Let’s be honest, the only reason any of us signs up for wasting our weekends and evenings studying for a fucking test years after we graduate is all about the money… and title… and maybe a little about being able to convince your friends to let you do stupid shit in the name of “engineering”.
Passing the test depends on two things, being prepared and trusting in yourself.
You’ve spent 4 years in school (or 8 if you’re me… but I blame changing degrees and schools for those “victory” laps… it certainly had nothing to do with late nights at the bar and chasing girls), got a job and busted your ass learning things for another 2-4 years, if nothing else know that I believe in you. And you should believe in yourself too.
Now trust being covered, I figured it best to help you a little with the preparedness.
There are a “ton” of resources out there on passing the PE exam. So in an effort to help you out, I’ve read through a lot of them, asked a ton of questions of various “experts” and others who have both passed and failed the exam.
I hope you’ll walk away from this guide with answers to all of your questions.
I cover everything from how much you should study, should you attend a review course, and even ways to estimate your score so you walk out of the exam knowing you kicked its ass.
Be forewarned, this guide is not your normal blog post.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – Learn from other people’s PE results
- Chapter 2 – What should you study for the PE exam?
- Chapter 3 – How to build a PE reference manual
- Chapter 4 – How to take a PE practice exam
- Chapter 5 – Do you need to take a PE review course?
- Chapter 6 – Keep building your PE reference manual
- Chapter 7 – What score do you need to pass the PE exam?
- Chapter 8 – A secret method to stay calm during the PE exam
- Chapter 9 – What to do the week before the PE exam
- Chapter 10 – What to do the day of the PE exam
It’s got a ton of resources, suggestions, and even action steps for you to take at the end of each chapter. It’ll take you some time to read and work through all of the steps mentioned, but if you do, I have no doubt that you’re going to be a professional engineer soon.
I’ve always found it best to learn from examples, and those examples can be good or bad. In this case, I’m going to share with you a few tails of people who didn’t quite make the mark… at least not the first time around.
NOTE: To protect the innocent (mainly from the potential ridicule of their friends and coworkers), I’ve changed all of the names. But the stories and lessons here are very real.
I sat down with all of these people to get their side of the story, what went wrong, what went right, and what they’ll do differently this next time.
Meet Luke, an aspiring young Jedi.
[Editor’s Note: I would apologize to George Lucas for typecasting his characters into engineers who have had trouble with passing the PE exam, but I’ve never forgiven him for Jar Jar Binks.]
Luke is still relatively new to engineering and still trying to find his way around the force. Around the office he shows amazing promise with several of his tasks.
After years of tutelage under his very own Yoda and Obiwan, he’s ready to tackle the PE.
The battles are fierce, and he’s made some ground up against the dark side… but unfortunately he has yet to pass the test, despite taking it twice.
His third time facing it is coming up, and he promises this time will be different.
“I haven’t really told anyone this, but I didn’t really study the first time around,” Luke said. “I heard stories of some people around the office who passed without studying, and I thought I could do it too.”
“I was wrong.”
When time came for him to take the test for the second time around, he ‘tried’ to study. “It was hard to concentrate, there’s just so much going on in life. I just wanted to spend time with my girlfriend and friends, not studying.”
Luke took the 2 weeks off before the test and tried to cram as much as possible.
He bought one of the online courses offered and tried to step through a few of the lessons. “I worked a few problems, but I kept referring back to the solutions whenever I’d get stuck. I hated not knowing the exact method of solving something.”
What Luke failed to realize is that there’s always going to be stuff on the exam that you don’t know.
It’s nearly impossible for someone with only a few years of experience to have enough knowledge in all facets of their field to answer every question without looking things up.
His approach this time is a little different.
“Based upon what I’ve heard from others, I need to rely on my resources.” Luke plans on building a reference manual like I’ve suggested before to help him where he’s weak.
“And I’m going to work a lot of practice problems.”
It seems like he starting to listen to people who’ve come before him. I think Luke will do a great job heading into this final battle with the darkside.
Meet our next Hero, Alex.
His story starts a bit differently than many others. He spent an entire career walking the streets as an electrician carrying out the orders of others. For our purposes here, we’ll simply call him Officer Alex Murphy.
[Editor’s note: I still haven’t resorted to watching last year’s pointless remake. For our story, we’re talking the original 1987 Robocop… there is no other.]
After a lifetime of grueling and thankless work, he fell to a more ruthless gang than Detroit has ever seen… the knees and back of a 20-year master electrician. Finally one job was just too much for him to take on.
He broken, his only chance at continuing the work he loved, a reboot.
He was rebuilt by his very own Omni Consumer Products, in his case the University of Texas, and transformed into the bad-ass engineer that I befriended on a job site in the middle of nowhere some 4 years back.
His journey to becoming a PE was not an easy one as you shall see.
“When I first took the PE exam, I consumed every practice problem that I could find,” Alex said. “I spent hours working through examples and trying to learn as I went.”
But when he went up against the worst enemy of all, he went at it alone.
