In that case, the transition of the PE exam from pencil-and-paper to computer-based testing (CBT) should not come as a surprise. After all, NCEES has been doing this to all its exams and their disciplines since 2014, with the FE exam being the first.
Even though the new format is already a reality by now for all disciplines, most people don’t really know what it’s like to take a computer-based PE exam. They don’t know what to expect from it, what it entails, and what it demands from test-takers.
Therefore, understanding the differences between the pencil and paper and the CBT PE exam is a critical first step. Getting used to the “new” exam — and preparing accordingly — can really increase your odds of getting your PE license.
This article lays out all the differences you need to know between the two formats if you’re serious about passing the PE exam. It also points out the positives and negatives of each one of the changes, and how they can affect you while preparing for and taking the exam.
Paper-Based vs. Computer-Based PE Exam
Just like any other good old paper-based examination, the “old” PE exam used to go like this: you would go into a place with other test-takers, and administrators would hand you a booklet of questions and a scantron sheet for you to indicate your answers, and then you would just take the exam and hand in the scantron sheet at the end.
With the CBT PE exam, things have changed. You now go into a test center with a lot fewer test-takers, administrators have you log into your exam on your designated computer, and the computer holds all the test questions, the reference material, and the relevant codes you need. You may also get some scratch paper and a pen for calculations.
These are just broad, generic differences between the two formats. In order to effectively prepare for the computer-based exam, however, you need to dive deeper…way deeper.
All You Should Know About the PE Exam Going CBT
#1: The Specifications Did NOT Change
That's a good starting point. Most people think that a format change brings a corresponding change in the content they will be tested on. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The specifications haven’t changed at all.
For the PE Civil Exam, the latest exam to start the transitioning process, for example, the specifications haven’t changed since 2015. This means the content you’ll have to study to pass your CBT PE exam, regardless of your discipline, is the same as you would in the “old” exam format.
Regarding the specifications, the only thing that changed with the transition to CBT was how they can test you on your discipline’s topics, not what topics they will test you on. So you still need to truly understand and internalize the content for your particular discipline in order to pass the PE exam.
#2: Not Open-Book Anymore
In the paper-based PE exam, you could bring your own reference materials (textbooks, manuals, notes, summaries, etc.) with you into the exam. More often than not, some people would walk into the room with suitcases filled with books — literally. However, this will no longer happen.
During the CBT PE exam, you’ll only have at your disposal the reference handbook developed by NCEES for your discipline, along with the codes and standards associated with your depth section in that particular discipline. All of them will be searchable PDFs you’ll find already on your computer.
The NCEES handbooks are free for you to get at any time, and you can download a copy after logging into your NCEES account. And the organization has also put out a video explaining how you can access the codes and standards during the exam.
On the surface, this change in the reference seems like a positive in favor of the computer-based exam. After all, you’ll spend less money because the NCEES handbooks are free. You may even think this is all the material you need to prepare for the PE exam.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even though the handbook may touch on every topic you need to study for your exam, it’s not as detailed as it should be. It offers brief and superficial coverage of the subjects, in addition to being prone to errors since these handbooks are only the first versions of what are supposed to be complete reference manuals.
Therefore, to honestly know what you’re dealing with during the exam, you need a better understanding of the content. To do this, you cannot rely solely on the NCEES handbook for your discipline. You still need to get time-tested resources that have already helped thousands of others get over the hump of passing the PE exam.
PPI has long been the primary resource for PE exam preparation. They offer both study materials like the Civil Engineering Reference Manual as well as course options for you to choose from. And today, many other online review courses are available at a lower price point that can help you just as well.
For the civil engineering folks out there, you can take a look at The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course, by Civil Engineering Academy — it’s been ranked the best PE exam prep course by Test Prep Insight. And they also have individual depth review courses for each one of the five depth sections of the PE Civil Exam.
That being said, there’s one thing you should keep in mind: always refer to the NCEES handbook during your preparation when looking up equations, figures, and graphs. Why? Since it’ll be the only reference you’ll have, you need to get familiar with it so you can effectively use it on exam day.
The point here is that the handbook alone will not be of much help when it comes to learning and internalizing what you study. So you should use additional study materials like manuals, practice exams, and review courses to really cement that knowledge — but you should also know where to quickly find information in the NCEES Handbook.
