Tips for Passing the PE Exam
By Casey Sveiven, Electrical Project Engineer
This past October I took and passed the Principles and Practice of Engineering Examination — Power Exam. I relied heavily on online resources to help me prepare for this exam, so I wanted to give something back to the engineering community. My advice will be general in nature and should accurately apply to most disciplines.
There are many paths to the PE exam, and it is important that you prepare for this exam with your own obligations and experiences in mind. I had limited obligations outside of work when I took this exam and had graduated 2.5 years prior with a specialization in power systems which I believe helped prepare me for this exam. Your financial situation, education, and obligations outside of work should be factored in when scheduling to study for this exam and should also be considered in your decision to study alone, take an online or in-class course, and/or seek tutoring.
Prepare to Prepare
Make a Realistic Schedule
Be honest with yourself and the people around you. This exam takes a lot of time and dedication to pass. Give yourself ample time to prepare and make sure that you understand why you want to pass this exam and how important your study time is. There will be plenty of life events that will get in the way, so try to account for them in your study schedule ahead of time. Out of all the advice that I gathered, this may have been the most difficult for me to apply. I was lucky to have enough time near the end of my study cycle to be able to compress my study schedule for the exam by taking some time off, but doing it that way was far more challenging and stressful than I would have preferred.
Utilize Resources at Your Office: Time Off, Reimbursement, Codes, etc.
Talk to your supervisor and coworkers and familiarize yourself with company policies regarding the PE exam fee and resource reimbursement. Knowing that you will not be fully responsible for all the costs that are associated with the exam can also go a long way in easing some of that pre-exam stress. Some firms also offer PTO for the exam day and you may want to set aside some PTO hours so that you don’t have to work a week or two leading up to the exam. Also, you should find out which codebooks are available at your office and if you are permitted to borrow them for studying and taking to the exam.
Learn About the Exam, Strategies, and Resources
I spent a lot of time reading about the exam. There are a ton of free resources out there that will help you prepare for the exam and you should factor a couple of weeks into your schedule that is dedicated with familiarizing yourself with the exam specifications, strategies, and reliable resources and references. I spent a lot of time on the NCEES website, blogs, Engineerboards.com, and multiple engineering subreddits trying to get an understanding for what the exam is, what was tried and true preparation methods and strategies, and what the best resources were to study with and take into the exam.
Build Your Resources
Budget and Prioritize
There are different schools of thought when it comes to the number of reference materials you should take into the exam. Some people like to keep it to a minimum and believe that bringing too much into the exam will slow you down and confuse you. I am of the opposite opinion. I brought in as many references as I could get my hands on. The important thing is that you practice with your references and know them inside and out. You will find many articles, blogs, and online threads that discuss the best resources to prepare for the exam and references to carry into the exam. My approach was to define a budget and then buy the most highly recommended resources that I could within that budget. I also built my resources as I took practice exams to help shore up my weaknesses. Borrow references from coworkers who have taken the exam recently and/or buy used versions to help minimize the cost.
When buying references, you should first purchase a manual or guide that will be your go to. Most disciplines have one or two references that are highly recommended that cover most of the exam topics and contain many of the most important formulas and tables. Throughout your time preparing for the exam you will become more familiar with the topics that may require you to purchase more in-depth references to help you strengthen your weaknesses.
Practice exams were an integral part of my preparation and I would highly recommend taking as many as you can. I believe I took about 5 or 6 during my preparation. In my experience, the practice exam released by the NCEES is a must have, but other than that, you will need to hit the internet to determine the best practice exams for your discipline. You can spread the purchase of these practice exams out throughout your study schedule as you should be spending about one or two weeks on each practice exam depending on how compressed your schedule is and taking 2-3 in the last couple of weeks before the exam.
Revisit Your References After Practice Exams
You should be utilizing your references during your practice exams and becoming familiar with how useful each reference is and how often you will use it on the exam. As you become more and more familiar with your references, you will realize which references will be your go to during the exam and the areas that will require you to acquire additional, topic-specific references.
Take practice exams
Simulate the Exam
Find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for 4 hours at a time. Place all your references and materials around you as you would for the exam. Put in earplugs and put on your exam approved watch. This is one of the most difficult and most beneficial ways to prepare for the exam. It requires you to set aside five to nine hours at a time. In the early days of your preparation, I would recommend taking practice exams in two 4-hour sessions over two days. Eight hours is a long time, and it will help to build your mental and physical stamina slowly. Don’t worry about low scores on your first few exams. You will be surprised at how quickly you will improve your score just by becoming familiar with your reference materials in the first few practice exams
Stick to Your Strategy
Develop or find an existing exam strategy and use that strategy. The most popular strategy that I encountered was to take the exam in multiple passes. The most comfortable method I developed during practice exams was to take the exam in 4-5 passes.
- Go through and mark all the questions that pertain to codes (NEC, NESC, etc.)
- Answer as many of the non-code questions as you possibly can until the 2-hour mark. Do not get stuck on a problem. You will begin by flipping through and answering all the questions that you immediately know how to answer. The goal of this pass is to answer more than half of the questions on the exam. During practice tests, I answered close to 30 questions in this pass. During the actual exam, it was under 25, but I cannot recall the exact number. If you start losing steam at the end of this pass and are really struggling to find a question that you think you can answer correctly then just move on to the next pass.
- Next is the code question pass. There are a couple of reasons that I and many others like doing this pass second. For many, this is one of the easier portions of the exam and it’s nice to give your brain a rest and chance to stop thinking about the calculation heavy questions. It also means you only need to access all those code books for this pass. This pass should not take you much longer than 30 minutes.
- This is the time to really dig into the tough questions. You should be down to less than 10 remaining questions and about 1.5 hours left. The goal of this strategy is to have as few questions as possible remaining at this stage, therefore giving you a longer average time to answer the tough questions. You should be wrapping up this pass by the last 10-15 minutes of the exam and moving on to part 5…
- At this point in the session, depending on how prepared you are, you should use the last couple minutes to guess and/or check your work. There is no penalty for wrong answers. At this point, there are going to be some questions that you’ve read over several times, and maybe attempted a few times, but just cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. That’s okay. This exam is pass or fail. Just take a guess.
Use Your Resources
One of the most important functions of taking practice exams is becoming efficient with your references. Highlight, tab and mark in your exam as you study. Tab the indexes and table of contents in all your references before taking your practice exams.
Grade Your Practice Exams, Track Your Weaknesses, and Revisit
Grade your practice exams soon after taking them and set aside some time to revisit your weak areas. Most people will only be able to take a full practice exam during the weekend. This means that you should use shorter study sessions during the week to grade the exam and go over problems that you got wrong. You should also take some time in between practice exams to go over topics that you are unfamiliar with and do more practice problems out of your resources to strengthen your weak areas. You also may find you need to acquire more references and/or tab and highlight areas in your current references to help you use your references more efficiently.
Trust the Process
The road to and preparation for the PE exam is not a short one. You’ve probably had at least 4 years of college and a couple of years of work experience at this point. Ideally, you are about 4 months out from the exam when you start this process, but it can, and for most people will probably be compressed into a couple of months. Try not to get frustrated. Take as many practice exams as you can and fit in some time in between practice exams to develop a strong library of resources. Remember to stick to the plan and try not to forget why you are doing this. Thanks for reading and good luck.