When I was getting ready to take the PE exam in 2019, I knew that I could bring books in. But I had no idea what books I could bring, whether it was okay to bring practice tests, and if I needed anything else. After taking the test twice (and passing on my second try!) I know what’s best to bring and not bring into the PE exam.
Here’s what to bring to computer-based PE Exams (which are closed book):
- Current ID and test authorization
- Snacks and water
- A lunch (leave it in your car)
And here’s what you need to bring into open-book PE Exams:
- Reference books, practice problems, and practice tests (yes, you can bring these in) all of which must be in some type of binder (no loose or stapled papers).
- Snacks and water
- Current ID and test authorization
- A lunch (leave it in your car)
Note that the Civil PE exam is now computer-based as of January 1, 2022, so you will no longer be able to bring in books even to the Civil PE. Any reference materials required will be provided at the testing center, including the searchable PDF reference guide.
This is just the short version of what you need to bring, but you’ll want to know the details of each of these, which we’ll dive into now!
Reference Materials – Pencil & Paper Exams Only
Before I start I want to reiterate again that the Civil PE Exam is now computer-based and closed-book. So if you’re planning on taking the Civil PE, none of this section applies! You can skip to the next section for the details on bringing in food and water, which do apply for all PE exams.
The most common question I see about reference materials is whether or not it’s okay to bring in practice exams. You are allowed to bring practice exams into pencil & paper PE exams only, as long as these materials are bound somehow and not loose or stapled.
You can bring in literally any reference material as long as it is bound. Not all books and practice materials are created equal though, and you don’t want to bring in more than you need.
The first and most important book to bring to the Civil PE is the Civil Engineering Reference Manual, or CERM. This is a massive resource with almost everything you could need for the test, including formulas and conversion tables. Click here to check it out on Amazon and make sure you get your own copy to bring into the PE Exam!
The CERM is made by ppi2pass, which is one of the leading producers of reference materials. They have a lot of material, including practice problems and other references, which you can check out right here.
I will say, however, that ppi2pass’s practice problems are much more difficult than most of the actual questions on the PE Exam. I bought their practice portal and ended up canceling because it took way too much time and brain power to solve the problems. And other resources had problems that were a lot closer to the actual exam.
Instead, I highly recommend School of PE. Their practice problems were almost exactly the same level of difficulty as the actual PE exam problems. By going through their course and working their practice problems, I got over 500 additional practice problems in. I mention this because I got to bring in every one of those problems, and they were a lot more helpful than any other practice problems I brought to the PE.
With School of PE you also get over 1,000 pages of reference materials that are far superior to the CERM. On my first try, I didn’t have School of PE and didn’t have a lot of luck locating things in the CERM. After taking School of PE, I knew right where to go because their reference materials were so good. It made the morning portion way easier, and was just what I needed to finally pass!
If you want to learn more about School of PE, check out my review of it here. Or you can click here to go to the School of PE website where you can try out a few video lectures for free! Just know that the trial doesn’t begin to do it justice and the real thing is way better than you can imagine!
The bulk of your reference material will either be from the CERM or whatever course you buy. But there are other materials to bring in that are very helpful.
If you take the Civil Structural PE like I did, you’ll need a lot of codebooks, including:
- IBC 2015
- ASCE 7-10
- ACI 318 (Concrete Code)
- AISC Steel Construction Manual 14th Edition
- NDS (Wood Code)
- OSHA CFR 29 parts 1910 and 1926
- PCI (prestressed concrete handbook)
I don’t recommend bringing in the PCI or AASHTO codebooks. And if you decide to take School of PE’s course you’ll get all you need for those without having to take the codes in plus the OSHA sections!
Your specific PE exam might have other code books you need to bring. For the Civil PE, the codes you’ll need for your specific discipline can be found at the links under the “Exam specifications and design standards” section of this page on NCEES’s website.
Practice problems and reference books are the meat of what you want to bring in, but you’ll also have other practice exams and references that may be helpful for your specific PE exam. I brought in the NCEES practice exam as well as a few practice materials that I got from Civil Engineering Academy, which is also a great resource for practice problems. Click here to check out what they have.
It’s a good idea to tab your reference material really well. You’ll also need to get a lot of binders for all the loose papers.
Another extremely helpful thing I did was create a cheat sheet that told me where I could find information and practice problems on certain topics. Well-organized reference materials can make all the difference on test day, and it definitely made things way easier for me!
The last thing when it comes to books is figuring out how to carry them. I wrote a guide for how to bring books into the PE exam that you can check out right here.
The main point of that article, is that the very best way to bring books in is with a wagon because it keeps your books neat and easily accessible. Plus, you don’t have to carry them yourself or mess with an awkward suitcase.