#3: Brand New Question Types
As stated before, a change in the exam format will not change what you’ll be tested on, but it sure can change how NCEES tests you on it. And that’s exactly what happened as the PE exam transitioned to CBT.
While the exam is still 80 questions long, and the majority of these questions are still multiple-choice, the computer-based format allows NCEES to use different methods that couldn’t be used before due to the paper-based nature of the “old” PE exam.
So from now on, in addition to the usual multiple-choice questions, you’ll also run into what’s called Alternative Item Type (AIT) questions. AIT questions include:
- Multiple-Correct: These questions require you to select all (not one or two) correct choices from the list you’re given.
- Point-and-Click: Here, you’ll have to click on a single target or hotspot icon on the image on your computer screen to be your answer.
- Drag-and-Drop: These questions ask you to sort, place, rank, or label different items by clicking and dragging the options to their respective correct spots.
- Fill-in-the-Blank: Here, you fill in the blanks with your answer after you’re done with your calculations. You should carefully read the instructions because it’ll state the number of decimal places for your numeric answer, whether or not you should enter the unit for your answer, etc.
It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no partial credit in any of the AIT questions — they’re either correct or incorrect. This means you’ll only get, for example, the multiple-correct questions right if you select all the correct options listed. If you forget even one of them, your answer will be incorrect. And the same thing applies to all the other AIT questions.
But before you start freaking out, remember these AIT questions are simply a new way of testing your technical knowledge. They’re about as difficult as the multiple-choice questions you’re used to. And if you truly know the content and have practiced a lot, even with usual multiple-choice questions, you’ll be fine when solving AIT questions.
To calm you down a bit, NCEES itself has put out a video explaining these Alternative Item Type questions more in-depth. There’s no predetermined number of AIT questions nor a predetermined percentage of any type of AIT questions on any given exam. So don’t go crazy just yet!
#4: No Distinction Between the Breadth and Depth Portions
The “old” PE exam would start with a two-minute non-disclosure agreement followed by an eight-minute tutorial, and then eight hours to actually take the exam. The 50-minute break would take place halfway through the exam, separating the breadth (AM) portion from the depth (PM) portion.
This structure is the same in the computer-based PE exam, with one exception. There’s no such thing as separate breadth and depth portions anymore. That is, you’ll not be getting general, easier questions in the morning and then specific, more difficult questions related to your chosen depth section in the afternoon.
In the CBT PE exam, NCEES can mix breadth and depth questions at any time using their Linear-on-the-Fly Testing (LOFT) algorithm. The algorithm randomly pulls questions from a huge database, which means you’ll get questions as they’re sent your way — and they could be either one or the other.
In other words, you can be solving depth questions in the first half of the exam (before the break), as well as breadth questions in the second half of it (after the break). So this is another thing to take into account when preparing for the CBT PE exam.
#5: A Different Exam for Every Examinee
Another consequence of the LOFT algorithm is that every test taker will no longer be answering the exact same questions, as was the case with the paper-based exam.
The CBT system will select different, but equivalent questions from NCEES’s database for each examinee. So don’t even bother trying to look at your neighbor’s screen since it’ll be a huge waste of your exam time.
This is another negative working against the CBT PE exam. Why? Because on exam day, the LOFT algorithm may pull several questions from areas you’re not particularly strong in, while the people next to you may be getting lots of questions in areas they’re really good at.
This can be really frustrating. Not only will your exam be a lot harder than it could've been, but it will also make it more difficult for you to try again in case you do not pass it your first time.
You may intuitively know which areas to study more in-depth before your next attempt, but who knows if you’ll be getting lots of questions in these areas again?
#6: No More Two Individually Timed Sections
In the paper-based PE exam, the scheduled 50-minute break would start simultaneously for every test taker. With the computer-based format, however, this is no longer the case.
Your 50-minute break is now offered to you after you’ve answered half of the questions (40 questions) in your exam, regardless of how much time it took you.
This is another downside to the CBT format. Why? Because there’s no way you can predict how much time you’ll need for the first and second halves of the exam (before and after you take the break, respectively).
With the LOFT algorithm and the lack of distinction between breadth and a depth portion, you cannot even estimate what your questions will look like and how difficult they’ll be, much less predict how much time you’ll need to solve them.
For example, you can rush to make the four-hour mark in the first half of the exam, only to get easier questions in the second half that allow you to finish it in two hours. By rushing too much in the first half, you risk getting questions wrong.
