PE Chemical Exam Advice From Past Examinees

Unlike our other engineering colleagues who literally wheel in three boxes of books, a ChemE only needs three books for the PE exam. The Chemical Engineering Reference Manual (CHRM), Perry's and Levenspiel for any kinetic questions.

I've taken the exam three times now--finally passed!--and I'm here to tell you that the questions are completely different each time. The percentages that NCEES publishes bear no great relation to the actual exam. If you forego studying certain topics, you may be doing yourself a big disservice.

Don't expect to see all the subjects in the percentages represented by the NCEES text plan. Some may show up, some may not. You really need to know something about everything.

Study at least three months for this exam. It covers almost everything you have ever seen in school, plus some more.

Read through the exam first, before you work any problems. Mark problems according to difficulty: easily solvable, solvable with look-up, and potentially unsolvable (by you). Then work the problems in this order. You do not want to run out of time and not work an easy problem.

There were a surprising number of word problems that didn't require calculations or formulas--you simply had to identify something or know something. These questions were "freebies" if you knew the subject matter or could look it up quickly. Bring references with solid indexes.

I expected there to be 3-6 questions per problem statement. This is NOT the case. There is only one question per statement. You need to read 80 separate statements for this exam. This is why time is so important.

The sample exams I saw had multiple questions per problem statement. That's not what the exam is like. It is a rapid-fire of 80 independent questions.

Answering 80 independent questions is a very time-consuming exercise that I was not prepared for. The way you study must be adjusted to this, so you can complete the test in the provided time.

Each problem should take you about six minutes to solve. Do not get intimidated by lengthy practice problems--they will help you study but are NOT typical exam-type problems.

The exam is a battle against time. Given enough time, you can work all the problems. Bring anything with you that will save time (tables, charts, Crane's Technical Paper 410, etc.).

Learn stoichiometry (especially as applied to combustion), heat transfer, and reaction kinetics, and you will solve 75 % of problems on the exam.

Thoroughly understand unit operations (heat exchangers, pumps distillation, stripping, absorption, fluidized beds, etc.)

Be sure to take at least one practice exam (NCEES or PPI), so you can experience the time pressure factor. When taking this exam, use only the references you plan to use during the actual test. This will let you know how they should be tabbed for most rapid access.

Perry's ChE Handbook was helpful in many ways during the exam.

Use Perry for theory of mass transfer/heqat transfer equipment and for process equipment material selection tables. McCabe & Smith is very useful in the exam. Use Levenspiel for recycle reactors. Use Crane for flow-through fittings, etc.

There were several BOD problems that I didn't expect this time.

Be prepared for a number of plant design problems, which can be based on "best practices" or economics.

Expect some "experience" questions, like "What is the best way to do X?" The answers couldn't be learned from textbooks.

Be sure you know the theory behind thermo and kinetics, because the questions related to these can't be solved just taking a "practical" approach. You must be comfortable with theory.

A surprising number of problems could be solved just by converting units. Having Engineering Unit Conversions with me was helpful.

Know your unit conversions--the units in the problems are NOT consistent.

The exam keeps switching back and forth from metric to US units.

When working practice problems, don't get bogged down on questions where you must interpolate data. Other than steam tables, nearly all data is provided. The trickiest thing is watching your units.

Know how to read thermodynamic charts proficiently; this saves significant time during the exam.

Bringing a pallet of books with you will not help because you won't have time to use them. Select a handful of references you know well and can actually use.