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Preparing for the NCEES PE Exam

By: Michael Lindeburg, PE
January 12, 2022
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Preparing for the PE exam is a formidable task. In fact, planning your preparation, developing a study plan, and sticking to it is an engineering feat in its own right! You already know the benefits of earning your PE license, but how can you ensure you are prepared for the PE exam? This article explores ways to prepare for the PE exam, as well as strategies for following through on your personal study plan.

Caution: The tips below assume that you have already applied to take the PE exam and that you have sufficient time to prepare for it. We recommend at least three months of study time.

Preparing to Study for the PE Exam

To effectively prepare for the PE exam, you should start studying as soon as possible. You may not be ready to start the exam preparation process, but becoming familiar with the exam, acquiring the review materials needed, and signing up for a prep course could help motivate you to optimize your studying.

1. Thoroughly study the PE exam format and subject outline.

2. If you have a current PE reference manual, read the introductory chapter for information about your exam and tips on how to prepare successfully for it. (If your manual isn't current, however, it may have information about a prior exam format, so it's best to check this online.)

3. Decide what you are going to study: 

(A) Are you going to study all exam subjects (which I recommend) or a subset of the exam (which is what most engineers do)? 

(B) Are you going to review explicitly by studying the chapter theory or review implicitly by solving problems?

4. Decide how you want to prepare: 

(A) Study on your own with books and practice problems; 

(B) Use audio, video, or CD-ROM products to enhance your self-study; 

(C) Enroll in a "live" prep course; 

(D) Take a correspondence course.

5. Seek out and accumulate practice or sample PE exams, available from PPI and other academic sources.

6. Decide on a calculator. Locate the instruction manual. Make sure you have extra batteries and know how to change them. Have another calculator available as a spare, and make sure you know how to use it.

7. Establish a secure study location in your home where you can spread out each day without having to clean up.

8. Establish an "exam-item consolidation" box or drawer, into which you can toss items that you want to take with you to the exam. It is surprising how much you will accumulate in a month or more.

9. Put your name on everything (your calculator and books) that you intend to bring with you to the exam.

What PE exam textbooks do I need?

Identify the books that are essential references to study for your PE exam. Check your local and corporate library for books you can borrow rather than purchase. Assemble college textbooks, collections of old class notes, and other collections of solved problems. These are not necessarily the same books you will take into the exam. Decide which books you want to accumulate, and get as many as you possibly can.

Examinee Advice: "Don’t bother to buy any book that doesn’t have a decent index. Lindeburg’s books have great indexes. Don’t underestimate how much a good index will help you. You’ll save time studying and during the exam."

If you have a passed-down or borrowed PE reference manual, determine if the edition is current. Changes in exam format, codes, and emphasis often make using an old edition a big mistake. If you are taking the civil or structural exam, make sure you know which codes (year or edition), if any, will be used in your exam. 

Study with the editions of the codes that are specified for the exam, whether they are current or not. Frequently, what's used on the exam lags well behind current usage in the real world. Use PPI's Errata listings to correct any mistakes that have been identified in PPI books. Check with other publishers whose books you may be using to see if they have errata lists.

Getting Support When Studying for the PE Exam

The stress of studying for the PE exam when you have family responsibilities can be alleviated with commitment from your family and support from your employer. Explain to family members and friends what you are doing and why it is important to your career that you pass the PE exam. Emphasize the importance of earning your PE license, including the added respect from peers and the possibility of a higher paycheck at work. 

Communicate to your family the importance of your study schedule, time dedication, and goals. Gaining the support of your family can hold you accountable for achieving your goals, as they can encourage you during periods of burnout or high stress. Explain how long the process is going to take and what changes to your behavior and lifestyle might occur.

Your employer can be another source of support and guidance as you start your journey towards licensure. Ask your employer if you can set time aside at work to study for the PE exam, or go into work early or stay late to study in a productive environment. Coordinate with your employer for time off of work right before the exam in order to relax and enter into the right frame of mind for passing the PE.

Developing Your PE Exam Study Plan

After gathering family and employer support, the next step towards earning your PE is developing a study plan. Take out a calendar, mark the date of the PE exam, and plan out your time leading up to that date. Be sure to include family trips, birthdays, and any other events that may impact your study schedule. 

Then, try to find blocks of time where you can study each week for at least 2 hours. Write out the topics you will study for each session, and be sure to include time for practice exams as well. If you are unsure how to start this process, PPI has many resources, such as study schedules, online instructor-led prep courses, as well as e-Learning review materials that will help you formulate a plan.

Examinee Advice: "Sign up for email updates. That was the only way I found out about the new exam format!"

