Passing the California PLS Exam, Part 1

Part 1: Requirements and Process

Are you interested in passing the California PLS state-specific exam and becoming a California Professional Land Surveyor? If yes, then read on! I just passed my California PLS exam in May 2019 and can share my experiences with you.

This article covers exam requirements and processes, the take-home exam, board-approved documents, and the exam reference list. The second part of this article (coming soon) covers exam content, my lessons from taking the exam twice, and recommendations for study methods.

Applicant Requirements

To begin with, who needs to take the California PLS exam? Well, anyone who wants to practice land surveying in California needs to pass the exam.

Every state requires that applicants have a mix of education and experience. Experience requirements are homogeneous: applicants must either have two or four years of experience between gaining a Surveyor in Training license and sitting for the Professional Land Surveyor license.

On the contrary, education requirements vary widely from state to state. Education requirements are typically either:

  • Bachelor’s degree,
  • Associates degree,
  • some college credits, or
  • only experience.

There are four paths to become a surveyor in California:

  • Graduate with a four-year degree in land surveying, take the FS exam, gain two years of experience in responsible charge, and successfully pass the Principles/Practice exam and California PLS exam.
  • Take the FS exam, gain six years of experience in responsible charge, and successfully pass the Principles/Practice exam and California PLS exam.
  • Already have a Civil Engineer’s license, gain 15 years or more of responsible charge time, and successfully pass the Principles/Practice exam and California PLS exam.
  • Already have a Land Surveyor’s license from another state and successfully pass the California PLS exam.

Based on the above requirements, in California there is zero education required to become a PLS. But in reality, most surveyors applying to take the California PLS exam either have just graduated from a two- or four-year surveying program or are already licensed as a PLS in another state and are seeking a California PLS license.

If you are not sure whether you qualify to become a California PLS, set up a free consult phone call with me, and I would be glad to talk with you in more detail about your individual situation. Simply click here:

Application Process and the CA-specific Take Home Exam

Now that you are sure that you’re ready to begin the long and arduous journey of becoming a PLS, let me tell you more about my experience in applying for and being accepted to sit for the California exam.

I completed my application on November 13, 2017. At that time, I also completed a log book for each job I held over the past ten years to show my extensive responsible charge time (better safe than sorry). Additionally, I completed five reference forms.

Wow, it took a lot of time—many weeks—to complete these forms and have all the information verified by the people vouching for me.

Looking back, I wish that I had used the NCEES Mutli-State Licensure system at This system allows you to submit work history, references, personal information, etc., to a central database. When you want to transfer your license from one state to another, you simply click “California” and pay the required fee, and NCEES will submit all of your information to the selected state. Since California, I have used the system three times, and it has worked flawlessly.

After waiting four months for any word from the board, I received a letter from a “Senior Registrar, Land Surveyor,” whatever that means, telling me that one of my letters of reference was “not positive enough.” Ouch! Time to submit another reference.

Shortly after the board email, I was invited to take the California Take-Home Exam. This exam is online and tests your knowledge of the board acts and rules. It is 25 questions, with no time limit to complete. All questions have equal weight.

Applicants must achieve a minimum of 70% to pass this examination. You will not be issued a Professional Land Surveyor license until passing this take-home examination. I took the exam, which was not very difficult, just time-consuming, and that hurdle passed without issue.

I submitted another letter of recommendation, and my application was approved on June 25, 2018. Oh, how the time flies. I was seven months into the process, and I was now allowed to sit for the exam.

But wait, there’s more! Since the California PLS exam is only given in April and October, I had to wait another four months until I could sit for the exam.

Board-approved Documents about the CA PLS Exam

Now that my application was approved, I was ready to sit for the California Surveying exam. I was excited! I spent so many months gathering documents, following up with the Board, and gathering more documents that being granted the ability to take the exam was anti-climactic. And, being approved doesn’t mean anything without actually passing the exam.

BPELSG publishes two documents that every surveyor applicant should download:

  • California State-Specific Professional Land Surveyor examination: Test Plan
  • Professional Land Surveyor Examination Reference List

The Test Plan is similar to NCEES’s exam blueprint. It lists five major categories of topics such as Research, Analysis, Mapping, etc. Under each topic, dozens of sub-topics are listed. I have never seen so many land surveying topics described by one document in my entire career. While these sub-topics may be tested, there is no possible way that all of these categories could be included in a 70-question exam.

After taking the exam twice, I can tell you that the Test Plan is total fiction. You may read it here, but the Test Plan only added to the mystery of what is actually on the CA PLS exam. I would recommend that you do not waste your time reviewing the Test Plan.

