That right there, it’s my new Professional Engineer’s stamp. The one thing that I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life working towards, I’m can now proudly say, I’m a professional engineer!
There’s nothing else that can accelerate your career faster than becoming a Licensed Professional Engineer. Look at the top engineers in any field, chances are you’ll find that nearly all of them have their PE License. While not everyone needs to be a PE, I still believe that every engineer who can should take and pass the PE certification. I’m going to share with you my beliefs on why it’s important, the things that I did to study, and the reasons that I believe that I was able to pass on the first try.
To start, let’s go through a couple of the basic questions that trip everyone up. This should help you understand the basis of my belief that you must pass the PE to reach your full potential as an engineer. If you already know that you want to take the PE exam, feel free to jump straight to my recommended study materials or exam tips.
What is a Professional Engineer?
A professional engineer is someone who has met the requirements of a governing body in a certain jurisdiction (each state has their own requirements to be eligible to take the exam), and been deemed competent enough to sign and seal plans for that jurisdiction. The governing body has the authority to remove licensure from an individual if they are found in violation of ethical standards or rules.
Anyone who has risen to the level of a PE holds just as high of a status of everyone before them.
How do you get your PE License?
As I previously stated, each state has their own requirements for allowing people to sit for the PE exam. There are some common threads between them, and these general requirements are what I’ll focus on:
- Completed a Four-Year degree in Engineering from an ABET accredited institution (don’t worry, if you went to a major college in the US, you’re likely covered)
- Passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Completed between two to four years of post-graduate work under a licensed PE (time frames vary from state to state, and graduate school can sometimes be substituted for a year of work experience)
- Taken and passed the PE exam in the state you’re applying for
For a full list of the state-by-state regulations, you can go here.
When is the PE Exam offered?
The PE exam is offered twice a year, in April and October. This year’s dates are April 11th and October 24th. However, there are a lot of state requirements for when you have to apply for the exam, it often pushes the dates for applying out 3-4 months or so before the test.
If you’re planning to take the test in April, you need to sign-up by the end of January to be safe. More information can be found at NCEES.org.
Recommended PE Exam Study Materials
Everyone will offer a different method for studying for the exam. Truth is, everyone is different when it comes to taking tests. In school I found that I did best when I crammed, focused on building my reference materials, and working through practice problems.
Above you can see the exact PE Exam study materials that I took into the Power PE Exam last October.
Should I take a PE Exam Review Class?
If you know yourself, then focus on what you were able to do which got you through in college. If you had to sit in a classroom and listen to guided instruction to have information sink in, then look at taking a course. You can often find one being offered by your local college (if you’re taking one of the big exams – Electrical / Mechanical / Civil), occasionally a local chapter of an organization will offer a course (like the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineer’s does), or you can turn to one of the big institutions like Kaplan or School of PE.
I took one of the courses from my local college, though I don’t know that I gained a whole lot out of it. It did get me to start studying earlier than I would have otherwise, and I did get some great crib sheets that really made answering some of the questions on the exam simple.
Was it worth the $1000 price tag? Since I passed the class the first time I took the test, I’m going to say yes.
Are the PE Exam Reference Books worth the cost?
This was single-handedly the best reference book that I had. So many of the questions related to the material that was presented in this book that I always turned to it before looking at any of my other reference materials.
Here’s the recommended book based upon discipline:
- Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam*
- Chemical Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam*
- Electrical and Electronics Reference Manual for the Electrical and Computer PE Exam*
- Environmental Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam*
- Mechanical Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam*
- Power Reference Manual for the Electrical and Computer PE Exam*
- Structural Engineering Reference Manual*
If you don’t bring any other reference with you to the exam, you should definitely make sure that you have this book. It’ll assist you in answering a ton of questions, everyone that I’ve asked from different disciplines has agreed.
How many reference books should I take to the PE Exam?
This really depends on the person. When I was studying for the Power PE Exam, I only used four books and a reference binder. Two of the books were college text books, one was the National Electric Code, and the other the manual mentioned above.
However, I have a friend who took and passed the Civil PE Exam using 24 books. Yep, you read that right.
Here’s the difference between him and me when we went into the exam, he had each of his books bookmarked with the relevant pages he needed for a specific question (or set of questions). He wasn’t going to be randomly looking up various things in each book like I was with my general references I was using.
Both methods will work, but you need to figure out which one will be the best for you.
What Calculator should I take to the PE Exam?
Truthfully, I don’t know that this really maters all that much. I had bought the most elaborate calculator that was allowed into the exam for the Power PE Exam, but I didn’t use it for anything more than basic math functions.