Much as the leader of a cocaine gang in inner Detroit has a few secret directives up their sleeve to prevent justice from being done, early Murphy was too confident in his own knowledge and walked into a trap preventing him from extracting his vengeance.
“I didn’t take much with me in the way of resources. I can see now where it’d be beneficial to have my worked problems better organized and with me in a reference manual.”
While we’d talked before the exam, he hadn’t headed my advice to build a reference manual or gather some other resources from his days in school. They were still locked in his storage container, all the knowledge from his past hidden from him when he needed it most. The flash backs haunting him.
“This time will be different though.”
He’s working through problems and asking friends for a little help when he’s stuck. He’s cracked open that storage locker and grabbed a couple of the books I recommended for him. And he’s building that reference manual I told you about.
I don’t know about you, but armed with that sort of firepower, I think he could take on an army of ED-209s… and certainly some asshole named Dick Jones… or even an 8-hour test.
It’s about time you meet me, your writer
I’m not nearly arrogant enough to present myself as some sort of hero. My story is more of one whose potential constantly exceeds his level of effort. I am no hero, I’m more of a Billy.
Madison that is.
Instead of my daddy paving my way for me, it was my own money combined with a life devoid of responsibility.
I didn’t know where to start when it came to studying for the PE exam.
Research, psh… I was too lazy.
My saving grace, one day my alma-mater sent me an email about a class that was being put on by my favorite professor… and it was geared for me. He was teaching a course about taking the Power PE exam over the summer. And as luck would have it, it was being taught at my work.
$1000 price tag, worth it if I passed on the first time.
The class started great, I got a bunch of practice exams, a structured study time each week, and he walked us through all of the portions of the exam that they’d cover. But after a few classes, I realized my memory was pretty short.
I hated class.
Lectures were always the bane of my existence, and I’d vowed to myself that I’d never go back.
Then I was saved, my work needed me to go onsite and it overlapped a couple of the lectures.
I got a free pass to escape the monotony of class! Yes please. No one could question my work requiring me to go to a jobsite for a few days.
Then I put 1+1 together (remember, Billy Madison here) and realized that I didn’t even need to actually go to a job site to tell everyone that’s what I was doing.
I had my escape, and it was the worst thing I probably could have done.
So class ended, I’d attended maybe half of the classes, and didn’t learn much.
Not the best scenario for someone hoping to pass the exam.
Luckily I had all of the tools from the class to be a success, I just had to buckle down and figure out how to use it to my advantage.
I divided the weeks up and figured out how much time I would truly need to study.
I learn better via working practice problems that I ever have being “taught” in traditional manors, this meant that I knew my best use of time would be to do practice exams.
With 8 weeks until the exam, I figured I could make this work in 10 hours or less a week.
The method I used will be what I present you in the rest of this manual. I’m no prodigy, I don’t have an eidetic mind, I’m lazy… but I just know how to break a problem down and find the easiest way to accomplish my goal.
Follow my method presented in the following pages, and I’m sure that you’ll be as elated as I was the day after the letter from NCEES arrived.
Please join me in this journey.
These examples are just a small sampling of an overwhelming group of people who have managed to not pass the exam. Chances are, there’s someone at your company or in one of the professional organizations you belong to who also failed at least once.
Hearing in greater detail from them about why they didn’t pass the first time, but did subsequent times will be beneficial.
- Ask your mentors (you know, the people who signed off on you taking the test) if they know anyone who took the PE exam recently.
- Message the local chapter of IEEE or MSPE and ask them if they could direct you to anyone who could talk to you for a few mins about the PE exam that recently took it.
- Spend about 10-15 mins interviewing them. Ask them what went well, what didn’t, how they studied, what they would do over again, and what they wouldn’t. Gain a little experience from those who went before you.
- Book a hotel room for the night before the exam real close to the test site. We’ll cover this in more detail later, but trust me… you’re going to want it.
Until science makes a little further process on adding microchips to brains, I don’t know of a way to download an unlimited amount of information into my mind so that’s it’s instantly available.
As an aside, get on this scientists… there’d be so many cool things that I could do…
But since we all just weren’t broke out of the Matrix (or at least I don’t think so). We’ll need to rely on being prepared with the correct materials we need for the test.
Take the red pill, and join me in Wonderland.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to do a little research.
There’s three main things you’ll need to figure out before you can even begin studying, what to study, what references to use, and which calculator to bring.
Sourcing this information can take hours and hours of time. But don’t worry, I’ve done much of the work for you.
What should I study?
