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

Price
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.

Conclusion
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.

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 engineerboards.com and my coworkers, so I decided to give it a shot.

Value
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!