CPESR Surveying Course Review

This review is about the online course I took in studying for the April 2017 California Engineering Surveying Exam. Having never taken a surveying course in college and learning most of it on the job, I needed instruction so that I could understand the basics. There are many courses that can teach you surveying from scratch, but I decided to go with the on-demand Civil PE Surveying Review (CPESR) course taught by Kirk Torossian based on reviews from engineerboards.com

Of all the courses I could find that have an online option, CPESR was the cheapest at $350. The course includes 12 hours of on-demand videos, practice quizzes, four timed computer-based test (CBT) exams, a reference manual with equations and example problems, and a cool transparent ruler.

Reference Manual
Your references are one of the most important things you need on the exam besides your calculator, and I feel that the reference manual that comes with course is helpful for 90% of the questions encountered on this exam. The manual comes pre-tabbed with the important topics and relevant formulas. Relevant sections from the various surveying acts and laws are included and easy to find. All of the class video sample exercises are within the manual as well.


This manual is great for answering the many quantitative questions in the exam, but since it’s not a standalone book you won’t be able to find the answer to any specific “trivial” questions the exam sometimes throws at you. Because of this, I highly recommend purchasing an additional reference that covers every topic more in-depth, or perhaps a textbook. My personal suggestion is to purchase or borrow a copy of Dr. Mansour’s “Surveying for California Civil PE License” or Reza Mahallati’s “Civil Surveying Review Workbook” ($130 on his website). Each of these workbooks are part of each instructor’s respective course, so you should also consider weighing the CPESR course against these competitor courses as well.

Video Content & Online Interface
There are only 12 hours of on-demand video in this class. This doesn’t seem like a lot for the price you’re paying, but CPESR makes up for it by being concise and offering the best quality and presentation of any on-demand course I took while studying for the three PE exams. The videos are split into roughly nine sections of surveying topics, and they range from 30 minutes to two hours long.

The online interface is also easy to navigate and you can access the website and videos on most tablets as well (a bonus if you want to study in bed or on the bus).

The Teacher
Kirk’s teaching style is upbeat and kept me engaged. I’ve taken online courses that seem to drag on because of the seriousness of the instructor or a monotone voice, but this class isn’t like that. Kirk speaks very clearly and throws in some humor to keep things light. In the videos he’ll go over a topic, and then show you how to solve example questions directly from the reference manual.

Speed is emphasized in this class, and the really nice thing about the videos is that at times he shows the exact buttons to press on the calculator (a TI-89, which he recommends, but more on that later) so that you can maximize your speed, and he explains each step of the problem thoroughly and shows you a slow and fast way to solve a problem.

Overall, Kirk teaches and speaks to you more like he’s your gym buddy rather than a formal instructor, and this makes watching the videos and learning a relatively dry topic (sorry, but I’m a water resources dude) more enjoyable.

Computer Based Quizzes
After viewing the videos for each section, you are encouraged to take a quiz that tests you on basic questions about that topic and that builds on the previous topics. This is a nice feature that I appreciated because it kept everything fresh in my mind up to the end of the course. Also, the quizzes are setup exactly like the CBTs with four multiple choice answers to simulate the real test.

Computer Based Tests (CBTs)
There are four, 55-question, 2.5-hour long, randomized CBTs in this class, and they range from easy, to normal, to hard, to very hard. You can take these tests over and over, and each time you complete a test you receive the solutions, and your score is saved so you can gauge your performance over time.

Kirk’s advice is to take each of these exams at least three times to guarantee a pass, and while I only managed to take each one two or three times, I felt very prepared if not overprepared for the real exam. The questions are mostly solvable if you took the class, but he throws a few curveball questions at you that he did not cover at all (similar to the exam) and this is where having your additional reference really helps. All of the exams, especially the hard and very hard CBTs, had a few lengthy questions that were very difficult to solve within the time limit or required you to envision invisible triangles and know your trigonometry inside and out. However, by taking the exams over and over and learning from your (sometimes repeated) mistakes, you can finish even the very hard exam with time to spare.

Recommended Calculator
Kirk highly touts the TI-89 calculator for this exam because of the easiness of using answers from previous calculations and its DMS buttons.  Speed is the name of the game, and he even shows you how to use the calculator’s functions in addition to solving practice problems with it.

