Advice from Environmental PE Examinees
“Been There!”—Advice from Environmental PE Examinees
This page is a compilation of comments contributed by engineers who have recently taken the Environmental PE exam. We have also included general advice for the PE exam.
Some of the advice on both pages may seem contradictory—sometimes engineers disagree. Nobody received 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 “Environmental PE Exam Advice.” In the body of your email, please note your exam section and exam date.
Start preparing at least 3-4 months before the exam. This is a rough test, it covers so many topics.
You need at least 3-4 months to prepare. When you study with the Environmental Engineering Reference Manual(ENVRM), you can afford to skip the first set of chapters (math, fluid dynamics, etc.), because this is stuff you either already know or don't need to know. Also, don't waste time working long, complex problems--there aren't any on the exam.
For this exam, you need the Environmental Reference Manual and at least a reference each on air, water, and waste handling. A book on fate and transport wouldn't hurt either.
The index in ENVRM is a godsend for looking up details. Print out a copy so you can have it in front of you and don't have to lose your place in the book itself.
Practice until you can solve the core problems--wastewater, water treatment, open channel, combustion, air source control, risk, radiation--very quickly, so you can spend time researching/solving the oddball problems that you are going to see.
My study method was to work as many problems as possible. It gets your brain into problem-solving mode. I focused on quantity, rather than on targeting certain types of problems. The Enviro exam is VERY BROAD rather than specific. However, you will want to know how to work exposure risk, open channel flow, and activated sludge problems.
Be aware that the exam questions are NOT interrelated--there are 100 standalone questions on the exam. Most of the practice problems I saw were of the one-scenario, several-question variety. The exam questions are harder because you need considerably more time to work with a new scenario each time.
Work as many practice problems as you can get. This really made the difference for me. I got PPI's super environmental package and worked every single problem--and I passed!
The quality of your references is more important than the quantity. Be sure you are familiar with each one you bring. Know where the index is, where its tables or appendices are, etc. You need to be able to find information quickly during this exam.
You need a separate book on air pollution for this exam, covering indoor air quality and the usual pollution subjects.
PPI's list of useful books was very helpful, as it was obvious some of the questions were just taken verbatim out of some reference book. I am not a book hoarder, so just before the test, I made a list of books (from the master list) and found many of them used, online, at bargain rates. I spent less than $200 on all my books for the test. Some of them I did not use, but some I did, and now I have a much more complete set.
Don't expect the exam to match the percentages of problems that NCEES publishes very exactly. This must be an average. I guarantee that the problem distribution of the exam I took was NOTHING like the "official" specifications.
It was clear that this exam focused much more on air pollution and haz waste than we were prepared for. Activated sludge, water supply, hydraulics--very few questions! Plus there were numerous questions where none of the textbooks--including ENVRM--were of any help. Some because the terminology and equations used are not in the regular texts nor in ENVRM, others because only a person doing field sampling and monitoring would be able to answer these.
This was my second time taking the exam. Last time I found out that the subject areas I had studied were too narrow. I didn't study air pollution, ventilation, or economics. I failed. This time, I studied everything in ENVRM and I feel confident in saying that I have passed. Study everything and work as many problems as possible in all areas.
Study municipal waste in more depth than ENVRM goes into.
Tab EVERYTHING you review. I used color-coded tabs with one-word descriptions. Blue was for water, yellow for wastewater, pink for fluids, etc. I used the same color coding for all my books, which made looking up information easier and faster.
Take a practice exam or two using your own reference books that you have tabbed, to see how easily you can locate information under pressure. Make sure your tabs work for you.
Prepare by taking a timed practice exam--nothing else prepares you for the time crunch you'll experience in the exam. Go through a full 8-hour trial run so you'll see what you're up against.
I was surprised at the number of qualitative questions on the exam, especially about monitoring. I expected more design-type problems.
Be prepared for radon and contaminant hydrology questions.
I had heard there were no engineering economics questions on this exam, so I didn't review basic principles. This cost me three questions.
I suggest you bring a copy of the Chemical Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam, Chapter 11: Kinetics. This chapter has many equations for batch, CSTR, and plug flow reactors.
This test is more science than engineering. If you're engineer, you should consider taking the civil PE exam with the environmental or water resources focus. You have a much better chance of seeing problems you understand.
If your specialty is water or wastewater, take the civil exam with the water resources depth specialty instead. It's far more appropriate to your work.
Know where to find the EPA regulations. Many are available on the web.
Study up on indoor molds.
Be sure to review occupational health and safety, which can be difficult subjects to find good references for.
At least half the afternoon questions were on air pollution. That will probably change with the next exam.
Sludge! I was drowning in sludge questions! Also respirators and air pollution modeling.
I wish I had more information on leachate collection and ventilation hoods. Hood questions were everywhere.
Summarize the most-used formulas and constants for yourself on one or two sheets of paper for fast retrieval.
I highly recommend C.Y. Lee's Environmental Dictionary...excellent book.
I saw a combination of US and metric units on many problems. Having to convert back and forth was something I hadn't expected.
If you had 16 hours to complete this exam, you would definitely pass without much difficulty; however, you have only eight hours. Speed is key. Be able to make all unit conversions in a snap...mg/L and flow into lb/day...mg/m3 into ppm without thought.
There is a very thorough conversion table inside the front cover of ENVRM. This was very useful during the exam.
The PE exam does NOT have units associated with the answer choices. This confuses you more than you would think. Most practice problems I saw had units with the answers, so I was unready for this turn of events.
For additional references for all sections of the Environmental PE exam, visit PPI.