You’ve gotten your engineering (or engineering technology) degree(s). You’ve worked for an engineering firm, governmental agency, or in some other industry to meet your state engineering board’s experience requirement. You’ve gone through the hassle of applying to sit for the PE Exam. You’re ready to start studying and take the last step in becoming a professional engineer (PE)-passing the infamous PE Exam. What follows is some personal advice and advice I garnered from others and applied in successfully passing this exam.
If you plan on signing up for a review course to help you study for the exam, great; but if you’re a diligent enough student (you made it this far so chances are that you are) you’ll make it through by studying on your own and will save $1000-$2000 in the process. Ideally, start studying four months before the exam date. Study at least five days a week for 2-4 hours a session. This is a minimum-Michael Lindeburg states that a thorough review takes 300 hours. You want to pass this exam on the first try because, believe me, you only want to go through the exam process once.
Purchase the Lindeburg Review Manual and accompanying problem set for the engineering discipline you are taking the exam in. Review each chapter and then complete the accompanying problem set (or at least a portion thereof). You may be able to skip certain sections if you find, through your own research, such topics aren’t covered in your discipline’s exam.
Memorize as many commonly used conversion factors as you can. Commit as many commonly used formula to memory. Much of this will come naturally as you work the problems. Anything you commit to memory and don’t look up will save crucial time during the exam.
During your studying I suggest participating in a very helpful web forum, www.engineerboards.com. The users on this site provide very specific, informative, and useful information to help you pass the exam and reduce test anxiety. Some users go as far as posting pictures of their tabbed references as well as their reference material moving crates.
Two weeks before the exam, take NCEES’ practice exam. Lindeburg’s PPI offers a practice exam but it is way more difficult than the actual exam and not representative of the exam questions. After you take the practice exam, study and review the subjects you struggled with the most.
Take the last week to become very familiar with the organization and placement of material within the entire Review Manual. It will suffice to tab just the individual chapters of the Review Manual; individual sections or formulas within chapters do not have to be tabbed.
Pack your exam kit and review materials two nights before the exam and have everything ready to go. The night before the exam, do not study at all and try (easier said than done) to not even think about the exam. This time of relaxation can be crucial to optimizing your performance on exam day.
On Taking the Exam
My first piece of advice in tackling a PE Exam problem is to read and think about each problem carefully in order to determine the crux of each problem, what the problem is really asking for. This is really about 50% of the battle. You will sometimes have to spend a minute or two thinking about what the problem is really asking for before beginning your solution approach. This is time well spent, as any red herring pursued will rob valuable exam minutes.
Being able to swiftly locate information and formulas is part of the key to passing the exam, as time will be your biggest enemy. If you can’t find what you’re looking for or get stuck on some aspect of a problem, move on to the next problem. This point is so important it needs to be repeated. If you get stuck on any aspect of a problem and it is taking too much time, move on.
The last crucial step in taking the exam successfully is paying close attention to the units the exam problem asks for its answer in. The distracter answers will have the correct answer in different units than the problem is asking for.
Follow the advice of any other multiple choice formatted exam: perform an educated guess if you can’t precisely determine the answer to any problem; make sure you have enough time to at least look at each problem so you can perform at least an educated guess if you don’t know how to approach a problem; and check your time often to make sure you are on the path to at least attempting each exam problem.
The College Board performed a study that determined test fatigue starts to seriously hinder performance at 5:45 into an exam. You will notice this. Every person I know that took this exam reported much higher difficulties in the afternoon module-whether this is because of higher afternoon module difficulty or exam fatigue is uncertain. Nevertheless, about six hours into the exam, reading “See spot run.” will be difficult. To counter this fatigue, make sure you eat a healthy lunch and get as much sleep as you can the night before. I drank a couple Red Bulls during the course of the exam to keep as alert as possible.
After the Exam
Take that exam content nondisclosure agreement you signed before you started the exam seriously. There have been people who have passed the exam only to have been failed by their state boards because they disclosed exam question content while waiting for results.
You will be waiting on results for at least two months. The wait is almost as difficult as taking the exam is. You will probably forget you took the exam after about two weeks and will be pleasantly surprised when you receive your results.
The elation of discovering you passed the exam and don’t have to go through the arduous process again is a flashbulb memory that will forever be ingrained in your engineering career scrapbook.