The best type of wagon to bring in is this one, by the way. It’s the perfect height to reach in easily and grab stuff without having to go all the way to the floor. It’s also long enough that you don’t have to stack books on top of each other! It became like a mini library for me so it was super easy to see and grab whatever references I needed.
Food & Water – Both Pencil & Paper and Computer-Based PE Exams
If you think you can go 4 hours without eating or drinking anything, then you can skip this section. But I don’t recommend it because you’ll not perform as well if you do!
I brought in 2 water bottles that were about 24-ounces each, one for the morning session and one for the afternoon. I usually drink more than that, but I didn’t want to have to be going to the bathroom so much. This was the perfect amount of water for me to stay hydrated and not have to use the bathroom a ton.
For snacks I brought some chocolate covered almonds, cashews, granola bars, and cheese sticks. I usually get hungry around 11 am every day and I had to be prepared so a grumbling stomach wouldn’t distract me. There’s nothing like being hungry or thirsty to unfocus your mind just enough that you might miss a question or two!
It’s also important that you bring healthy foods and not things that can harm your brainpower. Try to bring nuts, fruit, or even vegetables and stay away from candy bars and soda, which will hurt your performance on the exam.
For pencil & paper exams, you can access your food whenever you want. I just kept mine in the wagon I brought in and grabbed something whenever I got hungry.
If you’re taking a computer-based test, you’ll need to take an unscheduled break to get some food. You can do this at any time during the exam by raising your hand and letting the proctor know. They’ll then let you out and you can access your food or drinks that you will have stored in a locker earlier and nothing else.
This time is deducted from your time taking the test, so use it wisely! I’d use a bathroom break to get some food to be most efficient. I’d also try to plan on only taking two breaks to maximize my time.
Bring a Lunch, Don’t Eat Out
The other food item you’ll definitely want to bring is lunch. If you have to go to a restaurant, you might not have enough time to get back for the afternoon portion of the exam.
What’s worse, fast food is super bad for your brain. It might spike your energy for a time, but will eventually lead to a mental crash. This is terrible during any exam, but especially in the afternoon portion of the PE exam, which is much harder than the morning!
If you pack a lunch, on the other hand, you can pick things that are healthy and boost brainpower, like blueberries or avocados. Try to watch out for foods that you know don’t agree with you, though. I knew that I have problems every time I eat peanut butter, for example, so I made sure to avoid that.
The other benefit to bringing a lunch is that not having to travel to get a bite to eat saves you a lot of time. If you pack a lunch you will likely have some time afterward to take a walk or do something else to relax your mind. That will be much more helpful in preparing you for the afternoon portion than if you’re stressed out about trying to get back from a restaurant on time!
Current ID & Test Authorization – Both Pencil & Paper and Computer-Based PE Exams
This gets its own section because of how important it is. You cannot get into the exam if you don’t have your ID or test authorization, or if your ID is expired. NCEES doesn’t make exceptions on this, so be prepared!
I printed two test authorizations and put one in my car and one in my reference materials that I was bringing into the exam. My driver’s license I just kept in my pocket the entire time and made sure I had it as I was driving to the testing center in the morning. I double and triple-checked that I had these so there wouldn’t be any issues getting into the exam.
This also brings up one of the saddest things that I’ve ever seen in my life.
The second time I took the PE exam, the morning session went nearly flawlessly. I was lucky enough to get a table all to myself because the person next to me didn’t show up. The questions were easy because I was so well-prepared by having taken School of PE’s review course.
I had my lunch and even got to say hi to my wife and kids who were in the area. After taking a short walk it was time to go back in. When I got there, I noticed something was going on a couple tables over from me. A guy was talking to one of the proctors and had something in his hand.
I noticed that they were talking about his ID, and I heard him say “I didn’t even realize it was expired.” The proctor said they’d call NCEES to see what to do about it and I noticed the guy nervously waiting for the decision.
When the proctor got back, they said that NCEES wouldn’t let him finish the exam because his driver’s license was expired. After spending all that time and money, and finishing the morning portion, he had to pack up his books and leave. What’s worse was this was October 2019, the last administration before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the test for a while. The next time he would have been able to take it was a whole year later in October 2020!
I felt awful for him and really hope that he’s passed by now!
The poor guy learned his lesson that day, but hopefully by hearing about that you won’t have to go through the same thing!
And luckily, with the Civil PE going computer-based, nobody should have to wait so long to attempt it after getting kicked out or failing.
Preparing for the PE exam can be overwhelming. But when you know what to expect, and, more importantly, what to bring, it can be a lot easier!
I learned a lot from having to take the PE exam twice, and I hope that this guide to what to bring into the PE exam will help make it easier for you to prepare for and pass the PE on your first (or next) try!