Here’s the link to all of the options of the various tests:
- Agricultural and Biological Engineering
- Civil: Construction (with design standards for the 2015 exams)
- Civil: Geotechnical (with design standards for the 2015 exams)
- Civil: Structural (with design standards for the 2015 exams)
- Civil: Transportation (with design standards for the 2015 exams)
- Civil: Water Resources and Environmental
- Control Systems
- Electrical and Computer: Computer Engineering
- Electrical and Computer: Electrical and Electronics
- Electrical and Computer: Power
- Fire Protection
- Mechanical: HVAC and Refrigeration
- Mechanical: Mechanical Systems and Materials
- Mechanical: Thermal and Fluids Systems
- Metallurgical and Materials (new specifications for the 2015 exam)
- Mining and Mineral Processing
- Naval Architecture and Marine (new specifications for the 2016 exam)
- Structural (with design standards for the 2015 exams)
These design guides will show you the exact topics that are covered, how the test is setup, and what the weighting is of the various subjects. Handy, huh?
We’ll come back to this shortly, for now having a copy is enough.
What references should I bring with me?
[editors note: Alright, so I have to be honest and ask for your assistance, I’ve done my best to compile as complete of a list of resources as I could for each of the different tests there is… but there’s still much work to be done.]
If you have a resource who has taken one of the tests not mentioned below, please let me know so I can fill in the information.
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 are links to the various discipline manuals that I was able to find:
- 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.
The following references that I’m mentioning I’ve gathered from various other sources I have who have taken and passed the different exams over the last few years.
- CERM – definitely a recommended resource since it covers nearly all topics you’ll see
- CERM Sample Problems
- NCEES Practice PE Exam for Structural
- A handful of other practice problem books, like 6 minute solutions, and textbooks that weren’t particularly useful.
- CBC – definitely bring the code year the exam uses
- ACI 318-08 – I got away with 08 because there weren’t many changes to the 11 code
- AISC 360 – 14th ed.
- NDS – barely used
- ACI 530 – barely used
- AASHTO – didn’t study with it, but used it to answer a single question on the exam!
[editor’s note: Thank you and congratulations to Matthew Michnewich who used the above resources to pass TWO DAYS of exams in California earlier this year to become a PE!]
Civil, Geotechnical Depth
- NCEES Practice PE Exam (Geotechnical) – with my solutions in a binder
- Six Minute Solutions (Geotechnical) – with my solutions in a binder
- CERM Reference Manual – tabbed, with errata
- CERM Practice Exam with selected questions & my solutions in binder
- Text Books: Geotechnical Engineering (Coduto), Foundation Design (Das & Coduto), Intro to Geotechnical Engineering (Holtz & Kovacs), Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice (Terzaghi, Peck, & Mesri) – I would recommend using whichever you used in college & are comfortable with
- NAVFAC DM 7.01, 7.02, and 7.03 – All the boards I read recommended this, but I never even cracked it during the exam. I had it with me, I had it tabbed, but I never used it.
- IBC 2012 (for seismic)
- ACI 318 (maybe)
[editor’s note: Thank you and congratulations to Emily Panagos who provided this list after passing the PE exam the first time she took it in Alabama in April 2014.]
Electrical and Computer: Power (my own references)
- My personal reference manual (more on this later)
- Power System Analysis – John Grainger, Jr. and William Stevenson
- Electrical Machines, Drives, and Power Systems – Theodore Wildi
- NFPA 70, National Electrical Code
- National Electrical Safety Code
As stated before, if you’ve got any suggestions for additions to the above list, please let me know.
Now if you want to go cheap you can try and borrow them from your work’s library (if available), or order used ones online… but I hate stuff that has other people’s marks in them. For me, a new copy is always best.
Just get the books on order, and consider yourself accomplished.
One more thing you’ll need, practice exams and solutions. These are a gold mind of information, and can really help those of us who haven’t taken a test for years to get back in the swing of things.
I prefer anything from the NCEES themselves. They make the test, and the best practice tests I’ve ever had.
How many do you need, I’d suggest at least 4-5 different tests. You’ll see why a little later.
I need a special calculator?
This is just like back in college, the professors are too smart to still allow for you to program in all of the answers you’ll need to the exam. (I know you did this, don’t lie.)
Therefore, there are a limited number of calculators that are allowed for each test.
Unlike many others who rant and rave about the options and features of the different ones, I gotta be honest… it doesn’t fucking matter. I believe I had the FX-115 ES Plus, but I was probably just drawn to it because of it’s quantity of numbers and letters and that plus. That plus has gotta mean it’s good, right?
Just pick a calculator, buy two of them, and move on to more important things:
- Casio fx-115 MS *
- Casio fx-115 MS Plus *
- Casio fx-115 MS SR *
- Casio fx-115 ES *
- Casio fx-115 ES Plus *
- HP 33s *
- HP35s *
- TI-30Xa *
- TI-30Xa SOLAR *
- TI-30Xa SE *
- TI-30XS Multiview *
- TI-30X IIB *
- TI-30X IIS *
- TI-36X II *
- TI-36X SOLAR *
- TI-36X Pro *
Why two? It’s vitally important that you have that calculator unless you really want to waste extra precious time multiplying by the square root of 3 by hand.
Don’t be stupid and spend the extra $30 for 2.
You didn’t think I came up with this book for you to not take any action did you? Yeah, not happening… you’re passing this damn test. And I’m gonna help make it simple and easy.
