This exam is referred to as the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam that is conducted to measure a minimum amount of proficiency in a certain discipline of engineering. This exam is taken by those who have concluded four years in a particular discipline of engineering and have attained professional work experience in that field. The format of the exam is such that it comprises 80 questions and the time given to attend those questions in pencil-and-paper format. At present, such exams are offered in pencil-and-paper format, but some PE exams are directed year-round with the help of computer-based testing.
This exam is conducted in two halves, i.e., the first half comprises questions from all five regions of civil engineering and the second half comprises questions from any one area of practice. The instructions and level of this exam are modified 6 months before the exam administration. The notification for this exam to be conducted in April will be posted in November, and for October, it will be posted in May. When you have to fill out the form for this exam, you will be required to select an afternoon module, based on which scoring will be done. Given below are the five specializations in Civil Engineering:
- Construction Engineering
- Geotechnical Engineering
- Structural Engineering
- Transportation Engineering
- Water Resources and Environmental Engineering
The exam results are declared 8–10 weeks after the exam administration to the licensing boards. You will be notified for this exam based on your state, via online mode, through your MyNCEES account, or will be notified via postal mail from your state licensing board. The fees required to appear in this exam vary from state to state or as per the foreign location. Depending upon your place of registration, fees may be paid directly to NCEES, the state licensing board, or the designer of the board. The exam type is an open book where you are allowed to bring reference materials, they may bound it with ring binders, brads, plastic snap binders, spiral-bound notebooks, or screw posts. Staple is not permitted inside the examination hall. Flags and notes are permitted only when attached to bound materials, otherwise, they are not allowed when these are taken loose. NCEES also conducts mock tests so you can familiarise yourself with the exam format. These tests comprise questions that are based on past years and questions written just for study materials to provide extra practice.
Fig 1: Books available online for PE Civil Exam
Preparing for this exam is not a tough journey at all. Before starting with the preparation, it is important to know which subject is the easiest and which one is hardest. Here are some points-
- Starting with Construction Engineering, it is the most popular exam taken by most civil engineers. This is because they think that the topics found in the tough questions in this, they get surprised as they were expecting general questions which according to them would be easy. Eventually, they worked on topics or questions that they never studied, or that were set up in a way that was difficult to understand and solve. Upon looking at the Civil Engineering Reference Manual, this subject comprises topics found throughout the whole of the book. Since it is not in one area, it becomes more difficult to study the topics that need to be covered and so an in-depth specific book is required. It can be considered the fourth easiest compared to other ones.
- Next is Water Resources. It has some difficult topics which, when studied and practiced properly, will enable you to score more. If you are good with waste management, chemistry, or water quality, then you will excel. However, these topics need to be revised every day for the quick answering of questions, as most of them are theoretical ones. It can be considered as the second easiest as no codes are needed to solve the questions which eliminate a lot of work.
- Coming to Structural Engineering, it requires extensive use of codes that are needed to be familiar with. Such books are massive, and so a lot of time and effort is needed in this topic. Because of the burden of code, it becomes difficult to score more on this topic. It can be considered as the hardest exam among the five as it is vast, more materials are needed to carry out in the exam hall, and more practice is required to tackle troublesome questions.
- Most engineers don’t prefer Geotechnical Engineering, but if we look at the Civil Engineering Reference Manual, we can see that the amount of material needed is thinner than other sections. Furthermore, the number of standards required for this exam is only two, i.e., the ASCE 7 and the OSHA 29 CFR. The OSHA is a material that you can find using the CERM as it covers a lot of material that has appeared on the exam and the ASCE 7 is material for load combination, e.g., 1.2DL+1.6LL. It can be considered the easiest and most neglected subject.
- Finally, Transportation Engineering. It focuses mainly on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) design books, and one can easily excel in this if he/she is comfortable in the field and is familiar with their designs. Apart from AASHTO, you must know about the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM), the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), and many more. At present, there are 11 standards included in this exam. It can be considered as the third hardest exam among all as it can be tough sometimes and sometimes easy as well. You can score more if you know the standards, but a lot of money is required to invest in extra books.
Some Important Tips
- Start your preparation with the basics in CERM. Study everything and then work on as many problems as you can until you get the idea of the solutions within minutes by looking at the question. It is better to work on harder problems before the exam day. By doing this, you won’t be surprised by looking at any unfamiliar question.
- Familiarize yourself with the calculator that you are going to use in the exam. Since now the HP48s are banned, as you practice solving problems, do not use yours, but use the actual model that you are going to take with you.
- Take an engineering dictionary with you, as there are some problems that can be solved by simply looking at the engineering dictionary. This will significantly add up to your percentage.
- Take as many of the resources recommended on the PPI website with you in the hall. It is not important to memorise the formulas as the most important part is taking the correct materials with you. Like if you come across problems where it is mentioned, IBC or ASCE 7, then you should be able to quickly find the code and solve accordingly.
- Get your hands on Civil Engineering Reference Manual and the current codes that are important for the exam. Never use other editions of the code or never even try to, as it’s not a good idea to try out editions other than the one mentioned.
