The key to becoming a professional engineer is knowing how to study for the PE exam. The journey begins with a study plan.
I’ve passed the PE power exam, and I’ve helped many others pass as well. Using my experience, I’m going to cover 10 useful study tips you need to 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. Just remember, the intent of the PE exam is the following:
Test to make sure you know basic engineering and the codes.
To set the stage, we’ll first go over some PE exam statistics.
Important Note: review the NCEES website before taking the PE exam, to ensure you follow the latest regulations. Sometimes the NCEES makes exam rule changes without much notice. Also, the exam-taking rules may vary from state to 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.”
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.
The following are the NCEES PE exam statistics from December 2020 and January 2021:
|Exam Discipline||First-time test takers pass rate||Repeat test takers pass rate|
|Civil: Water Resources & Environmental||71%||46%|
|Electrical & Computer: Power||71%||N/A|
|Mechanical: HVAC and Refrigeration||75%||58%|
|Mechanical: Machine Design and Materials||68%||36%|
|Mechanical: Thermal and Fluid Systems||69%||47%|
See how the pass rate is much higher for first-time test takers. The reason is, repeat test-takers don’t fix their poor study habits.
#1 Know your study habits
Everyone has differing study habits. Some people study better alone, while others learn better in groups. Then some people need 6 months to prepare, while others can pass with only 2 weeks of studying.
What I’m getting at 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. Use what you think is useful from this article, to optimize your exam preparation.
Important Note: set aside a dedicated space in your home for studying. A folding table in the corner of a room, away from distractions, will work.
#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 also now have a family to take care of. So, plan ahead and make sacrifices to create time for studying.
But first, answer the following questions:
- How long before the exam do you need to start studying?
- How many hours of studying do you need?
Next, write down your weekly schedule, to see where you can best fit studying in. Then, add the hours you need every week per the above questions.
In my preparation, I started studying 6 months before the exam. I studied a subject I hadn’t gone to school for though, so I needed extra time to learn.
I aimed to study for 1 to 2 hours every weekday at 5:00 AM before the workday started. Then on the weekends, I studied for 6 to 8 hours. This may seem excessive, but it was the right amount I needed 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. Not surprisingly, a big part of the exam preparation is gathering your resources.
I recommend you first order the official NCEES exam prep test for your test subject. I found this practice exam was the closest thing to the real test.
Next, find out from your peers what resources they suggest, while checking the following online forums:
Many other standalone websites exist, but the information is probably outdated. Plus, it’s best to get information from actual test-takers. For example, in Google, type in the following if you’re taking the civil exam:
Civil PE reference materials, reddit
Even more, search deep on Google, ChatGPT, and Amazon. You can find all types of hidden gems.
I found an engineer’s blog, which had endless tailored power PE resources. I messaged him, and he kindly shared all his digital resources. The files included practice problems, which were invaluable, as they were difficult to come by.
Important Note: don’t bring resources you haven’t looked at to the exam room. 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. Equally important, tab your references to allow for effortless searching.
#4 Self-made resource
I made a binder with my notes inside. My notes were the information I mostly used to solve problems when I studied. More specifically, the following:
- 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
This notebook became my go-to in the exam and it made me highly efficient on exam day. Because I mainly looked through this single binder versus searching through countless books. I also added color-coded tabs to my binder to maximize my page-flipping speed.
Important Note: when you take notes, you can better recall information. So fall into the habit of writing notes.
#5 Take a PE exam preparation class
Taking a class helps make you study, stay responsible, and have a set schedule.
Just be sure you sign up for a PE-focused exam class. The cost will be anywhere between $1,000 to $2,000. These classes cover all the material you need to know.
Before you pay your hard-earned money though, ask the following questions to the agency offering the class:
- 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?
- Can I see samples of your course material to review?
I took the Georgia Tech preparation course. It was remote learning, allowing me to advance at my own pace. I also received a large binder of study materials with 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
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, to maximize your learning.