The TI-89 is indeed a fine calculator, but unless you already have it, I don’t recommend buying it for three reasons. First, it’s pretty expensive at roughly $130 online. Second, the TI-89 is not allowed for the National Civil PE Exam. But more importantly, entering DMS angles on it is a bit cumbersome compared to my favorite calculator, the Casio fx-115ES PLUS (only $16!). I’ve actually written a post on this topic if you’d like to make an informed decision for yourself. Either way, you’ll be fine taking this class and the exam with or without the recommended TI-89 calculator.

The 12 instructional hours you get from the CPESR course videos are relatively short, but the quizzes and CBTs are where you get the most bang for your buck. I truly believe that there is enough variety of questions in the CBTs that if you can learn to comfortably answer each one in all of the CBTs, and bring another reference, you will find that the real exam is a piece of cake.

I did not have any experience in surveying before taking this course besides looking at construction plans and skimming through Cuomo’s Surveying Principles for Civil Engineers (which is a good starter book for surveying newbies). However, when I took the real exam I finished early and felt that it was on par with the difficulty level of the “very easy” to “normal” CBTs offered by CPESR.

CPESR prepared me well for the CA Surveying exam and passing on my first try, and I would recommend it to anyone considering it for their exam preparation.

The Coordinate Method – Explained, with a Shortcut

Per the CA BPESLG’s test plan for the civil surveying exam, test takers need to know how to perform “trigonometric relationship to determine the area of a polygon” and “procedures for calculating area” when it comes to traverses. If you’re taking a course or self-studying, then you’ve probably heard of these three methods for calculating the enclosed area of a traverse/polygon:

  1. Divide the traverse/polygon into simple triangles and/or parallelograms.
  2. The double-meridian-distance (DMD) method
  3. The coordinate method

In my opinion, the easiest way to calculate the enclosed area of a traverse is the coordinate method, since it is simply a plug-n-chug problem (so is the DMD method, but it has more rules to follow) if you’re given coordinates or can easily resolve the polygon’s vertices into a coordinate system.

So, let’s take a look at the coordinate method formula for a 4-sided traverse with points A, B, C, and D:

What the heck? At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a simple plug-n-chug formula. Also, why is YA reintroduced at the end, and why is YD in the beginning term? The formula looks pretty daunting, but here’s a better way to visualize what’s going on in that nasty numerator (this figure was inspired from Chapter 6.8 from Cuomo, 2nd edition)

The products of the solid lines are positive, while the products of the dashed lines are negative (compare this to the previous formula to confirm). From this diagram above, you can see pretty clearly why the coordinate method is also called the “criss-cross” method, since you must go around the traverse, coordinate-by-coordinate, and multiply by the coordinates before and after by the one you are currently working on. You’ll notice that I have highlighted (XA, YA) in red and (XD, YD) in blue to illustrate this point. If you were finishing the calculation, you would have to multiply Point D’s x-coordinate with the y-coordinates from Point C, and Point A (the beginning point).

If that explanation confused you, don’t worry, there’s a a shortcut to this madness and no need to recall any formula!

(Somewhat of a) Shortcut to using the Coordinate Method

The best way to calculate an area using the coordinate method is by setting up a table for your criss-cross calculations. Instead of giving you a list of steps, I’ll show you an example:

Question: What is the area of the 4-sided traverse below?


Step 1.) Resolve the traverse or polygon into (x,y) or (N, E) coordinates: You’ll see that I was nice and gave you the coordinates already, but if you’re not given any coordinates and it’s too complicated to resolve the polygon into triangles and rectangles, make up your own coordinates for each vertex (it’s nice to label one of the points strategically as (0,0) to ease calculations).

Step 2.) Create a two-row table, with as many columns as there are unique points , plus one more (in this case 4 +1 = 5).  The top row is for x-coordinates, bottom row is for y-coordinates. It really doesn’t matter which row you use, or if it’s Northing and Eastings, but what does matter is that you must write the coordinates in order, going clockwise or counterclockwise, starting at any vertex. Also, you must enter the same coordinates you started with in the last column (in this case point A was entered in the first and last columns).

Step 3.) Beginning with the first column and moving right, do a “criss-cross” calculation for the top row. In other words, multiply the first column/first row by the second column/second row, and write the answer underneath (shorthand notation for big numbers). Continue this for each column, moving right.


