9 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.

As someone who has been there, I offer the following pieces of advice based on my own experiences studying for and ultimately passing the PE exam.

  1. Start the application process as soon as possible. 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 of the information you need. Getting college transcripts can sometimes delay the process, too, so it’s best to start early.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 at actually sitting for the exam. I suggest setting aside the same days or times for your PE studies and keeping these standing “study appointments” each week.
  4. Use available resources. Many resources are available to help you study, and I definitely suggest using them. The ones that prepared me the most were 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.
  5. Do problems, problems, 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. To me, completing example problems is the best way to prepare for test day.
  6. Focus on your strengths. Do not expect that you will learn and understand areas that you had trouble with in school. I didn’t waste too much time studying water resources and environmental topics and problems because I knew it would require me to go back to college to understand it all. Instead, I focused on my strong areas, structural and geotechnical, and I also focused on more moderate knowledge areas for me like transportation. 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 about guessing on questions if you don’t know the answers. You don’t get penalized for wrong answers.
  7. Don’t study the day before your exam. Put the books away and let your brain rest right before exam day. I also recommend 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.
  8. Give yourself some grace. Full confession: I actually took the PE exam twice. The first time around, I had a lot of things going on in my life, and I did not do enough problems. (See tip #5.) It happens. If it happens to you, take a break, pick yourself back up, and try again. The only true failure is quitting.
  9. Celebrate success. When you pass—and with enough preparation, you will—give your accomplishment the celebration it deserves. I found out I passed the PE exam in June 2005. I got a big yellow envelope in the mail, and I knew right away where it was from. I opened it and read the word “Congratulations…,” and in that moment I started jumping up and down on my front stoop. Passing the PE exam is a big accomplishment that represents a lot of hard work. Celebrate that moment!

Earning my PE license has opened doors for me in my career and enabled me to choose the path that I wanted. Some people 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. I am thankful that I am able to do some of both—design and project management. If you’re ready to take that next step in your engineering journey, I hope these tips help you on your way!

About Heather Macon, PE
Heather is a project manager in EBA Engineering, Inc.’s Structural Engineering Department. She has worked in the engineering field for almost 18 years and currently manages bridge design and inspection, retaining wall, and condition survey projects for different agencies throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia. Heather can be reached at 410.844.3368,, or on LinkedIn.


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Heather Macon