Fundamentals of the Surveying Exam

The practices of engineering and surveying have developed a system whereby the general public can be confident that people who hold themselves out to perform an engineering or surveying task are, in the eyes of the state, competent to offer such a service. The first engineering registration law was passed by Wyoming in 1907. It would not be until the 1940s that surveying would be separated from engineering.

In 1920, seven of the ten state boards of engineering examiners met to create a Council of State Boards of Engineering Examiners. The Council provided a forum for discussion about registration and a place to learn from one another's approaches to the public protection problem.

That Council has now evolved into the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, NCEES. It has no state authority, but it provides a forum for discussion of engineering and surveying problems with input from committees made up of state board members. It has become a place where idealized model laws can be developed as a guide for states that may accept or for local reasons not use the information provided and it also provides national examinations for state registration.

The state boards of engineering and surveying protect the citizens of the states from malpractice. National professional organizations such as the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, ACSM, the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, and other engineering organizations provide knowledge of the state-of-the-art practices through members who sit on the individual state boards. Currently it takes eight years of internship and the passing of two national eight hour examinations for a candidate to become a professional engineer or surveyor. College education can count as experience and the state boards check the background and quality of the educational training of the candidates through the program accreditation process administrated by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, Inc, ABET.

Fundamentals Exam

Each state would develop their own exam or sets of exams and usually relied on local educators to produce and grade the exams. This duplication of effort was partially resolved for engineering in 1965 when the NCSBEE administered their first Fundamentals of Engineering, FE, exam. The first NCEE Fundamentals of Land Surveying, FLS, exam was administered in 1973 and as created, was eight hours long and covered the "practice" of land surveying with emphasis on what an apprentice trained surveyor would learn in the field. The passing rate of these early examinations was usually 67% as the statistical approach of one standard deviation of exam knowledge was assumed to provide assurance that the candidates had minimal knowledge of the subject matter. This was "grading on a curve." Since that time, NCEES now uses the guidelines established by the American Psychological Association and they have employed a psychometrician who devised, constructed, and standardized the exam. This is a court defendable procedure which wards off frivolous law suits.

Recently, the name of the examination has been changed from Fundamentals of Land Surveying, to Fundamentals of Surveying, FS. This was done to portray surveying in the broadest sense and not restrict it to land boundary principles.

Current Exam

The eight hour exam consists of 170 multiple choice questions with one half of the questions being answered in each morning and afternoon sessions. The exam is closed book, but the booklet contains fourteen pages of reference formulas which are available to the candidate for review prior to the examination. Before the fall 2005 exam, only four pages were provided. All materials are returned at the end of the exam and sent to NCEES for grading. The questions are not released to the public. Upkeep and procedures for developing two exams per year is done by an NCEES examinations committee with invited participants who twice annually write new questions, review the old ones, and check current practice questions for new developments.

Development of Exam

The process developed by the test experts was to:

  1. Develop an analysis of what the profession identifies as "duties of a surveyor."
  2. Develop a bank of questions based on a difficulty scale from one to five and assemble an exam with some simple and some difficult questions, but with most of average difficulty. The bank of weighted questions is drawn from over time with new questions being substituted and some being repeated yearly as quality check questions.
  3. To ensure a concept of minimum competency, a test group of diversely educated people including young and old professional surveyors, would take the exam prior to its release and a minimum passing score established. Future questions from the question bank would have the same difficulty factor as those replaced. Grading on an arbitrary curve could not happen. The scores are converted to a standard scale which adopts 70 as a passing score. For example, if the established passing score was 110/170 or 65% this 110/170 score is represented as 70, the passing score in some state statues.
  4. Information about the make-up of the exam would be available to the candidates.

At about five year intervals, a survey is sent to a cross-section of the surveying professionals asking them to identify what they do as a surveyor. It provides the basis for the topics to be covered by the exam. Based on a review of the answers, the examination committee develops broad areas of surveying knowledge to be covered and assigns a percentage value for the topics included in the exam. Currently there are fifteen major topics as shown below.


  1. Algebra and Trigonometry
  2. Higher Math ( beyond trigonometry)
  3. Probability and Statistics, Measurement Analysis, Data Adjustment
  4. Basic Sciences
  5. Geodesy, Survey Astronomy, and Geodetic Survey Calculation
  6. Computer Operations and Programming
  7. Written Communication
  8. Boundary Law, Cadastral Law and Administration
  9. Business Law, Management, Economics, Finance, and Survey Planning Process and Procedures X. Field Data Acquisition and Reduction
  10. Photo/Image Data Acquisition and Reduction
  11. Graphical Communication, Mapping
  12. Plane Surveying Calculation
  13. Geographic Information System (GIS) Concepts
  14. Land Development Principles

The current examination analysis was based on the 2003 analysis of the content questionnaire and was first used for the fall 2005 exam. Some of the topics may seem strange to a specialist who is doing repetitive tasks such as cadastrical surveys. A two page listing of suitable references for each topic is available.

The fifteen major topics are defined by topic words or phrases which are further broken down into typical surveying activities. Two hundred and nine of these activities are identified, but many are repeated listings. For example, the statement, "Perform ALTA/ACSM surveys," appears under six of these topics. The listing of surveying activities appears to be more informative for the candidate than as a study guide.

Approximately 44% of the exam deals with questions from four of the topic areas. These are: Boundary Law, Cadastral Law, and Administration 13%; Algebra and Trigonometry 11%; Field Data Acquisition and Reduction 10%; and Plane Survey Calculation 10%. Geographic Information System (GIS) Concepts represent only 4% of the exam and Global Position System (GPS) is only listed as an activity under five of the major topics and therefore not assigned a percentage value.

In response to the survey questionnaire it was noted that candidates were coming into the profession who could not communicate well in written presentation and the topic Written Communication, 6% was created. The general public does not write well and the problem is the secondary education system in the United States. English composition is difficult to test in the multiple choice format. It appears that a typical type sample question might say:

"Boston Massachusetts is where the GPS survey was performed." How many commas should be inserted into this sentence? (A) None (B) One (C) Two (D) Three.

Questions at this degree of difficulty are insulting to the college graduate, but might be appropriate on a technician certification exam. It degrades the surveying profession to ask such basic questions.

NCEES makes available booklets which contain sample exam questions and solutions for their tests. The FS booklet has been changed recently from fifty sample questions to 85 questions. The first fifty are the prior questions from the previous booklet and 35 new ones have been added to reflect the new syllabus and new materials.


NCEES is providing standardized tests for the surveying profession. They have an excellent plan in place and need help in question writing workshops to supplement the basic bank of fundamental questions. As the emphasis to enter the profession with a four year college degree is realized, the material coverage should reflect a more difficult exam. Information on how to obtain a copy of the NCEES FS booklet is available on the Web at: The Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) 2005 Booklet is $12.95 plus $6.50 for shipping.

Next Topic: PLS Exam

About the Author

  • Robert J. Schultz, PE, PLS
    Robert J. Schultz, PE, PLS
    Robert Schultz is a professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, where he teaches surveying courses. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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