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Best Advice For Passing The PE Exam

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I was speaking with a customer last week and he ask me about the PE exam (Professional Engineering Exam).  He had noticed in my signature block that I had passed this exam.  As I was recounting my experience and giving my advice I started to realize just how much of a process it really was.  Usually things seem difficult in the moment but afterwards you can look back and say it wasn’t too bad but this isn’t one of those.  As I was talking through all the different aspects I realized this would make a fantastic post.  Most of this will be similar for everyone but each state does have their own rules that you will need to research.

What is the PE Exam

The Professional Engineering Exam is a comprehensive exam which tests your ability to competently practice in a particular field of engineering.  Basically it is a test on just about everything you learned in engineering school.  It is offered for a variety of different engineering disciplines but the big ones are of course Civil, Mechanical and Electrical with Civil being over half the people who take it.  Once you pass the exam you are officially able to practice engineering in that state.  The test is given once in the spring and once in the fall on a Saturday at the same time all over the country.  The exam is 8 hours.  4 hours in the morning with 40 general multiple choice questions and 40 in the afternoon specific to your chosen discipline.

Why Become a Professional Engineer

I think the number one reason is that it will open some more doors and potentially get you paid more.  There are a lot of consulting companies that will only hire PE’s.  When job hunting you will see PE required or preferred on several of the upper level positions.  That isn’t to say people are going to start knocking down your door to hire you after you pass but it can give you a slight leg up on the competition, which is extremely high for good jobs so we need every advantage we can get.  You should also be able to get whoever you are currently working for to pay for your study materials and test fees.  Hint: if the company you work for hired you as an engineer and won’t pay for this stuff that is probably an awful company and you should definitely get a new job.  Once you pass it you never have to take it again and almost all states acknowledge other states (for a small fee of course).

Prerequisites For Taking The PE Exam

Okay so you’ve decided you are sold and you want to become a professional engineer.  First you’ve got some pre requisites to meet.  I would suggest searching for “(name of state) PE exam” and you will find your state’s website.  Here is the NC PE Handbook which has all of North Carolina’s requirements and rules.  The big things you need are:

  1. Must have an Engineering Degree from a 4 year credited university.  If graduating with a technology degree or from a non credited university you may still be able to take the PE but might be required to get more experience or take additional tests.
  2. Must have passed the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE).  The FE is very similar to the PE just more general.  You can take the FE as early as your Senior year of engineering school.  Test is easier because the material is fresh but you should still study.
  3. Must have 4 years work experience, 2 of which were under or with a PE.  Exceptions can be made but you will need to call your state if you don’t meet that.  A master’s degree will count as one year of experience and a doctorate will count as two years.
  4. Must have 5 professional’s to write a letter of recommendation for you.  3 of which have to be licensed engineers.  These don’t have to be people you worked with or for.  One of mine was just a good friend who was familiar with my work and ethics and another was a vendor who I worked closely on a project with for several months.  Don’t let this one stop you.  You can find people to write letters for you.  Speak to your boss, co workers, professors and see if they can or know someone who might be able to.

Getting Your Paper Work Together

So once you got all that you are ready to start getting your application together.  No big deal right?  Of course it is, they can’t make this easy.   The application form for North Carolina is 20 pages.  Each state will be different but I’m sure they are all pretty painful.  The NC application consisted of education, work experience, current and past addresses, several questions, a checklist and even an ethics exam.  You will have to fill this out and get it notarized and then physically mail it in with some checks for the application fees, test fees, license fees.  In North Carolina you will be required to have your colleges send official transcripts in directly to the state.

You also have to get all 5 of your letter of recommendations to get their stuff written and mailed in by the deadline.  Make it as easy as possible on them.  Send them the form with some stuff already filled out and a pre addressed and stamped envelope.  Be sure to stay on their asses.  Tell them the deadline is two weeks before it really easy and stress to them that you can’t take the test if they don’t get this in.  Everyone is busy so you will almost certainly have one or two that drag their feet.  I know it sucks bugging people who are doing you a favor but you just gotta do it.  All of this has to be in by January 2nd or August 1st depending on if you are taking the spring or fall exam.  Once you are pretty sure everything is in don’t be afraid to call to verify.  In a few weeks you will get a letter stating you are officially registered and to wait for another letter with your assigned seat.  Even though you just sent in an application it just feels so damn good when you get that letter saying you are good to go.

