One thing I wish I would have known before I took the PE exam is what it’s like to actually take the test. I was (un)lucky enough to get to take it twice, so you could say I have a little bit of experience with it so I can give you an idea of what the PE exam is really like!
There are 4 parts to the PE Exam:
- Before, including getting ready, having breakfast, traveling, and calming your nerves.
- The morning session, which isn’t too bad and is over quickly.
- A well-deserved lunch break.
- The afternoon session, which also goes quickly and can be rough unless you’re prepared.
There’s a lot more to it than that though, so let’s get into the finer details of what the PE Exam is like.
Note that this is for the open-book version of the Civil PE Exam, so if your test is computer-based (which most are now as of 2022, including the Civil PE) it might be different.
What It’s Like Taking the PE Exam – The Details
First comes preparing for the exam, which you’re probably already familiar with. It takes a lot of tiring nights and weekends working hundreds of practice problems. You’ll feel like you’re exhausted from practicing so much, but you know that you need to keep going.
Before you know it, the day of the test will sneak up on you, and it’s time to put all that studying into practice!
The few days before the exam you’ll be a little nervous and probably a little burnt out from studying. Stop studying about 3 days before the test to give your brain a rest so that it’s fresh on exam day.
You’ll also be trying to make sure you have everything you need. The most important things are your test authorization and ID. But you’ll need to take the time to find a way to get your books into the PE, what to have for lunch (don’t eat out), and run through test day in your mind a few times.
Then, it’s time for the test. I’ll talk about it in 4 parts, including before the test, the morning session, the lunch break, and the final session.
Before The Exam
You’ll have to wake up pretty early, depending on how close you are to the testing center. Mine was about 30 minutes away and I had to be there by 7:30 am. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time, though, so I got up around 6 am to begin getting ready.
When it comes to what to wear, don’t go in sweatpants. You might be more comfortable, but your mind will think it’s time to be lazy, and you don’t want that. Pick something that makes you feel confident but isn’t completely uncomfortable. Your clothes will influence your performance, and science proves it.
After getting ready, it’s time for some breakfast.
It’s kind of hard to make yourself eat because of your nerves, but you need to do it. Eat enough so that you won’t be too hungry in the morning session.
You also might also consider planning ahead so you don’t have to spend a lot of time in the bathroom during the test. Be careful to not eat too much fiber that morning and in the few days before the test!
Once you’re ready and done eating, it’s time to head to the testing center. Double check that you have everything, you especially don’t want to forget your ID or test authorization.
You’ll be nervous right up until working the first problem of the exam (I was), but you can turn that into excitement. I recommend having a soundtrack to listen to on the way to the testing center that will calm your nerves and pump you up to perform your best.
A good way to reframe your nervousness is to think of it instead as excitement. For me, that meant focusing on how excited I was to show myself everything I had learned while studying. I remembered how good it felt to finish each practice problem and get them right, and knew I’d get to do the same thing on the exam.
Once you get to the testing center, you’ll have to wait until they let you into the actual room where you’ll take the test. I ran into a lot of old college friends here, which was fun. Talking with them helped calm me down a little bit, too.
When the doors open, you’ll have to show the proctors your test authorization and ID, then they’ll let you in to find your seat. For me, the exam was in a big conference room with concrete floors and a tall ceiling. I was prepared with a jacket because it was a little chilly.
After finding your seat there will be a little more waiting. This is when your nerves can get to you. My secret weapon for dealing with this was meditation. I had practiced a little in the weeks before the test, and spent that time before it began by focusing on my breath to calm myself down.
Eventually the proctors will start talking and they’ll just give some information about the exam that you need to know while taking it. They’ll hand out the tests then let you know it’s time to begin and start the 4-hour timer for the morning session.
The Morning Session
If your PE exam is like mine, you’ll be sitting at a table with another person. There’s plenty of room for your books, although you’ll have to manage your space wisely. This is why I highly recommend taking a wagon, because it keeps your books all easily accessible so you don’t have to use up so much space on the table. This is really nice because it can keep your mind focused on just the one or two references you need for each problem.
