“Been There!”—Advice from Civil PE Examinees

This page is a compilation of comments contributed by engineers who have recently taken the Civil PE exam. Some of the advice may seem contradictory—sometimes engineers disagree. Nobody received any compensation for mentioning any product. As you read this advice, keep in mind that the exams change from administration to administration. Subjects that are emphasized on one exam may not show up at all on the next exam. If you would like to contribute to this compilation, email us with the subject line “Civil PE Exam Advice.” Send us your comments along with your exam section and exam date.

General Civil PE Exam Advice

Advice for the Construction Section
Advice for the Geotechnical Section
Advice for the Structural Section
Advice for the Transportation Section
Advice for the Water Resources and Environmental Section

General Civil PE Exam Advice

First of all, check this website out! It helped me get a grip on all of the information that I would be required to know, and it also let me know that I was not alone. Do as many practice problems as possible—but know that you are not going to be able to copy problems from any book. (First, you will not have the time to relocate it, and second, the people who prepare the exam have also seen those same books.)

You will need at least three, maybe four months to prepare for this exam adequately. Don’t shortchange yourself in the amount of time you allow for studying.

Start early. Take a practice exam first to identify your weak areas, work practice problems, take another sample exam, compare your progress, work more practice problems. Know what depth section you want to take at least a month before the exam.

I studied for this exam about 35 hours a week for four months. Preparing for this exam requires quite a change in lifestyle, and your family needs to understand this from the start. Set up a schedule so your family will know when to try not to bother you, and establish a place to do your studying that doesn’t need to be cleaned up every night.

If you are pressed for time, focus on your chosen depth section. The Civil Engineering Reference Manual can get you through the morning part pretty well, but for the afternoon depth you’re on your own.

Once you have prepared yourself for one depth section, don’t waste time looking at the others. Yes, they will look easier—the grass is always greener—but looking just wastes time. And in the afternoon, your time is very short.

I had originally planned to take the fluid/thermal systems depth section because I had spent many years operating power plants. The topics seemed tough though, so I started studying HVAC, because that’s what I do now. I ended up wasting a lot of study time switching back and forth between the two, but ended up taking the HVAC. I passed, but I was lucky. Anyway, decide on the depth section you want to take and stick with it.

Remember: you do not have to get 100%; you only have to pass. Spend some time devising a method of recognizing and skipping the hard or time-consuming problems, and DO NOT let them bother you.

Move on and get more points. Just guess on the hard ones.

I found it helpful to perform triage on this exam. Divide the questions into three levels: easy, okay, and tough. Work the easy ones first, then the okay ones, then the tough ones (if you have time). This way you avoid missing anything easy that happens to fall at the end.

Don’t let the exam format (multiple-choice) dictate how you prepare. Working longer, more detailed problems is always good, because this allows for more thorough comprehension. Then, when you get a less complex problem on the exam, with some process-simplifying “givens,” you’ll know exactly where they fit into the overall problem.

Start with the basics in CERM and study everything. Then, work as many problems as you can get your hands on. The harder the problems you work before exam day, the better. The more you work, the less chance there is that you’ll be surprised on the exam. Work as wide a scope as possible.

Study using the calculator you will use during the exam. Now that the HP48s are banned, don’t use yours as you practice solving problems, but use the actual model you plan to use for the exam.

In the morning, you should have time to verify most of your answers, if you need to. That’s why you should bring as many books as possible. Score as many points in the morning as possible. In the afternoon, you’ll be pressed for time.

Look at the exam breakdown, pick the depth section you will take, and study everything listed. Some of the problems on the depth part of this exam are unbelievably picky. Get to know all your references well, and where to find information.

Be sure to review EVERY topic listed for your area of specialization. This is where you’ll get the most points. Don’t shortchange yourself here.

Take to the exam every book you can possibly beg, borrow, or steal that is on the recommended reference list.

Take an engineering dictionary! There were about three problems that were answered by simply reading a definition from an engineering dictionary. With only 80 problems total on the PE exam, that means easy points that add up to a significant percentage.

It is essential that you take as many of the resources recommended on the PPI website as you possibly can. I studied for only about 200 hours to take the Civil PE exam and I came to realize (after the exam) that it wasn’t necessarily what I memorized in my brain that benefited me the most, but it was having the IBC when a problem said “...according to the IBC” or having the ASCE7 when the problem would reference it (and having the correct edition). There are easy points to be had with the recommended resources.

