HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE PE EXAM
Our take on it
Everybody prepares for exams in a different way and we encourage you to do what works best for you. After completing all of the education required to get this far in your career, you know what you have to do to succeed on an examination.
Consider this only our offering of what worked for us, to help you see how other people prepare.
How early should you start preparing?
We recommend that you began studying "in earnest" at least three months before the exam. For example, if you are taking the April exam consider ordering the Civil Engineering Reference Manual by Michael R. Lindeburg, any other resources you need, and a variety of practice exams so that they arrive by at least mid-January. If you are taking the October exam, consider ordering your study resources so that they arrive by mid-July.
How many hours should you study?
We recommend that you study for approximately 100-120 hours. A solid study plan that worked for several of our engineers is to spend approximately one half day each Sunday studying for the three months leading up to the exam, and then study every day for a few hours the week before the exam.
What should you study?
We recommend starting with the official NCEES practice exam. Take it "blind" (without studying), and then go through each solution in detail until you can solve every problem. This should take about two Sunday afternoons. After you are a master of the NCEES practice exam (and we mean master, as in you can solve every problem and explain every problem to your friends) then move on to practice exams. There are plenty available on Amazon for the morning breadth portion of the exam and all of the afternoon depth modules. Purchase practice exams from a variety of sources and publishers for the best results.
So, take the practice tests one at a time and then go through each solution until you can solve all of the problems. Repeat. Repeat one more time. By the end of your studying you should be able to take each practice test in the same amount of time you will be allotted during the actual exam, and only miss a limited number of problems. While the official NCEES cut-off score varies from exam to exam, it is widely acknowledged that it hovers around 75%. Therefore, aim to study until you consistently score in the 80-90% range on your practice exams. Become a problem solving machine!
The best way to prepare is by solving realistic practice problems. You need to be able to read a problem and figure out what it is asking, go to your reference material and find the equations you need, change units, solve for the variable of interest, and not make any math errors. You really don't need to re-learn a mountain of material as some might suggest, just practice solving problems and the learning will take care of itself. A key component is the ability to go find the info you need from your references quickly and efficiently.
What references should you buy?
We recommend buying the Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam by Lindeburg, directly from PPI (it is cheaper there than Amazon).
Spend time placing tabs in this resource and know where to find all the key equations. This is honestly a great book, and very useful in practice after you pass the exam.
From then on, the references you need depend heavily on the depth module you have chosen. The NCEES publishes lists of recommended references, but it is unlikely you need to purchase all of them. Our theory is, bring in only the references you know inside and out so you don't waste time flipping through pages and pages of textbooks.
What was test day like?
Well, it will be nerve-wracking and exciting. Listen: You will make it through. Bring an extra calculator and leave a cooler in the car with lots of drinks and snacks. It's not unlike all the other standardized tests we have to deal with in our education system, proctors, special pencils, the whole gamut. You'll survive and chances are you will pass! Pass rates vary, but are all above 50% and most are substantially higher (70%+). There are a lot of people who sit for the exam that aren't adequately prepared. These are the people that don't pass. With a bit of focused preparation, you will pass!
...and even if you do need to take the exam again, remember this:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Try again, my friend, try again. Failure is only realized when we decide to give up!