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Ultimate Guide to the PE Civil Exam

April 29, 2022

What is the PE Civil exam?

The PE Civil Exam is an 8-hour, 80-question exam including multiple-choice, multiple-correct, point-and-click, drag-and-drop, and fill-in-the-blank questions. The PE Civil Exam is designed by NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) to test competency in civil engineering. Passing the PE Civil Exam is a mandatory step toward becoming a licensed professional engineer. The first 40 questions are breadth questions, and the second 40 questions refer to your chosen depth area, depending on your specialty:

There are no individually timed sections on the PE Civil Exam, meaning that you are responsible for managing your time on the exam. You’ll begin the exam with a 2-minute nondisclosure agreement, and an 8-minute tutorial, and then you can begin work on the test questions. Throughout the exam you’ll encounter pretest items included to test questions for use in future exams. They’re unscored, but you won’t be able to identify which questions are pretest questions and which are legitimate exam questions. 

You’re allowed one 50-minute scheduled break during which you can leave the testing center. You can take additional breaks as needed, during which you may not leave the testing center, but unlike the scheduled break these additional breaks will eat into your exam time.

PE Civil Exam Scoring

The PE Civil Exam is a pass/fail test. No points are deducted for wrong answers, meaning that your raw score is determined by adding together your correct answers. There is no partial credit awarded, no matter the question type. Your raw score is scaled to account for minor differences in difficulty between different versions of the exam. There is no published passing score and no limit on the number of passing exams per window. There is no difference in how first-time and repeat test-takers are evaluated. 

Scores for the exam will be available 7-10 days after you take the exam. You’ll receive an email from NCEES about how to access your scores and how to proceed based on whether you passed or failed. If you fail the exam, you’ll get a diagnostic report that will tell you what test areas you struggled with.

PE Civil Exam Switched from Paper-and-Pencil to CBT

The PE Civil Exam switched to a CBT (Computer Based Testing) format (from a paper-and-pencil format) in 2022. The last paper-and-pencil PE Civil Exam administration took place in October of 2021. This transition to a CBT format allows for greater exam security, more uniformity in testing experience, and a greater variety of question types. In addition to multiple-choice questions, the CBT version of the exam is able to ask multiple-correct, point-and-click, drag-and-drop, and fill-in-the-blank questions. 

The PE Civil Exam Computer Based Test will be offered at Pearson VUE testing centers year-round. There are four annual testing windows: January-March, April-June, July-September, and October-December. Eligibility requirements include four years of work experience, but specific requirements vary from state to state. Make sure you’re eligible in your state.

When you're creating a study plan, we recommend starting with one of our prep course options, which ensure that you receive comprehensive and up-to-date exam review while catering to your schedule and prep needs. Choose your depth section to view our prep course bundles and additional review materials for the PE Civil Exam.

How to Register for the PE Civil Exam

The ability to register and schedule for the CBT PE Civil Exam is available through your NCEES account. Once you register for the exam, you’ll get an authorization email from NCEES indicating that you’ve received approval to take the exam within the next 12 months. You’ll then be able to select the “SCHEDULE” option in your NCEES account and select a testing date and location. The PE Civil Exam is administered at Pearson VUE testing centers, which are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll be required to pay an exam fee of $375 at the time of registration. 

As a general rule, PE Civil examinees are eligible to retake the PE Civil Exam once per testing window, and up to three times per year. Check your state board for additional state-specific retesting requirements.

Exam rescheduling and cancellation are also done through your NCEES account. Reschedule using the “Modify Appointment” button at least 24 hours before your exam appointment. Keep in mind that you may be required to pay rescheduling fees, though some examinees are eligible for refunds.

Exam cancellation requires re-applying and re-paying for the exam.

