Part 4 - Taking an Exam

(Editor's note: This is the last of a four-part series. The material is adapted from Appendix B of the author's book titled Land Survey Review Manual.)


Beginning the Exam

Carefully read written instructions in the exam, and listen attentively to verbal ones. If you don't understand something, ask proctors or examiners for clarification. Skim the exam quickly for length and general content. Relax and begin reading the questions. Isolate and focus on one item at a time. Do not try to comprehend the entire exam at once or worry about anything except the question before you. Breaking the exam down into separate parts is the only way to get through it successfully.

Focus and Concentrate

Get serious. This is "D-day." There are no rewards for good preparation, long experience, desire, sincerity or good looks. Don't expect a miracle. You have to answer the minimum required questions correctly to pass. Focus on what you are there to do. Look at the situation and challenge as an athlete about to start a race would do. All the preparation, ability, pride and popularity combined will not win a race or pass an exam without a certain focus and effort lasting throughout the event.

Try to think and concentrate on the content of each question. Deliberately avoid daydreaming. Get your mind where it should be, and keep it there. Plug your ears and close your eyes while you try to think, if necessary. In any way possible, try to physically and mentally block out distractions if you have trouble concentrating.


An important aspect of exam taking is pacing. For example, if an exam has 100 questions and problems, with 4 hours (240 minutes) allowed to complete them, the average time on each question should be about 2.4 minutes, and that does not allow time for checking. You should check the clock periodically to see whether you are maintaining an appropriate pace. Pacing must make allowance for some questions being longer, some shorter, some easier and some more difficult. It is foolish to thoroughly read and answer only a fraction of the exam. Grading is not assigned on the ratio of correct answers to questions attempted, but some applicants take exams as if that were true. Good pacing means that all questions are given appropriate attention, all are considered, and a small amount of time is left for checking and reconsidering questions that were most difficult. Application of the principles covered earlier here is important, but obviously you must work efficiently to complete and check an exam.

Setting Priorities and Guessing

For multiple-choice exams, where all questions are given equal point value or "weight," answer the "easy" questions first. Next, concentrate on those of average difficulty. Save the longest or most difficult questions and problems until last. When each question is of equal weight, regardless of difficulty or how long it takes you to read and answer them, it is far better to leave 10 long or difficult questions until last than work through these in sequence, the result possibly being that twice as many short or easy ones are then left unanswered. When the time comes to hand the exam to the proctor, common sense and the laws of probability dictate that a higher score will be achieved when more answers have been given to questions that were understood, and last-minute guessing was done on the fewest possible number of questions.

When time is about over, guess at all unanswered questions. There is a fundamental rule of exam-taking, whether the exam is multiple choice or otherwise: never leave a question or problem unattempted. Guessing is not sinful, immoral or unethical.

Other Suggestions

Sometimes answers to questions are revealed within others. This happens when an exam has been compiled from a "bank" of questions and the exam coordinators do not carefully edit the exam as a whole. The meaning of a term or concept might be revealed in the stem or responses of one question, which can be used to help answer another question elsewhere in the exam. Being alert and using the exam as a learning experience can help answer some questions correctly.

Time should be allowed for general editing of the exam. Check to make sure that responses were marked in the appropriate places, that all questions were answered, that all forms were completed correctly and so forth.

Use of References

Even when exams are "open book," references should be used as little as possible. You should depend more on knowledge and the ability to derive equations than on finding information in a book. The books should be opened only when a theory, an equation or some constant cannot be otherwise discovered. The use of books consumes a lot of time.

Do not carry a suitcase of books into the exam. For the NCEES open book part of the exam, I suggest around 10 or 12 references, including at least two general surveying texts, two on boundary location principles/legal aspects of surveying, a law dictionary, a surveying and mapping dictionary of terms, a dictionary or glossary of geodetic terms, possibly a book on route surveying, and two or three others focusing on areas of surveying in which you may lack background or confidence. Additional references will probably be needed for the "state-specific" part of the exam.

