Why Knowing the PE Exam Passing Score Won’t Help You Pass


PE Exam Passing Score

What is the PE exam passing score? Is it 70%? 80% or higher? Nobody knows for sure, but we’d all like to find out. Not even the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) will say.

Regardless, knowing the score you need won’t help you pass. Here’s why.

It takes time and energy that you could use to study.

I know calculating the passing score for the PE exam sounds interesting. You’d probably really like to see what minimum number of questions you need to get right. I’ve even taken a stab at doing it myself a time or two. But the reality is, you’re either going to pass or fail, and knowing what that exact passing score is doesn’t help. Let’s look at why this is true for both possible outcomes for the test.

If you pass, then, well, you’re done with the PE exam. Why do you care what score you got? It’s not like you’re getting a grade or anything. You’ll most likely just go on to apply for and obtain your license. And make more money! Clearly with this outcome, it’s not likely that you’ll ever care what the passing score is. This is also why it’s important to try to pass on your first try, which we’ll get to in a moment.

But for those who fail the exam, NCEES gives a “diagnostic.” This chart shows your weaknesses so you can improve them. To pass the test, focus on working problems in those categories for which you were below the average of the passing score. It doesn’t do you any good to try to look at the numbers to calculate the minimum you need right. You could be using that time and energy to work more problems, or figuring out how to take your books into the exam. If you’re done with the test and just waiting on your exam results you might think to try to calculate the passing score, but you probably couldn’t figure it out.

Let’s say you do find some sneaky way to determine the passing score. What good does that do you? For one, it’s not likely that you’ve got the correct passing score anyway. NCEES is good at keeping things under wraps. But you also have the added distraction from focusing on other metrics that will actually help you study, like problems worked.

The passing score for the PE probably changes every time anyway.

The diagnostic chart for people that fail compares how many questions you got right or wrong in each section to the average of the passing score. Some may look at this and attempt to find the passing score. But that wouldn’t work because that score will be different for the next test, which you’ll probably be taking.

Only those who failed the exam get a diagnostic. That means that they have to retake the test again. If this is you, the next time you take the test it will have different questions.

With each test that NCEES administers, they perform multiple analyses to determine, among other things, if any questions should be thrown out. That means that one test could have only two questions thrown out. Another version of the exam may have more or less than that, which would change the passing score for that exam.

So you go ahead and try to determine that passing score, but it’s not going to help you. Here’s what to do instead.

You should attempt to get as many right as you can.

Most of us who are studying for the PE exam aren’t thinking “what’s the least amount of effort I can do to pass?” I mean, we’re engineers, right? We calculate and re-check our work. We make sure we’ve got every calculation correct. If you do find yourself with this attitude, it will only make it harder for you to pass.

Instead, try thinking in terms of “how many can I possibly get right?” Having this attitude will help you solidify a higher chance that you’ll pass.

If you’ve heard of the 10,000-hour rule, you know that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert. But not just any hours of practice will do, you must do deliberate practice to develop your skills and be your best.

While I doubt any of us will study 10,000 hours for the PE exam, each of us wants to pass. If we’re going to become experts at the topics for the test so we can do that, we must do deliberate practice. In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she outlines a pattern for doing this:

1. Set a stretch goal. In this case, the goal is simple, passing the PE exam. But maybe it’s a bit of a stretch for you to work 300 problems, or to attempt a full run-through practice exam. Do what you need to, but don’t stretch too far. Just a little bit each day for a long time is better than a huge amount all at once.

2. Try things that you can’t yet do. If you’ve never taken the test, review the sections that you feel are the hardest. Work problems from those topics until you’re comfortable with them. For me, this the depth sections were the most difficult so I focused on those.

3. Receive feedback. Most of the feedback you’ll get at first will probably be negative, and that’s okay! It’s probably been a few years since you’ve done some of these calculations. But this is also why working problems is so important. You don’t know what problems you can’t do until you try doing some. Work as many different problems as you can to determine where you need to focus your time.

4. Try again. Keep working problems, again and again, to make sure you’ve mastered them.

The best way to work problems is to purchase a course. You can do a lot on your own, but you don’t get nearly as much guided, deliberate practice without a course.

It may sound like a lot of money, but think of what it’s worth to you to become a PE. What would it mean to you to pass the PE the first time? Even without knowing the passing score for the PE exam a course will give you the guidance and direction on exactly what to study to pass the first time. Check out our favorite ones below!

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