How to Study for the PE Civil CBT Exam

It’s recommended that you spend approximately 300 hours studying for the PE Civil Exam. To ensure that you’re studying the right information at an appropriate pace, consider signing up for one of PPI’s PE Civil Exam prep courses. Depending on the level and frequency of prep you require, as well as your chosen depth area, you can choose between the three following exam prep bundles:

  • Live Online Course Bundle: Attend virtual live lectures, problem-solving demonstrations, exam strategy sessions, and office hours facilitated by licensed engineers. You’ll receive homework assignments, class notes, and reference materials. This prep option will prepare you for the depth and breadth portions of the exam. 

  • OnDemand Course Bundle: Get access to pre-recorded lectures, problem-solving demonstrations, and exam strategy sessions from licensed engineers, as well as homework assignments and reference materials. This is a great option for students with busy schedules, who need the option to study on the go or at inconsistent times. 

  • Self Study - Learning Hub and Print Bundle: This study option is designed for students who need a refresher before they take the PE Civil Exam, but may not need a full review course. With this option, you’ll get access to the PE Learning Hub and printed practice materials.

If you only wish to purchase review materials to help with the breadth portion of the PE Civil Exam, consider our Breadth-Only products, including the PE Civil Reference Manual, PE Civil Practice Problems Book, and the PE Civil Quick Reference Book

Studying with the PE Civil Reference Manual

The PE Civil Reference Manual includes all the information you need to prepare for the breadth portion of the PE Civil Exam, as well as an overview of each depth topic, study scheduling help, exam tips, and up-to-date codes. 

Since the exam is now given in a CBT format, you are not permitted to bring any materials into the exam with you, including the reference manual. Instead, you will have access to an electronic NCEES PE Civil Reference Handbook and the design standards for your depth section.

How to Study with the NCEES PE Civil Reference Handbook

With the introduction of the NCEES Handbook, students may be relying too heavily on the Handbook while preparing for the exam. Expecting that everything needed for the exam will be supplied to them, may be doing them a disservice. 

The Handbook is only a reference. The NCEES does not claim "what is on the exam will be in the Handbook." If a topic is listed in the exam specifications, it should be studied in-depth, regardless if you can find it in the Handbook or not. 

It's also important to understand the material well enough that you don't need the Handbook, but know the Handbook and design standards inside and out. Meaning, don't expect to search through the provided material for an answer, but know your references so well that if you need a refresher, you know where to look. One of the biggest stressors on these tests is the time cap, especially if it's approaching, and that time can easily diminish as you search for keywords. NCEES provides the Handbook to you ahead of the test, so take advantage of that since you cannot take your own materials.

With the CBT exams, and the PE exam in general, you should already have a firm grasp on the material (it's what you do in practice almost every day except for some topics), so a large part of your studying should also be how to take the exam.

Preparing for the PE Civil exam? Test your skills with a free sample quiz.

Test Day: Taking the PE Civil Exam

To take the PE Civil Exam, show up to your test location 30 minutes prior to your exam start time. Bring with you a current photo ID (government-issued, military, or an international passport), a printed copy of your appointment confirmation letter, and an NCEES-approved calculator. For more detailed information about what items are and are not allowed inside the testing room, refer to the NCEES Exam Guide

Reasonable accommodations are available to those test-takers with a documented disability or scheduling conflict due to military service or Sabbath observance. Any accommodations required must be requested during the registration process. 

Since the exam is now given in CBT format, it is no longer open book. Examinees will only have access to an electronic NCEES PE Civil Reference Handbook and design standards for their depth section.

Which PE Civil Depth Section Should I Take?

Can't decide which PE Civil depth section to take? Choosing a depth section is a big decision, particularly if you're unsure of the best route to take. It could mean the difference between passing and failing depending on how well you know the material. You'll need to consider your knowledge of the tested material and what information could be most useful to you in your career. Here are some of the discovery steps you can take to find this answer:

  1. Review what depth section topic would benefit your career, where you are working now, and what you want to do in the future.

  2. Take what you liked in school and what you scored well in.

Proceed with caution if you’re considering the construction depth exam. Some engineers falsely perceive this depth section as being easy. This is exam is actually one of the more difficult sections and can take engineers by surprise. If you would like more information about this or other PE depth sections, we invite you to explore our PE Civil Exam resources.

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