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20 tips to pass the professional engineer exam

So you’ve decided that you want to further your career by pursuing a Professional Engineer (PE) license? Congratulations! As mentioned previously here, the benefits of a PE license always outweigh the months of free time spent studying.  In stacks of resumes, engineers with a PE license more often meet CH2M’s preferred qualifications. 

You’ve researched engineering licensure laws in your state, which include passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam in your senior year of college, working under the supervision of a PE and obtaining four years of progressive experience. You’ve registered for the exam.  You’ve sharpened your pencils and grabbed a new notebook. Now it’s time to work diligently to prepare for your exam. When and where do you start? (Hint: learning through osmosis is not an option, so take that prep book out from under your pillow.)

The PE exam is developed by professional engineers to reflect real world practice. It focuses in on specific subjects and the questions are a little more in depth. Unlike the FE exam, the PE exam is open book, but don't let that fool you into thinking the PE exam is easy!  What engineer doesn’t like a challenge? According to NSPE, about 26,000 engineer interns take the PE exam every year, and the pass rate is typically in the low 60s as a percentage.

Looking to get in that 60%? Take a peek at these 20 study tips from three of my favorite Professional Engineers at CH2M, Stephen Heard, Kristin Duda and Mary Campbell:

  1. “I was advised to study every day for six months prior to the exam, but in reality it was closer to every day for the three months leading up to the test date,” says Stephen who passed the Mechanical Engineering PE exam in April 2012. “I would recommended at least three months of solid studying, especially if it's been awhile since college.”  Similarly, Kristen, an Environmental Engineer who passed the exam in October 2008 said, “I started studying for the October test in June and stuck to one night per week plus one day per weekend.”
  2. Create a schedule and try to stick with it as much as possible.
  3. “Study before or after hours at work if you have distractions at home,” advised Mary, who passed the Chemical Engineering exam in October 2006.
  4. “Bring the books to the exam that you are intimate with,” suggested Stephen.  “Many people (especially civils) showed up with crates of books. You don't want to be fumbling through a strange book during the exam hoping to find an answer that you're not sure is even there.”
  5. Check out Amazon for some helpful PE reference books.
  6. Flag important sections of your books so you can find them later.
  7. Regulations and applicable training manuals are useful to bring to the test. Mary brought her HAZWOPER and ISO training materials.
  8. The FE reference handbook is available free online as a PDF. It has a lot of valuable equations and would be good to have with you on test day. 
  9. Develop "muscle memory" with your calculators and reference guides, so you don't fumble during the exam.
  10. Skip the apps. Focus on practicing with paper and pencil. There's no shortcuts here, and the real exam is on paper and pencil.
  11. Practice exams are your friends! Stephen worked through two practice exams: one that came with his PE reference book and the official NCEES practice exam. He said, “The NCEES practice exam was very realistic in terms of difficulty. The PE reference book practice exam was hellish and much more difficult than what I experienced on test day.”
  12. Practice problems by hand. Kristen said, “One of the craziest things was spending a full day writing for the exam! I was so out of practice after spending all day, every day at my laptop!”
  13. Work as many practice problems as you can. Do all of the ones in the workbook and then the practice exams.
  14. Mary said, “I had a notebook and pencil just like in college and just wrote everything out (it was actually refreshing after being behind a computer for 8-9 hours).”
  15. For the ‘practical’ questions, you most likely aren't going to find the answer in a textbook - you either know it or you don't. Mary commented, “I clearly remember a question about the best type of meter to sample at a landfill. I had never done this type of sampling, so I remember leafing through my waste textbook hopelessly.”
  16. The best free resources are most likely other people preparing to take the test and people who have passed the PE, so ask around.
  17. Many universities have free PE preparation courses. Stephen took a few at the University of Arkansas and they helped him to set his mindset for preparing and studying.
  18. Make sure you bring your own watch. Don't assume they will have a clock in the room. Mary said, “I still have the $6 watch I bought at the pharmacy during lunch between sessions.”
  19. Remember supplies like your calculator, a spare calculator and spare batteries.
  20. Make sure you know where you're going for the test (how to get to the room itself).

So take a deep breath, crack open a book and start following some of these tips. Either way, you’ll survive the day - I swear. All of your fellow engineers did, and you will too.

Happy studying to all you future PEs out there!

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