The biggest frustration that I hear from recent test takers revolves around the amount of time they wasted studying for things that weren’t on the PE exam. Most often they cracked open the CERM and started reading front-to-back thinking that if they read some 900 page book it’d contain all the answers. So how can you know what to study for the PE exam?
The truth is, the resource manuals form PPI are great… but they cover far more than what the test does. It’s much better to focus your attention on a few key topics that will provide the majority of the answers you’ll need to pass.
Keep in mind, the PE exam is more about proving you can take a test rather than being knowledgeable in a given discipline. You can doubt me, at your own peril.
Step 1 – Know Your Test Type
There’s two fundamental types of PE exams.
Regardless of the exam type, they all consist of an 8-hour open book exam. The exam is divided into a morning and afternoon session, both give you 4 hours to answer 40 multiple choice questions.
The one most people take is what’s called a breadth and depth one, and the other is all depth. Classic examples of these are the Civil: Structural breadth and depth exam and the Electrical: Power depth exam. To further explain these, let’s take them individually.
Breadth and Depth Exam
This exam consists of two parts, the morning “breadth” section which covers all potential civil topics, and the afternoon “depth” test which is specific to transportation.
Since the morning exam can cover things from all of the other portions of the exam, the topics are broader, but the level of detail gone into is not as intense as in the afternoon portion of the exam. The morning will consist of general questions from geotechnical, structural, water resources and environmental, as well as transportation.
When choosing which depth portion to take, hopefully it’s the one that’s most relevant to your discipline. Unfortunately these seldom line-up perfectly, but hopefully you can identify one area which most closely relates to the post-graduate experience you’ve been gaining.
The breadth and depth exams are only relevant for the civil and mechanical test takers, there are a total of 8 different ones.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t get it, you probably shouldn’t be taking the PE exam.
But just in case you like everything being spelled out for you… unlike the breadth and depth exams, both the morning and afternoon portion of the test are specific to one topic. Tough I know.
This test applies to all 17 of the other exam types which are not civil or mechanical in nature.
Step 2 – Find the Study Topics
So you know which test you’re taking, now let’s find out which topics will be covered on the exam.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the NCEES compiled a sheet which had all of the information that you needed to know in one handy little piece of paper? Well they do… and you’re welcome.
Of course this isn’t all inclusive, and it doesn’t tell you everything, but it will give you a good idea on the topics that’ll come up and an approximate number of questions they’ll cover. Treat this as a general guideline to begin your assessment of what you’re going to need to study from.
My suggestion, print out the guideline for your test. Next to the “approximate number of questions” figure out percentages of topics and write them on the sheet.
When you finish it should look something like this:
Step 3 – Rank the Topics
No we have a good idea of what we’re looking for it’s time to start ranking them.
I’d suggest a separate piece of paper (or if you’re an anal-retentive nerd like me… a spreadsheet) showing how these topics rank. Divide it into 5 columns… title the columns as follows: topic, questions, percentage, knowledge, and study importance.
Go ahead and fill out each of the first 3 columns, leaving the fourth blank for the time being. Make sure to go in descending order, so that the topic with the most weighting on the exam is at the top of the sheet and the least at the bottom.
Now in the fourth column, put a number from 1 to 3 with approximately how you feel you know that topic. If it’s something you work in every day and know well, rank it a 1. If it’s something that you use occasionally and know a little bit about, give it a 2. And everything else gets a 3.
Multiply the number of questions for each topic by the knowledge number, and mark that down in the study importance column.
Step 4 – Pick the Top 3-7 Topics
Those topics with the highest “study importance” numbers are those you should focus on. Starting with the most important topic, now continue to add up the percentages of the most important topics until you go over 50%. This is the meat of what to study for the PE exam.
This will be anywhere from 3-7 topics depending on your test of choice.
Focusing on these topics would produce the most bang for your buck, and increase your likelihood of passing the exam. Those topics you’re most familiar with won’t be included in this list unless the percentage of exam questions for a given topic is really high.
Let’s look at our two examples and see what these fictional people would be spending their time studying for:
As you can see from both of these fictional characters, they’ve been able to cut their study focus down to five key topics. Instead of trying to learn everything, they now have a manageable load.
BONUS – To Make this Easier
Frequently Asked Questions
Now to answer some of the questions I’m sure you have.
Why do you only focus on those topics that add up to just over 50% of the test?
Because if you’re able to master these topics you’ll be in good stead for the actual exam.
Assuming you get 90% of questions related to those exams correct, you’ll start off with almost 45% of the 75% you’ll need to pass. That means you only have to average 60% right on the remaining portions to get there.
Since the remaining sections are likely ones that have fewer questions on the test or are more likely to be the ones you already know well… that should be achievable.
What if I have no real experience in my test of choice?
That happens sometimes. Even with the quantity of test depths available, it’s impossible for the NCEES to offer one that fits every need.
I faced this delima when I took my exam. There’s not really a test designed for someone who does control systems for fuel farms at large airports and trucking companies. I selected the Electrical Power exam and proceeded forward with studying.
In these cases you’ll have to focus primarily on those sections of the test that are the largest. If you still focus on the top 50%, you’ll hopefully answer those questions quick enough that it leaves more time to look up things you don’t know.
You mentioned a passing score of 75%, I haven’t found that listed on the NCEES website. Where did you come up with it?
Honestly, it’s a fair assessment based upon all of the people I’ve spoken to.
Unfortunately the NCEES won’t really go into detail on what score is required to pass the exam. Due to the manner in which they grade the exam, the scores likely vary from year to year and exam to exam.
Most people I’ve spoken with have shot for a 75% and passed if they got there.
Got more questions?
Post them in the comments below and I’ll answer them.
Extra Credit – Test Your Knowledge
Alright, all of the above is good from a theoretical stand-point. However, if you actually want to increase the chances that you’re studying the right materials… you’ve got to check your assumptions.
That means, you need to take a practice exam and see how your perceived knowledge jives with your actual knowledge.
In the examples above, if you were a Civil: Structural test taker and you’d over-compensated for your knowledge in Forces and Load Effects then you’d be not studying the second largest topic for that test. That could be catastrophic for your chances at passing, and result in you having to retest.
So if you want to be sure, I’d recommend getting the relevant 6-min solution guide for your test and taking it.
- Civil: Construction Depth*
- Civil: Geotechnical Depth*
- Civil: Structural Depth*
- Civil: Transportation Depth*
- Civil: Water Resources and Environmental Depth*
- Electrical and Computer: Computer Engineering*
- Electrical and Computer: Electrical and Electronics*
- Electrical and Computer: Power*
- Mechanical: HVAC and Refrigeration Depth*
- Mechanical: Mechanical Systems and Materials Depth*
- Mechanical: Thermal and Fluids Systems*
- Naval Architecture and Marine*
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