Member Voices

How to Prepare for and Pass the P.E. Exam

By Alexander McCaskill posted 10-07-2019 10:14 AM


When I first decided to pursue an education in civil engineering, my big, long-term stretch goals were to  (1) obtain full-time employment as an engineer, and (2) pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (P.E.) exam in my field.

I am thrilled to report that I have since accomplished both of these original goals! I am now a geotechnical engineer in the bridge group at HNTB. I took the P.E. exam on paper in April 2018 – I found out that I passed about six weeks later through an email from NCEES titled “Notification of Exam Result,” which was followed about two weeks later by the official letter from the Missouri State Board.

Preparing for the P.E. Exam

  • Find, study and know the NCEES exam specification for your discipline.
  • Buy the latest edition of “Civil Engineering Reference Manual” (CERM) as soon as possible.
  • Also get the free download of the CERM index – print and keep in a separate binder (avoids flipping back and forth in the CERM during exam time).
  • Study, know and take along the codes on the exam specification. Also bring some textbooks covering the major topics of your field. Do not bring any code or reference into the exam that you have not studied.
  • Get multicolored sticky tabs and tab all references, color coded by subject. Tab the highlights and important stuff, not every page.
  • I spent 64 hours studying in the two months prior to the exam – I think this is a good baseline, but you should plan to add an extra 10 to 20 hours for each subject in the specification that you’ve never had a class on. No more than about 120 hours – the author of the CERM says 300 hours, but this is way, way too much.
  • Of that 64 hours, about 36 were devoted to full-day or half-day practice exams. Save the official NCEES practice exam for last as a “dress rehearsal”. I recommend starting with all the practice exams you can get from P.E. Prepared. Then increase the difficulty with the practice exam by Goswami, then find another one. Avoid the “six minute solutions” series, unless you enjoy mental pain. The six minutes is really an average: some of them can be solved in two minutes, others take 45 minutes and a spreadsheet.
  • Be sure to tell all the other engineers you know (coworkers, managers, clients, etc.) that you are preparing to take the P.E. exam! The exam is a unique shared experience among engineers, and you will likely find that these people are a wonderful source of support and encouragement.

Passing the P.E. Exam

  • Be there on time to start. Show up early to wait in line for the doors to open.
  • Bring two each of your favorite approved calculator. Replace batteries before exam day.
  • Bring snacks (that do not make loud noises). Limit your fluid intake before and during.
  • It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Just like that 18th mile in a marathon, I did mentally hit the wall in the afternoon around question 30 – if that happens to you: stop, blink, take a deep breath, stretch in place, recalibrate, then dive back in.
  • Finish early? Go back and check your supporting work! Do a second check when transferring answers from the workbook to the bubbles on the scorecard!
  • Most important of all: SCORE yourself on the exam! This is how you avoid (or reduce) the anxiety of waiting for results! Every time you finish a question, rate your level of confidence from 0.25 to 1, in increments of 0.25 – when done, add up numbers and divide by 40 questions to get a percentage for the morning. Memorize the raw number out of 40 and write it down in your answer book when the afternoon starts. Do the same scoring in the afternoon, then add the morning and afternoon raw numbers together and divide by 80 to get an exam score! By this process, I estimated that my ultimately passing score was 92 percent. 

Alexander McCaskill, P.E. is a Geotechnical Engineer in the HNTB KC Metro Office Bridge Group. He holds a B.S.C.E. from the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an M.S.C.E. (Geotechnical Emphasis) from University of Missouri – Columbia. Following graduate studies, he gained two and a half years of deep foundation testing and analysis experience (PDA, CSL, TIP, etc.) with GRL Engineers. Since joining HNTB in 2017, Alexander has been fully engaged in geotechnical design and analysis for large transportation projects in both the highway and heavy rail sectors. Alexander took (and passed!) the P.E. exam in April 2018. His hobbies include 3D design/3D printing and competitive target archery with an Olympic Recurve bow.


4 days ago


05-12-2020 03:25 PM

Thank you for sharing these pointers.