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Are you ready to pass the Civil PE Exam? Here's what it takes

  • 07 January, 2021

If you are reading this, you are probably starting to think about the next steps in your career and if becoming a licensed Professional Engineer is a pursuit worth endeavoring. If this is you, I'm sure you know the basic pre-requisites that you can find on the NCEES website: you essentially need to be a working Engineer In Training (EIT) having passed the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE) with four years of experience under a Professional Engineer (PE). But these are just boxes to check on your application and just because you meet the basic pre-requisites, does not mean you are ready to pass the exam.

First, you need to understand that passing the exam and becoming licensed are two separate steps. You must first pass the exam, then apply for license in your state. In some states, you are able to take the exam prior to having four years of experience, but then would need to wait until you meet your state's experience requirements on your application. I know people who have done this for one simple reason. The PE exam is a multiple-choice exam. For me, preparing for and taking it felt like I was back in college. You need to know the material, yes, but you also need to know how to take an exam. The average time to solve each problem is six minutes, which means there will be some slam dunk thirty-second problems and there will be one or two, ten-minute problems. There will be at least a few questions you have to flat out guess on, but with strategy, can eliminate at least one, possibly two answers. Exam time management and strategy is a skill that you get really good at in college but start to lose as you get into the professional working world. If you don't have a good feel for testing exam management, maybe exploring the option of taking the exam early is for you so you do not further deteriorate those skills learned in college.

Are you ready to pass the Civil PE Exam? Here's what it takes

Being ready to pass the exam, regardless of whether or not you wait to have four years of experience, also depends on your preparation. The morning breadth exam will undoubtedly have topics you have either never been exposed to in your work, or barely touched in an early undergraduate class. You likely will not be proficient in all topics. You need to study these topics and become proficient for the exam. For your afternoon depth exam (for me it was Structural), you need to be proficient in your code books. I knew steel, concrete and masonry, as well as ASCE 7 design codes. But I had never worked with NDS Timber Code or AASHTO. I had to study these and gain proficiency. I took a guided review course and studied three nights a week for four months. It helped me organize and schedule out my time. I was working full time and had a new baby at home so I had to spread it out. I did "homework" that was assigned out of the review courses which were problems representative of what I would see on the exam. I began timing myself on each problem. If I couldn't solve it, I would at least take an educated guess at the answer before looking at the solution. I took two FULL practice exams (yes the full eight hours) when I was three and two weeks out. What I did may not work perfectly for you, but you have to get immersed in the material in some way. Maybe you cram a few weeks out. Maybe you spread it out like me. Maybe you don't have a strenuous work schedule or kids and can casually study throughout the day. Whatever it is, if you want to pass this exam the first time, you have to take your preparation seriously. You have to understand which topics you are already comfortable with and which ones you aren't and study accordingly. You have to be comfortable in your code books, even if it's just knowing the chapters so you can look information up on the fly. If it sounds daunting, plan ahead and create a schedule that is manageable. You can do this if you prepare.
About the Author: Alex Berlin

Mr. Berlin has worked in both the design and fabrication industries for 10 years. He has worked at Vigor (previously OIW) for 9 years. Previous experience includes work in commercial fabrication for the solar renewable energy sector, structural design for the commercial and power sectors and seismic analysis and rehabilitation. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Structural Engineering from The University of California, San Diego. He holds a PE License in the State of Oregon.

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