How to Succeed on the PE Exam

Marsha Leroux

Passing the Professional Engineer exam signals a career milestone. It shows you’re committed to high standards of competence and ethics. You’re ready for more responsibility and can move up the career ladder.

But preparing for an eight-hour test of both the depth and breadth of your knowledge — while you’re working full time — will also test your dedication and organizational skills.

Here are some tips for mastering this challenge:


1. Gather your study materials ahead of time, including reference manuals, a practice exam from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying®, which administers the exam, and an NCEES-approved calculator. Find out if your employer will help pay for your fees and/or study materials. (Freese and Nichols does — and pays a bonus when you pass.)

2. Establish a schedule and strategy for studying. Determine how many months/weeks you want to devote to preparation and how to build study sessions into your day. Also map out a schedule for how much study time to allocate for each subject area. Be sure to check out the NCEES Exam Specifications and Design Standards to see what topics will be tested.

3. Work lots of practice problems. Don’t just read through the solutions. Working the problems gets you familiar with your reference materials and uncovers sticking points that you need to work on. Practice solving problems with your NCEES-approved calculator to become familiar with how to use it.

4. Do a practice run. Pick a day about a month before the exam, find a quiet place where you can work uninterrupted and simulate the real testing experience. Spend four hours on a 40-question “breadth” morning work session, take a lunch break, then devote four hours in the afternoon to solve 40 “depth” problems. It will be a miserable day, but it’ll help prepare you for the real test day and provide a good idea of where you stand and what topics you still need to work on.

Taking the Exam

1. Try your best to get a good sleep the night before the exam and eat a good breakfast the morning of. Avoid staying up late the night before to cram. Taking an exam for eight hours is exhausting, and you need a clear, well-rested mind to do your best. (Fortunately, Freese and Nichols gives you time off both the day before the exam and the day of.)

2. The night before the exam, gather everything you’ll need to take with you, to avoid forgetting anything in the morning. Remember your ID, admission paper from the NCEES, calculator, extra batteries or a backup calculator, reference materials, snacks/lunch and a sweater/jacket if you get cold easily.

3. Pay careful attention to units both in the problem statement and in the answer choices. You don’t want to lose points because you forgot to convert units.

4. Don’t get hung up or flustered by any particular problem. Make an educated guess and move on, then return to the question later if you have time. Use your limited time wisely. As soon as you’ve read the question, you need to have a good idea about what approach to take and quickly start solving the problem.

Yes, the PE test was hard. The most challenging part for me was having to work the problems under a time constraint. But with good preparation, you can reach this professional goal.