PE Exam Format: Is Your PE Open Book or Computer-Based?


PE Exam Format

Are you thinking about taking the PE exam and wondering what format to be ready for? Here’s everything you need to know about the current way the test is administered and how the Civil PE and others will likely change once they’re computer-based in the near future. 

Here is the format for each type of PE exam as of April 2021:

Test# of QuestionsTime LimitComputer-Based?

Open Book?

Agricultural & Biological

859.5 hoursYesNo

Architectural

808 hoursNot Yet

Yes (for now)

Chemical

80

9 hours

Yes

No

Civil

808 hoursNot Yet (in 2022)

Yes (for now)

Control Systems

808 hoursNot Yet

Yes (for now)

Electrical & Computer

80 or 859 or 9.5 hoursYes

No

Environmental

809 hoursYes

No

Fire Protection

859.5 hoursYes

No

Industrial & Systems

859.5 hoursYes

No

Mechanical

809 hoursYes

No

Metallurgical & Materials

80

8 hoursNot Yet

Yes (for now)

Mining & Mineral Processing

85

9.5 hours

Yes

No

Naval Architecture & Marine

80

8 hoursNot Yet

Yes (for now)

Nuclear

859.5 hoursYes

No

Petroleum

859.5 hoursYes

No

StructuralVaries16 hours
(2 days)
Not Yet (2024)

Yes

Note: This chart was last updated in April of 2021. I’ve added links to the NCESS page for each exam so you can double-check to make sure of yours.

How The Civil PE Exam is Formatted

The Civil PE Exam is 80 questions in 8 hours with a lunch break in the middle. It’s also open book, for now, but this will change when it becomes computer-based in 2022.

The Civil PE comprises a 4-hour morning breadth section with 40 questions from all five civil disciplines, a lunch break, then another 4-hour 40 question afternoon depth section that asks specific questions about just one of the five civil disciplines.

On test day, you’ll drive to the testing center with your reference materials, authorization paper, non-expired ID, snacks, and a lunch if you decide to pack one. You’ll enter the testing center and see other engineers lined up to go into the testing room. When it’s your turn to go in you’ll show your authorization and ID and find your seat. After a little waiting, the proctors will begin handing out the exam and reading the information you need to know as you take the test. The test began around 8 am for me.

For the next four hours, you’ll work 40 problems from the five civil disciplines including water, geotechnical, structural, transportation, and construction. To finish on time, you’ll need to finish each problem in an average of 6 minutes, although some will take you less time than that and others will take more.

Once that morning session is done you’ll get a lunch break and the proctors will let you know what time to come back into the exam room. 

After lunch, you’ll be seated and the proctors will read the information for the afternoon exam and pass it out. During the next four hours, you’ll complete another 40 problems from just one of the five civil disciplines that you chose when you registered for the test. This “depth” section consists of more difficult questions, but if you’re well-prepared you can answer all of them in the average 6-minute allotment. 

A helpful tip for both sections: skip problems that you’re struggling with and come back to them if you have time at the end. It’s much better to get all the questions answered that you’re confident on than to waste a bunch of time trying to guess on something that you might need to take longer with!

Much of this is going to change soon though because the Civil PE and a few others will be converting to computer-based. You’re going to want to be prepared, especially if you’re trying to figure out whether you want to take the Civil PE exam while it’s still open book or wait until next year when you can take it on a computer!

PE Exam Format for Computer-Based Tests

Let’s look at the Mechanical PE exam (which is currently computer-based) as an example to see how the Civil PE might be different once it becomes computer-based in 2022.

According to NCEES’s information on the Mechanical PE, the test format is as follows:

  • 80 questions
  • 9 hours, including:
    • Nondisclosure agreement (2 minutes)
    • Tutorial (8 minutes)
    • Exam (8 hours)
    • Scheduled break (50 minutes)
  • Closed book, but you can use the PE Mechanical Reference Handbook.

I asked NCEES about the reference handbook they’re creating for the Civil PE Exam and they told me it should be available sometime later in 2021. How you prepare for your PE exam will largely depend on what’s in that reference handbook, so I strongly recommend you get it and take a look at it before you start studying.

Now, when it comes to how the actual computer-based Civil PE will be, this is all just speculation so take it with a grain of salt. We’ll see how this changes in 2022, but this is a good guess at what the Civil PE Exam will be like once it’s computer-based.

Recent Posts