- Go to the [above list – hyperlink] and download the guidelines for your reference manual.
- Review the [reference materials – hyperlink] recommended for each discipline and buy (or borrow) those that you don’t have yet.
- Pick a [calculator – hyperlink] from above and buy it. There are different ones recommended for each test, but don’t agonize over the decision. Just make one and buy two.
- Go to amazon and buy the following items if you don’t already have them readily available at the office or home:
You know what’s great about open book exams? You can take in nearly anything you want.
The problem is, that can also give someone a false sense of hope. This test is like no other you’ve ever taken before (provided you forgot all about that FE exam a few years back). Remember the faitful first trial of our hero Luke, don’t underestimate this thing.
The best way to counter any trap, have a bad ass fly millennium falcon through a narrow trench and fire a couple of shots at the station reactor core.
The second best way, come prepared.
My best friend when I was taking my PE exam was a book of quick reference sheets and previously worked problems that I could flip through whenever I was unsure about a question.
Now granted my filing and retrieval time isn’t exactly as quick as broadband speeds, but it was like having Google at my fingertips. In fact, over a year after the exam, I still refer back to that manual frequently. It’s awesome.
Now let me show you how to build your own.
Some cheat sheets you’ll have to create yourself, others you can find online.
The first little part of my manual began with a couple of great cheat sheets. For me (being an EE), that was a couple of pages dealing with single and three phase power systems and per-unit calculations. These had no examples on them; rather they focused on the fundamentals of all of electrical engineering.
Given enough time and focus, most problems related to your specific discipline should be able to be solved with the use of these pages.
For mechanical engineers maybe this is a HVAC and refrigeration sheet with all of the formulas and key terms. For structural engineers maybe a sheet on the fundamentals of structural mechanics going over bending, shear, and axial moments and stresses. You know your discipline a lot better than I do, and I’m sure you know what would be beneficial.
Quick reference sheets
Are you planning on bringing other reference manuals with you to the exam? Maybe some old college textbooks, that PPI reference manual I told you to get (yes, you really need to shell out $300 for it), or code references?
For this next section, I took the indexes from these references and put them directly into the manual. This allowed me to avoid having to shuffle books if I didn’t have the answers to whichever problem handy in my manual. I was able to easily grab whichever book was needed and turn right to the page I need. Let’s face it, when you’ve only got an average of 6 minutes to solve problems, the precious seconds saved add up quick.
If I had it to do over again, I’d have taken all of the indexes and arranged them in a single index so that I wouldn’t have to flip through four different indexes each time I needed them.
This is the layout that worked well for me, one problem per page.
This is the crux of your manual and it should take up the vast majority of space. For me, it was 95% of what was in my 3” thick notebook.
To start filling in this area you need to know what sort of problems you’ll be facing on the exam.
Remember that guideline that we downloaded from the NCEES last chapter? It’s time to really put that thing to use. For each one of those topics, you want to find a clear and concise description of the topic, typical terms, abbreviations, formulas, and maybe even a practice problem or two worked out.
Organize this using your alphabetic dividers, so you can have this information readily available. This won’t be all we put in this section, but it’s a great start.
Alright, that was some boring shit right. Don’t worry, you only have to do this once, and it’ll pay dividends. You’ll be able to refer back to this manual (and should keep building it) for the next 20+ years of your career.
But let’s get you started off easy.
- Find some cheat sheets.I told you what I used as a double E… for mechanical engineers maybe this is a HVAC and refrigeration sheet with all of the formulas and key terms. For structural engineers maybe a sheet on the fundamentals of structural mechanics going over bending, shear, and axial moments and stresses.You know your discipline a lot better than I do, and I’m sure you know what would be beneficial.
- Build your index.Grab all of those reference manuals you got, and make a copy of the indexes in them. Take and put them at the beginning of your reference manual ahead of the alphabetic dividers. Now instead of opening 5 different books, you’ve got a quick place to scan to see if a topic is covered in any of your references.Now if you’re really anal (I wasn’t) you can take all of the indexes and arranged them in a single index so that I wouldn’t have to flip through four different indexes each time you need them. But I’m unsure it’s worth the trouble.
- Practice problems.For example, if I was taking the Mechanical Thermal and Fluids exam, and I was trying to find information relative to this portion.
I’d just go down the list and do a quick Google search for each of the items listed. The first one would return me a Google page like this:
Obviously I’m not going to be bringing Wikipedia articles with me to my PE exam, so as you can see I went to the first link under the images.
This pdf was a 7-page excerpt which was well written. It has diagrams to explain some of the basics, an explanation of the principles and various well-known cycles, and even a lot of the equations that might be needed to work a problem.
This is a perfect addition to the manual you’re creating.
Now move on to the next topic, rinse and repeat.
So I might be dating myself a bit, but have you seen Karate Kid? Not that shitty remake with the Asian guy from Rush Hour (who teaches the kid fucking kung fu, not karate… dumb enough for you?) and a Man in Black’s son, the real one from the 80s in all of its ridiculous glory.
