Passing the California PLS Exam, Part 2

Exam content, lessons from taking the exam, and recommendations for study methods.

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 content, my lessons from taking the exam twice, and recommendations for study methods. My previous article covers exam requirements and processes, the take-home exam, board-approved documents, and the exam reference list.

Exam Content

I enjoy taking exams, especially in the fields of land surveying and aviation, so the typical dread of an approaching exam is something that I have felt many times.

While I highly recommend that students study for every exam as if they want to pass it the first time, I decided to simply spend two weeks studying the Acts & Rules and take the exam right away.

Why would I do this? Because you never know what is going to be asked on the exam, especially in a state like California where the “exam blueprint” is so vague.

Thinking back to my time spent studying for the exam the first time, I had no idea what to expect in terms of question type (multiple choice, true/false, select all) and question content (the exam blueprint had every topic in surveying since the time of ancient Egypt). Plus, the reference list was out of date (which made me think the exam content would be very old).

After taking the exam for the first time, the true content of the exam was crystal clear. Really, there are three topics in the California Surveying exam:

California Laws

The Acts & Rules are heavily tested. Think board make-up, scope of surveying, minimum technical standards. Additionally, records of survey and corner records are asked often. Finally, know the Subdivision Map Act cold because there are many exceptions to the SMA that require a parcel map or certificate of compliance. Topics that you would normally not think of include conflicts of interest and random statutory requirements (i.e. where are you required to have your physical business address).

Open-book exams lull students into a false sense of security because people tell themselves, “If the answer is somewhere in this book, then I can just look up any material on exam day.” Wrong! My CA Statutes binder is 500+ pages. You must know the section in which key concepts are located. To do that, take a full-length practice exam and test your ability to quickly and accurately locate commonly asked question.

Legal Aspects

Common topics included the PLSS, following the footsteps (original vs retracement), priority of calls, junior/senior rights, simultaneous conveyances, and sequential conveyances.

The Principles & Practice exam tests you on the principles of these topics. But I absolutely love the California exam’s questions because the CA exam requires you to 1) know the concept, 2) apply the concept to a real-world scenario, and 3) try not to second guess yourself. These questions are hard! They make you think! Make sure that you have read Brown’s and Evidence/Procedure cover to cover.

I am the co-author to Clark on Surveying, have taught Legal Aspects for almost a decade, and regularly consult in boundary and title litigation. Some of the CA exam questions gave me pause. Be prepared. For anyone who is not totally at peace with Legal Aspects, take an online 15-week college course; you will thank me.

Construction Surveying

This was the part of the exam that surprised me the most. I saw many topics that are tested on the Fundamentals of Surveying exam also tested here.

Common construction surveying topics include:

  • Inversing: calculate the bearing and distance between two points with known X and Y coordinates.
  • Stubbing: calculate the coordinates of an end point (X & Y) given the X & Y coordinates of a beginning point and a bearing and distance between two points.
  • Horizontal Curves: calculate an unknown variable given some set of known variables.
  • Vertical Curves: calculate an unknown variable given some set of known variables.
  • Daylight staking: I hate these questions!

In addition to legal aspects, California laws, and construction surveying, a menagerie of miscellaneous questions were asked that ran the gamut, including photogrammetry, water boundaries, statistics and adjustments, GNSS, GIS, and trigonometry.

Short story: you have no idea what to expect in terms of these questions because the topics vary widely from exam to exam. Be prepared with good reference textbooks and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things surveying.

My Second Attempt at the Exam

My second attempt to pass the California Exam was successful. I attribute that success to understanding what topics were on the exam and studying the California laws very thoroughly in the six weeks leading up to exam day.

Based on a self-evaluation, I understood that my Legal Aspects skills were very strong, my construction surveying/survey computation skills had atrophied from not teaching Plane I and Plane II surveying college courses in the past 12 months, and my knowledge of the California laws was very poor.

Using the exam content described in this article, I highly encourage you to perform the same self-assessment before attempting the exam.

I also attribute my success to reading the California statutes within my three-ring binder many times, making notecards of important topics, and taking a full-length practice exam to test my ability to “find the law” within the CA statutes.

Passing an exam with an average pass rate of 20% was extremely rewarding.

I hope that this article combined with the CA Online Course and CA Practice Exam will allow you to experience the sweet taste of victory on your first exam attempt.

Recommendations for Study Methods

There is no comprehensive source for study materials for the California PLS exam. Some topics will overlap with the Fundamentals exam, some topics with the Principles and Practice exam, but neither NCEES exam requires the breadth and depth of knowledge that the California exam expects of you.

No wonder the pass rate for the California exam is 20%. I have been teaching surveying for a decade and practicing for 10 years before that, and I can testify that the exam is very difficult.

In all reality, the board expects the applicant to have taken several very in-depth college courses, because the exam content is at the level of a Bachelor’s in surveying, if not higher. But with a comprehensive review course, I do believe its possible to pass the CA PLS exam.

My study plan is as follows:

  • Take a full-length practice exam to gauge your level of comprehension and determine which topics require the most study.
  • Enroll in a comprehensive review course. Do not skip lectures; do not move past a subject until you have mastered it.
  • Take another full-length practice exam. Your score should have increased by at least 20% and your final score should be in excess of 80%. If not, enroll in remedial courses.

In conclusion, the California Board expects you to have a mastery knowledge in almost all fields of land surveying, and they will not grant you a PLS license until you have risen to this standard.

This exam is totally passable, but it will require deep learning, courage, and patience. Do you have what it takes?

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