Step 4.) Do your “criss-cross” with the bottom row, writing the answer on top:

 Step 5.) Calculate the sum of the top and the bottom. Be sure to include negative signs in your summation when you have negative coordinate(s).

Step 6.) Take the absolute value of the difference between the sum of top and sum of bottom. Divide this number by 2, and that’s your answer.

The above process worked well for me on the exam, and it’s pretty fast once you get the hang of it. Hell, as long as you set up the table, you could probably do all these calculations in one or two steps on your calculator. The table just helps you visualize the sequence.

If you liked this “shortcut”, here’s what I would recommend writing in your references to help you remember the process:

Four a four-sided (for simplicity) traverse/polygon, with points A, B, C, and D:

What’s the best calculator for the CA Surveying Exam?

While studying for the surveying exam you’ll notice that most problems will give you an angle in terms of minutes, degrees, and seconds (aka DMS; e.g. 5°36’46”)In most cases this is no big deal, but during the computer-based exam when you’re pressed for time and the clock’s ticking you need all the help you can get to increase your speed. Not only that, most problems will give you numerous DMS angles where you have to add a lot of things up.  I understand the importance of DMS since it is more precise than decimals, but it can get pretty frustrating smashing your calculator buttons for what seem like an eternity just to enter one angle!

Luckily, I believe there is one calculator that stands out above the rest when it comes specifically to the surveying exam, and that is the Casio FX-115 ES PLUS (and yes, its allowed on the national and CA specific exams). Why? Because of this button right here:

With just one push, this button lets you enter the degree, minute, second AND convert back and forth between DMS and decimal degrees. There’s no need to scroll to a menu or press any additional buttons, and trust me this is a lifesaver! I’ve recently taken the April 2017 CA surveying test, and my biggest worry was my speed. I honestly believe this button saved me a good 5 minutes on the 2.5 hr , 55 question exam . Yes, this is a big deal!

While it may sound like I’m some Casio representative, hear me out: I was a Texas Instruments (TI) man my whole life, and my calculator of choice had always been the TI-36x Pro  Also, I took an online surveying preparation course and the teacher really recommended the TI-89 Titanium (which I already owned) for its ability to enter DMS angles quickly. However, I noticed that while both calculators are superb for normal calculations, entering DMS angles is very clunky on both. On the TI-36x pro, I have to scroll to a menu (e.g 2nd -> Math -> scroll to DMS -> degree /minute/or second) each time. On the TI-89, it’s just 2ND-> degree/minute/or second, but still, why should I have to poke my calculator twice if I don’t need to? On the FX-115, all I need to do is press that one button and I’m golden baby.

Here’s my demonstration of adding 5°36’46” and 1°33°37 on the three calculators above. See for yourself how easy it is on my FX-115 ES PLUS:

It took me 7 seconds to do this calculation on the FX-115 ES versus 12 seconds on the TI-89, and 18 seconds on the TI-36x Pro.  If we compare the time it takes to complete this problem between the FX-115 ES and TI-89, I save at least 5 seconds by using the FX-115 instead of the TI-89 for each calculation . Assuming 20/55 (conservative, like us pesky engineers always are) of the problems involve 3 simple calculations (what if you had to do a 5 sided closed traverse?) like the video shows, you could save about 5 minutes on the exam. 5 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but this is enough time for you to quickly checkmark your unanswered questions or check on previously solved problems.

My coworker recommended and let me try out his FX-115 ES since I asked him for tips on improving speed, and honestly as soon as I touched that amazing button I had it in my Amazon shopping cart within minutes!

You’ll be okay with either TI calculator (even HP) if you are used to them, but I really do recommend the FX-115 ES PLUS (and the original ES), not just for the surveying exam, but also for the seismic and national exams. It’s just as responsive as the TI calculators, and it’s also very easy to enter and solve complicated, iterative equations, or even just the quadratic formula. Plus the FX-115 ES is only $20 (as is the TI-36x Pro), while the TI-89 is about $120 brand new. One thing I did notice is that it slides a bit when you’re punching numbers, but it’s not a dealbreaker, especially when you have that adorable but lifesaving DMS button!

P.S: Here’s a link to Turbofuture’s (tech review site) concise review of the Best Calculators for the PE Exam which partly inspired me to write this post.