Don’t be afraid to take in as many references as you can carry. There were some references to obscure books that I might not have considered necessary. With the book handy, you can get the answer easily. It’s nice to be ready for as many “gimmes” as possible.

Get Civil Engineering Reference Manual and the current codes that are used on the exam. Don’t think you can use other editions of the codes—you can’t. This is not the time to be frugal.

Get CERM and then tab each section with labels for even quicker reference. Color coding the labels by section is a good idea. Speed is essential when you have only a few minutes per problem.

Print out the CERM index and put in a binder so you can use it separately. This really saves time over going back and forth in CERM.

Copy the CERM Appendices and bring them with you in a separate binder (make sure they aren’t loose-leaf; this isn’t allowed). Being able to access both a page in CERM and the Appendix at the same time will be a big time-saver.

It’s true that you have an average of six minutes per question on the exam. But what you’ll actually find is some (actually more than I expected) problems that take 15 seconds, like definitions, and some ridiculously complicated problems that take 10+ minutes to solve. If you get stuck in one of these, move on!

SLOW DOWN and read each problem through to the end. Sure, you have only have six minutes on average for each problem, but all the more reason not to waste time jumping to conclusions about what’s being asked. Often they’ll give you data at the end of the problem that you might otherwise start to calculate if you don’t read to the end first.

Read and understand each problem completely before you start to answer—don’t assume you know what’s being asked for. I found myself not reading the whole problem, and I wasted time doing calculations or looking things up only to discover that the problem was asking for something different than my initial assumption.

Often a problem would look really hard, but the actual question that was asked, in the LAST sentence, was quite simple. Read to the end before you panic.

Use only references that have good indexes. CERM has a great index. Other “comprehensive” study guides I looked at had pathetic little 5-page indexes. Skip those.

When all else fails, try reverse-engineering the question by substituting the solution options into the appropriate formulas and see what works. This actually worked for me a couple of times.

With some of the multiple-choice problems, it’s faster to plug the (reasonable) given solution options into the formula (i.e., use the trial- and-error method) rather than solving for unknowns.

I’ve taken the exam twice, and both times there have been one or two problems on the exam that are so outrageous that you can actually hear people gasp when they read them. They’re on subjects nobody ever thought to study, like meteorology. My theory is that NCEES includes these just to rattle examinees. Keep cool, don’t get your blood pressure up, just pick an answer and move on. You don’t need EVERY problem to pass.

Many problems have extraneous information that you must wade through. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to use everything you’re given. Many times, you won’t need but a few of the pieces of data given.

Many of the problems had a twist—be it with a needed unit conversion, or unusual conditions stated, or going for an odd variant of the answer that seemed apparent. Read the problem carefully first, then solve, then read it again to make sure you answered what they asked for.

The problem writers trick you by providing information such as a constant for a formula that you don’t need to solve the problem. You have to pick out the useful information in the problem from the garbage.

Don’t over-analyze the problems. Often there is an overabundance of data presented. Decide what is actually relevant and what you can ignore. In many cases, you WILL NOT need all the data you are given. (This is unlike any of the sample problems I saw.)

I actually didn’t study the month before the exam. Instead, I practiced looking up the topics in CERM or other reference materials quickly. With only six minutes allotted per problem, knowing where to find information was more beneficial than knowing off-hand how to solve it. The problems aren’t that in-depth and you can usually figure out how to solve them if you can find an example.

Use the CERM glossary. It bailed me out several times, defining things I had never heard of (at least by the name used on the exam).

If you don’t bring an engineering or scientific dictionary to the exam, you will want to jump into a dimictic, eutrophic lake, taking a packer with you. Trust me.

What is it with the microbiology of lagoons that fascinates these problem writers? These problems just keep showing up!

I didn’t like how the units were not supplied next to the answer choices. It’s easy to screw up by giving the answer in CF instead of gallons. This is a lousy way to lose points, so be careful.

The overwhelming majority of the exam is in U.S. Customary (English) units, but some SI (metric) units are definitely creeping onto the exam.

Take advantage of the free references you can download on PPI’s website.

The NCEES Sample Questions are useful for practice, but don’t expect the exam to be that easy.