If not, and you don’t know of the brilliant teachings of Mr. Miyagi, I’m not sure we can be friends… but I digress.
Before Daniel-son ever stepped into the ring, before his knee was ruthlessly destroyed by Bobby with an illegal move, and before he refused to back down and defeated Johnny with a beautifully executed front kick to the chin out of the “Crane” stance, he got a baseline for his fighting skills.
(Hint, he wasn’t very good.)
Chivalrous, yes. Determined, yes. Good fighter, no.
So what’s the point of all of this? Before you go and fight in a marathon tournament against your mortal enemy (read: 8 hour exam), you need to get a little training. That all starts with a baseline though.
When Daniel was getting ready to fight, he stood up in a fighting stance, his hands ready to punch.
If you’re going to take a practice exam, you need to make it as real as possible too.
Gather all of your reference manuals, your cheat sheet, your calculator and head to the local library early one Saturday or Sunday morning.
Put in some ear plugs, turn your phone to airplane mode, set a timer for 4 hours, and go.
Don’t look to the solutions side, and workout each problem on its own sheet of paper. Please note, we’re going to have a use for these later, so take your time to write so at least you can read it.
If you’re like me, you’ll be drained the first time you do this, so I’d suggest blowing off the rest of the day.
Go out and grab a few drinks, spend some time with your lady, go to the gun range and squeeze off a few rounds… whatever it takes for you to relax and decompress.
We’ll take the second half of the test in the same manor the next day. Rinse, and repeat.
Now for the scary part.
Don’t worry about how you did, we’re going to improve on it. The first time I took a practice exam (I just looked this up, and have to say I’m embarrassed), it was not pretty… I only got a 38%. Yikes.
If you got an 80 or higher, you’re an all-star. Send me a message when you’re done passing the exam, I know of a company that is looking for talent like yours.
Take another practice exam and if you get the same score or better. You’re ready for the real thing. Congrats (and I hate you)!
You can stop reading this guide right here.
For the rest of us who don’t have an eidetic memory, let’s continue.
This one’s simple, it’ll take you about 10 hours to complete. We’re going to split it up over 2 days so it’s not so unbearable. The first time I took a practice exam I did so in one sitting, I’m only here typing this because I didn’t have a razor blade handy to slit my wrists.
Going from 0-60 is difficult for anyone, so do yourself a favor and take this in parts.
- Gather everything that you’d take for the real test. If you need a reminder, here’s a handy lil list that’ll work for today:
- Ear Plugs
- Reference Materials (Textbooks, Code References, Reference Manual, etc.)
- A pad of paper
- A couple bottles of water / snacks
- Go up to the local library, sit at a small table and organize your stuff so you can find it.
- Leave your phone in the car, or if it’s your timer make sure it’s on airplane mode.
- Put in your ear plugs.
- Set the timer for 4 hours.
- Kick some ass.
- Party a bit.
- Come back the next day and do it all again.
- More partying.
- Grade yourself.
This should come as a surprise to no one, there’s big money in education. If you’ve got knowledge that someone else wants, you can easily sell it to them, make millions, and party like Leonardo DiCaprio after selling junk bonds.
The recent collapse of for-profit education centers in recent months is an excellent example.
People hype up the results that you’ll have, charge you a lot of money (and maybe convince you to take out loans to pay for it), and then deliver mediocure results.
This isn’t an attempt to try and prevent you in paying for a class from some online or in-person group related to passing the PE exam. It’s just a word of caution, from a man who paid for one such course.
I actually got a lot out of it too.
My favorite professor from college taught the course. This guy loves the power industry, after retiring as the head of one of my companies largest competitors Energy group… he started teaching.
To this date I’m unsure if he’s a great professor or not.
Don’t get me wrong, I learned a ton from him. Both in school and while taking the course on passing the PE exam. But I don’t know that the later was necessary.
If a guide like this existed before, I may not have needed to take that course and drop that $1000 to my alma-mater.
I travel a lot for work, in fact right now I’m writing this from 40,000 feet above some obscure town on the pan-handle of Florida. Or Georgia. Somewhere in the southeast US, that is really unimportant to the point I’m trying to drive home.
When I was taking his course, the information presented was great. It was years since the last time that I’d taken a college course, and it was something that I had no desire to ever do again.
I’m just not great at processing information in that way.
Fact is some recent studies have shown that it’s actually one of the least effective ways for students to learn. There’s a bunch of different metrics that they use, but it shows above and beyond that there are two ways that are way more effective for most students.
Teaching each other and working example problems.
I hate to admit this (partially because I know you read this blog Mike), but I wasn’t always out of town when I didn’t show up to class. Sometimes I just didn’t feel like sitting through a lecture.
There was some invaluable information that Mike did give me in the few classes that I did show up to.
The first was the creation of a reference manual much like I described before. He not only went far enough in telling us what to include, but he’d done the research, found the sources we should use, printed them out, and gave them to each of us.