Also, ask questions to the senior engineers in your office, to gain insights and problem-solving techniques. Especially since hands-on experience trumps formal education.
#7 Practice problems!
I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice solving as many problems as possible. I wholeheartedly believe this is the most important component of the preparation process.
By solving a problem, you’ll understand the underlying concepts. And if you can’t solve a problem, you’ll go down endless rabbit holes to learn what you don’t know. This is critical, as you don’t want to just memorize equations. Because you’ll make silly mistakes when the NCEES rewords problems.
Equally important, write down everything you learn in your notes binder. 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 insights.
Important Note: most of the PE exam problems are solvable in several steps. The NCEES only tests how well you understand basic concepts. But don’t avoid solving complex problems. If you can solve complex problems, the PE exam will be easy.
The following are great resources for practice problems:
- NCEES practice exam
- Six-Minute Solutions
- Old college textbooks
Borrow reference materials from other engineers in your office as well. The PE exam books are expensive, and it’s likely you won’t reopen them after the exam.
Important Note: watching videos of people solving problems on Youtube can be misleading. You may think you’re learning, but the material won’t stick in your mind.
If you watch videos, still solve problems by yourself, without the solution staring at you. I learned more from watching videos on the internet 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 will have questions about engineering codes.
So don’t just focus on solving problems, learn about the codes too. This means understanding how to read the code language.
For example, if you’re taking the power discipline PE exam, learn the National Electrical Code. One question on the exam may ask the following:
How much minimum clearnace do you need infront of a 480V electrical panel facing a concrete wall?
Important Note: buy all the latest edition code references for your exam. Because the PE exam includes many basic code look-up questions.
#9 Test-taking approach
The test is 8 hours long and can be draining if you’re not prepared.
While an 8-hour exam may seem like an endless amount of time, the hours fly by. Consider 8 hours is 480 minutes, and the exam has 80 total questions. Doing the math, you have 6 minutes per question. Not much time.
So, when you practice PE exam problems, try to solve them in no more than 6 minutes. If your solution has 30 steps, you probably did something wrong.
In the same vein, go through the exam and answer all the questions you can quickly solve. Skip over problems, which are difficult or you need to guess the answer to. After you finish the easy questions, come back and tackle the ones you skipped.
This way you won’t waste 30 minutes on one problem and then have to rush to finish the exam with 30 unanswered questions. Time management is critical!
To further help you ace the exam, I highly suggest you learn how to work like a machine.
#10 General preparation and exam tips
Study preparation tips:
- Become familiar with all your references, to quickly flip and find the information you need.
- Check online forums on how to solve specific NCEES practice exam problems. You’ll find a wealth of information from forum members on each problem. I used Engineer Boards for this purpose.
Resource gathering tips:
- Bring a wristwatch or a small clock, but turn off the alarms. You may find there’s no clock in the test room.
- Place all your books and binders in a carry-on suitcase with wheels.
- Ensure the calculator you bring is acceptable per the NCEES guidelines, and bring two in case one fails.
Test day tips:
- If you don’t live near the test center, book a hotel room nearby. This way you won’t have to worry about traffic and other travel issues on the day of the exam.
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam. Don’t stay up late studying.
- Bring snacks in case you get hungry. There’s a 1-hour lunch break between the two four-hour exam sessions, but your stomach may still growl.
- 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 session. Also, leaving the exam room is a big distraction as you’ll lose your focus.
- If you finish the exam early, go back and check your work.
- Be respectful to others and wear deodorant, and don’t use cologne or perfume.
- Bring a Ziploc bag with any medicines you may need, like Tums for heartburn and indigestion.
- Bring earplugs to block outside 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, to avoid accidentally carrying over results from a previous problem.
“How To Study For the PE Exam?” wrap up
The PE exam is similar to the countless past exams you’ve taken as an engineer. Only except, it’s 8 hours long.
With smart and hard work, you can easily pass the exam. Just formulate a plan of action and execute, like you would with any other problem.
What other study tips do you have for the PE exam? What do you find the most difficult about taking long exams?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.