The PE Exam: Unique challenges for Civil Engineers

This article offers a transition from school to work by explaining how the experience of a tough 4-year degree in Civil Engineering with all the exams, fails to prepare us for that PE Exam. The article shows how the examiners change the emphases and methods of examining from those we learned from our professors.

You've been taking exams for years
You've been taking exams for years

The PE Exam is longer than any exam you ever took in college – your professor would have been fired for setting two 4-hour finals in one day. The only practice you’ve had is the FE exam. Pacing is so different – we’re used to working on problems that take 20-30 minutes. The PE format means there’s about only 6 minutes per question.

Mystery Questions

You’ve never taken an exam like the morning (breadth) exam whereby problems from 5 disciplines are jumbled together in one exam. When you took a water engineering exam, as a student, you expected each question to be wet. But in the morning PE exam, question one could be a truss analysis. Question two could be about bacteria and question three could be about a traffic light. So there’s no consistency and no comfort from consistency.

Worse, it’s often difficult to distinguish between disciplines. Questions can mix different areas. For example, a highway project may feature an earthwork component. When you encounter this problem, you ask yourself “is this Construction, Transportation, or Geotechnics?” But remember, the examiners are assessing your ability to practice as licensed engineers. It’s only in school that your problems are categorized for you. The examiners are striving to expose you to real Civil Engineering problems.

The PE Exam is a marathon, not a sprint. How often are we expected to sit and focus intently for two 4-hour periods? We are simply not used to the pressure of such a tough day. Consider an example of one of the most intense scenarios at work. You’re a construction engineer supervising a major concrete pour for a bridge deck. Even then, there’ll be time for a quick cup of coffee. Try taking 15 minutes off on PE Exam day!

One of the tricks I’ve borrowed from the professional examiners is the practice of supplying redundant information in problem statements. While my University students don’t like my supplying irrelevant information in their problems, the presence of redundant information forces them to think.

It’s so natural for us to “question spot”. That’s the practice whereby we “sniff” the problem so that we can quickly find out its nature. Then, when we’ve done a similar one before, we can simply insert the template and crank out the solution. I tell my own students that I supply redundant information because I set them Civil Engineering problems. I’m sure they’re all competent at algebra. I want my students to be forced to think about the problems, and suspect that the PE Examiners have a similar motivation.

So what does all this mean in terms of your preparation? Well, your preparation should take two forms. First, you need to prepare for the exam content. Second, you need to prepare for the exam format. Even if your content preparation is excellent, you were a 4.0 student, and you remember every thing you learned, you can still slip up on format. We all need to prepare for the unusual nature of the daylong exam.