I’ll admit it, I’m lazy.
If there’d been a guide like this out there before, and I’d actually taken the time to ask google about it and then spent time reading the ridiculously long-winded stories this author has put out. I may not have taken his advice, I might have said, that reference manuals sounds nice, but that also sounds like a lot of work.
Have I said I’m lazy?
And if you’re lazy too, then I recommend you pay someone else to build your reference manual for you. I did, and I’m glad I did.
The second thing that he did which helped me immensely, he gave us a ton of practice exams.
The idea of a benchmark test, I stole that from him. (Thanks again Mike.)
He also wrote up a ton of other exams for us to take throughout the summer to ensure that we were learning the materials and making progress.
You can buy these practice tests as I mentioned before.
Or you can pay someone to create them for you. It doesn’t matter. Just pick whatever method you want, and move forward.
The last thing that I can’t thank Mike for enough was explaining what was on the exam.
Much like the NCEES guide that I had you get a copy of early in this guide, Mike came to class and went over with us exactly the quantity of questions that would come from different topics.
At that time, I hadn’t yet stumbled upon the design guides.
Without this information from the course, I wouldn’t have known where to focus my time. And as a lazy person, I hate wasting time.
If you’re willing to put the effort in on your own, I’m certain you could pass the test without the extra $1000 expense that I knowingly took on. I’ve given you examples of others who have done so.
It all depends on how lazy you are.
Either go to a class, or do a little studying on your own. Whatever you choose, follow through. Focus on the big rocks that’s in that guide.
Find resources that’ll help you, work through examples, and put them all in your reference manual.
Time to make a decision, and stick to it. There’s a lot of options out there, from in person classes to online prep courses. Which one is right for you, I can’t tell you… but I have given you the ability to not spend the $1000+ on a course and instead put in the time and energy to pass by yourself.
If electing to purchase a course:
- Look into the online options out there, here’s the ones that I was able to turn up in no particular order:
- Kaplan PE OnDemand Review Courses
Completely online courses limited to Structural (Vertical/Lateral), Civil PE, and Electrical Power PE courses, all of which list for $549.
- School of PE
Multiple options, from in-person to live online lectures to on-demand. Prices vary from $990 to $1190 and include all disciplines (from what I saw).
- PPI Power to Pass
Limited in-person classes, mainly live online or on-demand. Some of the options include all of the recommended reference materials for the classes, and prices vary from $935 to $2140.
- SmartPros (MGI Management)
They have a few options, all on-demand and at a pretty low price point… $524, minus some discounts. Didn’t care to signup for their email list, so you’ll have to find out about the discounts yourself.
- Kaplan PE OnDemand Review Courses
- If you’re spending the money on it, you better make it worth it. Schedule out the next 2-3 months anywhere from 5-10 hours a week to study. Some classes have dedicated times, others are on-demand. Do whatever works for you.
- Don’t ignore the rest of this guide. It’ll still help you pass, I promise.
If electing to forego the online course:
- Good for you, you obviously believe enough in yourself (and aren’t as lazy as I am) and have faith you’ll put in the work to build a good reference manual.Congrats.
- Now keep reading.
We’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. And by now you’ve like worked almost 8,000 as an engineer in your chosen discipline.
Hard to imagine isn’t it? I still don’t feel anywhere close to an expert.
Problem is, your field of choice is probably pretty niche. I know mine is, they don’t exactly have a PE test on designing fueling systems for large airports and trucking companies. Much of the stuff that I was quizzed on during the exam I’d never really dealt with since college. And some I’d never seen.
But I passed.
When a baseball player takes the winter off, the get out of shape. Their 6 packs are replaced by 2 packs with a little keg below it. Or at least that’s what I imagine happens.
So before the team that’s paying them millions to go out and play a game is willing to put them on the team, they train.
They spend weeks running drills. Fielding ground balls, catching pop-flys, relearning how to focus in on a ball coming at them at 100 miles an hour and hitting it with a small piece of wood. How they’re not scared of that last one I’ll never know.
After that, they play some organized ball. Practice isn’t enough, they have to actually get used to playing in games again.
And you’re at that point now.
You’ve got the tools you need, your glove is well oiled and your bat is coated with pine tar (do they even still use pine tar?). It’s time to get in the game again.
- Take another practice exam.See where you’re at. You’re getting more used to taking tests again. And who knows, maybe that cute librarian that you keep eyeing will smile at you next time you come in and you’ll get a date out of all this studying.
- Keep working out the problems on individual pieces of paper.If you got the answer right, cut out the question from the study guide and put it at the bottom of the page. Then stick that page in your reference manual for you to refer to later, you know just another little weapon for the war.
- If you miss a problem, rework it. And definitely put it in the reference manual.You’ll know how to work through it next time. And if not, you’ve got a handy little guide that will show you what to do. Just in case.But you won’t need it. It’s just there for the peace of mind it gives you.
