Many applicants believe that passing the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) exam is a result of luck, innate intelligence or stellar grades during their undergraduate studies. But, after teaching review courses for several years and advising university students as they prepare for the exam, I’ve developed several fundamental steps any applicant can take that will substantially improve their likelihood of passing the FS.

Disappointingly, test taking records demonstrate only about half of all exam takers pass the exam on the first try. Repeat takers fare even worse; only about a quarter pass the exam.

Fortunately, obtaining a successful, passing score on the FS is not a mystery. My experience corroborates passing involves three factors:

  • Having a firm understanding of the exam format and content
  • Practicing FS-type questions using a systematic routine
  • Mentally preparing yourself before the day of the exam

The FS is a competency exam. It does not test everything nor does it allow only a high-scoring few to succeed.

Knowing the exam content and format is essential to passing the FS. Many students have a general understanding that the FS will contain land surveying questions, but beyond that, rumors and misinformation often confuse applicants. The best source of FS exam information is the body that administers the exam, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

NCEES is a national, nonprofit organization that develops, administers and grades licensing exams for both the Fundamentals of Surveying and the Principles and Practices of Surveying exams. It also hosts a plethora of information about both the FS and PS so students know what to expect well before test day.


Know Thy Enemy

Time can be an enemy during the exam. The FS is a six-hour exam with 110 multiple choice questions. But 40 minutes of that time is spent reading instructions, taking a break and conducting other administrative tasks. So students have a total of 320 minutes to answer 110 questions. That is about 2.90 minutes per question.

This may seem like plenty of time, but a strategy for tackling the questions is essential. I often recommend that students complete the exam in three phases.

Phase one begins with students answering all the easy, non-computational questions so that they can rack up points quickly and not chance missing easy questions towards the end of the exam if they run out of time.

Phase two consists of answering all the computation questions such as traverses, curves, etc. These questions should go quickly if your HP35 is pre-programmed with all of the surveying routines. But if you are completing this phase by hand, expect to be short on time.

For phase three, having an HP35 with the survey programs pre-loaded and well-practiced is essential. This is the phase where you spend time on the tough questions. You may get some questions wrong, but remember, getting the tough questions correct separates you from everyone else.

In addition to having a test-taking strategy, knowing what kind of surveying questions to expect is also essential. You can’t predict the exact questions you will be asked. This is especially true since the Computer-Based Testing (CBT) format was begun. To learn more about the possibilities, NCEES publishes an explanatory “FS exam specifications” PDF that breaks-up the exam into 13 categories. You should be studying every one of them.

Not every category is equally weighted. In fact, only questions from four of the 13 categories make up between 50 percent and 75 percent of the entire exam. Therefore, in your exam preparations, (i) mathematics, (ii) legal principles, (iii) types of surveys and (iv) survey computations should be the first items any applicant studies.


Find Good Study Resources

Having a varied collection of good, updated resources is a prerequisite to passing the FS. But buying everything, procrastinating and then rushing to prepare is not a winning strategy. I have seen applicants purchase an enviable array of resources but then not review them in depth. Use the resources to review.

Resources come in many forms, including geomatics textbooks, material from previous classroom courses, FS prep books and online FS courses. Books like Elementary Surveying, Brown’s Boundary Control and Adjustment Computations should be considered the FS bibles. Work on all their example problems repeatedly. If you run out of examples from the books, remember that many university courses like Fundamentals and Legal Aspects used these books to build their material; there is nothing wrong with redoing examples from many years ago.

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There are few resources that have been created for the specific purpose of helping applicants pass the FS, but they exist. Van Sickle’s 1001 questions has been used for decades to help simulate the FS and PS exams. Today, Surveying Solved Problems and Land Surveyor’s Reference Manual are the only FS study books available. But if you are not a reading/writing-centric learner, simply studying books can be difficult.

I want to help applicants pass on their first attempt. After being a frustrated FS and PS applicant myself – and advising hundreds of students preparing for either exam – I decided to build an immersive FS prep course using an online learning management system (LMS) called Siminars. The course includes downloadable lecture slides, short ten to 20 minute videos, interactive exercises and exam-simulated practice questions. Each FS question category is replicated in Siminars so the student can cover all 13 topics. The course culminates in a full-length FS practice exam.


Crush the Exam

The last word of advice I give the reader is to know that you have done everything you could to pass the exam and be confident in your abilities. Often, the student has spent years studying at college, working in the summers, and learning about our esteemed profession. Your hard preparatory work will yield its own rewards.

The FS is a competency exam. It does not test everything nor does it allow only a high-scoring few to succeed. Be confident and know you have the knowledge and skills to be a licensed professional surveyor.

Study hard, do your best and have faith. Relax the night before the exam and get a good night’s sleep.