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Top Tips for the Institution of Structural Engineers’ Chartered Membership Exam

The Institution's Chartered Membership exam can be a daunting proposition. We asked recent successful candidates for their “Top Tips” – handy hints for those preparing to sit the exam, covering both preparation and how to approach the day of the exam. Below are some of the best. 

Preparation for the Chartered Membership Exam:

  1. Be patient – do not take the exam until you have at least 6-7 years’ experience in the industry – there is no substitute for working experience (Marko)
  2. Sit full mocks in exam conditions – no phone, bring a lunch and everything you need. Select a number of years and do not look at them before you sit down, so you can recreate the environment of opening up a new exam paper on the day. I think I did four of these. Not fun, but it made the actual day run like clockwork - I didn't have a problem sticking to my time, and had 15 mins to review at the end as planned. (Niall)
  3. Ask someone to review your practice attempts and give you feedback. It’s important to know that you are expressing your ideas and knowledge in an understandable way. It’s no use knowing good solutions if you can't present them well under the time pressure.  (James)
  4. Practice different methods/ styles of sketching and drawing schemes, plans and details under time pressure. Certain sized buildings/ scales of drawing require different techniques to present your ideas in a clear fashion and within the time available. Get some coloured pens and practice with them. (James)
  5. Attend a preparation course. I think this was invaluable. (James)
  6. Start collating your design notes in a paper file early in your career. The temptation these days is to rely on digital copies but you won't have access to these in the exam. (James)
  7. As you prepare for the exam, keep a note pad of things you need to research etc. I found this an invaluable tool. As I did questions I constantly wrote notes of things I needed to read up on, then tried to spend one evening a week researching them. Lots of things repeat themselves in questions so patterns do emerge. (Niall)
  8. Provide clear, neat and coloured sketches which help the examiners to clearly understand your concept. (Romain)
  9. Structure your answer by providing titles with numbering for each section in the same fashion as you would write a technical report for a client. (Romain)
  10. Study past papers, set yourself a program to answer each part of the question and train to answer each section under time constraints. For example, you need to be able to provide a conceptual design for one solution including sketches and explanation of your concept in under one hour. (Romain)
  11. Practice, practice and practice! I looked at all the bridge questions in the past papers. You can't answer them in their entirety, but you can work parts of them. For instance, two weeks before the exam, I realised that I wasn’t quick enough at answering part 2D (drawings) and needed to improve my drawing skills.To remediate this, I would select a past paper, read the bridge question for 10 minutes and then quickly sketch two conceptual design solutions within 30 minutes maximum - this also helped me to work on my conceptual design skills. I would then jump to section 2D: for the solution I decided to take forward I would draw the general layout of the structure with cross sections on one A3 sheet , and critical details on the second sheet of A3.I practiced this until I could do it in 80 minutes. (Romain)

Sitting the Chartered Membership Exam:

  1. Timing is crucial. Plan out your day, write this down and take it into the exam with you. Allow for 10 to 15 minutes to think through your solutions. You don't want to decide part way through your answer you have picked the wrong solution. Allow some time for checking. (Chris)

  2. You can't write during lunchtime but you can evaluate your progress. Review and revise timings (if necessary) (Chris)

  3. Take a watch to the exam - you can't always see the clock depending on where you sit in the exam room. (Chris)

  4. Rule of thumb, simple equations and design charts are very handy, as you will have very limited time to prepare your calculations. Condense and compile them in an orderly manner for easy access (Kenny)

  5. Play to your strengths and experience. I think it’s better to tackle a structure you are familiar with, even if has tough aspects, than tackle a simpler looking question. (James)

  6. In the exam, if you think you're running behind and won't finish, don't panic! Just get the essential points down and keep going. Make sure you have a stab at all parts even if it’s just a few notes. (Jonathan)

  7. Make sure you have plenty of water for the day and food for lunchtime. Don't eat too much if it makes you drowsy! (Chris)

  8. Try not to panic in the exam. You will make mistakes. Only recalculate serious blunders. if you spot a minor error, write a note to explain the impact. (Chris)

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