One of my favorite super heroes when I was growing up was Jean Gray. And not just because she’s a hot little red head (I don’t know why I’ve always had a thing for red heads).
But how cool would it be to be able to know what was going to happen?
Jean’s powers were nothing compared to that of her alternate personality, Phoenix, but the one that I’d like the most was the psychic ability.
No more worrying about if you’re going to get that raise and promotion that you’ve been angling for.
No more second-guessing if the generator and wiring was sized large enough for the second increase in horsepower that the mechanicals just told you about.
No more questioning whether that girl would say yes if you asked her out.
So many benefits, but I digress.
Unfortunately, not being a psychic, I (and no one else) has the ability to know the proprietary methodology that NCEES uses to determine the actual score needed to pass the test. From what I’ve heard, it varies based upon the test and sometimes questions are tossed out.
What held true for me, and for many of my friends, is that if I was getting 75-80% on practice exams then I was probably going to be okay.
For the real test I shot for a 75% assumption that I’d pass.
So while you might never be able to anticipate the last min horsepower changes of the motors in your system, let me show you how you can walk out of the PE exam knowing (or having a good feeling for) whether you passed.
In general I feel like there are three different answers you’ll be giving on the exam:
- Problems you’ve done a ton or looked up and have a great feeling about the answer you’re getting because it matches one of the numbers there.
- Problems where you know at least 2 of the answers don’t make any sense but you can’t eliminate one of the other two as you can get either answer depending on how you work the problem.
- Problems you’ve got no clue on and can’t locate in your reference manuals.
When I was working through the exam, and as I solve a problem, I would assign a certainty to the correctness of the answer based upon the above.
On one of my sheets of scratch paper I’d put a tally mark next to each number.
A sample session could look something like this after 3 hours of taking a practice exam:
- Correct Answers – 29
- 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 37 of 40 questions.
Now for each of these I’d add a potential of getting the problems correct. For those in number 1 – 90%, 2 – 50%, and 3 – 25%. Doing the math, you can see that right now I’d be at 30 out of 40 possible questions or 75%.
At this point in the real test I would only answer questions I’d seen before and guess on all others.
Then I’d spend the remaining time ensuring that my answers were on the right line of the answer sheet to make sure a stupid error doesn’t result in me having to retake the test.
While this comes nowhere close to Jean’s ability, I trust she’d approve.
We’re no mutants after all.
It’s kinda becoming repetitive, and you can see how much emphasis I put on working problems over listening to lectures, but…
- Take another practice exam.
- As you go through the exam mark your certainty of getting the problem right with a 1, 2, or 3 on the corner of the page.On a separate piece of paper keep a running tally of your progress.
- At 3 hours check-in with how you’re doing, run some quick math and figure out what your potential for passing is.
- When you get to 3.5 hours do this again.
- You shouldn’t be guessing on practice exams, so make sure you still take the time to work every problem. You’re just trying to get a feel for your progress and how quick you’re moving.As you take more exams more of your answers will go from 2’s to 1’s. And your scores will go up.
- When you grade the test, see how true the calculation holds up for you. Were you within 5% of what you expected? Did you get better than 75%?If not, don’t worry. You’ll keep getting better at this the more tests you take.
I’ve got a buddy who took the test at the same time I did. He worked at a small firm, and him passing the PE was important to them. They paid for him to take a study course. Gave him time off to study. Paid for his hotel room the night before the test.
As he expressed to me one day, “I HAVE to pass this test. How will I go back to work after everything they’ve given me if I don’t pass?”
Tests were never his friends.
He would always bring in several pencils and erasers to any test. I was never sure if it was because he really changed his mind that often, or because he was busy beavering the pencils into a damn he used to hold back the sweat dripping from his brow.
While it was probably all in his mind, he was convinced he’d only have one chance at this test.
“If I don’t pass this, they’re going to fire me. I know it. They will never give me another chance, everyone else has always passed their first time. I don’t think I can do this.”
I’m not sure that anyone can build something up in their mind as much as he did.
No amount of explaining sense to him made any difference. I tried to explain to him my theory about passing rates and that he was doing well enough on the tests that he’d do fine.
“But it’s just not the same. Just because I can pass a test at the library doesn’t mean I can do it in REAL life.”
How he ever found a wife with his self-confidence issues, I’ll never know.
I got tired of it. So I snapped at him like all of my friends know that I’m apt to do when I get tired of something. “Dude, shut the fuck up. If you’re so worried about it, why don’t you go to a hypnotist? You said they helped you quit smoking, maybe she can talk some fucking sense into your dense head.”
Oops. Note to self, work on my self-control.
The crazy thing, he did it. And it worked for him. He called me as soon as he got done with the test.
“Skye, I fucking love you man. You saved my ass.” Not exactly sure what I had done to help him, I pressed him for a few details. “The hypnotist, she worked wonders man. I’ve never been so calm going into and taking a test in my life. I just wish I’d thought about this in college.
“I definitely aced it man, I’m a fucking professional engineer.”
