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5 Common Mistakes that Mechanical FE Examinees Make

As a mechanical engineer aspiring to get your Professional License, the first step is to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam. As you study for the exam, realize that there are tools and methods that can be used to your advantage and increase your chances of passing.  One of them is learning from past test takers.  Review the following 5 common mistakes you should avoid when preparing for the exam.


1. Thinking too Lightly


It is true that most of the test has been characterized by past test takers as a plug and chug type exam, where you find an equation from the handbook and use it to solve the problem.  However, the same examinees mention that some questions are much harder than others.  This will vary with topic.  First, some background.  The exam is made up of 110 questions taken from a bank of questions.  A computer program ensures that the overall exam is of equivalent difficulty to a completely different exam that your neighbour is taking.  Some examinees have experienced the basic topics, i.e. mathematics, statistics, economics to be harder than the thermodynamics, fluids, materials, dynamics, etc, sections and vice versa. 


The only way to overcome the random difficulty of these problems is to understand the concept behind the topics.  The best way to understand which equations to use and how to use them is to review their application in practice problems.  Through your college courses you should have gone through each of these topics.  You may have done well, but you still should review the handbook to determine whether you understand the concepts behind the equations that are listed.  If you need some help in the review process, there are some good study guides and practice problems that do just that. 


2. Not Managing Your Time Well


The questions on the exam may be fairly easy, requiring only one or two steps to solve them, but the difficult part is that there is only 5 hours and 20 minutes to solve 110 problems.  This averages to 2.9 minutes per problem.  Say it takes you 30 seconds to a minute to read and understand the problem, that leaves you with one or two minutes to think about it, find the equation, and solve for the answer.  If you really need to think about how to solve this problem, you will run out of time.  Your reflexes almost need to be instantaneous.  To increase your speed, you need to (1) understand the concepts, (2) be familiar with the handbook, and (3) be efficient with the calculator.  Don’t waste your time on questions that you don’t know how to do.  Just skip it and come back to it at the end.  Who knows, you might have come across another question or equation that will spark your memory in the process.  Finally, you are the one that determines with the halfway mark is.  After approximately half the questions are done, you will submit the first section of the test and won’t be able to return to them later.  You can decide to take longer on the first section, but this reduces your time for the second.  Be smart about your time.  If you are fairly confident you can get all the questions correct, you just need a little more time, then go for it.  After all, you don’t know how difficult the next section will be.  However, at some point, enough is enough.  If you are going nowhere and you are already at 2 hours and 10 minutes or maybe even less, just move on.  Previous test takers have analysed that you need about 55% correct to pass the exam, although this is just a guess since NCEES doesn’t officially publish the pass rate.


3. Not Using the Full Potential of your Calculator


I had a professor that took the FE exam with some students in college.  He was one of the smartest people I knew, but he didn’t bring a calculator to the exam and ended up failing.  So first make sure you bring two calculators to the exam and also make sure that you complete practice problems with your calculator.  Note that the computer does have a built in calculator you can use, should you really need it.  The main advantage of using your own calculator is knowing the functions and being able to use its full potential.  You should make sure you know how to use the polar and rectangular functions, the trigonometric functions, the matrix functions and many of the other powerful functions within the calculator.  Yes, you could complete some of these functions by hand but it will take up too much time and the Mechanical FE Exam is not primarily testing your ability to complete math functions.  It is testing your competence in Mechanical Engineering and makes the assumption that you already know how to use your calculator well


4. Relying on the Handbook too little or too Much


The handbook is there for you as a searchable pdf, which makes the exam much easier for the test taker.  However, there are some common equations that you shouldn’t waste your time looking up, such as Reynold’s Number, Bernoulli’s equation, or Force and Position equations.  You should know gravity constants and common temperature conversions. Having to look these things up will slow you down.  This is relying too much on the handbook.  Relying too little on the handbook means not looking things up when you should.  Pretty much all the equations you need will be in here.  If you are lost, do a search in the handbook.  Even in your studying, you should be constantly familiarizing yourself with the equations in here and especially how to use them with the units you are given.  Learn which search option will yield the equations or tables you are looking for.  The handbook is your golden ticket to passing.  Learn how to use it well.


5. Falling for Common Solution Traps


The first point is to read the question carefully to avoid the extraneous information that may be given to you.  The second is to realize that some of the answers could be provided based on common mistakes, like incorrect unit conversions or missing a constant.  The third trap is taking too much time on a question.  As mentioned before, time is pressing.  Spending too much time on a question will steal time away from the remaining questions.  Finally, make sure you do not submit your exam before providing an answer to all your questions, since there is no penalty for a wrong answer. 


The key to successfully passing the Mechanical FE exam lies in your preparation. Put together a plan on how you will become proficient in the topics that will be tested and heed the advice of past test takers.


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