The Examination Reference List, available here, should be used with caution because many of the books listed are of marginal help or the edition listed has long since been updated. Based on my own experience, I highly recommend that the applicant bring Brown’s Boundary Control, the BLM Manual, ALTA Standards, and Wattles on Writing Legal Descriptions. For a full list of must-have books and to download a PDF of reference material that I created for my students, go to

Additionally, all of the California statutes should be downloaded, read, and re-read, because the CA PLS exam heavily tests the Acts, Rules, and Subdivision Map Act, among other statutes. Finding, downloading, and printing the complete set of statutes took me about two weeks to compile. You must have a good table of contents and tabs! If you would like to purchase an up-to-date booklet of the California statutes, please click here.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I cover exam content, my lessons from taking the exam twice, and my recommendations for study methods.

Passing the California PLS Exam, Part 1” Comments

  1. This article came to the attention of the California Board from sources that felt the content was misleading which could cause frustration on the part of readers that desired to obtain licensure in California as a land surveyor. While it would be inappropriate to speak directly on the Author’s own experience as an applicant in that regard, I felt it necessary to provide a response that would accurately characterize the actual process to obtain a land surveyor license in California as well as other facts related to the California state specific examination. It is in everyone’s best interest for all interested parties to be accurately informed.

    To begin with, not all of the paths to licensure included in this article are accurately stated. I encourage all interested readers to visit the Board’s website at and if after perusing that information still require additional clarification, to please contact Dallas Sweeney, PLS at (916) 263-2271 or Dallas is the ‘Senior Registrar Land Surveyor’ at the California Board (which is a state position title that essentially means staff land surveyor) Dallas is more than happy to assist potential applicants and licensees in understanding the true facts pertinent to this process.

    It is also completely untrue that “…most surveyors applying to take the California PLS exam have graduated (with any degree) or is already licensed in another state…” In “true” reality, that number represents maybe 10-15% of the total number of land surveying applicants in California. While I do not fault the author on this misstatement, it is a relatively easy answer for anyone to obtain, just by contacting the aforementioned Mr. Sweeney.

    In regards to the “NCEES Multi-State Licensure system”, I agree that while the NCEES Record process is a excellent repository for licensees to maintain the information necessary to submit a licensing application anywhere in the nation and is accepted in California for licensees seeking additional licensure in this state, it is important to know more than a few of the 55 boards that license land surveyors may also require additional information to supplement or clarify that which is required to be included in the NCEES Record. Accurate information on how this is accepted in California can be found in the previously provided link or by contacting Mr. Sweeney.

    In regards to the “California Take Home exam” covering the laws and rules for practice in this state, which is found at the Board’s website, almost all of the applicants simply submit this with their application.

    The author’s reference to the Test Plan for the California state specific PLS exam and accompanying recommendations are the most concerning. As the author noted, this Test Plan is similar to the blueprint used by NCEES for the national surveying exams. Not only is it similar, it is developed following the exact same process as NCEES (and the majority of other licensing processes worldwide for all forms of licensure) and has been for more than 30 years in California. The aforementioned Mr. Sweeney conducts no less than half a dozen workshops around California annually devoted solely to the qualifications for licensure and how to use the board published Test Plan to prepare appropriately for the state specific exam. The California Board does not charge for these workshops related to the licensing process. Many of these workshops are held concurrently with exam prep sessions facilitated by local professional societies or at university conferences where students and applicants both regularly attend. My personal experience in reviewing hundreds of land surveyor applications dictates that those licensure candidates that use the published test specifications as an effective study guide and understand that it is required to transparently reflect the actual content of the exam tend to perform better on the exams and not have to repeat testing. I encourage all interested readers to contact Mr. Sweeney on this topic.

    Likewise with the author’s comments on the “Examination Reference List”, the California Board doesn’t propose to endorse any specific references books or guides and nor does the California Board endorse purchase of newly published materials simply because there are newer editions. The list provided by the California Board is provided solely for the purposes of clearly communicating to the candidates which references were used to develop the actual exam content so that everyone is on the same page.

    In regards to what the California PLS exam “heavily tests”, I would encourage those interested to refer to the percentages for each category in the published Test Plan to ascertain for themselves the expected volume of questions dedicated to one code section or other topics. All California statutes and rules (regulations) associated with surveying in California can be accessed free of charge at the Board’s website at

    If anyone is unable to find any specific laws referenced in the published Test Plan, again please seek assistance from Mr. Sweeney.

    I can be reached at or (916) 263-2230.

    Thank you
    Ric Moore, PLS
    Executive Officer
    California Board

  2. How come this article reads like a late-night infomercial?

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