- Take CERM and tab each section with labels for access to the reference quickly. You can also colour code the labels by section as it is a good idea. It is only about the speed that is essential when you have only a few minutes left. Take a printout of the CERM index and put it in a binder so you can use it separately and in this way, you can save time.
- For the geotechnical part, have a look at the exam topics. The authorities accurately focus on the exam depth section. The geotechnical section envelops a lot of non-geotechnical materials. Take AASHTO Bridge Design Manual for the exam as you may find some problems related to it in this section. Moreover, take IBC as there are many seismic problems to solve.
- Take the Foundation Handbook and a foundation analysis and design text as these are essential in the geotechnical section because not everything is there in CERM. Bring NAVFAC DM-7 with you as you can easily download it from the web.
- Take with you CERM, geotechnical texts, the Highway Capacity Manual, the AASHTO pavement design manual, and some environmental references for the geotechnical section as it has been observed that questions are sometimes put up from these.
- For the structural part, the NCEES sample questions book is highly suggested as most of the time it has problems that resemble the ones given in exam. Use both Structural Depth Reference Manual and Civil Engineering Reference Manual to prepare.
- Practise problems on masonry and structural dynamics. You should be prepared for questions on pre-tensioned or post-tensioned beams and footings loaded eccentrically. In addition, look for questions on construction scheduling, open channel flow, pipe flow, retaining walls, piles, concrete, and steel design. Timber construction, wood, or bridges are not covered by CERM so you will need to bring the NDS and the AASHTO bridge book.
- For the transportation section, highlight keywords that come across in the problems, like maximum, minimum, at least, and nearly so that you will remember to take these into full consideration. You can expect problems on the critical path method and some economic/cost analysis problems in this section which can be easily solved through CERM.
- Some economics are associated with this section as it was combined with other topics, like traffic accident analysis.
- It is also advised to familiarise yourself with environmental topics as there are questions that appear in this section.
- 20% of the exam this time comprised of signalisation, so study that too. This time the soil problem in metric units was also there, so prepare for that too.
- Other problems like different braking type, trip-generation, mass diagram problems, parking garages, min or max stopping sight distance, length of curve, highway sign letter height data, horizontal and vertical curve problems, survey problems and problems on geotechnical/retaining walls and pipe/open channel flow have been encountered quite a number of times. Thus, it is advisable to study everything in this section as the question pattern keeps on changing.
- Take the Highway Capacity Manual, the AASHTO Green Book, AASHTO Roadside Design, ITE manual as it is needed in this exam.
- For water resources and environmental section, bring the NAVFAC soils manual as it is helpful during the exam, a dictionary of civil and environmental engineering terms, the Handbook of Environmental Engineering Calculations, Metcalf & Eddy’s Wastewater Treatment, Metcalf & Eddy’s solid waste, wastewater engineering books and study materials on ponds, lakes, lagoons, and groundwater theory as all these are very helpful for some problems. Take CERM too, but remember it is not as comprehensive as you need and not related to real life problems.
- Study the hydraulic conductivity, water demand, wells, and tank chlorination as CERM is not enough for hydrology.
- Look for problems on meteorology, population growth, pipe-sizing problems, Darcy-Weisbach equations, Hazen-Williams equation, Moody Diagram, organic composting, hazardous waste, environmental law, federal permitting for landfills, BOD and environmental remediation as these are common.
- Become familiar with converting units as many options are there without units in exam. You can find some conversions inside the front cover of CERM.
- Be prepared for geotechnical, transportation and structural problems too, as sometimes they are mixed up in every section.
Fig 2: A flow chart depicting PE Civil exam format
Courtesy: School of PE
No exam is tough or easy. It solely depends on the candidate’s preparation technique, hard work or smart work planning, and a better understanding of one’s weaknesses and strengths. If preparation is done beforehand, then it is easy to excel in any exam. Rarely is the possibility of some students excelling in such exams with preparation just before the exam. This exam should be taken seriously as it decides the destination of the candidate’s interest to pursue a branch of interest. With good preparation and applying such beneficial techniques, one can come out with flying colours and become the best civil engineer to whom the world is looking up to.
- Jacobs, “20 tips to pass the professional engineer exam”- https://www.jacobs.com/newsroom/news/20-tips-pass-professional-engineer-exam
- WGI, “Tips for Passing the PE Exam”- https://wginc.com/tips-for-passing-the-pe-exam
- Civil Engineering Academy, “Is the Civil PE Exam Hard? Is it Tricky? | Civil Engineering Academy”-https://civilengineeringacademy.com/how-hard-is-the-civil-pe-exam-2
- NCEES, “PE Civil exam”- https://ncees.org/engineering/pe/civil
- Civil Engineering Academy, “Which Civil PE Exam is the Easiest? | Civil Engineering Academy”- https://civilengineeringacademy.com/which-civil-pe-exam-is-the-easiest
- PPI2PASS, “PE Civil Exam Advice from Past Examinees”- https://ppi2pass.com/pe-exam/resources/pe-exam-advice/pe-exam/resources/pe-exam-advice/civil-pe-exam-advice
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