How to Become a PE (Professional Engineer) in 5 Steps

How to Become a PE

So, you want to become a PE? Well, you’re in the right place! As a licensed Professional Engineer, I can explain the whole process in detail and what to expect along the way. The road is long and sometimes difficult but it’s also enjoyable and definitely worth it.

There are 5 steps to becoming a PE (Professional Engineer):

  1. Get an engineering degree from an ABET-Accredited university
  2. Work at least 4 years under a licensed Professional Engineer
  3. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam
  4. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam
  5. Apply for a license with your state’s licensing board 

There may be some exceptions to these depending on which state you’re in. Some are non-negotiable, though, like the PE Exam. Let’s get right into the details to learn more, starting with the engineering degree!

1. Get an Engineering Degree From an ABET-Accredited University

This requirement is simple but takes a while to complete. If you’re in college right now and plan on getting your PE license later, just make sure that your university is ABET-accredited. But what does that mean?

ABET stands for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. According to the ABET website, “ABET accreditation provides assurance that a college or university program meets the quality standards of the profession for which that program prepares graduates.” 

In simple terms, ABET certifies that a program at a university is what a person needs to be competent in their field once they graduate and start working in it.

The easiest way to make sure that your university, or the one you’re considering, is ABET-accredited, is to just Google it

I’d search for “is the [school name] [major] degree ABET-accredited?” Usually, it will be the first link and you’ll be able to find out pretty quickly whether or not your school is accredited. 

Alternatively, you can go to ABET’s website and search for a program that’s accredited.

Once you determine that your school is accredited it’s just a matter of picking an engineering degree and finishing it! That may be easier said than done, it took me 5 years to get my Civil Engineering degree. But it was worth it!

Also note that some states may allow you to bypass this requirement under certain circumstances. For instance, in Utah, where I got my degree, the application includes these other possibilities for completing the education requirement:

  • Complete an engineering education program in a foreign country 
  • Have been licensed as an engineer and practiced as a principal for 5 of the last 7 years in another state

Your state may have similar rules, but you’ll have to check to be certain. If you do have a foreign degree you will likely need to have it verified at some point in the process of applying for your license.

2. Work Under a PE for At Least 4 Years

The next step after you finish your degree is to get a job doing engineering work in which you’re working under a licensed Professional Engineer. You will need four years of experience and it needs to meet some requirements to count. The most important one is that your experience doesn’t count until after you’ve graduated.

Here are just some of the additional rules about the engineering experience that I had to get here in Utah before I could get my license:

This is similar to what most states require and some are pickier than others. Don’t let this intimidate you, though! For one, a lot of this stuff is common sense, like the rule that your work can’t be in “violation of applicable statutes or rules.”

Plus, in my experience, there never was anybody looking down on me with a pen and clipboard making sure that my work met all of these requirements. Or someone asking me about each of these things as I applied for my license. 

Instead, all engineering firms that have PE’s will know about these requirements and help you fulfill them to get your license. 

Think about it, it’s in their best interest to help you get licensed, so they’re going to help you get the right experience to make it happen. It’s like having a mentor to guide you through the process. All you have to do is get the job!

And honestly, the experience part was a lot simpler than the degree. After graduating I knew about engineering and work was just furthering that knowledge. Whereas in school I was learning it all for the first time. 

Plus it was a lot more fun than having to do homework and take tests all the time! 

My experience mainly consisted of evaluating existing structures, performing structural design for homes, and performing calculations for other somewhat random engineering projects like decks, seismic supports for electrical equipment, and others. I did start to manage some projects as I got further into my years of experience. 

But don’t worry, your company will start you out small and help you grow!

You may also be able to get less experience depending on how much school you’ve completed. You can count one year of a master’s degree in engineering toward the education requirements, for instance. That would mean you could have only three years of experience. Or if you have a Ph.D. it’s just two years. 

You have to have finished that additional schooling for it to count though!

As I mentioned before, your state may have other requirements and exceptions. You’ll have to check with them to be sure. But I do know for sure that all states will let you count the four years of experience under a PE if you want to get your own license.

3. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam

The exams that you have to pass to become a PE are administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, or NCEES for short. According to NCEES:

“The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam… is designed for recent graduates and students who are close to finishing an undergraduate engineering degree from an EAC/ABET-accredited program. The FE exam is a computer-based exam administered year-round at NCEES-approved Pearson VUE test centers.”

The FE Exam will test your knowledge of basic engineering concepts that you learned in school. It’s highly recommended that you take it after graduating as you’ll have learned everything you need to know to pass it from your classes. 

The exam itself is computer-based, closed-book, and consists of 110 questions, which you have 5 hours and 20 minutes to complete. To register for the exam, you create an account with NCEES then follow the registration process. The FE Exam costs $175 in most cases.