On the other hand, if you don’t manage your time properly, you may find yourself spending a lot of time in the first half, risking not answering all 80 questions throughout the eight hours you have. Complicated, isn’t it?
Another nuance brought along by this change is how you review previous questions you’ve already answered or skipped.
In the “old” PE exam, you could simply go back to the question. In the “new” PE exam, you can only review a question you’ve already completed or skipped after reaching the end of the half you’re currently in.
That is, you can only go back to review previous questions after answering a total of 40 questions. And that applies to both the first half before your break and the second half afterward.
For example, you can only review a question you’ve completed or skipped in the first half of the exam after you’ve answered the first set of 40 questions. This can be quite disappointing in the case you skip a question and then immediately realize you know how to find the answer.
#7: Available Year-Round
After a few discouraging cons to the new format, here’s one advantage of it you’ll definitely enjoy: depending on your discipline, the CBT PE exam is administered year-round.
The computer-based PE exam is provided every quarter for certain engineering disciplines, while for other disciplines, the exam is still offered only on a single day of the year. So make sure you check the availability of your exam on the NCEES website.
For those CBT PE exams with year-round testing, the rules are as follows: you can take it any quarter you feel ready to do so, but you can only take it three times in a period of 12 months. This means that if you fail the exam three times, you’ll have to wait 12 months after the first quarter you sat for your first attempt.
For example, if you sit for the exam in the first three quarters of any given year, and unfortunately end up failing all these three attempts, you cannot register for the exam taking place in the fourth quarter of that same year. The next exam you’ll be able to take is the one in the first quarter of the following year.
Even with this 12-month period requirement, this change is still a huge advantage of the CBT exam over the “old” format. After all, you’ll no longer have to wait six months to give it another shot in case you didn’t pass. This will keep concepts fresh in your mind and you can quickly get back to your studying routine to try again in the next quarter.
Another benefit is that you have a lot more scheduling flexibility. In the pencil-and-paper exam, you only had one to two opportunities a year — whether you were ready or not. Now, you can take the PE exam when you really feel ready to do so, and when things going on in your life are also stacked in your favor.
#8: Administered at Pearson Vue Test Centers
Gone are the days of having to figure out travel logistics and sitting in a crowded conference room sweating bullets along with other engineers. In the CBT PE Exam, tests are now administered at an NCEES-approved Pearson Vue test center.
These centers are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, and you’ll be able to select the test center of your choice upon registration.
NCEES itself has a video illustrating what your exam day will look like at your chosen test center, and you should definitely check it out to get familiar with the process. After all, it’s completely different from what you used to do to take the “old” PE exam.
In the past, there were fewer test locations and you’d have to figure out travel logistics — sometimes even going to other states for a few days — in order to take the exam. Now, there are going to be a lot more testing locations available to you, which will make the process a lot more convenient. You may even find a test center in your own local area.
The exam experience is completely different as well. You’ll no longer go into a conference center packed with thousands of other engineers in the same conference room taking the exam side by side. With the CBT PE exam, you go into a small setting with a lot fewer candidates in the same room, sit in your own cubicle with your own computer and calculator, and off you go.
This is another benefit of the computer-based exam over the pencil-and-paper. Combined with year-round testing, this change will add geographic convenience to the scheduling flexibility the CBT PE exam already offers.
#9: Faster Results…Way Faster!
While you would have to (anxiously) wait for about 10 weeks to get your results in the “old” exam, it only takes 7-10 days in the CBT PE exam. This is one of the best benefits of the exam going computer-based — if not the best.
Examinees receive an email from NCEES detailing how they can access their scores and what they should do next if they passed. If you didn’t pass, the email has information on how you can access a diagnostic report that tells you which areas you struggled with to better prepare for a future attempt.
Combined with more frequent exams throughout the year, this change makes a really strong case for the computer-based format. Why? Because if you do fail the exam, you’ll probably know it within one week, which makes it easier for you to get back on the horse, keep studying, and take it again in the next testing window.
Remember, concepts will still be fresh in your mind and you’ll still have the studying habits you’ve developed. You just need to focus on the areas you struggled with the most, review the topics you did pretty well on, and then try again so you can be done with the PE exam as soon as possible.
#10: No Change in How It’s Scored
The PE exam is a “binary” test — you either pass or fail. And just as a change in format didn't change the content you’ll be tested on, it also didn’t change how the scoring system works.
