When I was getting ready to take the PE Exam I wondered which one would be the hardest. Over and over I heard that the structural depth was the most difficult. That was a little discouraging since I was doing structural work at the time, but I still took it and that was the best decision for me.
A lot of engineers say that the hardest Civil PE exam is the structural depth exam. According to the latest pass rates for the PE Exam, just 56% of engineers who take the structural test pass on their first try. However, the construction exam may be harder as it has a pass rate of just 53%.
Ultimately, the hardest PE Exam for you is going to depend on your personal preferences. Someone who has studied structural engineering and worked in that field for a while might do better on it than water resources, for instance.
There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding which PE Exam to take, so don’t just go off of the data. Make a decision based on what you feel is best for you.
But just know that choosing the right PE Exam may end up making you more money in the long run. We’ll get to that in a minute though. For now, let’s look at more data and see what we can learn.
The Hardest Civil PE Exams Ranked
You can find pass rates for all PE exams on the NCEES website. They’re updated fairly frequently, so if you want to check past data, use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I checked through the data on past pass rates and the numbers are generally pretty similar, as is the order of the most difficult test.
Here’s a chart of the most difficult to least difficult of the Civil PE Exams ranked by pass rate:
PE Exam Pass Rates As of June 2021
|Discipline (Depth)||First-Attempt Pass Rate||Second-Attempt Pass Rate|
|Water & Environmental||67%||44%|
If we were to base difficulty only on first-time pass rates, the hardest is actually construction and the easiest is transportation. By this measurement alone, an engineer taking the construction depth exam is less likely to pass than any other discipline. Those taking the transportation and water resources depths are the most likely to pass.
Another way to look it is that about half of the engineers who take the construction depth test will pass if it’s their first try. The same is true for structural, while the other disciplines have greater chances of passing.
But does that really mean that the construction depth test is actually the hardest?
There’s a lot about this data that could be skewed and it’s impossible to get the full picture here. That being said, I think it’s a good start to determine which is the hardest PE Exam. Because of that and my personal experience, I’d say that the structural PE Exam is still the most difficult.
A big reason these numbers may be different than the norm is that they are from some of the first administrations of the PE Exam since the coronavirus pandemic began. I couldn’t even begin to get into all the ways this could affect the numbers. Let’s just say that we can know that it does make them different than normal.
Even if this weren’t the case, you can have all sorts of strange anomalies that make these numbers a little off. You could have people taking tests that they think are easier even though that’s not their discipline, which makes them more likely to fail.
For instance, someone may think construction will be easier than it is, then they don’t put in as much effort, and that’s why the pass rate is so much lower.
Either way, it would be naive to think that you can determine the hardest PE Exam by pass rates alone. In the end, although it’s not my favorite answer, the most difficult test really just depends on your personal preferences.
Take the PE Exam That Feels Right For You
After a lot of time looking through threads on Reddit and engineerboards.com, I’ve found that there’s one common answer for the best PE Exam to take.
They all say that the best PE Exam is up to you and depends on your preferences, skills, experience, what you did well on in school, and what you’re doing for work right now.
I’ve already mentioned how the field you’re working in can affect which exam is best for you. If you’re doing structural work, that actually might be the best test for you as you’ll be the most familiar with it. That was the case for me.
Consider also how well you did in classes within each discipline when you were in school. I knew that I wasn’t very good at water resources, for instance, because my fluid dynamics class was really tough for me.
So even though people say that water resources is easier, I still went with structural.
That ended up being a really good decision. I was way more familiar with the content on the problems for structural than I was with those on water resources in the morning session.
Thinking back this makes me realize that, although what you studied in school may be an important factor, the biggest consideration should be for which field you’re working in now. If you’re recently out of school then definitely weigh that more heavily.
But if you’re like me and almost have your 4 years of experience required to get licensed, your career might be the deciding factor.
Weigh all the options and use that as you’re trying to decide which PE Exam to take. But there’s one more factor that, to me, is actually the most important of them all. And it could make you more money, too.
How Choosing the Right PE Exam Might Make You More Money
As I think through my experiences in preparing for and passing the PE Exam, I realize that it turned me into a better engineer. I understand the principles of structural analysis so much better because I chose to take that exam and not one of the other “easier” ones.
With this better understanding that I have from taking the structural depth PE exam, I’m better at what I do. All those areas that I was previously weak at, I’m now more confident in. That means I’m more likely to get raises and promotions than if I had just taken some random other PE Exam.
Think of it like a stream of water. If you have all the water going in a single direction, it will be more powerful in that direction. This is the case for me since I decided to take the structural depth PE and I do structural work. I’m stronger in the single direction that I chose.
But if you instead divert a part of that water to another direction, it’s going to slow the flow of the main stream. Just like if you decide to take the PE Exam for a different discipline than you’re working in, it will slow down your momentum in that area you’ve been practicing in.
This is why I recommend that it’s best to take whichever PE Exam is for the type of engineering that you want to do in the future.
No matter what you do the PE Exam is going to be difficult. I would know, I had to fail it once before I figured out how to pass!
If I were taking the PE Exam again I wouldn’t worry so much about which test was the easiest or the hardest. In the end, that made no difference in how the test went for me. I’m glad I didn’t really pay attention to the difficulty level other than studying as hard as I could, and I think you’ll be just fine if you do the same.