10 Tips for Minimizing Stress and Maximizing Success on the PE Exam
If you’re an engineer-in-training or an engineer intern, you know that—at some point—your career’s progression will depend on becoming licensed as a professional engineer (PE). A PE license is required if you plan on signing and sealing any plans or calculations. Having a PE license also shows your clients and colleagues that you take your career seriously.
According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, “PE licensure is the engineering profession’s highest standard of competence, a symbol of achievement and assurance of quality.” Although licensure in the U.S. is done on a state-by-state basis, the final step in getting licensed is inevitably going to be successfully completing the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam (PE exam) in your state.
We surveyed our professional engineers, and they offered the following advice for minimizing stress and promoting success on the PE exam:
- Start the application process early. Make a checklist of all the steps, such as obtaining college transcripts, getting references, and writing down your project experience. You will probably have to send a lot of follow-up emails and make some phone calls to get all the information you need. Getting college transcripts can sometimes delay the process, too, so it’s best to start early.
- Line up your references. You will need references as part of the application process to become a PE. If you know at the outset of your career that you will be getting your PE license, make sure that you keep good records of and relationships with colleagues and supervisors so that you can reach them even if you don’t work with them any longer. Social networks like LinkedIn can be a helpful resource for staying connected to your references.
- Investigate your company’s policies. Many companies will cover costs for the PE exam and study materials, and they may also offer paid time off for the day of your exam. Talk with your supervisor or HR department to learn about the resources available to you. Consider also planning some time off for the days leading up to your exam.
- Pace your studying. Stressing yourself out to cram in studying is not beneficial, so start early and study in shorter intervals. If you burn out studying, you won’t be effective when it’s time to sit for the exam. Our engineers recommend setting aside the same days or times for your PE studies and keeping these standing “study appointments” each week.
- Use available study resources. Many resources are available to help you study, and we definitely suggest using them. Some of the best resources to prepare are the Six-Minute Solutions for Civil PE Exam workbooks. A separate workbook is available for each afternoon module topic included in the exam (construction, geotechnical, structural, transportation, and water resources and environmental). Six minutes is the average amount of time you get to answer each question on the exam. The great thing about this book series is that it gives you comprehensive, step-by-step solutions for all problems.
- Do problems. Then do more problems. Speaking of problems, as you study, do as many example problems as possible. Determine which of the in-depth modules you plan on taking for the afternoon portion of the test. Knowing this ahead of time will help you focus your studying. Completing example problems is the best way to prepare for test day.
- Focus on your strengths. Do not expect that you will learn and understand areas that you had trouble with in school. Don’t waste too much time studying topics and problems you aren’t familiar with. Instead, focus on your strong areas and more moderate knowledge areas. You don’t have to be strong in every area the exam covers, since the afternoon in-depth portion of the exam can help carry you through to getting that passing score. Also, don’t worry if you need to guess on questions when you don’t know the answers. You don’t get penalized for wrong answers.
- Don’t study the day before your exam. Put the books away and let your brain rest right before exam day. As mentioned, consider taking the day before the PE exam off of work if you can. Just relax, do a mindless activity, and eat some good food. Exam day is a long day, so the break beforehand is well worth it.
- Give yourself some grace. It is not uncommon for engineers to fail the PE exam the first time around. According to NCEES, the PE exam pass rates for first-time takers can be as low as 53 percent. It happens. If it happens to you, take a break, pick yourself back up, and try again. The only true failure is quitting.
- Celebrate success. When you pass—and with enough preparation, you will—give your accomplishment the celebration it deserves. Passing the PE exam is a big achievement that represents a lot of hard work. Celebrate that moment!
Earning a PE license can open doors in your career and enable you to choose the right path for your passions. Some engineers earn their PE licenses, become technical experts in their field, and focus on design and analysis. Others do just enough design early in their career and move on quickly to becoming project managers and vice presidents. If you’re ready to take that next step in your engineering journey, we hope these tips help you on your way!