10 Tips on How to Study for the PE Exam

How to study for the PE exam? The secret is in crafting a study plan that resonates with the passion that first led you to become an engineer.

Having passed the PE power exam myself and helped many others do the same, I want to share my top 10 study tips that you’ve just gotta know.

To point out, the exam isn’t overly difficult. But if you poorly prepare, you’ll fail, especially if you’ve been out of school for a long period of time. Keep in mind that the purpose of the PE exam is to:

Test to make sure you know basic engineering and the codes.

To kick things off, let’s dive into some PE exam statistics.

Important Note: Make sure to visit the NCEES website before taking the PE exam so you’re up to date with the latest regulations. NCEES may make exam rule changes without much notice. Also, exam-taking rules can vary from state to state.

PE examination stats

The actual passing score remains a mystery. NCEES uses a statistical method to normalize scores from exam to exam, taking into account the exam’s difficulty when determining the pass/fail cutoff.

According to NCEES:

“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.”

Many, including myself, believe that you need a scaled score of 70% or higher to pass the PE exam. This equates to a ‘C’ grade, or average student performance. The takeaway is that the exam isn’t too daunting if you prepare well.

Here 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%

Notice how the pass rate is significantly higher for first-time test-takers. The reason is simple: repeat test-takers don’t fix their lousy study habits.

#1 Embrace your study habits

know your study habits

We all have different study habits. Some folks thrive studying solo, while others flourish in groups. Some people need a solid 6 months to prepare, while others can sail through with just 2 weeks of studying.

The point is, don’t just blindly follow my advice.

You’ve come a long way in your career and should have a good idea of what works for you. Cherry-pick what you find useful from this article and optimize your exam prep accordingly.

Important Note: Set aside a dedicated study space at home, like a folding table in the corner of a room, away from distractions.

#2 Nail down your study duration

As a working engineer, you don’t have the luxury of endless study hours like you did in school. Plus, you might have a family to care for. So, plan ahead and make sacrifices to carve out time for studying.

Start by answering these questions:

  • How far in advance of the exam should you start studying?
  • How many hours of studying do you need?

Next, jot down your weekly schedule and pinpoint where you can squeeze in study sessions. Then, allocate the necessary hours each week based on your answers above.

For my own prep, I began studying 6 months before the exam. Since I studied a subject I hadn’t learned in school, I needed extra time.

I aimed to study for 1 to 2 hours every weekday at 5:00 AM before work. On weekends, I powered through 6 to 8-hour sessions. It might seem excessive, but it was just what I needed to pass the exam.

#3 Gather resources

The PE exam is open book, which means you can haul pretty much any book or binder into the exam room. Naturally, a huge chunk of your prep time will be spent rounding up resources.

First things first, grab the official NCEES exam prep test for your subject. I found this practice exam to be the closest thing to the real deal.

Next up, hit up your buddies for resource suggestions and scour these online forums:

Loads of standalone websites exist, but the info’s likely outdated. Plus, it’s best to get the inside scoop from actual test-takers. For example, if you’re taking the civil exam, Google:

Civil PE reference materials, reddit

Also, go deep on Google, ChatGPT, and Amazon. You’ll find all sorts of hidden gems.

I stumbled upon an engineer’s blog crammed with tailored power PE resources. I reached out, and the blogger kindly shared all his digital files. The files had practice problems, which were a goldmine since they’re so hard to come by.

Important Note: Don’t bring resources you haven’t even glanced at to the exam room. You won’t have time to hunt down new info or decipher unfamiliar content.

I knew every resource I took into the exam room like the back of my hand. Also, tab your references for seamless searching.

#4 Self-made resource

I whipped up a binder crammed with my notes. These notes were my go-to for problem-solving during my study sessions, featuring:

  • Equations and formulas with handy use case explanations
  • Detailed charts and tables
  • Key engineering and code concepts
  • Printed problems I found and solved online

This trusty binder became my exam-day lifesaver, letting me efficiently flip through it instead of rummaging through a mountain of books. I even added color-coded tabs to amp up my page-flipping speed.

Important Note: Taking notes helps you remember stuff better, so get into the habit of jotting things down. 

#5 Take a PE exam prep class

Enrolling in a class helps you stick to a study routine, stay accountable, and follow a set schedule.

Just make sure you sign up for a class that’s all about the PE exam. It’ll set you back $1,000 to $2,000, but it’ll cover everything you need to know.

Before you shell out your hard-earned cash, grill the agency offering the class with these questions:

  • Is the class in person? If so, is there a remote learning option?
  • Will I get any physical or digital study materials?
  • Can I pester someone with my technical questions? If so, how fast will they get back to me?
  • Is the study material in line with the latest NCEES requirements?
  • Does the course include original practice problems?
  • Can I peek at some sample course materials before committing?

I took the Georgia Tech prep course, which was remote learning and let me progress at my own speed. I also got a hefty binder of study materials and original practice problems.

Most importantly though, the professor running the course was helpful and responsive. He answered my questions via email at all times of the day. Money well spent!

