Because the PE exam is so hard, a lot of engineers in training wonder which is the easiest one to take. I googled this myself when taking the test, and even though I heard that my discipline (structural) was one of the hardest, I still took the structural depth section.
Many engineers agree that the easiest Civil PE exam is water resources. According to pass rates on the NCEES website, 71% of engineers who take the water resources test pass on their first try. Transportation is a close second at 70%. Ultimately, the easiest Civil PE exam for you will depend on your level of understanding and experience with each civil discipline.
This is the simple answer, but the truth is, there’s much more to it. While you may be wanting to increase your chances of passing the exam, there are other factors you need to consider when deciding which Civil PE exam to take.
And as you’ll see in a minute, taking the right test might actually end up making you more money in the long run.
The Easiest Civil PE Exams Ranked
NCEES gives pass rates for all PE exams on their website. Comparing the Civil disciplines, here are the various pass rates:
|Discipline||First-Time Pass Rate||Second-Time Pass Rate|
If we go purely by first-time pass rates, the easiest is water resources and the hardest is geotechnical. An engineer taking the water resources depth on their first attempt is more likely to pass than any other discipline. Transportation is a close second.
Another way to think of it is that about 7 out of every 10 engineers who take the water resources or transportation tests are going to pass if it’s their first try.
If you search through online threads like I’ve done, you’ll see that whenever a specific discipline is mentioned as the easiest, it’s almost always water resources or transportation. That’s not the most common answer though, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
There’s a lot to consider when looking at this data, though, that can influence your decision on what PE exam you should take.
Think about how some engineers you know would take what they think is the easiest test just to try it out or as a “hail mary” to see if they could pass without much preparation. There could be a lot of these that go for construction, thinking it will be the easiest, and then fail on their first try.
This means that number could be skewed.
There’s no definitive way to tell, though, and this is just one way these numbers could be misleading. There are dozens of other factors that go into this statistical data that could skew it.
It would be a little naive to think that just because water resources has the highest pass rate that it’s definitively the easiest test. Although I hate to say it, the easiest test is going to revolve around your personal experiences.
The Real Best PE Exam to Take Depends on You
I’ve spent a lot of time scanning through engineer’s comments in threads on Reddit and engineerboards.com.
By far the most common response to this question is that the easiest PE exam is going to depend largely on your skills, experience, preferences, how well you did in school, and what you’re working on now.
The biggest factor to consider here is the discipline you’ve been doing work in. If you’re taking the PE after getting your 4 years of experience required to become licensed, you’ve already got all that time spent doing work in one area. You can use that to your advantage.
It also depends on how well you did in certain classes in school. You might have really struggled in water resources classes. But if you excelled in soil dynamics, you might have a better shot at geotechnical and should consider taking that exam.
In other words, although water resources may appear to be the easiest, you might actually have an easier time taking the structural exam, like I did.
Choosing Which PE Exam to Take – My Experience
I remember wondering which was the best PE exam to take when I was getting ready for the test. I was working a job in structures but wasn’t sure if I’d be ready enough to take that depth.
Considering my strengths from college, I thought about doing Geotechnical, but the pass rates I saw for that depth section intimidated me. I considered water resources for a little bit, but then quickly realized that would be a big mistake because I didn’t do so well in my fluid dynamics class.
In the end, I chose to do the structural depth. I felt like I was going against everybody’s recommendations but that was honestly the one that I was the most comfortable with.
It ended up being a really good decision, even if I had to take the test twice to finally pass it.
The familiarity that I had with the structures topics and questions made it a lot easier for me to answer those. I also already had many of the reference manuals and was used to using them from work.
And the unexpected bonus was that it made me a better structural engineer, which has really helped my career since I passed the PE.
Remember That You’ll Become More Skilled in The Depth Section You Choose
One of the biggest surprises after passing the PE was how much I learned from doing it. I studied and took the test thinking that it was just to get licensed, but I got a lot more out of it than just that.
Passing the PE not only made me eligible to get licensed, but it also made me a better engineer by making me learn all of the things that I didn’t know about my discipline. It helped me take care of all the areas within my discipline that I was weak in.
This matters to you because if you want to get good at what you do and set yourself up for a successful career, it’s in your best interest to take the depth section that’s in the field you’re working in.
Think about if you were working in geotechnical and took the water resources exam.
You might have an easier test, but only if you felt more comfortable with water resources. And in the end, you’ll spend all that time learning in-depth skills in a discipline you’ll probably never use again. You might get a raise from becoming licensed after passing the PE and maybe regular annual raises after that, but you might miss out on other advancement opportunities if you took the right depth and developed your skills further in it.
Imagine instead that you did actually take the geotechnical depth section having started your career in a geotechnical position.
You’d become much better at every type of calculation you do or may do in that discipline. You could gain new skills or get better in a way that makes you more likely to get a raise in the future. And all because you were a little more intentional with all those studying hours that you were going to put in anyway.
The PE Exam Is Going to Take Work No Matter Which Depth You Take
I don’t want to scare you, but you need to know that regardless of what you do, the PE Exam is going to be hard. I know, I failed it once before passing! And I had to pull out all the stops and buy a review course to help me pass.
Although it’s not easy, don’t panic. When you pick the right test for you (not just the easiest!), and with the right preparation, you can definitely pass!
Looking for some good resources to help you pass the PE Exam? Here are my 3 favorites:
- School of PE Review Course. They were my ticket to passing the PE Exam because they were so spot on with preparing me for the test. Check them out right here and even try out their course for free!
- Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro Engineering/Scientific Calculator. This is the best calculator that is approved by NCEES for use on the FE and PE Exams. Get it on Amazon right here.
- Civil Engineering Academy Review Course & Practice Exams. Their courses are a more budget-friendly option and I highly recommend them. You can also try out their practice exams which provided me some great problems that were a lot like the actual NCEES exams!