You’ll be given a booklet with the actual questions in it and a separate scantron sheet to fill in your answers. They will give you a pencil to use, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) bring your own. Again I’ll remind you that this was my experience taking the Civil PE Exam in 2019. If you take the PE in 2022, you’ll be taking a computer-based test, so this won’t apply. I imagine it will be more like the FE, but I will confirm once it switches over.
The problems on the morning session aren’t too difficult, as long as you’ve studied well. The first time I took the PE, some of them surprised me and I was frustrated by how much I didn’t know. On my second attempt, however, I flew through it and finished early because I had taken School of PE’s course and knew how to solve every problem. It honestly felt really easy after School of PE.
If you know that finishing all 40 questions in 4 hours gives you 6 minutes per question, it’s not too bad to figure out how to pace yourself. Don’t let yourself get stuck on problems you don’t know how to solve, just move on and come back to them later. It’s better to finish 90% of the test than get stuck and miss a bunch of problems you knew how to solve if you’d only had enough time.
You’re going to get tired and also need to use the bathroom during this session. It helped me to take a little break each hour to check in with how I was feeling, stretch, and use the bathroom if needed. If I didn’t need to go to the bathroom, I’d stretch then look up for about a minute just to give my mind a little break. That really helped me manage my energy well.
The awesome thing, though, is that those 4 hours will pass by very quickly. You know how, when you’re working hard and really focused, time seems to fly by really fast? That’s exactly what taking the PE exam is like, for both sessions!
Eventually you’ll finish the morning portion and get your much-needed lunch break.
The Lunch Break
Once the proctors tell you the time is up on the morning portion, they’ll let you know it’s time to take a break and then release you.
Lunch will go much more smoothly if you can pack your own lunch. If you eat out, you can’t possibly know how busy the restaurant will be, so you could unintentionally make yourself miss the afternoon session. And once those doors close, they won’t let you in!
The other benefit of a self-made lunch is that you can choose healthier options. You know how every time after eating greasy fast-food you feel terrible? Well, that also makes you think less clearly, too, because fast food isn’t brain food. By choosing what you’ll eat you can pick healthier options that will optimize your performance in the afternoon session.
And you’re going to want all the help you can get, because it’s not easy.
You may have a little time left of your break after you finish eating. Use this time to relax, don’t try studying or do anything that you need to use brain power for. I took a walk during this time and talked with some of those college friends I’d seen before the test began, which really helped me feel relaxed and ready to go for the afternoon session.
The Afternoon Session
The format for the afternoon session is the same as the morning, but the content is different. You’ll sit down, wait for the proctors to begin, and eventually they’ll give their information and hand out the test. You get another question packet and scantron sheet like you did in the first session.
The difference between the morning and afternoon sessions comes down to content, difficulty, and energy levels. The afternoon, “depth” portion of the PE exam is a lot harder than the morning. But if you’re prepared, it’s actually not so bad.
Because I had taken the School of PE course, it was a lot easier to find the information I needed to solve each problem. I’d worked many example problems that were very similar to test questions and even had those with me.
Occasionally I’d find a problem that I didn’t know how to solve. But it wasn’t an issue because I felt very confident with how many I did know how to solve.
Plus, if you skip difficult problems and focus on what you know how to solve, it’s a lot easier to handle the mental strain of thinking about possibly missing each of those problems.
There’s not much more to say about the afternoon portion other than that it will go a lot more smoothly if you’re well-prepared.
The nice thing about this session is that, like the morning, it will fly by!
Before you know it the timer will run out, the proctors will collect your exam, and you’ll get to leave and hopefully never have to return to a PE Exam ever again!
What’s Next? The Wait For Results
Walking out of the PE exam is an amazing feeling. You most likely have never finished a more difficult test in your entire life. And if you passed, you’re going to be a licensed professional engineer!
The only trouble is, it can take a little while to find out if you passed! I go into the details of what this is like and what to expect in my article on how long it takes to get PE Exam results, which you can check out here.
Even though waiting is hard, you’ll feel great that it’s over for now. All that’s left is to get some ice cream to celebrate being done!