Which PE Civil Exam Is the Easiest to Pass?
Almost without fail, the first questions I get from EIT's who are interested in taking the PE Exam is "How hard is it?" or "Which is the easiest to pass?" The latter typically comes from engineers early in their career who are in between professions, or whose profession doesn't perfectly line up with their studies in undergrad/graduate school. Maybe you have degree in civil and did a lot of design type work at the college level, but found yourself in a more application-based field, like construction or fabrication. Or you are working for a design firm that is in a different field than that of your studies in school, i.e., you majored in structural engineering and found yourself working for a mechanical design firm, or in the aerospace industry. You can look up exam pass rates in your jurisdiction, however, that doesn't tell you which exam is easiest. If you majored in civil engineering, focused on geotechnical engineering and foundation design, and are working for a local utility company doing site layout design of their power substations, you likely should be taking the Civil/Geotechnical Exam. I don't need to tell you that. If you majored in civil engineering and now design educational or industrial facilities for a small private design firm, take the Civil/Structural Exam.
If I'm being honest, when I began seriously looking into signing up for the exam, I had the same question. I majored in structural engineering, focusing on seismic design of civil structures. Out of college I worked for a design firm but soon ended up working for a steel fabrication company who did complex fabrication in the commercial transportation, hydro power, nuclear and marine industries. I wasn't designing buildings or bridges, I was figuring out how to build them. I wasn't doing structural analysis, load take offs, or sizing and spacing rebar in concrete shear walls. I was designing temporary structures and fabrication processes so massive bridge girders or dam bulkheads could be safely and economically constructed. I was doing material take-offs, contract submittals, scheduling and resource planning. When I began researching the different topics, I would need to know for the PE Exam, I realized I fell somewhere between the Civil/Structural Exam and the Civil/Construction Exam. I had a lot of basic design experience in school and was fairly familiar with most of the structural design codes I would need to know for the Civil/Structural Exam. But I also had a lot of practical experience in a construction-like industry that would be required for the Civil/Construction Exam.
Ultimately, I took the Civil/Structural Exam. I felt I had a bigger base of knowledge of the topics on that exam. I had been exposed to or had a working knowledge of all of the topics on the Structural Exam. There were quite a few topics on the Construction Exam I had never been exposed to and would have to learn from scratch. I determined the Civil/Structural Exam would be easier for me. The exam that is easier for you may be different. Do what I did and look at the list of topics provided on the NCEES website for each exam. If you are reading through the list of topics for a particular exam and are familiar with all or most of them, it is likely the exam for you. If you were not exposed in school, or work specifically in a field related to the topics on an exam, find another exam.
The reality is that none of the exams are easy. I have never spoken to a licensed Professional Engineer in any field who described their experience taking the exam as easy. However, the amount of preparation needed to pass an exam is completely dependent on your own personal circumstances. Could I take and pass the Civil/Construction, or any of the other exams? Sure. And you can too. But do you have the time to dedicate learning new topics you likely won't use in your career? Or do you already have a foundation of knowledge specific to a certain exam that you have gained through professional experience and schooling? Take that exam. Studying for it will be easier than studying for an exam with unfamiliar topics.