How Difficult Is the PE Exam, Really?
The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam is the second exam required for professional engineering licensure in the United States. If you are at this stage, then you have already passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam to obtain your Engineer-In-Training (EIT) certification. This also means you are already familiar with the exam experience and the steps needed to achieve success for a passing result. The PE exam is different from the FE exam because it is a more practical exam; the FE exam is more based on your undergraduate courses (i.e., if you have been doing your work in engineering undergrad, then you have already been preparing for the FE exam). But how difficult is the PE exam, really? Truthfully, the PE exam really is not that difficult. The exam is more a test on your organizational skills and prior preparation.
Being organized is the most critical element on exam day. As you know from the FE exam, you are on the clock with a set time limit for both morning and afternoon sessions. But there is no true timetable on how much time you spend on each question. You must use your own judgement and manage your time wisely. The PE exam content is not meant to have a lot of trick questions trying to fool you, but you need to know where to look up certain information in the PE Reference Handbook for your respective discipline (e.g., Civil, Mechanical, etc.). I will say that organization is key to you not losing time trying to remember the locations of certain topics and equations. You are not required to memorize specific equations for the PE exam, but you must know the general subject matter (e.g., for PE Mechanical, the Darcy-Weisbach Equation is in the Fluid Flow section).
2. Textbook Knowledge
While the PE exam is more practical than the FE exam, there still is a good share of textbook knowledge. When reading and understanding a question, be straightforward with your methodologies and solutions. Do not overthink things; if the question is truly unclear, then chances are other individuals are struggling with this question too. Do not fret either; if a certain question has an overwhelming number of wrong answers, then that question would be defective and removed from scoring consideration. And if you are already organized with the Reference Handbook sections, you will not lose valuable time frantically searching the handbook for certain information.
3. Learn Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Before exam day, awareness of your strengths and weaknesses should be part of your exam preparation. If you are like me, you are probably stronger with some topics than others. As Socrates once said, "to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom." If you have already attempted the PE exam (but did not pass), then you should have a diagnostic report covering areas of deficiency. Like the FE exam, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) lists the range of certain number of questions for each topic and sub-topic. There is no defined exact number of questions for each section. The question format is somewhat different each time, to avoid cheating and uphold the integrity of the PE exam.
4. Determining the Time You Need
Your awareness will lead to being able to determine the time that you need for certain questions. I would recommend first looking through the test and identifying which questions will require more time than others (this comes back to your strengths and weaknesses). Obviously, you want to focus on your strengths first, since this will help to build confidence and allocate more time for the tougher questions later. There will also be conceptual questions that do not require actual calculations; you might be able to answer these very quickly.
5. The Most Effective Form of Studying (In My Opinion)
Being organized might be the most critical element on exam day, but studying is the most critical element leading up to exam day. The best form of studying is solving questions. Repetition helps to build muscle memory; you should reach the level where you already know how to start solving a question without much thought. This too will save time, trying to understand if the question is related to Thermodynamics or Mechanics of Materials. Solving will also help you gain the conceptual aspect; you will start to see different trends (e.g., inverse relationships) as you solve more questions.
6. Simulate the Exam Environment
Practice solving the questions as if you were in the exam room. I would recommend buying an exam-approved calculator ahead of time and becoming familiar with its functions. This was odd for me at first, since I had become accustomed to using more advanced calculators (TI-83) with my engineering courses. I had to regress my technology backwards but again this is required to ensure exam integrity (advanced calculators have additional storage space and coding available to enable an unfair advantage). Another challenge is finding time to study. Most FE exam studying can occur just by progressing in your undergraduate curriculum, but the PE exam requires additional studying time, especially since you have probably been working in the industry for a little while now and are a little removed from academia.
7. Pencil-and-Paper vs. CBT Exams
When I took the PE exam (Oct 2018), at the time, you were directed to bring your own notes. Since then, most PE exams have transitioned towards Computer-Based Testing (CBT) over the past few years. This next discussion point is about knowing the exam format and the tools you have available (e.g., the correct calculator). You should know all exam day rules and policies, reviewing the checklist periodically and certainly the week leading up to the exam. The last thing you want is to forfeit this opportunity because you missed an item. Currently, the approved calculator models include Casio, Hewlett Packard, and Texas Instruments (TI-36X was my calculator of choice). Review the exam format so you are prepared and feel better about the exam.
8. Reference Handbook
You must also be aware of the reference handbook for your respective discipline. There is a trade-off with the new exam format; you do not need to worry about which books and materials to bring (I saw one person bring a hand wagon!), but you must know the PE handbook since that is your only reference resource. Certain equations and information will become automatic from solving practice questions (muscle memory that I mentioned earlier). And since these basic equations (e.g., temperature conversions) become memory, you do not need to use extra time looking up the basic information. You will want to dedicate this time to reviewing more advanced equations that do not need actual memorization. School of PE also offers review questions so you can gain practice from referencing the PE handbook. I would recommend School of PE since their review courses are aligned with the NCEES exam format; that is, if the equation is not in the reference handbook, it probably will not appear on the PE exam. I will certainly say that School of PE was instrumental towards helping me pass the PE exam.
Once you have the minimum four (4) years work experience, there is no additional timetable for the PE exam. It is just a matter of when you feel ready. I briefly contemplated waiting another year but also realized that I can continue to learn on my own. Also, you will learn some tips from working in the industry, but the PE exam is ultimately separate from your workplace. Ultimately, if you take the time to prepare, the PE exam really is not that difficult. The keys are being organized, keeping yourself focused, and maintaining unwavering composure. But always remember that NCEES is the national body that oversees the PE exam, so they will dictate the PE exam format. You must adhere to their rules, which include their calculator and reference handbook policies. But everything else leading up to exam day is on you to decide on your best plan to conquer the PE exam. And of course, always be sure to check back with School of PE
for more blog posts and exam tips!