#6 Create study groups 

Chances are, you’ll have other engineers in your office taking the exam. If that’s the case, set up study groups like you did back in college to make the most of your learning.

Also, don’t be shy to ask questions to the senior engineers in your office. Their insights and problem-solving techniques are invaluable, especially since hands-on experience always beats formal education.

#7 Practice problems!

practice engineering problems

I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is to tackle as many problems as you can. I’m convinced that this is the most vital part of the whole prep journey.

By cracking a problem, you’ll grasp the core concepts. And if you’re stumped by a problem, you’ll dive into countless rabbit holes to uncover what you don’t know. This is key, as you don’t want to just memorize equations. Otherwise, you’ll slip up when the NCEES rephrases problems.

Equally important, jot down everything you learn in your notes binder. Next to each of my practice problems, I had a colorful collage of handwritten notes. I scribbled down every fundamental concept, peppered with my personal insights.

Important Note: Most of the PE exam problems can be solved in a few steps. The NCEES only tests how well you grasp basic concepts. But don’t shy away from tackling complex problems. If you can crack those, the PE exam will be a breeze.

Here are some awesome resources for practice problems:

Also, borrow reference materials from fellow engineers at your workplace. PE exam books can be pricey, and chances are you won’t crack them open again after the exam.

Important Note: Watching folks solve problems on YouTube can be deceptive. You might think you’re learning, but the material won’t stick.

If you do watch videos, make sure to still solve problems on your own, without the solution glaring at you. I learned more from online videos than I ever did in school. That’s one reason why I believe engineering education needs a makeover.

#8 Learn the code

Chances are, your PE exam will throw some engineering code questions at you.

So, don’t just focus on solving problems—get familiar with the codes, too. That means figuring out how to decipher code language.

For instance, if you’re taking the power discipline PE exam, familiarize yourself with the National Electrical Code. You might come across a question like this on the exam:

How much minimum clearnace do you need infront of a 480V electrical panel facing a concrete wall?

Important Note: Get your hands on the latest edition code references for your exam. That’s because the PE exam includes a bunch of basic code look-up questions.

#9 Test-taking approach

The test is a whopping 8 hours long and can be a serious energy-drainer if you’re not ready for it.

While an 8-hour exam might seem like a never-ending slog, the hours will zoom past. Just think: 8 hours is 480 minutes, and the exam has 80 questions in total. Crunching the numbers, you have a mere 6 minutes per question.

So, when you’re practicing PE exam problems, aim to crack them in no more than 6 minutes. If your solution has 30 steps, chances are you’ve goofed up somewhere.

In the same spirit, breeze through the exam and answer all the questions you can solve in a jiffy. Skip the brain-busters and the ones that make you wanna take a wild guess. Once you’ve nailed the easy questions, circle back and wrestle with the ones you skipped.

This way, you won’t burn 30 minutes on a single problem and then scramble to finish the exam with 30 questions left hanging. Time management is key!

To boost your chances of smashing the exam, I highly recommend learning to work like a well-oiled machine.

#10 General prep and exam pointers

professional engineer exam tips

Study preparation tips: 

  • Get familiar with all your references, so you can quickly flip and find the info you need.
  • Check online forums for tips on solving specific NCEES practice exam problems. You’ll discover a goldmine of info from forum members on each problem. I used Engineer Boards for this purpose.

Resource gathering tips:  

  • Bring a wristwatch or a small clock, but nix the alarms. You might find there’s no clock in the test room.
  • Stash all your books and binders in a rolling carry-on suitcase.
  • Double-check that your calculator meets NCEES guidelines, and bring a spare in case one fails.

Test day tips:

  • If you’re not local to the test center, book a nearby hotel room. That way, you won’t sweat traffic or other travel snags on exam day.
  • Catch some quality sleep the night before the exam. Don’t burn the midnight oil studying.
  • Pack snacks in case your stomach starts rumbling. There’s a 1-hour lunch break between the two four-hour exam sessions, but hunger might still strike.
  • Don’t chug liquids. When I took the exam, the restroom was a decent hike from the exam room. You’ll wanna make every last minute count. Plus, leaving the exam room can be a major focus-breaker.
  • If you finish the exam ahead of schedule, circle back and double-check your work.
  • Be kind to others: wear deodorant, but skip the cologne or perfume.
  • Bring a Ziploc bag with any meds you might need, like Tums for heartburn and indigestion.
  • Pack earplugs to block out pesky noise.
  • Chow down on light, healthy food the day before the exam. You don’t want an upset stomach during an 8-hour exam in a giant, silent room.
  • Bundle up in warm clothes. My exam room was chilly, and if I hadn’t brought a jacket, I would’ve been shivering my way through the test.
  • Clear your calculator display after every problem to avoid accidentally carrying over results from a previous question.

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

The PE exam is pretty much like the zillion other exams you’ve faced as an engineer, but there’s a twist—it’s a whopping 8 hours long!

With clever, gritty effort, you can breeze through the exam. Just cook up a solid game plan and get down to business, like tackling any other challenge.

Got any other nifty study tips for the PE exam? What do you find the most daunting about sitting through long exams?


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