So you’ve decided to take the Professional Engineering Exam, but you need a study plan? Well, there are many ways to go about this. First, You could attend a class in person where a professor will outline it. Second, you might sign up for an online course that will have a study plan. Third, you could buy a PE Exam study plan outright for about $50. Lastly, you can make your own. When I bought my copy of the Mechanical Engineering Reference Manual, I received a custom study plan complimentary, but I ended up designing my own plan regardless. Here is the process I used. This is the process that helped me to pass my PE Exam the first time.
Start with the specification
NCEES Exam Specifications
Just like the beginning of most engineering tasks, you start with the specification. Here, NCEES provides the specification for each exam. Review the list, select your discipline, scroll down and select your specialty (if applicable).
The specifications will change from time to time, so be sure that you’re working to the most current standard. For instance, the three mechanical engineering exams have changed their format significantly a couple of years ago.
The DIY Process for a PE Exam Study Plan
What you’re going to see here is a list of topics and an approximate number of questions that you should expect to see for each topic. Most exams contain 80 questions. So from there, you can determine what percentage of your exam will feature questions from each topic.
At this point, you may start wavering on your resolve to take this exam. Not only do you have to study the actual engineering, but now you have to dissect the study plan? I know! But don’t worry, I have you covered. You can continue reading and make this a DIY project, or reach out to me via the contact form and I will make a PE Exam study plan for you.
If you’re continuing to do this yourself, you’re going to want to open up a spreadsheet program (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, or equivalent). Now, within one column, fill in each row with an exam topic. In the next column over, add in the expected number of questions for that topic. And a third column to house the percentages for each topic.
Having all these numbers will be important when it comes time to distribute your chosen study hours amongst them.
Pick your PE Exam format
Right now is a unique time for getting your professional engineering license. Why is that? This is due to the transition to computer-based testing (CBT) from the paper exams most PEs are familiar with.
Between now and 2024, each discipline will switch over to the new testing method. In my last post, I already covered the major differences between these two formats. But regardless of the differences, you’re probably going to sign up for the exam whenever you’re ready to take it.
However, there is an important takeaway from my exam format review. It’s not really the format of the exam that is going to make a big difference. The big difference is actually with respect to the reference policy!
On the pencil & paper exam, you can bring any reference you like. That is not the case with CBT! For the CBT, you will be using the NCEES provided reference and that reference alone. Read more about the differences here.
PE Exam Study Plan References
In future posts, I intend to have a comprehensive list for each exam. Then I will have a PE Exam Study Plan for each discipline. However, if you have any requests for a specific exam, please mention it in the comments below. For now, I will outline the types of references I recommend and provide examples of each.
There are many sources of practice problems, some are even tailored specifically for the PE exam. However, the absolute best way to practice for the PE exam is to practice with retired problems that NCEES releases in their practice exams.
If you can find a couple of revisions of these practice exams, that’s even better! The main reason to have these practice exams is to take one before the real thing. This will help you to adjust to the style of questions asked, the pace you need to answer the questions, and practicing being in an environment of answering questions for several hours in a row.
If you’re able to get two revisions of practice exams, you can always use the other copy to grab a few questions out at a time. This will give you the chance for several preliminary assessments along the way.
Here are a few examples of these practice exams:
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If you’re taking the CBT version of the Professional Engineering Exam, then you’ll want to log in at NCEES and download your handbook (it’s free). However, you’re still going to need some practice problems. So after you finish your download, continue to the next section for practice problem sets.
Otherwise, you’re going to want to buy a product specifically designed for engineers taking this exam. By now, one of your references (coworkers) should have told you about the book(s) they used. I’m sure you were recommended a book like one of these. I used the Mechanical Engineering Reference Manual (MERM) 13th Edition.
Beware though! Not all of these reference manuals are created equal. Sometimes you might go online, see a reference for your exam, and not realize that there is a newer revision out there. With many textbooks, it seems like new revisions are just a way to rip you off. However, the new revisions are trying to keep up with the ever-changing NCEES specifications.
Also, there are varying opinions on the usefulness of each reference manual, so be sure to read the reviews from engineers who have already taken your exam. If you’re unable to find your reference, please contact me and I will aid in finding you the right material.
One thing that I do not recommend is trying to use your old college textbooks. It seems like they should do the trick in aiding in your studies still. However, you will quickly find that they are just not tailored to the purpose of this specific exam and you will find yourself wasting time.
Like I was just saying, using your college textbooks isn’t going to be very helpful. And again, publishers have already made books of practice problems specifically for your exam. Of course, the best practice will come from the NCEES practice exams, but you can only use those so many times.
Problem Solving Pace
And with the practice exams, you have an opportunity to work on your pacing. For all other practice problem books, forget the time! I’ve experienced and received a lot of feedback that many problem sets are more complex than an NCEES style problem. If you try to rush through your practice problems, you are bound to become frustrated and end up not learning anything.
