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This blog includes a compilation of subject-matter expert-authored articles covering topics within engineering, project management, architecture, and more.

What Is the Best Strategy to Pass the PE Civil Exam?

Dec 24, 2021

There's never been a better time to become a professional engineer (PE). The amount of information and resources for engineers available today are virtually endless, creating countless ways you can leverage an engineering license. The PE is a great tool to position yourself across many lines of business that require engineering services certified by a professional engineer.

What Is the Best Strategy to Pass the PE Civil Exam?

1. How hard is the PE exam?

After chatting with dozens of engineers and colleagues, this question is the one I hear most. I think that people ask this particular question because they're still not convinced about becoming a professional engineer. What people should be asking instead, in my opinion, is why should I become a PE? Many engineers are proficient and successful in their fields and no part of their job duties and/or expectations involve the use of a PE seal, so why even bother?

A PE career consists of more than certifying plans and specifications. I think that becoming a PE is a statement of experience and commitment to the engineering profession. It carries a degree of responsibility that motivates you to become a lifelong learner and acquire specialized knowledge to help others design critical engineering products. There are many applications of licensed engineering beyond the design of plans and specifications, like consulting, expert witness consultations, investigations, and reports that all play an important role in the contracts that secure our infrastructure.

The first step towards becoming a PE is to make a change in your mindset. Before starting any PE exam preparation, you want to start making engineering decisions within your work duties that can be documented to show relevant experience (this will be necessary when you go to apply for your exam). At the same time, you will want to apply your skills with a high level of competency. Taking on a leadership role might make you anxious at times, but people tend to turn to PEs when it comes to decision-making. The good news is that with most problems, you will typically have time to do enough research and calculation to find the answers you need. Remember, it's all about knowing where to find the appropriate references and data needed to solve engineering problems, and then just using that information to calculate and solve them.

2. How did I study for the exam?

When I began my exam prep, I asked myself, if I can't solve one question with enough time, the internet, and the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM), then how am I going to solve 80 of them back-to-back on test day? The exam is even more centralized now that the NCEES transitioned to a computer-based testing (CBT) format with one single common reference manual. That means that you just need to know your way around one manual and how to utilize the equations and graphics in it. I decided that what I really needed was good, concentrated, and focused study time to get ready for the test, so leading into the exam, I requested two weeks of "vacation" from work and just focused on studying all day, every day. I minimized outside distractions and made my entire day about studying and being in a learning mindset. I purchased a bunch of exam practice problems and worked on them on a full-time basis to simulate the 8-hour testing environment, all while using the CERM as my main exam reference.

Since engineers like to have equations for everything, I created my own PE Study Time Equation to estimate the hours needed to study for the exam:

This equation includes time for efficiency losses and breaks. I figured that having an equation to follow would help me focus my concentration while preparing for the PE exam. After you calculate your estimated number of hours, you can spread those hours out to match your learning style. If you do better studying in smaller increments during the week and longer increments on the weekend, do so. Keep in mind that typical PE preparation courses are about 100 hours total spread over three to four months, and many of them can be accessed on-demand from anywhere, fitting into almost any schedule or work-life situation.

Once you have a schedule set up, the next thing you need to focus on is your exam prep strategy. If you rely on a proctored training course, I recommend you follow their carefully planned study schedule. If you want to take the independent approach like I did, I recommend trying to solve problems as if they were taking place in the real world. A can-do mentality and exam references will also help.

My approach mimicked what will be happening on exam day. I did batches of 10-20 problems at a time; even if I wasn't familiar with the question, I would still attempt to answer and then review all my answers against the solutions later. While working through the solutions, I would highlight and add color tabs to the reference manual marking the relevant information, and if I made a mistake, I would study the solution very carefully, re-writing it on another piece of paper to be reviewed later.

I stopped working on problems two days prior to the exam. My exam was on Friday morning, so I spent Wednesday reviewing all the problems I had worked on, organizing my notes and tabs, and just going over the main subjects that would be on the exam. The day before the exam I devoted entirely to relaxation and preparing my mind for the big day. I went to yoga in the morning and then went swimming in the afternoon. The day before your exam will also be the last chance you have to go to the store for water or snacks that you can have during the break.

3. What should I know on exam day?

One thing I noticed on test day is that after the morning session is complete-which is supposed to be the easier portion of the test, by the way-your mind is exhausted from all the high level problem-solving. By the time you're two hours into the afternoon session, you just want it to be over. You'll be physically tired, your mind will be fatigued, and you will be wanting to tap out. Remember to think about all it has taken to reach this point to incentivize yourself to finish strong.

If you come upon a question you're unfamiliar with, don't ever be afraid to follow your intuition and your common sense. Many exam questions go unanswered every year because people limit themselves and give up too early without trying. Try marking the questions you are unfamiliar with and revisiting them later if you have any free time. Trust yourself-you've already gone to college, worked for over four years, and were recommended by other PEs to reach this milestone in your life. You've got this.

I would 100% recommend becoming a PE and I wish someone would have told me about how beneficial obtaining a PE license is for your career. In fact, I can guarantee that you will encounter so many more opportunities beyond your field of experience and benefit in ways that you didn't know were possible with a PE license. Out of the gate, the investment of finance, time, and effort you put in usually pays for itself, whether through salary increases or company reimbursement. Ultimately, I found that the most important element to pass the exam is for you to connect with the field and realize that becoming a professional engineer is something you really want for yourself. When you apply that energy in your study efforts, you will surely be able to achieve your goal of passing the PE exam and becoming a licensed civil engineer! Good luck!
About the Author: Enrique Lairet

Professional Engineer with 7 years of continuing success in civil engineering roles. I genuinely enjoy creating engineering solutions that have generated millions of dollars in savings to customers. I thrive in fast-paced environments that require critical operational management and mastery of technical details. My goal is to join a growing team that is looking to scale their footprint and profitability.

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