How To Study For the PE Exam? 10 Things to Know!

How to study for the PE exam? The key is to create a study plan that you’ll follow. Then, solve as many problems as you possibly can.

I’ve passed the PE power exam, and I’ve helped many others pass as well. So I’ve learned what to do and what not to do.

By using my experience, I’m going to go over 10 things you need to know to pass the PE exam.

To point out, the exam isn’t the overly difficult monster that everyone talks about. But if you don’t properly prepare, you can easily fail. Especially if you’ve been out of school for a long period of time.

Just keep the following in mind,

The PE exam is a test to make sure you know basic engineering and the codes.

Now before we get started, let’s go over some PE exam statistics. This will show you the importance of proper preparation for the exam.

Important Note: always check the NCEES website before taking the PE exam. You want to be sure you’re complying with all the latest regulations. Sometimes the NCEES makes exam rule changes without much notice. 

Also, the exam-taking rules may vary from state to state. Thus, don’t blindly take advice from someone who lives in a neighboring state. 

PE examination stats

The real exam passing score is unknown. The NCEES uses a statistical method to normalize the score from exam to exam. They also consider the exam difficulty in the cutoff for their pass and fail scores.

The NCEES states the following,

“Your exam results are based on the total number of correct answers that you selected. There are no deductions for wrong answers. The score is then converted to a scaled score, which adjusts for any minor differences in difficulty across the different exam forms. This scaled score represents an examinee’s ability level and is compared to the minimum ability level for that exam, which has been determined by subject-matter experts through psychometric statistical methods.”

That said, many including myself think you need a scaled score of 70% or higher to pass the PE exam. This is equivalent to a ‘C’ grade, or average student performance.

The point is, I’m reemphasizing how the exam isn’t too difficult if you properly prepare.

Now, the following are the NCEES PE exam statistics from December 2020 and January 2021:

Exam Discipline First-time test takers pass rateRepeat test takers pass rate
Civil: Construction61%35%
Civil: Geotechnical55%24%
Civil: Structural64%41%
Civil: Water Resources & Environmental71%46%
Control Systems67%31%
Electrical & Computer: Power71%N/A
Mechanical: HVAC and Refrigeration75%58%
Mechanical: Machine Design and Materials68%36%
Mechanical: Thermal and Fluid Systems69%47%

You can see how the pass rate is much higher for first-time test takers. The reason is that repeat test-takers don’t fix their initial study problems.

In other words, repeat test takers continue on with their poor preparation habits. This highlights how there’s a method to the madness for exam preparation.

With that out of the way, let’s go over 10 important things you need to know to pass the exam.

#1 Know your study habits

know your study habits

Everyone has different study habits.

Some people study better alone, while others learn better in groups. Then some people need 6 months to prepare, while others pass without studying at all.

The point is, don’t blindly take my suggestions.

Having come this far in your career, you should have a good idea of what works for YOU. So use whatever you think is useful from this article to optimize your exam preparation.

In the end, nothing in life is ever fully optimized. Thus, constantly look to learn from others to level up. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Important Note: set aside a dedicated space in your home for studying. Something as simple as a folding table in the corner of a room will do the job.

A distraction-free study area will help you maximize each of your study sessions. 

#2 Study duration period

As a working engineer, you don’t have endless hours to study like when you were in school. Plus, you may now have a family to take care of too.

So, you need to plan ahead to set aside time for studying.

To do this, I recommend you write down your daily schedule for weekdays and weekends. Then, see how you can optimize your schedule to fit in studying.

In other words, try to improve your daily time management. Thereafter, see where you can best fit studying into your schedule.

In the end, you’ll definitely need to make sacrifices. This is unavoidable but necessary. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck repeating this process again as a repeat test taker, 6 months down the line.

In my preparation, I started studying 6 months before the exam date. I was studying a subject I hadn’t gone to school for, so I needed extra time to brush up on the material. Plus, I was already very busy, so I had to work around my hectic schedule.

With my schedule, I aimed to study for 1 to 2 hours every weekday morning. I woke up at 5:00 AM and this gave me the schedule flexibility I needed.

Then on the weekends, I sometimes studied for 6 to 8 hours. This schedule worked great for me, and I was able to follow it month after month.

What’s more, don’t listen to anyone who says you’re over-studying. The right amount of studying is the amount that allows you to pass the exam.

#3 Gather resources

The PE exam is open book. You can bring almost any book or binder into the exam room.

So, a big part of the exam preparation is gathering your resources.

