How to Become a Surveyor

December 21, 2000
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This article will cover the preparation for a professional surveying exam and provide tips for actually sitting for the exam. It will be generic in nature; please understand it is not a result of any academic research. I have, however, prepared for and taken many state survey exams, including one in the fall of 2000. As will be discussed later, the results were not always initially favorable; repeat trips to several states were sometimes required. While the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) produces a portion of the exam, which is not required to re-take after successful completion of applying for another state license, the preparation for the NCEES exam and the state-specific portion are quite similar.

The licensing process is individual among states, and the time in history when licensing became required varies. But the objective of licensing has basically stayed the same: to protect the consuming public from unscrupulous and unqualified practitioners.

Surveying was considered to be a branch of civil engineering until a time in the 1960s when the tasks of the two professions began to drift apart. Although there were licensed surveyors, a map/plat could be prepared by licensed engineers using an engineering seal. I was told by a civil engineer that in the late ’50s he passed the engineering exam and was awarded a survey license without further testing. Even today, there are states in which an engineer can use an engineering seal on a survey map. There are few of these remaining, but many engineer/surveyors have been “grandfathered” into a survey license without sitting for a survey exam. I have been the beneficiary of such a process in two states.

Before the early 1970s, the individual states would administer a survey exam that was comprehensive in nature but heavily weighted to the state rules and regulations in which it was given. This localized exam was eight hours in length. If someone desired to seek multi-state registration, or to relocate to another region of the country and needed state licensing, comity (or reciprocity) was something granted without further examination. Since every state re-tested individuals on survey fundamentals and common law (which applied to all jurisdictions), the NCEES, in conjunction with the individual states, developed a national exam of eight hours of survey fundamentals. NCEES also developed a second day exam of four hours on survey law, leaving the individual states to test four hours on state-specific subjects. These exams would be given the same day throughout the country. This has changed several times over the past 30 years, but the basic idea still remains with the national portion for fundamentals and common law, and the individual jurisdiction for the state-specific portions. Thus, the candidate who has successfully passed the NCEES portion of the exam is only required to sit for the state-specific portion. This is normally a two-hour exam; some states require longer exams. So, if you desire to sit for your initial state’s fundamental exam (with reason to be applying for the exam in a particular state, e.g. resident working in the state, graduating from the state university, etc.) or a second state after original licensing, the procedures are about the same.

Filing your application

Since all state requirements for licensing are not the same, each time someone applies for licensing in another state, an application must be filed. The procedures and applications are similar, but remember these state boards are quite strict on the applicant’s meeting of the requirements and filing the required forms on or before the deadlines. Excuses concerning the U.S. Postal Service or universities not sending transcripts on time can be expected to fall on deaf ears. Since the exams are given twice a year (April and October), the due dates for complete submittals vary from state to state. Thus, it is paramount that you make application as soon as you even have a notion that you want to sit for the next exam. The first action to take is to contact the appropriate state survey board (many are joint survey/engineering boards) and request an application. In most cases, the application form will be sent to you in a timely manner. This application will be divided into several sections as explained below.

  • Basic Education Requirements: These requirements vary from state to state and apply directly to the candidate sitting for his or her first state exam. If a candidate currently licensed in another jurisdiction applies to a second jurisdiction and does not meet the current educational requirements of the second jurisdiction, most states will “grandfather” that candidate to sit for the exam. This will only be done if the requirements for the original state were equal or greater than the new state at the time the individual passed the original state exam. So, the candidate for State B licensing who passed State A (original state and holds a current license) exam in the 1970s when the educational requirements of both states were equal would be eligible to sit for State B, even if the applicant does not meet the current educational requirements for State B. But a candidate cannot sit for an exam in a state where he or she meets the current educational requirement, pass the exam, be issued a survey license, then go to another state and sit for its exam without meeting the current educational requirements for the second state.

  • Proper Experience: On all applications for licensing to which I have been exposed, an applicant must chronologically list and discuss in detail what he or she has done professionally. This is the same for engineering, accounting and surveying registrations. This experience collection must have the verification of individuals who can attest to the validity of the stated experience. Remember, in applying for the first state licensing, you must be, in most cases, a professional surveyor. Even if you are seeking a second or later state registration, this experience portion is required as part of the application. All states do not have the same requirement for type and length of experience. My application was rejected by one state for lack of proper experience, even though I was registered in two adjoining states at the time! The experience must be progressive toward professional registration and include all phases of the profession. That is, you cannot start off initially as a party chief doing final calculations, or be a construction type instrument operator only, and expect the state board to permit you to sit for the exam. Similarly, a CPA candidate must have documented hours in each facet of accounting to be issued a certificate after passing the CPA exams.

  • Professional Recommendation: To become a member of a licensed profession, you must be recommended by current members of that profession. These endorsements must include several members of the surveying profession. You must request professional recommendation and deliver the proper forms as furnished by the state board to those people. Once again, forms must be submitted in a timely manner to meet the set deadlines of each state board. This appears to be the weakest link in the total process for many. To minimize the problems, you should personally ensure all individuals receive the proper forms and furnish each with a self-addressed (directly to the board) stamped envelope. (For some reason, this action seems to speed up the return.) Follow-up calls are mandatory to guarantee that lack of returned forms will not be the issue that denies you from taking the exam. After completing the application, which includes an approved, current I.D.-type picture and the proper fee, you must wait for a notice that the application has been approved. During this time, it is the applicant's responsibility to follow up with the appropriate agencies and individuals to insure they sent in the required endorsement information. A check with the state survey board to verify that this information, as required, has been received is very important. The board will tell you what is missing, if anything. Remember, you must insure that people send your endorsement information directly to the board, and if it is late, your application will not be approved. When your application is approved, you will be notified where and when to report to take the exam. My experience is, that this notification (go or no go) usually comes late, very close to the exam day. Thus, you should make plans to take the exam well before receiving the final notice. If needed, travel and/or overnight accommodations should be secured. If the application is not approved, it is unlikely an appeal will be heard before the exam date; thus, a not-approved application just about eliminates an applicant from the present exam.