Use PPI’s Exam Forum. It’s a great place to get answers when you’re stumped during your review. And it’s great to talk to a whole bunch of people who are going through the same experience as you.

The Exam Forum is a great value-added service for examinees. Use it!

Do not bring any sort of graph paper with you into the exam. You are not allowed to write on anything but the exam materials.

You can’t use graph paper, so no plotting Mohr’s circles, etc. This caught me by surprise. You can only write on the exam.

Don’t underestimate the physical pain associated with an 8-hour exam. Bring your analgesic of choice.

Bring your lunch with you. Don’t count on there being any decent food available at the exam site. I saw guys gagging down green hotdogs, while I enjoyed my nice homemade sandwich.

Don’t expect everything to go like clockwork at your exam site. At mine, they ran out of mechanical pencils and had to go to shopping for more. Also, we had only 15 minutes for lunch. So bring your own mechanical pencil (in case) and certainly your own lunch.

Advice for the Construction Section

Have advice on the Civil PE construction section? Email us with the subject line “Civil PE Construction Exam Advice.” Send us your comments along with your exam date.

Advice for the Geotechnical Section

Especially on the geotechnical section of the exam, do not spend too much time on one problem. Some are out-of-this-world difficult. If you find yourself getting beyond five minutes on a problem, move on!

There are enough solvable problems to make up for those that are too difficult.

I took the NCEES practice exam and was very comfortable with my results, sure I was prepared. Same with the PPI sample exam. I was humbled. The practice exams are much, much easier than the actual geotechnical section.

Look carefully at the exam topics. They pretty accurately reflect what is on this exam depth section. The geotechnical section covers a great deal of non-geotechnical material.

I desperately wished I had brought the AASHTO Bridge Design Manual to the exam. Not having it cost me at least three problems.

I encountered many seismic problems that required specialized references. Some even required specific IBC provisions.

Having a degree in geological engineering, I was pleasantly surprised to find problems on rock mechanics on the geotechnical exam.

Be ready for some unusual given data in the exam problems, and wording of problems to determine whether you really understand what you’re doing or just mimicking examples. A good dictionary of construction terminology helped me on a few simple problems.

Study and bring seismic references with you. CERM doesn’t cover seismic at all.

I didn’t expect the depth of the seismic problems on this exam. Don’t neglect seismic subjects as you prepare. Five out of 40 problems were about seismic!

Bring the Foundation Handbook and a foundation analysis and design text—there were invaluable.

Bring NAVFAC DM-7. You can download it from the web.

If you bring code books, be sure they are from the right year!

Bring CERM, plus geotechnical texts, plus the Highway Capacity Manual, the AASHTO pavement design manual, and some environmental references. Many problems in these areas are simple things that can be looked up if you have the right manual with you.

There were problems dealing with legislative acts. I’m not sure how you prepare for those.

Know foundations and soils cold.

The exam this time used tables and charts from some book other than Braja Das’ book. This took some getting used to. Not sure how one would prepare for this!

CERM is very lacking in Geotechnical topics—I don’t think I opened it all afternoon. Bring other references for the afternoon, like NAVFAC and Das’ foundation books.

CERM is good for the morning but will leave you stranded in the afternoon. Bring Braja Das’s texts for the depth exam.

The morning exam is trivial compared to the geotechnical exam. Study for the afternoon. The morning problems you can answer off the top of your head or from CERM.

Advice for the Structural Section

The problems in this section seemed atypical of everyday design problems. I suggest using the NCEES sample questions book, which had problems that seemed representative of those on the actual exam.

I didn’t expect to have to use so many different codes. This was more like an SE exam than a PE exam.

I used both Structural Depth Reference Manual and Civil Engineering Reference Manual to prepare. This worked well for me.

The morning exam is easier than expected, and the afternoon exam is harder. Don’t spend too much time studying for the morning portion, as most of the problems can be solved using general reference materials. Spend more time on your afternoon specialty, as those problems are much more involved.

Although I had heard this before, I was still surprised at how easy the morning section was and how hard the afternoon section was. Plan your studying accordingly.

I was given the advice to just solve problems from CERM and not to read the chapters. As it turned out, there was a lot of theory on this exam, and those chapters I actually DID read and study helped me a lot.

