Depth or Breadth: What's the difference?

Do you cover both breadth and depth?

Many potential subscribers ask: “Do you cover Construction in both breadth and depth?” Sometime I get “Why are your Practice Exams not separated into breath and depth?” So here is an attempt that explains the approach to the breadth or depth question.

As we all know, NCEES organizes the PE into two exams: AM (breadth) and PM (depth). Each exam has 40 questions. Each lasts 4 hours. The only difference between the AM and PM exams is that the AM exam has a mixture of all 5 disciplines while the PM exam features one discipline, with small contributions from other disciplines. OK, so this means that both breadth and depth problems are designed to fit into a 4-hour, 40-question exam. Both exams allow you about 6 minutes for each of the 40 questions.

Since the time allocated to AM questions is the same as the PM questions, the number of steps in problems will likely be similar. We’re talking about complexity here. So how can breath and depth carry the same complexity?

Now in a College context, the term “depth” usually implies an advanced level of learning. “Deep stuff” is that which is taught in a course that relies upon a series of lower courses. In contrast, “breadth” suggests lower level courses drawn from anywhere. We talk about the broadening value of Liberal Arts requirements. So here, we’re talking about variety.

And this may well be the source of the confusion between breadth and depth in the PE. Everyone preparing for the PE is a graduate of an ABET accredited college. Everyone has been through an engineering program and knows more than they ever wanted to know about pre-requisits, non-technical electives, and depth. Fast forward to the PE Exam and those terms appear again; but there’s one big difference. The PM exam (AKA the “depth exam”) has 4 to 5 times as many questions drawn from one discipline when compared to those represented in the AM exam. Surely, with 4 times as many say Geotech questions than the AM exam, shouldn’t we call the PM exam “breadth”? No, because here we’re talking about depth as a function of the number of problems. Depth comes from more obscure topics, not necessarily complexity. And didn’t I just associate breadth with variety?


Forgive yourself. This is why we at don’t differentiate between breadth and depth problems. Instead, we advocate breadth in preparation which, in turn, will deliver depth. After all discussion, the only part that matters is increasing the likelihood of passing the exam. We believe that the best way to prepare is to try many many problems. If you do, you won’t have to worry over the distinction between complexity and variety. You’ll cover both.

Although the Soviet mass murderer Lenin didn’t earn a PE License, I wonder if he was talking about PE Exam preparation when he said:

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”