Committing to Your PE Exam Study Plan

Consistently dedicating time to your study plan will invariably become overwhelming. However, there are ways that you can manage your time throughout the day to achieve your ultimate goal. One way to begin is by deleting distracting apps or social media accounts. By eliminating the items in your life that aren’t conducive to achieving your goal, you will be more likely to stay on track. If deleting these apps is a little too extreme for you, you can install programs onto your phone that limit your time on distracting apps. Additionally, you can leave any distracting items outside of your designated study room.

Enrolling in a PE test prep course is another effective way to commit to your study plan. PPI’s prep courses keep your studies on track and ensure your time is focused on the topics needed to pass the exam. Other strategies to make the most of your study time include;

  • Making a review schedule, allocating time to all of the subjects you intend to study.

  • Adding color-coded book tabs to useful pages as you’re reviewing. Caution: Some states do not permit the use of removable sticky notes in books. Check with your State Boards.

  • Assembling and organizing your work in a manner that works for you.

  • Taking one or more of your practice exams as you approach the PE exam date. Evaluate your readiness and work on your weaknesses.

  • Rereading the "What to Do Before the Exam" sections in your PE reference manual.

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

Alleviate PE Exam Stress By Practicing Self-Care

Passing the PE exam requires more than just engineering knowledge—you will need to be resilient and possess strong communication skills and the ability to think outside the box. Studying aggressively for the PE exam could lead to burnout, and the best way to prevent that is by setting aside time for breaks. Take the time to socialize with family and friends to alleviate the stress. 

Keep in mind that building up resilience to pass the PE exam demands more than just studying. Ensure you are taking care of your body by eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and sleeping for 8 hours each night. Most importantly, relax. If you have intentionally followed the tips in this article, you will be in a great position on exam day.

Examinee Advice: "Whatever you do to relax, do it the day before the exam. A clear mind is very important."

What to Bring on PE Exam Day

Apart from studying for your PE exam, this section includes what you can expect on the day of your exam as well as what you’ll want to bring with you. Read our related blog to learn more about what to bring to the PE exam.

  • "Have all the logistics of exam day well planned. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you’ve already seen the exam site, know where you’re going to park, how you’re going to carry your reference books, etc."

  • "Check with your state board to find out whether you can bring loose papers or three-ring binders into the exam room. This apparently varies a lot among states. Having your own three-ring binder of material is very helpful."

  • "Don’t buy an expensive calculator if you do not have time to learn how to use it."

  • "Wear layers of clothing for the exam--our room was at first way too hot and then way too cold! You need to be able to take clothes off or add them easily."

  • "I photocopied the index to my reference manual and kept it separate. During the exam, I had both the index and the main text open in front of me. Definition problems call for a lot of use of the index. It’s great to have it available at all times."

  • "Bring a straight edge to help with reading graphs."

  • "Bring a wheeled suitcase with your books in it. My arms almost fell off trying to carry mine."

  • "Bring a backup calculator and extra batteries. I couldn’t believe it when the display on my calculator started losing characters during the exam."

  • "Bring earplugs. The exam room can be very noisy. I sat next to a guy who grunted every 30 seconds, and it drove me crazy. I will never go into the exam room without earplugs again!"

  • "Bring your own lunch. You never know what the food is going to be like on-site. This is the only way you can be sure you’ll have something decent to eat, in a timely manner."

  • "A couple of power bars are a real pick-me-up (if your proctors allow you to eat during the exam)."

  • "Bring a pillow or cushion to sit on. Those seats get hard."

What to Do (and Not to Do) During the PE Exam

In this section, past examinees share tips concerning what you should, and should not, do during your PE exam. To learn more, read our blog on what to expect on the day of the PE exam.

  • "Read each problem all the way through to the end. Then start solving. Don’t just dive in. You may be given information at the end that will change what you THINK the problem is about."

  • "Don’t get caught by units. In many, many problems, there were two “right” answers listed—but one was not in the units the problem was asking for! Focus on what conversion you may need to make."

  • "Take time to check your calculations. Calculation errors will kill you. I know—I reviewed my last exam and kicked myself for all the stupid avoidable calculation errors!"

  • "Don’t leave a single problem blank—there’s no penalty for guessing."

  • "Bubble in your answers as you go! Don’t wait until the final 10-minute warning to start bubbling in your “guess” answers. That 10 minutes will be gone before you know it."

Preparing, Studying, and Passing the NCEES PE Exam

Think you’re ready for the PE exam? Here’s a final review of what you’ll need to prepare adequately:

  • Get ready to study. Think about what, how, and where you’re going to study.

  • Gather your PE exam study materials; including textbooks, calculators, class notes, etc.

  • Request support at work and at home.

  • Develop and follow through with your study plan.

  • Practice self-care to alleviate stress ahead of your exam.

  • Know what you’re going to bring into the exam with you.

  • Understand the Do’s and Don’t’s of taking the PE exam.

 As you near the end of your PE exam study plan, read our blog to find out what happens after you pass the PE exam.

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