Are you dealing with confidence issues? Don’t be afraid to try unusual sounding advice that comes from a place of anger.
Apparently sometimes it’s a god-send.
- Check groupon. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen hypnotists on there, business must not be great for them. (I should try and enter into marketing for them, “hypnotism to pass tests.” I’d make a killing.)
- After your session, try your next practice exam. If it goes easier, then maybe your jitters are behind you. If not, maybe you’ll need a few sessions.My friend said he took 3, over the course of 3 weeks leading up to the exam.It worked for him, who knows, maybe you’ll have a little success with it as well.
If the world really was created by some omnipitent being in a galaxy far, far away. I find it pretty amusing that he got so tired that he took an entire day off.
But who am I to argue with a god.
A day before you sit for the exam, there’s nothing you can do. No amount of cramming will help you from here. This isn’t a college Chemistry test and you can’t memorize all of thermodynamics in a single evening.
It’s time to have a little faith. In yourself.
You’ve worked a ton of practice problems. You spent hours creating a reference manual. You studied those areas you didn’t fully understand and now have an at least basic knowledge of them, or at least where to look them up in your references.
You deserve a day off. No seriously, take the day before the exam off.
I’ve got a lot of stuff left for you to do today. You don’t need to be worried with whatever internal office politics is going on at work. They’ll understand how important this is to you. Put on the auto-responder and don’t check your email.
This time is really important, and if you don’t do anything else that I’ve mentioned through this long-long-long post… I hope you follow this.
- Pack up all of your reference materials with everything else you’re going to need for the test. Because if you’re anything like me, you’re not just lazy but you’re forgetful, here’s a list for you to check off:Reference books
Ear plugs (x2)
Pencils (x2)To tell you the truth, I can’t remember if I had to bring my own pencils, but better safe than sorry.
- Now that everything is packed up, it’s time to do a trial run. Yeah, you’re going to go to the hotel, drive from there to the testing site and make sure you know the way and that there’s no construction.You don’t show up late to a test like this. They won’t let you in.
- Since that’s done, it’s time to focus on the important things. Go take a massage, a long walk, watch a movie, spend some time with your lover. Whatever de-stresses you, do it.You’re going to do fine. You’re ready.
- Oh, and set at least 2 alarms for the morning. Showing up is the hardest thing left to do now.
If you’re anything like me, the day of the exam there’ll be a few jitters. Hopefully you’ll know a few faces in the crowd and you can talk to them about what’s about to happen.
Your practice test scores in your back pocket, you know you’ve got this thing.
Remember our friends from before, the two heros who like you are taking the exam’s for the second or third time this October. They’re going to do better, they’re focusing more on working problems and bringing the right resources. You, you’ve already got the right resources and exams under your belt.
Before I send you off with a few parting words, I figured it might be beneficial for me share another story for you. But no cute subtitles for this one.
I want you to meet my friend Matt from Cali. Say hi Matt…
He started out like many others who were taking the PE Exam for the first time. He thought he had all of the time in the world. But then life happened, and before I knew it there was only a few months left.
“It didn’t take me long to give up on trying to learn new things, I figured if I understood the basics then I’d be in a good spot.”
He didn’t take a class to prepared, so how do you think he spent his remaining weeks?
“I’d say more than 50% of the time I spent working practice problems.” Wow, that sounds eerily familiar.
Is there more to this story, a bit. You see Matt’s a Structural engineering based in California.
If you didn’t know it, California is one of the few states that has requirements for their civil / structural to take an extra exam due to the seismic activity their states experience.
And you thought you had it hard? He had to sit for 2 freaking days of tests, but he followed our same strategy.
He has two little bits of advice for those who want to pass the PE exam the first time (or subsequent times).
“First off, work practice problems, then take those into the exam with you.”
“Secondly, and this really just applies for those taking the second day worth of exams in California, focus on surveying. Few people do it, and it’s surprising how knowing something like that can give you a leg up.”
Well thanks Matt. And congrats on the PE.
It’s the day of the exam, so we’ll be brief.
- Be like Santa and check your list twice, make sure you’ve got everything you need to own this fucking test. You’re going to make it your bitch.
- Have a good breakfast. Whatever you like and won’t upset your stomach. It’s hard to concentrate when you’ve got bowel movements on your mind. When you’ve only got 4 hours for each half of a test, you don’t want to spend a lot of precious time on the toilet.
- Leave about 15-20 mins earlier than you think you need to. Just in case.
- Take a few deep breaths. Realize that you’ve put in a ton of effort into this, 4 years (or more) of schooling, 2-4 years of on-the-job training, and a couple months of building your arsenal.You’re ready to kick this tests ass. And you will.
- Remember that little trick we used to guess at how we’d do on the practice exams. We’re going to do that here as well, to help us figure out how we’re doing and know when we’ve conquered our enemy.
- After you’ve won, when you’ve managed to whip the test into submission. Have a drink, celebrate. You’ve just taken the last test you need to for the rest of your career.Congrats, and welcome to the profession.
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