What is the CBT Like for the PE Exam?

What is the CBT Like for the PE Exam?

What is the CBT?

If you’ve recently started looking into taking your Professional Engineering (PE) Exam, you may have seen something about the Computer-Based Testing (CBT). Currently, NCEES is transitioning from the paper-based exam that most PEs are familiar with. And they are moving over to the CBT that has been used for several years now for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam. So with this transition, you may wonder “What is the CBT Like for the PE Exam?”

Whether or not this transition will apply to you can be determined by the NCEES conversion schedule. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice in deciding which format to take, I recommend going for it now. I’ve already written about why you should take your PE Exam this year and in that post, I go into greater detail about what the CBT is like in theory. This post will focus more on the feedback that others have about their CBT experience.

But to answer the question about what the CBT is like: it’s very simple. You go to a local testing center, which is used for all kinds of exams. At this exam center, they’ll have you log into your exam where you’ll have a quick demonstration of using the computer. Following the demonstration, you may begin your exam. The computer will contain all the test questions as well as your reference material, an NCEES provided handbook. For scratch paper, you’ll have a notepad and pen. Official details can be found here.

How is the CBT different?

The biggest difference is not at all to do with the computer versus the scantron paper but in the reference policy. Instead of choosing and/or creating your own reference material, like you can for the paper exam, you may only use the NCEES handbook. This will greatly affect your study plan.

So when you’re asking about what is the CBT like for the PE Exam, you’re probably wondering if this reference policy change is a good thing. On the surface, it sounds cheaper because the NCEES handbooks are free. But the problem is that these handbooks are brand new, Version 1.0. Furthermore, the handbooks are not all-encompassing. Therefore, you will still need to purchase your own study material. I’ve written a reference material guide for those taking the Geotechnical depth section. If you need a reference material guide for your own exam, leave a comment below.

What do others say? How was it?

Time Management

With the paper-exam, you’re sitting in a large space with many other test takers and everyone starts and stops simultaneously for the scheduled break. With the CBT, the scheduled break (of 50 minutes) is offered to you after answering “approximately half of the questions” (40 questions).

The difficult thing about this topic is that there is no way to predict how much time you’ll need for the morning and afternoon session. Some examinees really pushed themselves to make the 4-hour mark for the morning session. Then they were surprised when they finished the afternoon portion in less than 2 hours! Unfortunately, there is no way to know what each exam will be like. This is especially true because you have committees of each exam discipline creating their own respective exams. So whatever is true for electrical engineers may not be the same as civil engineers.

Reviewing Questions

There is nothing new about the fact that you can not spend your afternoon portion reviewing questions from the morning session. But what is different is the fact that you cannot review any questions that you have completed or skipped until after reaching the end of the portion that you are in. This can be really frustrating if you skip a question and suddenly realize, minutes later, that you know the answer. I recommend writing down any revelations like this on your scratch pad so that you can re-focus on the question at hand.

The Reference

As I’ve said before, these handbooks are Version 1.0. So I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable being the guinea pig of such a significant exam. However some people don’t have a choice. What’s important to remember here is that in order to use the NCEES handbook effectively, you must practice with it as much as possible.

Examinees who have taken the CBT have said that their handbook seemed to have provided all of the quantitative information that they required. But what was missing was the qualitative information that should be acquired on the job through experience. To assist with qualitative information, it helps to read through reference material specifically geared to your industry. Many industries attempt to write condensed handbooks with such information and these may be helpful to you.


As I’ve said before in my post about study plan development, it is important to obtain an NCEES practice exam and assess yourself using only the reference(s) that you will be using for the exam. Since this post is all about the CBT, you will have one reference to use while taking your practice exam.

Beyond this, it will be helpful to run through as many practice problems as you need to feel comfortable. But in addition to practice problems, reading through reference material will help to fill out your knowledge in qualitative matters that aren’t going to be covered in the NCEES handbook.

If you need a NCEES practice exam, they are for sale at Amazon.

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4 thoughts on “What is the CBT Like for the PE Exam?

  1. I have failed the geotechnical PE three times and will take it again on 2023 with the CBT format.
    I have hundred of different programmed equations in my calculators but to address each of one will need my notes and for that exam I can not take any materials, then did I lost all that valuable material?, how then would I solve quick complex equations?,what material can I then use?, I have realized that the PE is just a puzzle exam and not a full knowledge one, I have always obtained 30 good answers in the afternoon and 20-22 in the morning, why?…the just puzzle questions on which I always fail or slip no matter my respective subject knowledge.My question: What I can do to pass that test?, experience?… more than 40 years!!!!, am I dummy?

    1. Sorry for the delay Jorge…
      It looks like the Geotechnical is quite a tough exam! Only 55% of first time takers will pass, and only 24% of repeat takers pass.
      I’m not sure I understand what you mean about programming your calculator. The exam doesn’t permit calculators that could store such information.
      If you intend to take the CBT version, then I would wait until NCEES publishes their authorized exam reference guide, which you may download via your NCEES account.
      For your three previous exams, did the reports contain any common themes in areas of weakness?

  2. I would like to know how I can prepare for the future civil CBT PE exam for next year.
    I am a fourth PE taken and must take again the OE test on next year, perhaps by October 2022

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