The books should be efficiently arranged. By all means, be familiar with the books! Don't just borrow them from the boss or the library the day before the exam.

Questions and Problems Requiring Original Responses

Purpose and nature of written exams. An applicant's ability to communicate in writing and analyze in-depth problems cannot be adequately tested on the multiple-choice format. For this reason, despite the trend toward short, multiple-choice exam questions, a few land surveying licensing boards still require some written responses and problem solutions on the "state-specific" portion of the exam. Such exams require knowledge of local laws, standards, ethics, and practices and the ability to communicate in writing.

Written exam questions are generally more difficult to answer than multiple choice ones, primarily because they contain few clues and require the mental and physical act of organizing ideas and then writing them out.

Timing and pacing. Qualified applicants can usually complete the national exams in close to the allotted time. In contrast, state-administered exams are often excessively long and difficult to complete in the time allowed, even for the best applicants. This usually relates to the fact the exam writers fail to assess properly the time required to write answers and show solutions to problems. For this reason, efficient use of time is especially important for such exams.

To help counteract the time problem, consideration should be given to the point value of questions. Sometimes it may be advisable to work longer problems of higher point value first, if you have confidence in the approach. This is the opposite of multiple-choice questions, where you should leave the difficult ones until last. The difference in approach is advised only if the harder problems have a higher point value.

Communicating to the grader. The grader has no means of grading knowledge or understanding that does not appear on the examination paper. This is quite fundamental and seemingly obvious, but my experience in grading thousands of such exams and listening to college students' complaints about their exam grades has led me to believe that a lot of people think the grader can read their minds. Written communication is essential for such exams. Blank pages receive zero points. "Dumb answers" may even earn a few points. Fears over being embarrassed that some unknown grader will read less-than-perfect answers can contribute to lower exam scores.

If you know anything at all about the topic, say it in writing. However, assuming you know more than a little, try to keep comments relevant to the question being asked. Like food, excess verbiage can be as bad as not enough. As with multiple-choice questions, try to never leave a question or problem blank.

Written exams are usually graded in part on general organization and grammar. Good writing is as important as knowledge of the subject. A survey description would also be graded on the basis of proper use of deed terms and expression of the intent of the conveyance. Written responses should be accurate, clear, concise and complete. The better the presentation, the higher the score.

Show computations. For computations, if work is to be shown, I suggest the following procedure. It is best to state the approach, give equations, show the numerical values used in the equations and then show the correct answer. The more clearly and completely this is done, the better the chance of gaining points. For problems requiring several steps, intermediate steps should be given, not left in the memory registers of calculators.

Even if answers are correct, a sloppy or poorly documented solution is likely to be downgraded. Another reason to show a complete and clear solution is that a wise and fair examiner will give partial credit where the work demonstrates knowledge of the concepts being tested, even if it contains mistakes in calculations.

Summary and Final Comments

My best advice regarding passing an exam is to prepare well and concentrate on the task at hand once you are in the exam room. Get plenty of rest before the exam and try to work on confidence. Preparation, good rest and a calm spirit all contribute to confidence. Do not allow yourself to become intimidated or upset over any exam question.

Tell yourself that if the knowledge was ever in your head, you will be able to recall it. Then try very hard to do so when the need arises. Also tell yourself that even if the specific knowledge was never in your brain, you can still read, analyze, second-guess or otherwise reason through the responses to find the intended or best answer. Have faith in your ability to do so.

My most important advice is that passing a licensing exam is just one step toward becoming a professional surveyor, and a relatively small step at that. Managing to pass an exam by applying exam-taking skills does not prove that you are ready to take on the responsibility of directing, signing and sealing professional survey work. Without adequate experience and formal education, I strongly feel that no person has acquired the background necessary to protect the public welfare and be a good surveyor. Passing the exam does not make one an "instant professional."

About the Author

  • Dr. Ben Buckner, LS, PE, CP
    Ben Buckner is an educator, author and seminar presenter with Surveyors' Educational Seminars and was a contributing author for the magazine

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