In the “new” exam, just as in the “old”, your score is determined by simply adding the questions you got right, without deducting points for the ones you got wrong. And no matter the question type, including the AIT questions, there are no partial credits given either.
NCEES does not publish an official passing score, but a great rule of thumb to follow is that you should get around 70% of the exam right. This translates into a total of 56 questions, and it has been the widely accepted “passing parameter” in the PE preparation community.
You can check the pass rates for your discipline on this page on the NCEES website. But keep in mind these are only numbers! Historical data is not the best predictor of whether or not you’ll pass; your preparation is.
Preparing for the CBT PE Exam
Now that you know what’s changed with the transition to CBT and the impact it has on how you take the PE exam, you may be wondering if these changes also impact how you prepare for it. And the answer is: yes and no. Here’s a quick rundown on the basics of PE preparation.
Since the core concepts you’ll be tested on didn’t change, most of the common studying techniques used to prepare for the “old” exam will still be necessary. However, due to the new nature of the exam, you may have to adapt certain things here and there.
First, a rule of thumb that is still valid for the CBT PE exam as it was in the “old” format is that you should spend at least 300 hours preparing for it. Of course, this number can change depending on your particular situation. If you haven’t been working in your industry for some time, for example, you may need to give yourself even more time to prepare.
Second, you must still get familiar with the reference material you’ll be using on exam day. The computer-based format only allows you to have one reference, the NCEES handbook for your discipline. Even though you still need additional material to prepare for the exam, as you’ve already seen, you still need to know where to quickly find things in the handbook.
Third, another key to passing the exam that is still immensely valuable is to do as many practice problems as you can. This will help you get comfortable tackling questions, regardless of their level of difficulty. And don’t worry, solving as many multiple-choice questions as you can definitely help you solve the brand new Alternative Item Type (AIT) questions as well.
Finally, it’s also a good thing to take practice exams under test-like conditions. With the new format, this can get a little bit more complicated since it can be hard to simulate a computer-based exam. But NCEES offers practice exams you can purchase, most of which were already updated to reflect the new format.
In addition, previous practice exams for the pencil-and-paper format also count toward your preparation. They may not exactly resemble what you’re going to encounter during your CBT PE exam, but they are really good resources to help you internalize what you study.
If you’re still not sure about what a computer-based exam looks like and what it entails, here’s a demo by Pearson Vue you can use to try to get familiar with it and control your test anxiety.
PE Study Planning
The tips above are all really good on paper. But the truth is, preparing for the PE exam is a challenge. You have to balance different areas of your life while still making sure you’re putting in enough time to study. But who said you have to do this alone?
With our PE Study Planning service, you’ll get a one-on-one session with Luis to develop a personalized study plan that fits your life (not the other way around) while also giving you the best shot at passing the PE exam once and for all.
After being in the trenches himself, he passed his exam, got his license, and now will help you do the same. By helping you craft a realistic study plan that you’ll actually stick to overtime and providing effective study and test-taking tips, Luis will show you the right direction to rock your exam!
Still not sure whether or not you can make it? Then check out this inspirational episode of the Engineering Our Future podcast with Vanessa. She discusses how she got back on her feet after failing the PE exam her first time and how engineers can beat test anxiety on exam day.
To wrap this up, it’s good to remind you that the CBT exam is simply a different testing format. It’s nothing to be afraid of. Why? Because the underlying engineering principles of your discipline are still the same. NCEES has only changed how they test you on these principles.
Of course, you’ll have to adapt to new things that come along with the new format. But that’s it. After all, any standardized test is all about learning how to take the exam itself (the tricks, the questions, time management, etc.). And if you have a good grip on theoretical knowledge, this becomes easy.
As an engineer, passing the PE exam and getting your license is your passport to a rewarding, successful career. The initials after your name may look good, but they mean a lot more than that. If you’re a civil engineer, this episode of the Engineering Our Future podcast will teach you the importance of licensure in the industry and the path to getting yours.
Additionally, taking the PE exam has benefits that go way beyond simply getting a license. Even though the license itself opens up many doors, just studying for the exam can make you a much better engineer. And after you pass it (and receive a big pay raise and/or a promotion), you’re on track to make the most out of your career and achieve your professional goals.
If you have any other questions regarding the PE exam, give this episode of the Engineering Our Future podcast a listen. From what material to use to how to handle different types of questions to what to do in the week prior to the exam, Luis answers them all.
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