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Tips for Preparing for and Taking the PE Exam

  • 17 March, 2023

Late nights, early mornings, extended lunch breaks, all the above, you're putting in the time to prepare for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, and you want it to pay off. Perhaps this is your first time, or maybe you're retaking the exam and need to modify your approach. Preparing for the PE exam is time intensive and requires months of dedication, and for good reason. Being a licensed Professional Engineer comes with a significant amount of responsibility; it shows your commitment to maintaining high standards and provides credibility that will open doors throughout your career. This blog will explore various tips for preparing and taking the exam regardless of your situation.

Tips for Preparing for and Taking the PE Exam

1. Preparation:

You've settled on the timeframe you're going to take the exam, been approved to sit by your State Board, successfully registered, and now you're ready to begin preparing. Prior to the adoption of Computer Based Testing (CBT), the exam was offered twice per year (spring and fall). This meant that if you had to repeat, you had to wait approximately six months. In the CBT era, you're able to take the exam once per testing window (quarterly), up to three times per year.

1. Review the NCEES Exam Guide
( You've probably already looked at portions of this guide when you registered, but it provides useful information on what to expect on exam day and how computer-based testing works.

2. Review the NCEES exam-specific information
( NCEES provides exam-specific information for the various engineering disciplines, including how many questions to expect, how much time you'll be allotted, what references you'll be provided, along with various other pieces of important information.

3. Review the expected number of questions per topic. The PE exam contains 80 questions, all of which are weighted the same. Becoming familiar with the breakdown of how many questions can be expected per topic will help ensure you're not spending too much time or not enough time on a particular subject. Be sure you don't prepare for topics that aren't covered; if it's not on the outline, you shouldn't expect to see it on the exam.

4. Become familiar with what references you'll be provided during the exam. Some of the provided references you may already use regularly in daily practice, and others you may not have seen for some time or ever. The best way to become intimately familiar with these references is to use them regularly while solving practice problems and reviewing exam material. Pay close attention to what sections and references you're using most as you work practice problems. While you won't need to memorize any particular item from the references, you should take note of what references contain what information (e.g., superelevation tables from the AASHTO Green Book).

5. Take an exam review course. School of PE offers a variety of options, including live and Ondemand learning, in order to help prepare you for the exam. Pass rates for School of PE students are considerably higher than the average pass rate. For example, students taking the PE Civil review course pass the exam at around a 90% rate versus the average of around 60%. Instructors are there to help you during and after classes, so make the most of your investment. At the same time, a review course is meant to be a tool in your overall preparation and not a shortcut.

6. Work practice problems. Purchase the current NCEES practice exam and try to get your hands on older versions as well. Some of the older exams may have questions that are no longer valid, but becoming familiar with how exam questions are worded is a key component. There are many other sources of exam questions, but be cautious of ones that aren't consistent with the current CBT format.

7. Work practice problems. This is an intentional repeat, take note.

2. Taking the Exam:

While sitting for the exam, make sure you're as prepared as you can get and ready to take the exam.

1. Take a preparation break. I can't stress enough how important it is to take a day or two break leading up to sitting for the exam. As with rest days taken off from physical exercise, your brain requires a rest period too. I even urge you to take a vacation day from work the day before the exam. Use this time to relax and clear your mind.

2. Organize your items for test day. The aforementioned NCEES Examinee Guide provides a list of items that are allowed. This includes your identification, calculator, and other comfort items, such as earplugs. Have these items organized and ready to go the night before the exam.

3. Eat a healthy meal and get a good night's rest. A light, healthy meal and a good night's rest the night before the exam is pretty straightforward and will go a long way in getting you through the test day marathon.

4. Plan your departure time. Depending on your location, you may have to deal with traffic on your commute to the testing center. Leave yourself plenty of time to account for delays and other unforeseen issues.

5. Answer what you know first. There will be a mixture of conceptual-type problems (e.g., look-up) along with longer questions that require problem-solving. Avoid spinning your wheels and getting hung up on questions that you're not as familiar with, and skip to ones you know. For example, if your daily life consists of geometric design, seek out a problem related to that. I typically suggest finding a conceptual look-up-type problem and answering that first. This helps build confidence and get you into a rhythm.

6. Read the questions carefully. Exam questions are notorious for being worded in a way that can cause confusion. They aren't meant to be trick questions but are meant to require you to carefully read and interpret them.

7. Give the correct answer. You're probably thinking, "this is obvious; why are you listing this?" Yes, you want to give the correct answer to each question, but the point of this piece of advice is more than that. As you work problems, particularly ones that involve problem-solving, you'll go through various steps that result in a variety of "sub-solutions". Some of these "sub-solutions" may be an available option as an answer. As mentioned, reading the question carefully and knowing what you're to be solving for will ensure you're selecting the final answer.

8. Pay attention to the clock. You have approximately 6 minutes to answer each question on average. Some questions may take a minute, others may take closer to 10. Be cognizant of how much time you're spending on each question, and if you find yourself getting hung up on one in particular, skip it and come back later. As I mentioned previously, each question is weighted the same, so it doesn't make sense to devote too much time to one question that you may be struggling with.

3. Conclusion

I hope that these tips will serve you well in your preparation, and that, if helpful, you'll forward this along to fellow colleagues as they prepare to obtain their licensure. Whether this is your first time or you're repeating, remain confident in yourself and know that with good preparation will come good results. Most importantly, after you've passed the exam, take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment and recognize the prestigious group you've joined. Good luck!

Interested in earning your professional engineering license? School of PE's comprehensive courses provide what you need to succeed when exam day arrives! Register today.
About the Author: Brian Garman, PE

Brian is a Licensed Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania and is employed as a Senior Project Manager at Herbert, Rowland and Grubic, Inc. based out of Harrisburg. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Penn State University and specializes in all aspects of highway engineering.

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