If you are reading this you are most likely taking the PE exam in the near future. I just want to begin this post by saying that no matter the outcome of the exam, you are still a great engineer. I had been stressing over this exam for years (and a lot more the months and weeks leading up to the actual exam) but the reality is that no matter the outcome, I would still be an engineer. I know of many people who have not passed their first try, and they are still great engineers. Don’t stress about it.
Before the Exam
There are a number of things that helped me get the most out of my studying before the exam. There is so much material you need to know and re-learn for this exam that it is best to take your time to plan what your approach to studying will be. There are also a lot of logistics that need to be sorted out as well as gathering of necessary materials. In this section, I will cover what my journey looked like to give you an idea of what I did. I realize you may find that a different way works best for you, but this will give you ideas to tailor to your needs.
My journey to taking the exam began around four months before the exam. I started studying a handful of hours each week to get used to being a student all over again. As time passed, I ended up increasing the amount of time I was studying until I reached the 15 to 20 hours per week mark that we have all heard. To be honest, I was pretty tired and burnt out towards the end, but I knew all the effort would be worth it. Most of my study time came on Saturdays, as those days I could carve large chunks of uninterrupted time (even with two kids at home).
This is a perfect time to mention that taking this exam will take more than just your effort. You are going to have to make many sacrifices along the way. Your partner, family, friends, and coworkers will play a big part in this, so make sure you acknowledge that. Having my wife watch the kids on Saturday was a huge help, and I am so grateful for that.
I personally spent most of my time studying for my depth (structural) portion. My main study source was the PE Review book found in Access Engineering (this is a free ASCE Resource, and I cannot recommend it enough). I wrote my own summaries of the chapters related to structural engineering to refresh my memory on a lot of these topics. Looking back, I think this was a better option for me instead of just reading through the SE Reference Manual (affiliate link) because it was a more active approach to learning this material.
After I studied these topics, I spent the rest of the time solving problems from the NCEES practice exams, 6-minutes practice problems, and various PPI resources (affiliate link). These practice problems I think were the most important part of my studying because they showed me what kind of problems to expect at the exam as well as got me into the rhythm of solving many problems in one sitting.
As many of you know, I do a lot of volunteering with various professional organizations and we constantly have meetings and other things going on. Early on, I decided I was not going to continue volunteering until after the exam, and I think it was a great decision. Some things still popped up, but I tried to keep it to a very few meetings or activities. There are people that would say these won’t really take much time – what is an hour two a week going to affect the studying? Well, that would compound to 16 to 32 hours of studying total, which is a huge amount.
Additionally, the mental space that volunteering requires was going to be too much for me. I personally removed all unnecessary activities (including the podcast) so I could free up mental space and be 100% focused on the exam. I also added an auto-responder to my email to make sure people were aware of me taking the exam as well as for them to not expect a reply until after the exam. All of this really cleared my schedule so I could focus on the exam and give it my best shot.
The Day Before
I took the day before the exam off to relax and give my mind a break from work and studying. I spent most of the day reading, visiting the exam site, and getting everything packed up for the exam. My wife and kids left for the entire week before, as well, and this allowed me to have a little more space to sleep and focus on the exam. This was a really hard decision that my wife and I came to together because we knew it would be hard for me to be alone with all the stress and anxiety the week of the exam, but I was able to sleep better and be more focused.
I would recommend you spend the day before relaxing and doing things you enjoy. However, don’t sit all day watching movies, as that will numb your brain. Keep your brain active by reading, writing, or doing some sort of exercise. Have fun that day, and try to keep your mind off of the exam.
During the Exam
You made it – exam day! I would be lying to you if I said you won’t be nervous and stressed. We all cope with these feelings differently, but it is important to do your best to take a few deep breaths and stay calm. If you put in the work, this is the moment to show how well you prepared.
The exam is fairly straightforward with the exception of a few curveball questions that will make you doubt yourself (don’t let it happen!). It is important you have a plan of attack. Are you going to solve all the questions in order no matter how much time it takes? Or are you going through and solving the ones you are most confident about first? I would recommend the latter as it will allow you to solve the questions you know with a fresh mind.
Something that really helped me when I was stuck on hard questions was to get a few quick hits (aka easy questions that don’t require much calculations). Specifically this strategy worked great for me in hours 6 and 7 when all you want to do is go home.
Sitting for 8 hours doing some deep thinking will really take a toll on you so make sure you are well hydrated and bring snacks. I personally took a bathroom break in the middle of the morning and afternoon sessions as well as had plenty of snacks and water to drink. Before the afternoon session I sipped on a Monster energy drink for the first hour to give me extra energy (I didn’t drink it all at once as I have found that when I do that I tend to crash after a couple of hours). It is important for you to know and trust your body – don’t do anything you wouldn’t usually do or haven’t done before!
After the Exam
Congratulations you just took one of the biggest steps in your engineering career. No matter if you pass or not, preparing for the exam has already made you a better engineer. So what now? Take a few days for yourself and relax after putting so many hours into studying.
Go ahead and thank all the people who help you in this process, including family, coworkers, instructors, and anyone that in one way or another helped you make this process easier.
If you pass the exam, it is time to submit your application to your state board to receive your previous PE license. This process varies from state to state, but in general you need your NCEES notice of passing the exam, a summary of your work experiences, letters of recommendation from PE’s you have worked with, and more. A complete list can be found at the NCEES website, but check with your local board to make sure you have all the documents you need.
If you did not pass the exam, don’t beat yourself up. I have talked to so many engineers who have not passed the exam on the first try. In my first video about the PE exam, I talked about how simply taking the exam already made me a better engineer. I firmly believe that is true as you will review so much material and learn some new concepts.
I hope this article helped you understand the process of taking the PE exam. Make sure you check the various podcast episodes about this topic and reach out with any questions.