This exam seemed to focus a lot on fundamental knowledge rather than real-life problem-solving techniques. It was more like a college exam than any problems you might solve during your actual day-to-day work.

Get set for some problems on structural dynamics, and some masonry problems.

Be prepared for problems on eccentrically-loaded footings and pretensioned beams.

Watch out for questions on construction scheduling.

Study open channel flow, pipe flow, retaining walls, piles, concrete and steel design. Don’t waste time on other minor stuff. Be aware that frequently, much more information is given in the problem than you need. Just ignore it.

Two words: prestressed concrete. Bring your favorite textbook or other reference.

Beware... CERM does not cover timber construction, but there were at least three problems relating to timber construction, so prepare accordingly.

CERM absolutely doesn’t cover wood or bridges. You’ll need the NDS and the AASHTO bridges book.

You must supplement CERM with books on concrete, steel, masonry, timber, etc.

Bring all the codes they tell you to bring! You must have many of them to do well on this section. I didn’t bring them and I could have gotten some very easy problems if I just had them.

Read the Structural, Geotechnical, and Transportation sections of CERM. Reviewing all three was a good general preparation for the Structural afternoon section of the exam.

On this exam, answers can be given in either LRFD or ASD.

Advice for the Transportation Section

CERM is great for the morning, not so great for the afternoon. Not to knock CERM—it just can’t possibly cover all the transportation minutiae.

Be prepared for problems that are not straightforward. Every trick in the book is there. Sometimes a code will be mentioned, making you think you need to look something up—but it turns out you don’t!

Read each problem very carefully.

Underline key words you see in problems, like “maximum,” “minimum,” “at least,” and “nearly,” so you will remember to take these into full consideration.

Expect to see some critical path method problems and some economic/cost analysis problems in the Transportation section. These problems are easy when you can access the formulas in CERM.

There was more economics on this exam than I was prepared for! Sometimes it was combined with other topics, like traffic accident analysis.

If you are a transportation engineer, I suggest you get together with an environmental engineer to study for this exam—that way you can get help on the (many!) environmental topics that you may not have studied before.

Signalization was at least 20% of the exam this time.

I was surprised to see soil problems in metric units. There were more metric formulas needed than I expected.

There were lots of different braking-type problems this time. There were also trip-generation and mass diagram problems.

Be prepared for problems about parking garages.

Be able to put your finger on highway sign letter height data.

Where were the horizontal and vertical curve problems and the survey problems? The exams really do change radically from one time to another.

There were very few vertical and horizontal curve problems this time, but there were lots of Green Book problems, and the Manning Equation came up a lot. I’m sure this varies exam to exam.

I was surprised by the number of problems on geotechnical/retaining walls and pipe/open channel flow.

Know your pedestrian walkway and bike path data.

There were two-lane roadway problems all over the place!

Expect to see level of service problems.

There were more traffic problems this time than I expected. It varies from exam to exam—last time there weren’t very many. (God willing, I won’t know about the next exam!)

Be sure you have the latest version of the design standards. They do change. Check the PPI website.

Bring the Highway Capacity Manual and the AASHTO Green Book.

The NCEES didn’t mention that AASHTO Roadside Design was needed on this exam, but it seemed to me that it was necessary!

The required codes are an absolute must-have. Be sure to get the right versions, too.

I really did find everything I needed for the morning exam in CERM. For the transportation section, though, you need at least one or two textbooks for each subject—not just transportation but also geotechnical and water resources. Also, of course, bring the traffic handbooks and guides.

Watch out for rock mechanics problems. The geotechnicals must love these!

Pay attention to problems where you are asked for MIN or MAX stopping sight distance, length of curve, etc. Tables will usually give you a high and low number—and both of these will appear as answer choices.

I was shocked at the number of hydrology problems on this exam—seemed like a good 25% of the total. But looking back at the exam specifications, maybe I should have expected this.

Be prepared for a lot of problems with information that is not related to the actual problem. One problem even referenced ITE, as though I would need it to solve the problem—but I didn’t.

Advice for the Water Resources and Environmental Section

Many of the problems seemed very real-world, as though they were written by someone who had specific industry knowledge. Not many of the practice problems I saw were this realistic.

The problems in CERM are very theory-oriented compared to the more practical, real-life problems on the exam. You can really see that the exam is written by working engineers. Solving the CERM problems is time well spent, but just don’t expect to see problems like this on the exam.