Preparing for the Exam

Proper preparation for the first state exam can take many years. You must be gaining experience on the job as a part of the application procedure. But remember, professional exams are academic in nature. It is possible for you to pass a professional exam without any job experience. Therefore, in conjunction with the on-the-job training, you must seek some form of academic experience. If you are in a state that requires some, or plenty of, formal education for registration, this type of education will be invaluable in passing the academic professional exam, especially the NCEES portion. If you are not required to meet a strenuous educational requirement, there are many continuing education courses that cover subjects to be successful on the exam. In addition, review courses are provided for those planning to sit for the exam. For first-time exam takers, these two sources are invaluable. You can also purchase workbooks, tapes and multi-question books to review for the exam. Since every first-time candidate is required to be working directly with a licensed professional, the best source of questions and answers is the individual’s mentor. The mentor should be more than willing to answer and explain nebulous concepts to the candidate. Mentors and course instructors can recommend books to purchase for learning and review.

Don’t try to take the cheap route when purchasing textbooks or review courses. This does not mean you can “buy” a professional license by spending excess money on materials, but this is a very important investment in human capital and can pay dividends for life. If you feel that purchasing a course or another textbook would help with the goal, make the purchase. This same principle applies to the comity candidate taking only the two-hour (more or less) exam in a new state. In addition, most states and/or individuals have Internet sites that are excellent sources of current state rules and regulations. Proper gathering and purchasing information from your particular state is the key to success.

It is my recommendation to outline, or take notes from, each book or pamphlet obtained during the information-gathering phase. These notes should be placed in notebook form with similar information placed together. A table of contents will facilitate the research of subject material. All information should have its source in the margin with applicable pages. This will be used if more detailed information on the subject is needed during the studying process. This notebook will grow in size throughout the study period as new information is added. This resource will become your true and permanent study material. This method is particularly important for the state-specific exam, which contains minute detail relative to the state. This phase lasts from the preparation for the exam until the start of the exam. If the exam is open book, this phase continues until you turn in the exam paper.

The Day Before the Exam

You should research the exam site before the actual exam time (the day before the exam if possible). This recon-mission tends to calm down candidates by reinforcing that they will be able to find the site and arrive at the correct time. Once again, be late and you will not be seated. This would be devastating, especially if you are sitting for an exam many miles from home. The night before the exam you should be prepared to take the exam without additional study; this is only a night for review, and that is where the outlined notebook is invaluable. If you are trying to learn new material at this time, the chance of success on the exam greatly decreases. A good night’s sleep is more important than one more review of your notebook. (A good night’s sleep, however, is easier said than done under these circumstances!) All books and papers to be carried into the exam room must be carefully chosen on the exam eve. If you’re sitting for a closed book exam, that’s a fairly easy choice: no books. But if the exam is open book, the correctly chosen books could be the difference in passing and failing. Carrying too many books into the exam room could be just as bad as having too few books. A timepiece will be one of the most important items to carry. While most test facilities have clocks, some do not, or they are difficult to read in a large testing room. A spare calculator and/or extra batteries are also recommended. If you are taking the eight-hour exam, a seat cushion might be useful.

The Actual Exam Day

Rise early and have a good breakfast. (Once again, easier said than done.) Arrive at the exam location somewhat early, but not so early so as to dull your edge.

Most survey exams are multiple choice or true-false. Some state-specific exams have some short answer and work-out type problems. Many of the exams are open book; some are closed book and others are a combination of both. I recommend that during the study phase and the actual taking of the exam that you act as if the exam is closed book. Study and act as if you do not plan to use the book. This approach will force you into a more detailed study of the material and save much valuable time during the exam itself by not relying too heavily on the books. As far as I know, most exams are graded on points earned; that is, a blank answer gives the same credit as an incorrect answer (none), so attempt to answer all questions. The multiple choice exams include four or five choices for each question. React as if you are on the TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Attempt to eliminate as many incorrect answers as you can, and then pick the most correct. (Unfortunately you will not be allowed to “phone a friend”!) Use the same approach with true/false questions: try to eliminate the bad answers.

As you take the exam, keep two things in mind. First, the objective is to make a passing score, which means to maximize the correct or best answers. Second, these are timed exams, and the clock can be your worst enemy. Do not permit the clock to force you to rush to complete the exam; that is, don't get hung up on attempting to answer one question, while losing valuable time. Remember, the last question counts as much as the first one, so proper time management is required.

After the exam, relax, go back and write down subjects or areas you did not feel confident in answering and those that might benefit from additional study. This will be important if you have to re-test. As I said before, I have been unsuccessful on the first attempt of several state exams, had to return later—and passed. Therefore, the philosophy that I carry forward into each exam is, “I cannot change success, unless I chance failure.”

Good luck on your first or next exam. But, it really isn’t a matter of luck; it is truly the result of hard and diligent work preparing for the big exam day.

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