You can register for the FE Exam in your NCEES account. After you complete the process and pay the fee, you’ll be able to schedule your test with the testing center. You can take the FE Exam any day that the testing center is open but only once in each quarter (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, July-Sept, Oct-Dec) and no more than three times in a 12-month period.

It’s best to take the FE Exam after you graduate, as I mentioned, because your chance of passing with your degree is much higher. But you can take it anytime before or after graduation in most states. Some states do require you to complete your degree before taking the FE.

Passing the FE Exam isn’t too difficult. You get a searchable PDF reference handbook to use during the exam. I spent a few hours familiarizing myself with that the night before the exam and that was about all I did to study and I passed on my first try. 

It took me about 7-10 days to see my FE Exam results after I took it. And once I found out I had passed I got a raise at work!

4. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam

This is the point at which things are going to start feeling real. You’re so close to getting your license and you feel proud that you’ve already completed your degree, four years of experience, and the FE Exam. 

The PE Exam, however, is one of the toughest challenges along the whole journey. But it’s not impossible and will make you a better engineer if you approach it right. I even found ways to enjoy the PE Exam!

According to NCEES, the PE exam “tests for a minimum level of competency in a particular engineering discipline. It is designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years’ post-college work experience in their chosen engineering discipline.”

The PE Exam is a computer-based, closed book exam that consists of 80 or 85 questions depending on your engineering discipline. It takes 8 to 8.5 hours. The registration fee is $375, but it costs a lot more if you want to pass.

You will register for the PE Exam in your NCEES account. In some states, you’ll have to fill out an additional application to take it. You can check those requirements on this page of the NCEES website. Once you register and pay the fee, you’ll be able to schedule your test at the testing center. 

You can take the PE Exam on any day of the year that the testing center is open, but you can only take it once each quarter (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec) and only three times in a 12-month period, same as the FE. Consider yourself lucky you can take it anytime though, it used to be only offered twice a year when I took it!

The PE is much harder than the FE Exam but if you study smart you can pass it. 

I studied for over 120 hours and did over 300 practice problems on my first attempt and failed. For my second attempt I invested in a course to teach me what I needed to know to pass, put in an additional 180 hours of studying and 600 practice problems, and passed in October of 2019.

Just as with the FE Exam, you get a searchable PDF reference handbook that you can use during the PE Exam. You’ll need to know this well to pass and use it to study. Working practice problems is the best way to study. But if you’re missing a lot of them and don’t know why, you’ll need to do some reviewing.

My second attempt at the PE Exam was extremely straightforward because I had taken a course to guide me through studying. I chose School of PE and couldn’t be happier with them. Just to give you an idea of how awesome they are, the normal pass rate for the PE Exam is 70% or less, but for those who take School of PE it’s around 90%!

After taking the PE you’ll need to wait about 7-10 business days to get your results. You’re lucky though, it used to be much longer than that!

5. Apply For Your License With Your State’s Licensing Board

Passing the PE Exam feels amazing. It was one of the best moments of my life when I found out I had passed. I jumped up and screamed so loud my wife thought the house was on fire.

But just because you’ve passed doesn’t mean you are automatically a Professional Engineer. You’ll have to apply with your state board of licensing first.

To find your state board and see what you need to do to apply for your PE license, head to this page and select your state. You don’t have to select your test or anything, the board information will pop up at the bottom of the screen. You can head to their website for information on how to apply for your license. 

Usually, the process consists of the following components:

  • An application, which includes personal information and questionnaires that ask about your criminal history. Here’s what one looks like.
  • Verifiying your education, experience, and exams.
  • Recommendations (usually five with three having to be licensed Professional Engineers).
  • Paying a fee.

Additionally, some states will require you to get a background check or pass an ethics or similar exam before they’ll give you a license. 

The entire process may take a long time depending on your state. But it doesn’t have to if you have everything ready. 

I got all my documents lined up and ready to go so well that I was able to get my PE license on the same day I found out I’d passed the exam! That may not be typical, but if you’re well-prepared the process will usually go much faster than otherwise.

You’ll also be able to make it go faster by having all of the right information filled in on your NCEES account. 

They have what’s called an NCEES Record that lets you track your school transcripts, recommendations, experience verification, and exams. If you keep that up to date by following the instructions in your NCEES account, applying for your license is much easier!

Once you submit your application you just need to wait and hopefully very soon you’ll be rewarded with an email notifying you that you’re a brand new licensed Professional Engineer!

In Summary

Well, if you were wondering how to become a PE, I hope you don’t feel like you have to wonder anymore. Here are those four steps to becoming a PE one more time so you can remember them:

  1. Get an ABET-accredited engineering degree
  2. Work under a PE for at least 4 years
  3. Pass the FE Exam
  4. Pass the PE Exam
  5. Apply for your license with your state board of licensing

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