Top Tips for Passing the PE Exam

A seasoned exam-prep instructor and professional engineer offers expert advice on studying for and taking the Principles of Practice of Engineering exam. Tip No. 1? It’s not as daunting as it seems.

PPI, A Kaplan Company, has sponsored this post.

(Image courtesy of PPI, A Kaplan Company.)

(Image courtesy of PPI, A Kaplan Company.)

The Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, commonly called the PE Exam, is a vital step on an engineer’s path to licensure as a Professional Engineer. With 80 questions and an eight-hour time limit, the exam tests your range of engineering knowledge and the application of your chosen discipline. Although the PE exam can seem like a daunting obstacle on the road to licensure, anyone eligible to take the exam has already travelled most of the way by earning an engineering degree, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and having a few years of work experience under their belt. (In most U.S. states, at least four years of work under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer.)

“Don’t psych yourself out before you even start,” says James Mirabile, a licensed professional engineer and a power engineering instructor at PPI, a Kaplan Company. “Just prepare yourself and if you really want it, you will be successful.”

Mirabile has taught engineering exam prep courses for a decade, helping nearly 1,000 engineers earn their licenses. Here, he shares his top tips for passing the PE exam, from early-stage planning to managing the exam day itself.

Six Months in Advance: Make Time to Prepare

Experts recommend setting aside roughly 300 hours over six months to study and prepare for the exam, which equates to 10-15 hours per week, or approximately two hours per day, of dedicated study time. “Make a schedule and stick to it,” Mirabile recommends. Given that the PE exam is often taken at least four years after earning one’s engineering degree, it’s likely that you’ve settled into a daily routine that includes your job, family and other responsibilities. “It takes a while to get back into the mode of reading and problem solving because it’s different than the way you do things in your job,” says Mirabile. “You may never look at a formula in your job, or you have software that does things for you. And now you have to refresh yourself on some of the formulas you don’t use in practice.”

An exam prep course, such as those available from PPI, offers a huge advantage to candidates by keeping you on track, teaching tailored content to the exam questions and offering hundreds of sample problems to test and refine your knowledge. Mirabile says that engineers need to “work the problems and then do them over and over because we learn how to do problems by doing problems.” PPI prep courses include access to a quiz generator with thousands of sample questions that match the language of the exam and are tailored to subjects within your engineering discipline. The courses also include online classes taught live by PE-licensed instructors, an overview of the exam handbook and first-hand knowledge of what to expect on exam day.

One Month Before: Eliminate Stressors and Responsibilities

Preparing for the PE exam can add a lot of stress to your life and the lives of those in your support network. It can be challenging to juggle personal and professional responsibilities with two hours a day of study. “[Ask the] people in your life to take care of all [of your responsibilities] during the time period when you’re studying,” Mirabile advises. Also, call on your support network to cover all responsibilities on exam day, which will free up time before and after the exam.

Mapping the route to the testing centre is a great way to alleviate some of the jitters that come along with going to a new place for the first time. This will also help you determine how much time to allow for travel. Plotting the route with a navigation app an hour or two before your scheduled departure can also show you whether there are any traffic anomalies that would require you to leave early.

Exam Day: Don’t Change Your Normal Routine

After hundreds of hours of studying and practicing numerous sample problems, exam day has finally arrived. Like marathon runners who train for months leading up to race day, straying from your routine the night before or the morning of a race can be disastrous. The PE exam is no different. “The day of the exam, don’t change your normal routine,” says Mirabile. “If you’re a breakfast eater, eat breakfast. If you don’t eat breakfast, don’t eat.” Also be sure to get enough sleep the night before the exam so that you’ll arrive at the test center fresh and alert. Packing your bag the night before minimizes the chance on exam day that you’ll be hastily searching for missing items or worrying whether you’ve forgotten something.

During the Exam: Problem Solve Like an Engineer

Engineering, at its heart, is the act of sophisticated problem solving. As a working engineer, you have years of problem-solving training under your belt. A love for problem solving is likely a key reason you became an engineer in the first place. Use your problem-solving skills to your advantage when taking the exam.

Time management is an important part of the PE exam. Eighty questions over eight hours works out to six minutes per question. If you find you’re taking too long on a question, move on and come back to it on the next pass through the exam. Many seasoned test-takers will answer all “easy” questions first, tackle moderately difficult questions next, and work on the most challenging on subsequent passes through the exam. This tactic has the added advantage of the opportunity to see some questions in a new light when you return to them.

The PE exam comprises a mixture of application and theoretical problems. While the application problems might be somewhat easier for engineers to wrap their heads around, there are ways to shift your mindset to make the theoretical problems seem more approachable. One technique is to identify the incorrect answers on a multiple-choice list, which improves your chances of selecting the correct answer even if you’re unsure of how to determine it. Reverse engineering is another approach to a problem, says Mirabile: “Test each of the four answer choices to see which one is right.” A third technique is to play with equations. For example, for a question related to the relationship between two variables, there might be formulas that demonstrate how those variables correlate with one another. Lastly, know what’s in the exam handbook – which is provided as an in-exam reference tool – and where to find it. “You don’t want to spend a lot of time searching for things during the exam,” says Mirabile. “If you’re really familiar with the materials you have, it will be a quick search.”

Preparing for the PE exam is a demanding yet rewarding endeavor that improves your odds of obtaining PE licensure and the expanded career opportunities that come with it. Exam prep courses, like those offered from PPI, include access to experts and resources that can help you deepen your understanding of the exam material. The instructors aren’t only licensed PEs themselves – they also have decades of experience in helping other engineers prepare for the exam. Prep courses also include access to the quiz generator with hundreds of exam questions that can help you hone your knowledge and problem-solving skills. Whether or not you should take a prep course could be the easiest of all engineering problems to solve.

To learn more about how exam preparation courses can help you pass the PE Exam, visit PPI, a Kaplan Company.