Is the PE Exam Harder Than the FE?

Is the PE Exam harder than the FE Exam

A few years ago I had someone tell me they thought that the PE Exam was supposed to be easier than the FE Exam. I thought that sounded crazy once I had taken both exams! The PE is way harder! I put in over 300 hours studying for the PE Exam and had to take it twice to pass. It was so much more difficult than the FE Exam, for which I just looked at the reference handbook for a couple of hours the night before I took it and passed on my first attempt.

Comparing pass rates, length, and study time needed to pass, the PE Exam is harder than the FE Exam. The FE Exam requires just 5-50 study hours, is 110 questions in 5.3 hours, and has a 75% pass rate. The PE Exam requires 250+ study hours, is 80-85 questions in 8-8.5 hours, and has a 70% pass rate.

Here’s a table with the main components to compare the difficulty levels of the FE Exam with the PE Exam:

Difficulty of the FE Exam vs. PE Exam

FE ExamPE Exam
Study Time Required to Pass5-50 hours200-300 hours
Length110 questions, 5 hrs 20 min80-85 questions, 8-8.5 hours
Pass RatesAbout 75%About 70% or less
Topics CoveredAll Engineering DisciplinesOnly One Engineering Discipline

There’s more to it than this, so let’s dive into each of these and figure out the details of why the PE Exam is so much harder than the FE Exam.

How Hard Each Exam is If You Look at Study Time Required to Pass

I know from personal experience that the FE Exam is easier than the PE Exam because of how much less studying I had to do for the FE Exam. 

For the FE, I only had to take a couple of hours the night before the exam to go through the reference handbook (which is the only reference you can use during the exam) and that was enough to pass. If you want to get a free pdf copy of that handbook to study with, check out the instructions I wrote on doing that right here

The PE Exam, on the other hand, was a ton of work to study for. I spent months, tracked over 300 hours and 900 problems practiced, and failed it once before passing on my second try. 

If you compare the two, my study time for the PE Exam was literally 100x more than my study time for the FE Exam.

I want to give a small caveat here, though. When I took the FE Exam I had finished my engineering degree and had been working in the field for a year or so. My degree was an advantage, yes. But that year between graduation and when I took the FE made me forget a lot of what I had learned. 

The fact that I had forgotten so much and still passed by only reviewing the reference manual is further proof that the FE Exam is easier than the PE Exam.

Plus, many states require you to graduate or be close to doing so before you can take the FE Exam anyway. If you’re considering taking the FE while still in school, wait until you’re done. Your classes will teach you everything you need to know to pass. 

Until you’ve taken all the classes you need to graduate, you won’t be able to understand everything on the FE Exam.

Difficulty of FE vs PE by Pass Rates

Let’s first begin by looking at the FE Exam pass rates:

FE Exam Pass Rates

DisciplineFirst Attempts Pass Rate (With Degree)First Attempts Pass Rate (Without Degree)Second Attempts Pass Rate (With Degree)Second Attempts Pass Rate (Without Degree)
Electrical and Computer69%56%37%30%
Industrial and Systems68%58%44%44%
Other Disciplines73%62%35%21%

We’ll compare this to the PE Exam in a moment. But first I want to point out how much easier it is to pass the FE Exam if you have your degree!

If we average all of these out we get about a 72% pass rate for the FE Exam for first-time attempts.

Let’s now compare this to the PE Exam pass rates:

PE Exam Pass Rates (As of July 2021)

DisciplineFirst Attempts Pass RateSecond Attempts Pass Rate
Civil (Average For All Disciplines)62%41%
Mechanical (Average For All Disciplines)69%58%
Electrical and Computer67%40%
Industrial and Systems67%100% (only 1 person took it and they passed)

Averaging all of these together gives about a 67% pass rate for first-time attempts. Comparing this to the FE Exam, you’re about 5% more likely to pass the FE Exam on your first attempt than you are to pass the PE Exam on your first attempt. 

Here’s a table comparing the two side by side for each discipline, just for first attempts:

FE Exam Pass Rates vs PE Exam Pass Rates (As of July 2021)

DisciplineFE Exam First-Attempts Pass RatePE Exam First-Attempts Pass Rate
Civil (Average For All Disciplines)69%62%
Mechanical (Average For All Disciplines)77%69%
Electrical and Computer69%67%
Industrial and Systems68%67%

Although the disparity might be only slight for some of these, it’s clear from these pass rates that it’s more difficult to pass the PE Exam than the FE Exam.

Using Length to Judge if the PE Exam is Harder Than the FE

Let’s take a look at what we can discover from the time allotment and the number of questions for the FE and the PE to see which is harder.

When taking the FE Exam, you get 5 hours and 20 minutes to answer 110 questions. That comes out to about 3 minutes to answer each question during the FE.

For the PE, you get 8-8.5 hours to answer 80-85 questions. That comes out to 6 minutes to answer each question during the PE

The way I like to look at it is that more time to answer each question means that those questions are more difficult. 

Think about it in terms of chances to make a mistake, too. A problem that takes 6 minutes to answer has more steps than one that takes just 3 minutes to answer. That means you have more opportunities to get something wrong on each PE Exam question because there is more work involved. 

You have to know more to solve the PE Exam questions, whereas the easier FE Exam questions take fewer steps and knowledge to figure out. 

I can confirm this to be the case from my personal experience taking both the FE and PE Exams. Some questions took longer than others on both exams, but generally, the average came out to be 3 minutes for FE questions and 6 minutes for PE questions. The questions on the PE Exam were more difficult and did take more steps to solve than those on the FE Exam.

How Topics Covered Affects Difficulty

One of the major arguments that I see online is that people think that the FE Exam is harder because it covers all engineering disciplines. I personally didn’t find this to be the case at all. And the evidence we’ve gone over so far for why the PE Exam is harder than the FE Exam would agree.

When I was taking the FE Exam I remember seeing problems from engineering disciplines that I hadn’t studied. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to solve the problems but the reference handbook saved me there. Because I was familiar with it I knew where to find equations and topics, so I could still answer many of the questions from other engineering disciplines.

Because the FE Exam questions are so much simpler than the PE Exam questions, it’s not too much to worry about that you’ll see problems from disciplines you don’t know.

What’s more, I found that the PE Exam problems could only be harder because they were only from one discipline.

Think about it from the perspective of those writing the test. If you have to write an exam that has 110 questions from a general pool of engineering subjects, you have to make them basic enough that someone can find the answer in just 3 minutes or so.

But if you’re writing a test that’s going deep on one subject, you can ask questions that get into all the finer details. There’s a lot more you can ask about because of that. And that makes those questions, the ones on the PE Exam, much harder.

It’s like the difference between taking an entry-level, generic class and a more advanced one. 

A beginning chemistry class is easier because it’s just the basics. An advanced class in the same major is tough because it goes into the details of one specific aspect of chemistry. 

In other words, the PE Exam is harder than the FE Exam because it’s got high-level, advanced, detailed questions on it, while the FE Exam has fairly basic questions that you can answer pretty much just by having an engineering degree.

The Final Conclusion

It was probably obvious from the beginning, but the PE Exam comes out as the winner for the most difficult exam between the FE and the PE. 

The PE Exam takes longer to study for, has lower pass rates, is easier to make mistakes on, and includes way more detailed questions than the FE Exam.

If your goal is to pass both exams, I’d still take them both very seriously. Only you know how prepared you feel for each. So give it your best shot because it’s worth it to pass both and become a Professional Engineer!

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