The first thing I recommend is to order the official NCEES exam prep test for your exam subject. I found this practice exam was the closest thing to the real test.

Next, find out from your peers what resources you need for your exam subject. I suggest checking the following online forums:

Many other standalone websites exist, but the information is probably outdated. Plus, I ALWAYS find it’s best to get information from actual test-takers.

So for example, in Google, type in,

Civil PE reference materials, reddit

Just change “Civil” to your PE exam subject.

ALSO, search deep on Google and Amazon. You can find all types of great resources. I remember I found a random engineering blog out of the blue.

The blogger was an engineer who had endless PE resources. So I messaged him, and he kindly shared all his digital resources with me. The files included practice problems, which were invaluable, as they’re so hard to come by.

Important Note: only gather resources you’ll study off of. You don’t want to bring books into the exam room that you’ve never even flipped open. Because in the exam, you don’t have time to search for new information and interpret new content.

Every resource I took into the exam room, I knew like the back of my hand. 

Also, tab all your references so you can effortlessly search through them on exam day. 

#4 Self-made resource

I created a binder with all my own handwritten notes inside.

In the binder, I included all the information I repeatedly used in my study sessions. This included most of my handwritten notes.

Not only did writing things down help with my studying, but I became more efficient in the exam. Because I mostly looked through this single binder versus searching through countless books.

In my binder, I jotted down and included the following material:

  • Equations and formulas with use case explanations written down
  • Detailed charts and tables
  • Important engineering and code concepts
  • Printed problems I had found and solved on the internet

Also, I created color-coded tabs in my binder. This allowed me to quickly flip through my binder without wasting a second of time.

Important Note: when you take notes, you’re better able to remember content. The notes also become a psychological backup if you find yourself becoming nervous.

#5 Take a PE exam preparation class

Classes are a great way to force you to study. Also, they’ll create structure in your schedule.

What’s more, with a class, you’ll go over every exam subject in detail. This way, none of the exam material will fall through the cracks.

Just be sure you sign up for a class that’s specifically geared towards the PE exam. Such a class can cost you anywhere between $1,000 to $2,000.

I know, it’s not cheap, but in most instances, it’s worth the cost.

Just be sure you ask the following questions to the agency offering the class before you sign up:

  • Is the class taught in person? If yes, is remote learning an option?
  • Will I receive any physical or digital study materials?
  • Is there anyone I can ask my technical questions to? If yes, what’s the average response time?
  • Is the study material up to date with the latest NCEES requirements?
  • Does the course offer original practice problems? Not the same practice problems you can find in the NCEES practice exam.
  • Can I see samples of your course material to review before I sign up?

I took the Georgia Tech preparation course. It was remote learning and I could learn at my own pace.

Plus, I received a large binder of study materials with original practice problems.

Most importantly though, the professor running the course was very helpful and responsive. He’d answer my questions via email at 1 AM sometimes.

That’s money well spent!

#6 Create study groups 

You’ll probably have other engineers in your office taking the exam. If this is the case, set up study groups like how you studied in college.

This will greatly enhance your learning experience.

At the same time, ask questions to the senior engineers in your office. By picking their brains, you’ll gain valuable insight and problem-solving techniques.

#7 Practice problems!

practice engineering problems

I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice as many problems as possible.

I wholeheartedly believe this is the most important component of the preparation process. So, get your hands on as many practice problems as you possibly can.

Because the only way to properly solve a problem is to know all the underlying concepts. And when you can’t solve a problem, you’ll go down endless rabbit holes learning many new things. I find this to be one of the best ways to learn.

Just as important, write down what you learn in your binder. If you spend 1-hour plus trying to solve a problem, write down what you learned!

Also, learn the concepts behind problems. Don’t just memorize equations, because you’ll make silly mistakes when the NCEES rewords problems.

I remember next to each of my practice problems, I had a wall of handwritten notes. I wrote down every underlying concept sprinkled in with my own tips.

Important Note: most of the PE exam problems are solvable in several steps. In other words, the problems aren’t overly complex. Because the NCEES is just testing how well you understand basic concepts. 

That said, don’t avoid solving the hairy problems in your old college textbooks. If you can solve complex problems, the PE exam will be a breeze. 

The following are great resources for practice problems:

  • NCEES practice exam
  • Six-Minute Solutions
  • Old college textbooks

Try to borrow reference materials from other engineers in your office. The PE exam books are expensive, and many of them you won’t reopen after the exam.

