teacher
Ahmed is a very dedicated teacher, he really knows his stuff, and he truly wants you to succeed. He responds fast to emails, has online office hours every week, and even provides you with his phone number.

Just to give you an example of Ahmed’s dedication, after I took a couple of the CBTs and did pretty well on them, he personally emailed me to comment on my good scores and offered words of encouragement. Who does that?! Keep in mind I was taking his on-demand course, so I didn’t really interact with him besides emailing him a few times for help on a few tricky textbook questions. Ahmed really made me feel like his actual student, and not just another customer.

Closing Notes
The actual exam turned out to be tougher than the CBT exams, but since this was the first CBT exam I ever took, I think stress and nerves got the best of me (tip: don’t wear headphones to block out the noise, you’ll end up hearing your heartbeat and psyche yourself out). I really, and foolishly, believed I would be able to ace the exam after my past performance on the CBTs, but I ended up completely guessing on seven of the problems since I ran out of time. My confidence was shaken as I left that exam room, but I still thought I answered enough questions correctly to pass (and I did!). The preparation I received through EET instilled hope that I would pass regardless. Ahmed also offered encouraging words after the exam.

I had a great experience taking EET’s Seismic Course, and I highly recommend it to anyone. You’ll have very good odds of passing if you complete his entire course, practice problems, and CBTs, regardless of your background. In fact, when I took the exam in Spring 2017, the reported passing rate was 89% for all of his classes. I believe that as long as you put in the time and effort to train with EET’s course, and follow Ahmed’s advice, you will very likely pass on the first try. Thanks again Dr. Ibrahim!

Watercourses and ridges on topographic maps: Why the V’s?

*If you’re not familiar with topographic maps, I recommend going over this National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) article on reading topo maps first.

Why does a “V” point uphill for a watercourse, and downhill for a ridge?
When viewing topographic maps, you’ll notice that valleys or watercourses are always shown in areas where a V’s pointy end is oriented uphill. In contrast, mountain ridges are in areas where the “V” points downhill. “Just look for the V’s” is common advice when looking for these features.

Note: This topographic map is from the USGS’s official website, on their GIS map viewer.

Why’s it got to be a “V”?
To me, this advice is not intuitive at first because valleys and ridges do not always look like a “V”. Sometimes they can look like really flat, subtle “U”s. It’s also easy to mistake one feature for the other if you just look for the “V.” What’s so special about the Vs?

The 90° rule
A better way to interpret topographic/contour (line of constant elevation) maps, and to understand why “V”s are indicative of valleys and ridges, is the following rule: “Water always flows downhill, perpendicular (at a 90° angle) to contour lines.” Seriously, if you can remember this, you can understand how water will flow in any area, with or without any obvious “V.”

Take a look at this contour map below. The left side shows a valley (watercourse) and the right side shows a ridge, or watershed boundary. Now, imagine it’s raining uniformly over this entire area. The blue lines show where raindrops will flow to once they hit the ground and gravity takes over. These blue lines follow the 90° rule:

If you can follow this example, you can figure out the drainage patterns of any topographic map you view, especially since most maps have contours going all over the place. To be fair, even for the less-obvious ridges or valleys you’ll be able to find a “V.” However the “V” may be very wide (flatter), or may have a lot of curves resembling a sine wave.

Here’s a USGS topographic map of an area with some obvious watercourses, and a well-defined ridge (in red) at the bottom. This area slopes downward to the west. Points A and B are for reference. Notice how there is vegetation from east to west. Vegetation often coincides with a well-defined watercourse.

Note: These modified topographic maps and imagery are from the USGS’s official website, on their GIS map viewer.

And for a better view, here’s a Google Earth version (looking easterly):

Map Data: Google,  INEGI

I hope this helps! Remember, the 90° rule can hep you in any rainy-day situation…Bah dum tss..

Seismic Terminology: Story vs Level vs Floor

One of the most common mistakes  I’ve heard of people making while studying for the seismic exam is the difference between story, level, and floor. While in everyday life these words are interchangeable, they have specific meanings for the seismic test. Unfortunately they’re very easy to mix up!

For example, think in your head where on the building below you would analyze to answer the following questions (assuming you’re given lateral forces and deflections at each level):

1.) What is the shear force just below the third floor?
2.) What is the story drift in Story 2?

For Question #1, if you analyzed the forces below the green line (which is actually the fourth floor), you would be incorrect, and this would likely be a trick answer on the exam. The correct area to analyze is the space below the blue line (third floor, or second level). Remember, although the ground doesn’t have a horizontal line, you cannot forget about it! The ground is defined as the first floor, or level zero. So count your way up from the ground to figure out the numbering.

Question #2 is a bit easier, the correct way is to compare the story deflections between the red line and blue line. However, I know when I began studying I confused “story” with floor/level, and didn’t even know where to begin due to this mixup.

In basic terms, here’s how I define the differences between story, level and floor:

Level: Surface that begins at level zero at the ground
Floor: Surface that begins as the first floor at the ground (think of an elevator)
Story: The ­space between the levels/floors that you would occupy if standing inside the building. Begins at story 1 between levels 0 and 1, or floors 1 and 2.

For your studies, I highly recommend jotting down your own diagram of the differences between these terms for your references. Here’s a sample diagram I drew up: