Studying for the PPE

I finally wrote the PEO PPE (Professional Practice Exam) on April 11, 2015. This means that I should receive my result in the mail in about a month. I’m fairly confident that I passed, but I’ll let you know when I get the official word. This mega-post is about how I prepared myself for the exam.

What is the PPE?

Remember that each provincial regulatory body will have its own regulations and exams and that I’m focusing on my jurisdiction of Ontario and the PEO. To quote the PEO website:

The PPE is a three-hour, closed-book exam on ethics, professional practice, engineering law and professional liability

It’s not exactly closed-book, but we’ll get to that later. Also, the PPE is really 2 tests bundled into one. Part A covers ethics and professional practice, while Part B focuses on engineering law and professional liability. These are important things to be aware of as a professional, so it makes sense that applicants must demonstrate a sufficient understanding of them to become practitioners. Both Parts A and B consist of questions that require written answers, ranging from a sentence or two, to multi-paragraph answers.

You can only write the PPE after completing a P. Eng. application (and, if necessary, completing the technical exam). The registration form will be sent to you upon receipt of your application. The fee to write the PPE is $165.

Studying

What follows is an overview of the study process while it’s still fresh in my mind. Please keep in mind that I’m operating on a sample size of one and that I don’t even know if I passed yet!

What is involved?

Studying the PPE is a combination of these activities:

  • Reading
    • Regulations, code of ethics, legal precedent cases, etc.
  • Memorizing
    • Much of what you read
  • Practising applying memorized knowledge to case studies
    • By attempting practice exams
  • Practising hand-writing
    • I know I joke a lot, and this may seem like another attempt at humour, but this is at least 80% serious. The only things that I hand-write these days are birthday cards. Writing for 3 hours straight by hand is something I had not done since I left school. Prepare your wrists!
    • On another note, how long before they allow us to type exams like this? I would probably have finished an hour earlier.
  • Procrastinating
    • Ideally not, but if you’re anything like me, you’re going to put this off as long as you can.

      That time where you don’t feel 100% urgency to study.

How much time do I need?

The amount of time needed to study for the PPE is going to vary depending on your aptitude for the activities listed above.

Some questions that will determine your studying time:

  • How good are you at memorizing definitions and legal case proceedings?
    • Memorization has generally been a strength of mine (to the detriment of me actually learning something), but not for everything. For example, it was relatively easy for me to remember the content and outcomes of the different legal precedent cases (so, the important stuff), but I struggled when it came to remembering which case was “X vs. Y” and which was “A vs. B” and that’s something you need to know as well.
  • Are you confident in your English-language skills, both reading and writing?
    • Both the process of studying and writing the exam involve a lot of reading and writing. The language used in the regulations and legal cases can be very dry and difficult to parse, even for native English speakers.
      I thought a “Tort” was something delicious…

      When it comes time to answer questions, those answers will need to be formulated in a way that is clear and concise. Running out of time in this exam is a real threat and writing run-on answers is a risky proposition. This was not an issue for me personally, but you should be mindful of your own abilities on this front and adjust accordingly.

  • How many practice questions do you need to complete to feel confident and ready for the exam?
    • For me, the answer is “a lot”.

Anyway, with all those disclaimers in mind, I can tell you that I took, give or take, 3 full working days (or approximately 25 hours) to study for the exam. I’m fortunate to have a somewhat flexible working arrangement where I could take 3 days prior to the exam and dedicate those to studying. Many of you will have plan your study time around working hours. My presumption is that when the study time is broken up into smaller portions, the overall time spent may be a bit longer. I can say that I didn’t feel confident for the exam until near the very end of my studying, which means that I don’t recommend allotting, for example, a single weekend for studying. Give yourself two weekends, to be safe.

What should I study?

You’ve set aside the time to study and now you need to get down to it. Where to begin? First off, the PEO will help you get started by sending you some study materials. Namely:

They also suggest two textbooks. For Part A: “Canadian Professional Engineering and Geoscience: Practice and Ethics” by Gordon C. Andrews (price tag: $138). For Part B: “Law for Professional Engineers, Canadian and Global Insights” by D. L. Marston (price tag: $110). The obvious question is: do you need these textbooks to pass the exam? The answer, as you surely learned during University, is no. This is primarily because there are a few excellent and free-of-charge resources out there that I believe sufficiently replace the content of these textbooks. Unless you’re keenly interested in learning the topics of engineering ethics and law in greater detail than is necessary to complete the exam, there is no need to own or even borrow these books. This brings is to an important question:

Do I need to spend $ on study materials or a preparatory course?

Beyond the textbooks, which are helpful, but not required, let’s talk about what’s out there.

Preparatory Courses

There are a number of organizations that offer preparatory courses for the PPE. For example, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers offers a ($349 + tax) Blended Learning & Virtual Classroom course (the cost is less for OSPE members). On the plus side, you get a few hours of online learning with experienced professionals. However, you’re expected to do most of the studying on your own and the textbooks mentioned above are part of the learning material (but you have to supply them yourself). Other course providers (easily found via Google) offer more interactive seminars that are in-person and have a duration of 1 or 2 full days, which presumably implies less studying on your own.

I have not taken any of these courses, but my personal opinion is that you should consider them only if a guided learning process and the ability to ask questions to real live person are important to you. If your employer is footing the bill, it makes the decision easier.

Study packages

A more time-flexible approach is to buy a prepared study package that would essentially be a self-administered preparatory course. Typically, these packages are less expensive (e.g. the packages offered at PracticePpeExams.ca range from $79 to $174). Much like the courses, some of them still recommend or require that you purchase the textbooks.  I did not purchase any study packages. However, if I were to spend money, this is the route I would go. I’m comfortable studying on my own and I think there is value in a guide that helps you narrow your focus to only the content absolutely necessary for the exam. The cost for the guides above is less than what most of you make in an hour, so if they save you an hour of studying time, they’re essentially no cost to you.

It should be noted that most of the paid courses and guides out there offer a money-back guarantee should you fail the exam.

Conclusion?

Spending money on exam preparation, either on textbooks, courses, or study packages is a personal choice. Depending on the type of learner that you are, it can save you time and increase your confidence. If your employer has funds earmarked for just such professional development, then why not? As (aspiring) engineers, we are acutely aware that time is money and saving a few hours of your time can be worth quite a bit to you, financially.

On the other hand, the application process is already quite expensive. $330 to apply. $165 to write the exam. If you are covering the costs yourself, before you’re even getting to studying, you’ve already spent over $500.

Sometimes the P. Eng. application process feels like…

Some of you will want to take the most cost-efficient route and wonder if it possible to prepare properly for the exam without any extra spending. What I can tell you is that I studied for the exam entirely using freely available materials and felt confident when it came time to write the exam (and hopefully I’ll be able to confirm that with a passing result soon!). It is possible and I’ll detail how next.

The No-Cost PPE Study GuideTMnot really

Below is the complete list of resources I used for studying:

  • Douglas Harder’s PPE course website
    • What is it? If I were to rank the resources by importance, this one would be #1 by a country mile. Harder, a professor at the University of Waterloo, has basically compiled a free online course on topics to study for the PPE. It is a massive, comprehensive compilation of information, including definitions, case studies, and background historical information. And once you’ve finished reading, you can test your understanding with a seemingly endless amount of old exam questions (many with answers!). If you could only have one study resource with you on a desert island, this would be it.

      Prof. Harder, words cannot express…
    • How to study? Read the entire thing and, if you’re like me, take notes along the way to help you memorize the (already condensed) information. When you’ve finished studying this and other resources, come back to the Q & A sections to test your understanding.
  • PEO PPE Interactive Module
    • What is it? One of the free resources the PEO provides you with is an online, interactive video presentation by Grant Boundy, P. Eng.. You won’t be able to access them until you get an access code as part of your exam package (2 months before the exam). The videos talk about general study tips, what to expect, and then crucially go through one entire old exam, reading both the questions and appropriate responses. The exam portion is especially helpful because although there are other old practice exams and answers out there, this is one is, as far as I know, the only set of answers that have the PEO’s stamp of approval on them. Watching these videos will give you an idea of what is expected in an appropriate answer to a case study question. Side note: although I can understand why it is necessary, the pace with which the videos are narrated was too slow for someone as impatient as myself.

      This blog post is 2000+ words. That makes me a hypocrite.
    • How to study? Watch the videos, but before proceeding onto the practice exam review, try completing the questions yourself first and then reviewing what you got right and what you missed.
  • PEO miniature study guides (under “Additional Resources”)
    • What is it? The PEO has published, for both Part A and B a “Basics to Know” guide and a set of answer to a previous (2013) exam. The exam answers are simply the written equivalent of what is discussed in the interactive online video. The “Basics to know” are quick hitting bullet points of concepts that you should have a clear understanding of.
    • How to study? Use the “Basics to know” guides near the end of studying as quiz material, to ensure that you are familiar with all of the concepts listed. If you lack confidence in something listed, go back to review it in detail.

Bonus Study Tips

  • I’ve found that it helps me to make condensed notes of what I read, not only for review later on, but this seems to aid the memorization process significantly.
  • Practice writing (HAND-writing) your answers. You need to warm up your ability to write quickly and legibly before you’re ready.
  • Despite being “closed-book”, you’ll be given sections 72 and 77 of O. Reg. 941 (The Definition of Professional Misconduct and Code of Ethics, respectively) at the exam. So while it’s important to be very familiar with their content prior to writing, you don’t need to memorize the corresponding reference number (e.g. 72.2(i)) of each rule. You will need to indicate such references in your answers but, mercifully, you are allowed to look these numbers up.
  • Both part A and B have short-answer questions, which are essentially a list of definitions. Have a friend or family member quiz you on these using either your study notes or the PPE’s “Basics to know” guides.
  • Show up early to the exam (at least 15 minutes in advance). In my sitting, the room filled up fairly quickly and those who came later on were not left with much choice for seating. This won’t affect everyone, but I’m personally more comfortable if I have time to spare. We were allowed to bring study notes into the room and review them up until it was time to write.
  • Bring multiple pens. This should be obvious and it is also stated that while pencil is allowed, pen is preferred by the markers.
  • Time management: you have 3 hours for the entire exam, so roughly 1.5 hours per Part A and B. Each part was 4 questions, so give yourself roughly 20 minutes per question and that will leave a small buffer. Try to finish the short-answer questions even faster, as the long-form case studies are what take up the most time.
  • If you can’t remember a rule or legal precedent that affects your long-form answer, write down your assumptions. This happened to me at least once, and you’ll at least get part marks for reasoning through a partially incorrect answer vs. getting no marks for putting nothing on paper because you are unsure of yourself.
  • When in doubt: remember that it’s strictly pass/fail, so the standard is appreciably lower than what you were used to during engineering studies 🙂

That’s all for now. I will update this post when I receive the good (or bad!) news of my result. Good luck! If you find this guide useful at all, feel free to share it on social media and please leave a comment to let me know how you did!

17 Replies to “Studying for the PPE”

  1. I figured that I can probably get the Part A covered by studying the Act, regulation, and going through Dr.Harder’s site.

    But what about the law, is that covered on his site as well, enough for exam study?

    1. Hi Jon,

      Dr. Harder’s site covers pretty much everything. He has specific sections entitled “Part B Definitions” and “Part B Cases”. If you study the material on his site, all the practice exams you can get your hands on, and the PEO module, you should be fine. Good luck and let me know how do!

  2. Question: Is the exam tailored to fit the engineering discipline (EE for example) you studied in university?

    Thank you

  3. Good day!

    You really helped me out with this stressful scenario. I haven’t studied since graduating 4 years ago and was starting to get really freaked out. Can’t thank you enough.

    My exam is this Saturday, I’ll let you know in 45+4 days if your guide works for double the sample size.

  4. Good day again!

    I did not check back here since writing it because I did not want to think about the exam until I got my results back.

    I passed, of course, all thanks to you. I will definitely keep an ear out for others undertaking this process and let them know about this site.

    It’s funny, at the exam hall (which had way more people than I thought there would be), everyone had the official textbooks and overhearing them they were talking about a bunch of stuff I never heard of before (such as other cases). I got kind of scared then but while I was writing the exam I knew that I was going to get near 100%. Poor guys studied a huge textbook and may have failed!

    Thank you so much my friend and best of luck to you in the future. I seriously cannot thank you enough!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this! Reading comments like your absolutely make my day and are a big reason I created this site. I laughed when I read your anecdote about being confident going into the exam. All the best with your career. Now it’s time to pay your dues! 😉

  5. I just wanted to thank you for this guide. I decided to apply for my limited license and just wrote my PPE today. I’m 45 and haven’t “tested” for anything for a while, so to say it was stressful to prepare is an understatement. I think I did well thanks to you and Prof. Harder. The summaries of the information really helped me focus my efforts. Time will tell. Thanks again!

  6. Just following up from my April 9th post – I passed and have now received my limited license and am now in the PEO directory. Thanks again for this guide. I’ve passed it along to a few of my colleagues who are looking to write their PPE. Cheers!

  7. Dear Sir;
    Thank you for your informative text.
    I get a little confused in Dr.Harder’s resource.
    I do not know, I have to study the exam part A and B and definitions from there or I have to follow another way!
    Even the exams in the website are not included any question! and even randomly is answered and not complete!
    The History, Overview, Misconduct !! I have to read them or No ? which parts I have to memorize?

    Reagrds

    1. Hi Zoheir,

      Sorry for the late reply – life’s been busy. In the Study Guide, I link to which sections of Dr. Harder’s site to study, but yes, it is most of the content. As I mentioned, it did not take an unreasonable amount of time. However, if you want more streamlined studying resources with quicker and better results, I recommend the study courses from Gavin Simone that you can find here.

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