Wondering when you should take the Professional Engineering Exam?
Now it’s more important than ever to decide when you should take the Professional Engineering (PE) exam. Why? Because NCEES, the exam authority, is in the process of transitioning to computer-based testing. This is a move away from the pencil and paper exam. So in this article, we’ll review the significant differences between these exams. This will help you determine if you should take the PE sooner or later.
What is changing about the PE Exam?
NCEES is moving from a paper-based exam to computer-based testing (CBT). This process began in 2011 and already includes the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam. As of this writing, the following PE exams have also converted to CBT: Chemical, Nuclear, Petroleum, Environmental. So iIf you’re taking one of those exams, then the choice is easy because you no longer have one! If not, you still have a decision to make. Here’s my insight to help you decide.
What is the current PE Exam like?
The exam is rather simple. Administrators hand you a booklet of questions and a scantron sheet to indicate the best answer.
The biggest factor of the paper exam is the reference policy. And that’s because of the freedom of choice that you’re given. As my electrical engineering professor always said, you can bring in “a wheelbarrow full of books”. But, would you want to do that? Absolutely not.
The basic rule on reference material is that it must be within a binding. As long as you don’t have loose material you’re good to go. You may place loose papers in a 3-ring binder or equivalent. So which references should you bring? Having to research, choose, and purchase your material are some of the downsides here. In a future post, I will discuss my references in more detail. In the meantime, here is a quick list of things I had:
- Mechanical Engineering Reference Manual (MERM) for the PE Exam by Lindeburg, 13th edition
- FE Supplied-Reference Handbook, NCEES, 6th Edition
- Ugly’s Electrical References, 2011 Edition
- Geometric Dimensioning & Tolerancing (The Ultimate Pocket Guide), ETI, 1996
- 3-ring binder with all the cheat sheets my college professors had me write for my finals.
These references were invaluable. If I had to retake the same exam, I would bring them all again.
The MERM is a rather hefty book and it is common for examinees to insert sticky tabs into their books for easy indexing. So as you can see below, I did the same thing. This practice helped me find everything with a quick glance.
This copy of the MERM has 15 sections containing 76 chapters. Firstly, there is the front matter containing many test-taking tips. Next, I count 1118 pages of text. Then there are 188 pages of pure reference tables in the appendix. Finally, the book concludes with a 69-page index. The text contains explanations, formulas, diagrams, and solved example problems.
October 2019 will be the last time you can bring this book to a PE Exam! However, other disciplines have more time per the conversion schedule.
As for my own cheat sheets; I loved being able to condense all of the pertinent information into one sheet per topic. For instance, one of my favorite references was a page that contained all my fluids notes. I authored this paper specifically for this exam. I only wrote down equations that I repeatedly used while working on my practice problems. In short, I can’t imagine taking this exam without my own notes. But there is more to this exam than the references, it’s the scheduling.
NCEES offers more popular exams twice a year. So this gives you the option to test in April and October. One the one hand, this may seem restrictive. But on the other hand, limited choices actually simplify the decision-making process. Less popular exams are only given once per year.
You may take these exams at various locations, especially large universities with open floor space. I took my exam in the ballroom of a local chapter of Shriners. I enjoyed seeing the Shriner’s center since I had never visited before. My test center was about 30 miles away from where I lived.
What will the new PE Exam be like?
With the computer-based testing, you will have a computer terminal with a 24-inch monitor. On one side you will have the NCEES-provided handbook for your exam. This will be the only approved reference for taking the exam. On the other side, you will have your exam.
To see exactly what the exam experience is like, you can try out the demo provided by Pearson VUE. Pearson VUE test centers will administer these exams so you can search for one now to find one near you. I have 5 locations within a 4-mile radius — that’s convenient!
Unlike the paper-based exam, the CBT has more question types than multiple choice (of 4 choices). This includes: multiple correct choices, point and click, drag and drop, and fill in the blank.
There is only one reference you will have and that is the NCEES-supplied reference handbook. NCEES has produced handbooks for the following PE exams so far: Chemical, Environmental, Industrial, Mechanical, and Nuclear. One nice thing about these handbooks is you can download them right now and they’re free! I have them all; why not? You can download these handbooks by signing up for an account at NCEES (free).
The electronic reference has all the conveniences that you’d expect from a PDF. In other words, the text is searchable and contains hyperlinks. Looking at the Mechanical Handbook, Version 1.0, it has 11 chapters and a total of 506 pages.
I can’t speak from experience of using this reference, but I was not a fan of the 6th Edition of the NCEES FE Exam Handbook. The FE handbook wasn’t formatted/written in the way that I was accustomed to. This is one reason why I strongly prefer the paper-based exam, which allows you to bring customized notes.
Since you cannot bring any materials with you into the exam, the test center will give you a grid-lined notebook and fine-tip pen to write any scratch work.
NCEES will offer the more common PE exams year round! Meanwhile, less popular exams are still limited to one date per year.
While it may sound great to have so many choices for your exam date, it can actually be a problem. The problem is that with so much selection, you might want to procrastinate on taking the exam. This would be unfortunate, so pick a reasonable date and broadcast it out for accountability. You’ll thank yourself later.
Another convenient thing about the CBT is the fact that it comes with a built-in calculator. A TI-30XS is available if you forgot to bring your calculator or if your batteries run out mid-exam.
One more bonus is the fact that with electronic testing, NCEES can determine grades much quicker. Therefore you’ll receive your scores within a couple of weeks! However, my paper-based results took about 5 weeks to receive.
How do the exams compare?
Nice desk reference
|NCEES handbook only|
|Almost too convenient!|
Built in calculator
What’s the urgency for?
You now have a choice in which exam format you prefer, so take advantage of it! If you’re old-school and want papers in your hands, register for your exam soon. Don’t miss your chance!
Another thing to consider is the list of advantages that I’ve outlined in my previous article. Those advantages for the FE apply to the PE exam as well.
The most important advice
Whichever exam you prefer is a personal opinion. I am glad to have taken the paper-based exam, but that could be due to cognitive bias. Had I prepared to take the CBT, I may have a different opinion.
The important thing is this: your reference(s) matter! So whatever your choice is, you need to need to become accustomed to the use of your reference material. With this in mind, I will write another post to help you prepare for the PE exam. But for now, whatever you do, always use the reference that you will have with you in the exam room. If you don’t bond to that material while solving practice problems, you will have a difficult time on exam day.
This is a great time to take the PE exam! It’s not often that you have your choice in the examination method, but that time is now.
Think of which of these two options appeal to you the most. For example, what kind of references do you use on the job now? Furthermore, are your bookshelves and file cabinets full of references with handwritten notes? Lastly, are you a minimalist with everything on your laptop, just a “Ctrl+F” away?
Whatever your choice is, practice it and start practicing now. Good luck!
Which exam format do you prefer? Let me know and leave your reasons in the comments below.
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