Studying for the Exam

I’m not going to say it is impossible to pass this test without studying but I would say you are doing yourself a huge disservice.  The pass rate is around 60% and that is not a room full of dummies.  That is a room full of people who have graduated engineering school, passed the FE, spent 30 hours on paper work just to get a seat in the room and almost certainly studied.  With that said I know one person who claims to have not studied at all and passed.

In my opinion the best way to study is to see if your local college or university offers a program.  NC State offers a program that can be done in person or online.  Unfortunately it is only offered for Civil Engineers but a good friend of mine took the class and highly recommends it.  I believe the pass rate was over 90% for that class.  If your university doesn’t offer a program I would recommend an online class.  If you are disciplined you could probably do it on your own but you are taking a risk.  It is so much material that it would be difficult to pace yourself through such a massive amount of material  It is really nice having someone to answer questions, give you practice problems and just talk you through the test.

There are a few options out there for online classes but I went with the PPI Live Class for Mechanical Engineers.  I thought the class was very well laid out and well taught.  You had some weekly homework assignments that you had to complete and turn in.  You get some weekly notes to accompany each lecture.  You had a forum where you could post questions and help answer other questions.  You had some practice exams.  And you got some advice on test taking from the professor and other people in the class you had failed before.  This class also came with a Pass Guarantee or you can retake the class again for free.

My biggest piece of advice while studying is to start working problems in a test environment.  I really wish I would have done more of this.  I would do my homework and sample problems the way I always did in college.  I would try to work out the problem and understand it and get the right answer.  That is great and all but on test day you got 360 seconds (6 minutes) to answer each problem.  How you should study is to take the number of homework problems or sample problems you are doing and multiply by 6 minutes.  Set a timer and go.  After the timer goes off then go back through them and try to understand and correct each one.

One thing about studying and practice exams before I move on.  If you take the Mechanical PE Practice Exam by Lindeburg and want to shoot yourself after you finish it please don’t panic.  This test was WAY harder than the actual test.  I believe I scored 50% or less when I took it.  I still recommend taking it because pushing yourself is a good thing just don’t freak out if you think it is super tough.  If you want something much more realistic get the sample test written by the enemy.  NCEES PE Mechanical Practice Exam.  I would say let that be the one you take last to make yourself feel better.

A final note about studying if you are married or have kids.  Be sure to chat with your wife about this before you begin because you are going to putting in about 10 hours minimum a week.  She is going to need to be supportive or you are going to have a tough go of it.  I really appreciate that Theresa was really cool about it the whole way through and never made me feel guilty about what I was doing.

Picking your Books

So one of the unique things about the PE exam is that you can bring any bound notes, books and even sample exams (check your state) into the test with you.  The books and notes can be highlighted and tabulated and you can basically bring as many as you want.  That means choosing which books to bring is a big one and there are a few different theories on it.

There are kind of two schools of thought on this and the first is I’m literally bringing a wagon full of books to this test.  I couldn’t believe how many people I saw with actual wagons, check luggage and book cases on wheels.  People have no shame when it comes to passing this test.  The thought is I would rather have the books and not need them than the other way.  Basically it doesn’t hurt to have them and not touch them.  The problem is time is your biggest enemy on this test and those books act as a distraction.  It kills me and most engineers to know I could solve this problem I just need to find that table or equation.  The thing is you have got almost zero time to be hunting.

The other school of thought is the minimalist camp.  Only bring a few books in there and don’t bring anything you don’t know cover to cover.  I tend to fall more into this category but I did bring a couple of books that I didn’t know that well but thought I might could use if I had time (haha).  My book recommendations for anyone taking the PE for Mechanical Engineers in Machine Design are as follows in order of importance.

