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About the NCEES PE Exam, or Professional Engineer Exam

By: PPI
May 12, 2021
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Taking the NCEES PE exam is a big step in your professional career. Understanding the details of the PE exam is an important part of your preparation to sit for the exam. 

What is the NCEES PE exam?

The NCEES PE exam (Principles and Practice of Engineering exam) is the exam you need to pass in order to become a professional licensed engineer in the United States. The PE tests your knowledge for a minimum level of competency in an engineering discipline of your choice.

You can take the PE exam after passing your FE exam and gaining at least 4 years of relevant post-college work experience. Once you pass, you are able to put the designation “P.E.” after your name, indicating that you are a Professional Engineer.

Why become a PE?

Passing the PE exam doesn’t just signal to others that you are at the top of your field; it’s also a gateway to pay raises, promotions, and career opportunities like consulting and stamping designs. Beyond personal gain, obtaining your PE license benefits the public by ensuring that important engineering activities are only completed by those who have the proper knowledge and training.

Engineers challenge themselves with the important task of protecting public safety, and obtaining your PE license is a pledge to uphold the high standards of the profession. Professional Engineers help keep our communities healthier, safer, and more efficient. Pursuing PE licensure is an honorable and responsible path for any engineer.

What is the deadline for the PE application?

The application deadline varies significantly by state, ranging from 45 days to more than 180 days before the exam date. Check with your state board for your deadline.

Do the PE exams differ from state to state?

The PE exams are the same nationwide. They are written by the NCEES and have been adopted by all U.S. states and territories.

Some states, however, require PE exam candidates to take additional exams to obtain their license. For example, California requires PE Civil exam candidates to pass not only the 8-hour Civil PE exam but also two additional exams covering surveying and seismic principles. Contact your state board for specific requirements that may affect you.

When do I choose the subject of my PE exam?

Regardless of which PE exam you are taking, you must choose your exam subject upon registration. This applies to all sessions of every PE exam.

What is the format of the NCEES PE exam?

The NCEES PE exam is an 8-hour exam with 80 questions, with the exception of the PE Chemical CBT exam and the PE Electrical and Computer CBT exam. See the NCEES website for more details.

What subjects are on the PE exam?

Take a look at the NCEES exam specifications to see the subjects for your discipline. Irrespective of the published exam structure, the exact number of questions that will appear in each subject area cannot be predicted reliably. There is no guarantee that any single subject will occur in any quantity. One of the reasons for this is that some of the questions span several disciplines. You might consider a pump selection question to come from the subject of fluids, while NCEES might categorize it as engineering economics.

What is the typical question format?

Almost all of the questions are standalone—that is, they are completely independent. However, NCEES allows that some sets of questions may start with a statement of a “situation” that will apply to (typically) two to five following questions. Such grouped questions are increasingly rare, however. Each of the questions will have four answer options labeled “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”. If the answer options are numerical, they will be displayed in increasing value. One of the answer options is correct (or, will be “most nearly correct,” as described in the following section). The remaining answer options are incorrect and may consist of one or more “logical distractors,” the term used by NCEES to designate incorrect options that look correct. 

NCEES intends the questions to be unrelated. Questions are independent or start with new given data. A mistake on one of the questions should not cause you to get a subsequent question wrong. However, considerable time may be required to repeat previous calculations with a new set of given data.

Is the exam tricky?

Other than providing superfluous data, the PE exam is not a “tricky exam.” The exam does not overtly try to get you to fail. Examinees manage to fail on a regular basis with perfectly straightforward questions. The exam questions are difficult in their own right. NCEES does not need to provide misleading or conflicting statements. However, you will find that commonly made mistakes are represented in the available answer choices. Thus, the alternative answers (known as distractors) will be logical. 

Questions are generally practical, dealing with common and plausible situations that you might experience in your job. You will not be asked to design a structure for reduced gravity on the moon, to design a mud-brick road, to analyze the effects of a nuclear bomb blast on a structure, or to use bamboo for tension reinforcement.

Preparing for the PE exam? Test your skills with a free sample quiz. Choose your discipline: PE Civil, PE Electrical, or PE Mechanical.

What makes the questions difficult?

Some questions are difficult because the pertinent theory is not obvious. There may be only one acceptable procedure, and it may be heuristic (or defined by a code) such that nothing else will be acceptable. Many highway capacity questions are this way. Some questions are difficult because the data needed is hard to find. Some data just is not available unless you happen to have brought the right reference book. Many of the structural questions are of this nature. There is no way to solve most structural steel questions without the AISC Manual. Designing an eccentrically loaded concrete column without published interaction diagrams is nearly impossible to do in six minutes. If you did not bring OSHA regulations to the exam, you are not going to be able to answer many safety questions. 

Some questions are difficult because they defy the imagination. Three-dimensional structural questions and some surveying curve questions fit this description. If you cannot visualize the question, you probably cannot solve it. Some questions are difficult because the computational burden is high, and they just take a long time. Pipe networking questions solved with the Hardy Cross method fall into this category. Some questions are difficult because the terminology is obscure, and you just do not know what the terms mean. This can happen in almost any subject.

What reference material is permitted in the exam?

See What to Bring to the PE Exam for details on what you should and shouldn't bring to the exam.

Are tabs permitted on my exam references?

Most states will allow you to use “permanent” (glued or taped on, not easily removable) tabs on your references. Some states even allow Post-It® notes. Check with your state board to confirm its policy on tabs.

What is the exam’s calculator policy?

The NCEES often changes their calculator policy. Click here for the current calculator policy.

What is the exam’s pencil policy?

NCEES will provide you with the mechanical pencil you must use for the exam. The supplied pencils use 0.7 mm lead. You may bring extra lead and your own eraser.

Do you need a prep course?

Approximately 60% of first-time PE examinees take an instructor-led review course of some form. Live classroom and online courses of various types, as well as previously recorded lessons, are available for some or all of the exam topics. Live courses and instructor-moderated internet courses provide several significant advantages over self-directed study, some of which may apply to you. 

A course structures and paces your review. It ensures that you keep going forward without getting bogged down in one subject. A course focuses you on a limited amount of material. Without a course, you might not know which subjects to study. A course provides you with the questions you need to solve. You will not have to spend time looking for them. A course spoon-feeds you the material. The course instructor can answer your questions when you are stuck. You probably already know if any of these advantages apply to you.

How long should you study for the PE exam?

We have all heard stories of the person who did not crack a book until the week before the exam and still passed it with flying colors. Yes, these people really exist. However, I am not one of them, and you probably are not either. A thorough review takes approximately 300 hours. Most of this time is spent solving problems. Some of it may be spent in class; some is spent at home. Some examinees spread this time over a year. Others try to cram it all into two months. Most review courses last for three or four months. The best time to start studying will depend on how much time you can spend per week.

Wondering where to start?

Check to see if your employer has an assistance program for licensure. They might even pay for your exam fees and review materials, and provide you with mentorship from a Professional Engineer at your firm. You’ll also want to review the exam specs for your discipline. The exam specs tell you all the knowledge areas you’ll be tested on, in addition to the design standards they follow.

If you’re ready to start preparing for your PE exam, start by choosing your discipline and selecting the review path that works for your skill level and study needs. A prep course is a great way to prepare for your exam, including expert instruction and all the materials you need to prepare. 

Ready to ace the PE exam?

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