All About the Civil PE Exam

The PE exam had always seemed daunting to me. I had never heard anybody say that it was easy. My professors in college all agreed that it is a very difficult exam, and they were quick to point out the 50-60% pass rate. Yikes! The thought of taking the exam had set up camp in the back of my brain with all of the other “4 years from now” thoughts. But one of my colleagues informed me that Idaho would be passing a new law in July 2018 that would allow one to sit for the exam prior to meeting the 4-year experience requirement. He also told me that he wished he had taken the exam closer to graduating from college. This all got me thinking…if I put in the time to study, could I pass the test with only 1.5 years of experience? That would make future Zachri very happy. I decided to pull the trigger and register for the October 2018 exam.

Here are a few things that I learned from my journey that will hopefully help you as well.

About the Test

The PE is an 8-hour test with two sections; a 4-hour morning portion and a 4-hour afternoon portion. The test is considered a “breadth and depth” exam, which means that the morning session covers a wide range of civil engineering topics, and the afternoon portion has more detailed questions from a specific field. Everyone has the same questions during the morning session. For the afternoon, you can choose from five specific areas:

  1. Transportation
  2. Water Resources and Environmental
  3. Geotechnical
  4. Structural
  5. Construction

I chose to do Water Resources and Environmental for the depth portion of the exam because it seemed to match up the closest with what I do at work.

So what score do you need in order to pass? There is not a straight-forward answer. The cut score is different for each exam. From what I’ve heard, the cut score is typically in the 70 – 75% range. So that translates to about 60/80 for the whole exam, or 30/40 for each session. The test moves very quickly; you basically have an average of 6 minutes per problem. All of the questions are word problems with multiple-choice answers.

Studying

My study process basically consisted of doing lots of practice problems. However, I didn’t follow this process from day one. My first approach was to try and systematically work through each topic covered on the exam before jumping into the practice problems. I quickly became overwhelmed by the amount of information that I was going to need to work through and digest. I decided to switch tracks to simply work as many practice problems as I could and learn as I went. This led me to an important realization: it was a better use of my time to learn where to find information than it was to actually know the information. I think that becoming well-acquainted with your reference materials is a more efficient use of time than trying to learn everything.

My main study resources were the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM), the NCEES practice exam, and the PPI 6-Minute Solutions practice problems. In retrospect, the NCEES practice test was pretty close to the actual exam. The 6-minute solutions were WAY too hard. So if you have trouble with these, don’t be too discouraged! The resources that you need will depend on the test that you take, but I would say that the CERM is an absolute must. It’s basically all of civil engineering in one book. Buy yourself a copy and then tab/highlight the heck out of it. You need to be able to quickly jump to the right spot and lookup whatever formulas you need. Remember, you only have 6 minutes! You’ll be surprised how long it takes to look something up for the first time, so you don’t want to be doing that on every problem.

I basically only studied on the weekends leading up to the test. My total study time was probably around 40 hours, and I started about 2 months in advance. My scores on the NCEES practice test were in the 70-80% range, and about 50% on the 6-Minute solutions problems.

Test Day

When you arrive on test day, you will probably stand in line with a bunch of other very nervous engineers. At the registration booth, they will check your ID (pretty much everybody just used their driver’s license) and assign you to a room. I shared an 8-ft table with another guy, so there was enough space for the two of us. The proctor will go through the instructions, and then you’ll be off! Here are a few things to know:

  • The NCEES website is strict about what can be brought into the exam room. Wallets and car keys are not on the approved list, but everyone I saw brought them in with no trouble.
  • Earplugs were provided, but I didn’t find this stated anywhere beforehand
  • I wish I had brought a water bottle
  • A straightedge was really nice to have for reading charts/graphs
  • Scratch paper is not allowed. You can only write in the exam booklet.
  • The exam authorization said to bring a lunch; this would have been a hassle. We had about 1.5 hrs for lunch, which was plenty of time to go out somewhere.
  • You can leave all of your stuff in the exam room over lunch break
  • Definitely bring a wristwatch! There was no clock and the proctor only alerts you with 15, 10, and 5 minutes remaining.

Conclusion

So of course, the burning question: did I pass? I am happy to say that I did! The NCEES says that results are typically released 8-10 weeks after the test. I got my results about 5-1/2 weeks post-exam. It was definitely a stressful waiting period, but the feeling of relief was incredible. For anybody considering taking the exam before the 4-year experience mark, I would highly recommend it. There is so much content on the exam that you likely will not have seen since college, so I think it is beneficial to take the exam sooner before you forget everything. Study hard and good luck!

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