  1. Mechanical Engineering Reference Manual – Michael Lindeburg – This is the absolute must buy.  I bet 99.9% of all Civil’s (he has one for them too) and Mechanical’s had this one sitting on there desk.  I probably used it on 75% of the problems.
  2. Engineering Unit Conversions – Michael Lindeburg – This is also a 100% requirement in my opinion.  You will be shocked how many unit conversions you have to do and this book makes it so much easier.  Don’t even consider not getting these first two.  You can get them used for less than $150 total.
  3. Your notes from whatever class you took.  These where hand fed to you by someone who is paid to help you pass and you should be familiar with every page.  I would also suggest throwing in a high quality 17 x 11 psychometric chart.
  4. Machinery’s Handbook – Erik Oberg – I would not call this book a requirement but it does have some fantastic tables, shortcut equations and design standards.  I believe I only used this book on 2 or 3 problems but would not have gotten them without it.
  5. Shigley’s Machine Design – This one is only necessary if you are taking the machine design afternoon portion of the exam.  You could also substitute in your college machine design book.  Just bring one that you know.  I still mainly used my reference manual in the afternoon but did hit this one for a few problems.

I also brought some of the sample exams and the old FE handbook but didn’t touch them.  In addition to the books you need a clear ruler (to help you read psychometric charts) and an approved calculator (basically any non graphing but check your state).

Test Day Strategy 

The test is on Saturday and starts promptly at 8:00am so you better be their early with your ID and registration ticket.  I suggest taking Friday off work to relax and possibly get a hotel in the area.  You do not want to be traveling Saturday morning more than a few miles.  DO NOT STUDY OR REVIEW ANYTHING ON FRIDAY.  Bring some lunch that you can leave in your car and bring a trash bag to cover your books in case it is raining and you have to walk a long ways.

Okay now for the test taking advice that is going to help you pass this thing.  Break up the test into 8 one hour mini blocks.  So take the first ten problems and give yourself one hour to complete those ten problems.  Pretend like that is the whole test.  Do not move onto any other problems until one hour has passed or you feel good about all your answers.  This strategy is so effective because it forces you to into 4 mini time crunches.  It forces you to make some educated guesses more frequently.  By implementing this strategy in the afternoon I believe is the reason I passed.

In the morning I took the traditional advice.  Go through the whole test and answer all the easy ones.  Any of them you know how to do just knock out right away.  Then go back and answer the ones you think you can answer but will take a little digging.  Then start working through the hard ones that you don’t really have much of a clue on.  The problem with this is I felt like I was doing great on time and was really going way too slow.  This test is not that difficult if you make it 16 hours long but it is absolutely brutal to take in 8 hours.  It is more of a test against the clock than the material.  So I did about 15 easy problems in a little over an hour so I thought I was way ahead on time.  So I’m kind of coasting through the next batch of problems that are in the I know how to do them category I just need to look up this or that.  Well as I’m going some of these I know how to do problems are turning into I don’t know how to do and I’m skipping them again.  I’m also taking way longer than 6 minutes and the time is slowly getting away from me.  I get down to less than an hour and I’ve got nothing but the hardest problems and I need to answer them faster than the easy ones.  Panic sets in and by the end I’ve literally taken probably 5 random guesses.  I think I actually answered “B” 5 times in a row in the last 2 minutes.  I ate lunch feeling pretty bad.

What screwed me in the morning was feeling way too relaxed about time early.  Then I ended up re reading questions 3, 4 or 5 times as I kept skipping and coming back wasting more time.  Then I panicked when I saw the time and realized I was facing nothing but hard problems.  When I switched to breaking the test up into 4 sections with one hour for each I felt in so much more control.  I would still answer the easy ones of the ten first but then I’m forcing myself to stay on track.  So much easier to manage a 10 problem one hour test than a 40 problem 4 hour test.  Also when you go back to answer the ones you skipped the problem is fresher in your brain than if you skipped it two hours ago.  And it makes it easier to stay on track with your bubbles.  When jumping around all over 40 problems it is really easy to bubble the wrong number.  This didn’t happen to me but I’ve heard horror stories.

My final advice is to grind.  Hang tough and don’t give up or get frustrated.  You will see some kids getting up and leaving early but you aren’t going to be one of them.  The test is only 8 hours and you need to fight for every answer.  Just think about if you failed and had left an hour early.

After the Test

After you are done be proud of your effort, call someone who will listen to you and go relax somewhere.  You will be physically tired and your brain will feel like a pile of mush.  I chose pizza, beer, tequila and a few episodes of Breaking Bad for my celebrating.  As hard as it is to not think about if you passed or not you better try because you aren’t going to hear anything for about 6 weeks.  I took the test October 25th and found out December 15th in Laguardia Airport.

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If anybody has any questions let me know in the comments section and I would be happy to help in anyway I can.

-Grant

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Good Information with great explanations! Nice to read.

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