Important Note: watching problem-solving videos is deceiving. You may think you’re learning, but the material isn’t going to completely stick in your mind.

If you decide to watch videos, don’t forget to solve problems without the solution staring back at you. 

I personally watched A LOT of educational Youtube videos. They were very helpful!

I imagine I learned more from Youtube than I ever did in school. This is one reason why I believe engineering education needs reform

#8 Learn the code

More than likely, your PE exam subject will have engineering code questions.

So don’t solely focus on solving problems. Learn about your exam subject’s codes too. This means knowing how to interpret the code language.

For example, in the power discipline, you need to learn the National Electrical Code.

One of the questions may read,

How much minimum clearnace do you need infront of an electrical panel facing a concrete wall?

Important Note: buy ALL code references for your exam subject. The PE exam has plenty of basic code look-up questions. You don’t want to miss easy code questions because you didn’t purchase the references. 

#9 Test-taking approach

The test is 8 hours long!

If your test-taking skills aren’t sharp, the test can quickly become very difficult.

Because a big part of the exam is time management. An 8-hour exam may seem like an endless amount of time, but the hours fly by quickly.

To make my point,  8-hours is equal to 480 minutes, and the exam has 80 total questions. So that’s only 6 minutes per problem. That’s not a lot of time at all.

For this reason, when you practice PE exam problems, try to solve them in no more than 6-minutes. Because again, the problems aren’t meant to be complex. So if your solution is 30 steps long, this is a sign you made a mistake somewhere.

On the same token, when you take the exam, don’t dwell on problems you can’t solve. In other words, go through the exam and do all the problems you can quickly answer. And, skip over any problems that seem difficult or that you need to guess on.

Then, only AFTER you solved all the easy problems, come back and do the unanswered problems.

This way, you won’t waste 3o minutes going over a single problem. Then when you have 15 minutes left, you won’t be nervously racing to get 20 problems done.

You want to AVOID this 15-minute rush scenario at all costs!

#10 General preparation and exam tips

professional engineer exam tips

I’m going to go over general tips you can use for all phases of your exam preparation.

Study preparation tips: 

  • Become familiar with all your references. This way, you can quickly flip and find the information you need. You don’t want to waste time when taking the exam, endlessly looking up information.
  • Check online forums on how to solve the specific NCEES practice exam problems. You’ll find a wealth of information from forum members over each problem. I used Engineer Boards for this purpose a lot.

Resource gathering tips:  

  • Bring a wristwatch or small clock. You may find there’s no clock in the test room. Just make sure you turn off all alarms.
  • Place all your books and binders in a carry-on suitcase with wheels.
  • Make sure the calculator you bring is acceptable per the NCEES guidelines. Also, I took two calculators to the exam, in case one failed for whatever reason.

Test day tips:

  • If you don’t live near the test center, reserve a nearby hotel room. You don’t want to deal with traffic and other travel complications on the morning of the exam.
  • Sleep early the day before the exam to get a good night’s rest. Cramming the night before won’t help.
  • Bring snacks as you’ll get hungry. There’s a 1-hour lunch break between the two four-hour exam sessions, but you may still get hungry.
  • Don’t drink too much liquid. When I took the exam, the restroom was a several-minute walk from the exam room. You want to maximize every last minute of the exam taking. Plus, leaving the exam room is a big distraction and you’ll lose your focus.
  • If you finish the exam early, go back and check your work.
  • Respect those around you and wear deodorant and don’t wear a lot of cologne or perfume.
  • Bring a Ziploc with any medicines you’ll need. For example, Tums for heartburn and indigestion.
  • Bring earplugs to block out any excess noise.
  • Eat light and healthy the day before the exam. You don’t want an upset stomach for an 8-hour long exam in a giant silent room.
  • Wear warm clothes. My exam room was cold. If I hadn’t brought a jacket, I wouldn’t have been able to focus.
  • Clear your calculator display after every problem. You don’t want to accidentally include results from a previous problem in a new problem.

“How To Study For the PE Exam?” wrap up

You can easily pass the PE exam because it’s not overly difficult despite what many would have you think.

You just need to properly prepare through hard and smart work. Beyond that, it’s like any other exam, which you’ve taken plenty of as an engineer. This exam is just 8-hours long.

In short, treat the exam like an engineering problem you need to efficiently solve. Figure out what you exactly need to do, and then execute!

You’ll then not only pass the exam, but you’ll become a MUCH better engineer too. A win-win!

What other study tips do you have for the PE exam? How did you study for the PE exam? Did you think the PE exam was difficult?


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