Instead, focus on the process. Know how to read the problem efficiently and identify where to find the information in your reference. Then work to solve the problem with whatever time you need. The only time restraint you should put on yourself is how many hours you devote to each topic. Don’t get bogged down in one section of problems.
Resources to Consider
The following are a few examples of practice problem books:
The nice thing about the Lindeburg problem set is that it is a companion to the reference manual that LIndeburg also writes. However, other authors also have great reviews as I found with the Civil Engineering PE Practice Exams book. Six-Minute Solutions is popular, but don’t get too hung up on the “six minute” idea.
This is very exam specific and also a matter of personal preference. Generally, the more references you have, the slower you will be in navigating all of them. Only bring references with you that you’re familiar with. Also, only bring references that you’ve found useful while solving practice problems.
As I mentioned in my last post that discusses my experience with the mechanical: thermal-fluids exam, I brought a few extra references. The reason for this was that I personally found those other references to be great at the one thing each was designed for. I placed tabs in some of these references as well, for quick reference.
With other disciplines, I advise you to seek out the people you’re asking to help you with your application — those three PEs that need to provide you a professional reference recommendation. Hopefully, they have taken their exams relatively recently and can offer their recommendations specific to your own discipline.
Examples of some more references include codes and standards that are specific to civil engineering, HVAC, etc.
Compare specification and reference
This is probably the hardest part of getting started. You have your specification, you have your books, but guess what? They’re not parallel. Even the NCEES handbook doesn’t line up easily with the specification that they write to.
This is what I did. I bought my reference manual and the companion practice problems book. I counted up the pages in each section as well as how many questions each section had. Then I tried to weigh how important each section of my books was (in comparison to the specification).
Separate the Optional Material
So for example, the MERM has a section called “Illumination and Sound”. Don’t bother looking for this topic on the specification, because you won’t find it. But I did spend up to an hour reading the material and solving problems. There are more chapters like this and there’s no need to pay much attention to them, but I did for feeling of completeness.
Focus on What Matters
Continuing with my Mechanical: Thermal-Fluids example
The specification lists “Fluid Properties”. Looking at the MERM, there is a section titled exactly that, “Fluid Properties”. Great! I will record this information so that I am sure to study it later.
Next, the specification says ” Compressible flow (e.g., Mach number, nozzles, diffusers) “. Alright, MERM doesn’t have anything exactly like that. There is a section called “Compressible Fluid Dynamics” which sounds close enough. There are several subsections talking about nozzles, but nothing listed for diffusers. Let’s say I forgot what a diffuser is and look in the index. The index directs me to the HVAC section. If you’re a mechanical engineer, you’ll realize that I’ve gone astray. My point for everyone is this: the process is a challenge. It’s my intent to help you to remove challenges like this, so you can focus on studying engineering instead of studying how to study.
PE Exam Study Plan Schedule
This is the most personal part of developing your PE Exam study plan because everyone is so different. Another intent of mine is to visit all the message boards again and count up how many people spent X number of hours to prepare for the PE Exam.
Until then, I’ll just tell you that I studied for about 300 hours. I may have gone a little more because I had a bad start the first time I tried studying. What happened was what I described earlier: I tried to rush through practice problems at a six-minute pace instead of trying to understand the material. So after a little while of this, I just started over again with a better game plan.
I based 300 hours off of what I was reading on the message boards. You’ll see some extreme numbers in both directions, but most people end up saying they studied for 150, 200, 300, or 400 hours. The mindset that I had was “I only want to take this one time!” But looking back, I see where I could have trimmed off 100 hours and been okay.
Regardless of what I did, you’ll have to see how much time remains between now and the day you want to take the exam. Then you’ll have to determine how many hours per week you can set aside to study.
Putting Your PE Exam Study Plan Together
So what do we have so far now? A specification, study material, and time.
Another example: one should expect about 7 questions related to Heat Transfer on a thermal-fluids exam. The exam has a total of 80 questions. If this person sets aside 200 hours to study, then they should spend about 18 hours studying heat transfer (200*(7/80)). There are 4 sections in the Heat Transfer chapter of my reference, so I can divide those hours as I see fit.
To further complicate my last example, the specification also says that some of my 18 questions on “Equipment and Components” will deal with heat exchangers. Heat exchangers is one of the 4 sections of heat transfer.
So as you can see, this can get complex really fast if you’re trying to plan this out. Some people could probably put much less effort into dividing up hours so carefully and still do fine.
To help give you a better understanding of what I’ve been talking about, I’m included the very plan that I used to pass my PE exam. Please note this is for illustrative purposes only. Even if you were taking the Mechanical: Thermal-Fluids exam, the specifications have changed since I wrote this plan.
A PE Exam Study Plan for You
While my plan might not be specific to your discipline and may be outdated, I would be happy to work in providing a plan for your exam needs. Which exam are you preparing for?