I used the Casio FX-115ES Plus* and I generally liked it. I took two of them to the test (just in case the battery were to fail in one), but only used one.
The key here is to just pick one and use it the entire time you’re studying for the exam. Practice makes perfect when it comes to most things, and not knowing your calculator well will definitely add to your stress levels on test day. Do yourself a favor and get a calculator or two right away… and USE them.
PE Exam Tips, Tricks, and Tools
Everyone is always looking for hacks to make their studying easier. What is presented here is merely my recommended practice for studying for, taking, and passing the PE exam on the first try.
Must bring items to the PE Exam
The following items should be considered essential for anyone taking the PE Exam. Be like Santa, make a list and check it twice because if you forget one of these things, you’ll be in serious trouble.
- 2 – Water Bottles
- 2 – Energy Drinks or Sodas (test taking is boring)
- 3 – Snacks
- 1 – Ruler (for a straight edge)
- 1 – Watch (don’t rely on there being a clock in the test center, there likely won’t be)
- 1 – Set of Reference Materials (everything you’ve been studying with)
- 2 – Sets of Ear Plugs (it can be loud, this’ll keep you from being distracted)
Practice Problems, Practice Problems, Practice Problems
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you don’t sit down and work problems over and over again, you will be kicking yourself when test day comes.
Don’t fool yourself, it’s been several years since you were in school and took any sort of test. Much less a marathon 8-hour test like the FE Exam and PE Exam. It’s not easy to get back into that habit, but through repetition you can make sure that you stay focused come test day.
There are a ton of practice exam books out there for the PE Exam, and a simple search in google should turn up at least 4-5 for your specific discipline. Order a couple of them, and work the problems.
I worked problems by putting myself into a similar state as I would be when taking the real exam. I went to the local library and sat down in a crowded area (not a separate study hall), set out all of my reference materials, left the phone in the car, put some ear plugs in, and cranked away for 40 problems.
I didn’t car how long it took at first, the focus was just to get used to answering and looking up problems.
In total I took 3 total exams this way… that’s 6 different 40 problem sections for a total of 240 problems over 26 hours. I’m sure you recognized that my math seems a little off there, well some of my sessions ran over 4 hours to do. The point was that I got myself focused on answering all problems and learning where I should turn to worth through the various problems.
The first test I graded (after both sections were complete) I scored 59% and it took 9:20. By the time I finished the last test I was at 7:35 for the full test, and scored 78%.
What do I have to score to pass the PE Exam?
Truth is, no one knows. Each test is different, some questions will be tossed out, and generally about 2/3 of all people who take a given test for the first time will pass.
In general, what I had been told, and what held true for me is that if you can pass a practice exam or two with 70% or higher, you should be able to pass the exam. I figured that this number was fairly good, so I did a bit of math on how exactly I could pass the exam.
How to estimate your chances of passing the PE Exam?
There was 3 types of answers that I was giving on the exam, I figured I could calculate my score by assigning a % to each answer:
- The problems I’d looked up or worked through and was certain that I’d done correctly: 90% (assuming I’d make a mistake 10% of the time)
- The problems that I’d been able to eliminate at least two of the answers: 50%
- The problems that I had no clue on, and that I couldn’t find in my reference materials: 25%
On one of my sheets of paper I put a tally sheet so I could do some quick math when there was 1 hour left in the section. At that point I’d do some quick math and figure out my percentage for that section, if I’d hit 28 questions right then I’d only focus on those rest of questions I knew I could work out and guess on the rest of the questions.
A sample session could look something like this after 3 hours:
- Correct Answers – 27
- Educated Guess – 8
- Complete Guess – 0
You’ll notice that I did not guess on any questions yet, I’d skip any questions that I’d not seen before and had no knowledge of. At this point of the exam I’ve taken 35 of 40 questions, and estimated that I’d passed 28 questions. At this point I would only answer questions I’d seen before and guess on all others.
Not everyone likes this method, but for me, I found it to be beneficial and take a lot of the stress and worry off of my shoulders.
Studying sucks, everyone thought that they were finished when they left school. But if you bust your butt and focus down for 2-3 months for 4-6 hours a week you should easily be able to pass the PE Exam on your first try.
Even if you don’t think that being a licensed PE is necessary for your career, it’s well worth getting it out of the way as soon as you’re eligible. The longer that you wait, the harder it’ll be to get back into the habit of studying. Also, while you may not need it right now, who is to say what the future may bring. Set yourself apart from your peers, pad your resume, and get your PE as soon as you can!
So what do you think… will you be taking the PE Exam anytime soon?
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