While invaluable overall (especially for the morning session), CERM’s strong point is not water or environmental topics. Bring environmental references with you for this exam.

The NAVFAC soils manual was helpful during the exam.

A dictionary of civil and environmental engineering terms is a must. The Handbook of Environmental Engineering Calculations was helpful for some of the more obscure details of some problems.

You’ll see some archaic and very specialized terms on the exam that will be unfamiliar unless you’ve been in the field forever. The CERM glossary was helpful for these.

Study material on ponds, lakes, lagoons, and groundwater theory. CERM doesn’t cover these in depth.

Who knew we would have to know so much about algae!

Bring Metcalf & Eddy—it’s very useful for this exam.

The problems were generally easier than I expected, but many of them were not about fundamental engineering concepts. They were about engineering obscurities. I was able to make good use of the CERM glossary.

Study things like water demand, wells, hydraulic conductivity, and tank chlorination, which I didn’t find covered well in CERM.

CERM isn’t strong on hydrology. Use another text if you need to study this. It all boils down to the rational method.

I was surprised to see problems on meteorology and population growth. And there was nothing at all on engineering economics.

It was confusing to see transportation verbiage on this exam. Transportation topics aren’t covered in your average Water Resources curriculum.

Be prepared for pipe-sizing problems. A handbook covering this would be very useful.

Know how to use the Darcy-Weisbach equations, the Hazen-Williams equation, and the Moody Diagram.

Organic composting problems popped up. I ducked.

Hazardous waste, if you don’t know something about it already, will be hazardous to your performance on this exam. You must study outside CERM for this.

I felt like the Water Resources and Environmental exam was really more Environmental than Water Resources. Bring your environmental textbooks! If there were the 15% Geotechnical problems that NCEES promised, I didn’t see them.

Become very familiar with converting units. You will find it much easier if you can quickly convert from gpm, acre-ft, MGD, etc. This will allow you to focus on the correct method and not get bogged down in the computation. I found that the conversions inside the front cover of CERM made this a snap.

I was surprised to see several problems in metric units, and one problem was even in mixed units!

I was surprised by the number of transportation and structural problems.

Answer choices are given without units. This can be confusing. Read the problem carefully to see what units they are asking you to solve for.

Expect a couple of problems on environmental law (RCRA, Clean Water Act, etc.). Bring a reference for law.

I was surprised by problems on federal permitting for landfill.

Bring a good environmental dictionary with you—you’ll need it.

There was only one BOD problem this time, and there was much less water treatment than expected, and more hydrology.

Prepare for environmental remediation problems. You have a lot to catch up on if you aren’t strong in this area.

Those geotechnical problems are a killer! (Why are they on this exam anyway??) There were enough of them (at least this time) that I really should have prepared for them—or I should have at least read the appropriate CERM sections and worked problems.

Expect hazardous waste problems. CERM won’t help with these.

Look out for problems on Superfund documents and other regulations—there were a surprising number of them. Also be expecting obscure terminology, which the exam uses to try to confuse you. Bring references with good indexes to look this stuff up quickly.

CERM will get you through the morning section of this exam, but it isn’t enough for the afternoon exam. Bring references, like Metcalf & Eddy’s Wastewater Treatment, a general environmental handbook, and a few textbooks. CERM is light on many of the afternoon subjects.

I had CERM plus 14 other books, and I used each one. This exam makes you go through a lot of references.

There are a number of problems on this exam that can be answered just by looking them up in the appropriate book. So, bring as many books as you can (we’re only allowed 15 in my state). Make sure all the books you bring have decent indexes so they are usable in a hurry.

Metcalf & Eddy’s solid waste and wastewater engineering books are invaluable to have with you.

You need to know that every problem on this exam is standalone. There are no problem statements with many related questions. You need to refocus your brain for every single problem.

Take all the practice exams you can find, in all topics—not just environmental. All the practice exams are easier than the actual exam, but it is good practice having experience solving diverse problems.

Even for problems that appear to require calculations, look at the big picture before you start calculating. It may be obvious which answer is right, and you may be done in seconds instead of spending minutes on tedious calculations.

For additional references for all sections of the Civil PE exam, visit PPI. Here are a few links to specific resources.

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