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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Prepping for the PE Exam

Update 12/13/12: I PASSED MY PE EXAM!!! Check it out for the follow up.

What is the PE Exam?

For the past three months I have been studying for the Principals of Engineering Exam, which will determine whether I am a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). As a Civil Engineer, we take two eight-hour tests to qualify for our licensing. I took the first test, the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, at the beginning of my senior year at university. After completing the first test, I qualified as an Engineer in Training (EIT). After graduating with a Bachelors in Science in Civil Engineering and four years of work experience under a licensed engineer, it is now time to take the second test. Lucky for me, this will be the last test, unless I decide to practice in a state that requires retaking it. Most states let you transfer your license. There is a structural engineer in my office who is studying for his Structural Engineering exam. This will be his third exam and it is an 16 hour exam!!!

I thought I would share how I have been prepping for the exam for those who might find themselves doing so in the future. Please feel free to ask me questions. I will try my best to answer them.

Prepping for the PE Exam


Taking the exam is definitely an investment. The registration for the exam was around $260, while the State Department of Licensing took another $60. The PE Review class was $860. Lucky for me, my employer reimburses upfront the costs for the exam and review class. My co-student from college, who is also taking the exam at this time, said her employer reimburses half of the review course and the exam fees AFTER you pass the exam. Guess I got lucky!

I took the PE Review class from the University of Washington. Each topic is taught by a teacher from that field. It was somewhat reminiscent of school. Two of the teachers teaching the course were two of my top teachers from college. One of the teachers was my least favorite teacher. And guess what? It was the least helpful lecture. I would say the lectures were pretty hit or miss, with more than half of them helpful. I received full reimbursement for the first time taking the review class, so it was definitely worth it to me.

Reference Manuals

Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM)
(image courtesy of

In addition to exam and class fees, there is a heavy investment in reference materials. The PE exam is an open book exam, which means you are obligated to invest in several books.

The reference manual to have for all disciplines is the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM). This is the book that the majority of problems will use for reference. It will most likely be the only book used in the AM, but still heavily used in the PM as well, depending on the PM subject chosen.

The CERM runs for $336 new. However, you can find it for as low as $130 on Amazon. Make sure to check that the edition is the newest or a couple of editions behind maximum. I think the newest now is the 13th edition. I purchased the 11th edition for $130 in August 2012. Looking online now, this manual has already dropped in price to under $80 new. This manual is extremely useful and will be something you keep for the rest of your career. Every PE at my work has their copy on their bookshelf with tabs sticking out and fully highlighted and with notes in the margins. This is THE book.

I chose to take the Transportation PM exam. For this exam, I plan on taking the "Big Three" reference manuals:

  • The Highway Capacity Manual (HCM)

  • The AASHTO Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (the "Green Book")

  • The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)
I was given a thumb drive from a coworker with a ton of pdfs of reference materials for several subjects, with emphasis on geotechnical and transportation. On this thumb drive was a copy of the HCM and a copy of the Green Book. These would have both cost me around $160 each new. What really sucks about these two manuals is that they are not the most current used in the field. Both of them have newer manuals that are becoming standard practice, so the only reason they are still sold is for those taking the PE exam. Thusly, you will not want to keep them for your career. I decided to print the pdfs out instead of investing in the real deal. Printing them at Kinko's (FedEx Store) cost me $160 total. The MUTCD is free online, but my work had a copy so I borrowed it.

There are several other books I wouldn't have minded bringing to the test, but work didn't have them and financially I had to make some choice. I read in a forum on the PPI site that the reference materials is like insurance: the more you pay, the more you are covered. At several peoples suggestions, I chose these three manuals above the rest. If I had been able to, I would have also brought the AASHTO Roadside Design Guide, AASHTO Guide for Design of Pavement Structures, The Asphalt Handbook, Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures and the Traffic Engineering Handbook, in that order of desire. I found several questions on the practice NCEES exam that I found in the Green Book it just references the AASHTO Roadside Design Guide manual, so of these, that would be my top choice if I could find another manual in time.

HCM     AASHTO Green Book    MUTCD
The Big Three: Left to right, The Highway Capacity Manual (HCM), The AASHTO Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (The Green Book), the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (images courtesy of wikipedia,, respectively)

Practice Problems

NCEES PE Sample Questions and Solutions
NCEES PE Sample Questions
and Solutions (image courtesy

One of the biggest things about studying is the practice problems. I purchased the following practice problem books:

  • Practice Problems for the Civil Engineering PE Exam: A Companion to the Civil Engineering Reference Manual - These problems are organized in relation to the CERM. It is an excellent resource for doing problems as you complete chapters. The problems are NOT representative of what would be asked on the test. Many of the problems are even listed with a note "1 hour time limit." However, since these are much, much harder than the test, it is a great place to start practicing. I solved problems from this book for each chapter after reading the chapter from the CERM. I generally started skipping problems if I thought they were more representative of an afternoon problem from the topics that would not be covered on my afternoon exam.

  • Six-Minute Solutions for Civil PE Exam Transportation Problems - These books are available for each topic. I ended up with pdfs for the morning problems for structures, water resources and geotechnical. After running out of transportation PM problems, I purchased this book to keep studying for the PM. The AM problems are really good for studying, as they are more representative of what could be asked on the test (6-minutes is what you have on average per problem for the exam). I have heard that these are still a little more challenging than what would be on the exam, so that is good. What is REALLY nice about the 6-minute solutions is the solutions themselves. It really steps through how to solve the problem and explains why the other answers are incorrect.

  • Civil PE Sample Examination - This is a sample test provided by the publisher that also produces the CERM, practice problems and 6-minute solutions. It is a similar format to the official test, including 40 AM problems and 40 PM problems for all the different PM exams. At the end there is solutions for the problems. Problems are supposed to be 6-minute problems. I found that these problems are generally challenging. I found three trip generation problems in the Transportation PM that I couldn't solve with the resources I had. When I asked my review teacher about them, he thought that the test wouldn't ask them in the same format. I found that if tested on this topic, they would give me the formula and not have me look it up in an obscure manual. The NCEES sample test reflected that.

  • NCEES PE Civil: Transportation Sample Questions & Solutions - This sample test is produced by the test takers and includes an AM section and a PM section. At the end it gives an answer key, then provides detailed solutions. It should be relatively similar to the real test. When I took the FE, all I did was study the book of equations provided and do the practice problems in their sample test. I found, for the FE, that the sample test was generally representative of the actual test. Of course, they aren't going to use the same exact problems, but they might use the same type of problem with different numbers or ask for a different missing variable.

TI-36x Pro
TI-36x Pro - capable of solving systems of equations up
to 3x3, performing calculus, solving polynomials and
equations, providing tables, and much more. Plus it is on
the approved list! (image courtesy of


I did NOT like my calculator from the FE. I had a TI-30x. It has one line of text, which disappears once you hit the operation button. The buttons rock funny, making it easy to double press or hit the wrong button. AND it is as dumb of a calculator as you can get and still be scientific.

Right when I started thinking about studying in early August (3 months before the test), I grabbed my approved calculators to study with and immediately remembered all the reasons why I did not like my calculator. One of the teachers said that we treat our calculators like a relationship. We have been very monogamous with our calculator. It feels like betrayal to use another calculator, but we need to date this other calculator for the test. OMG! When he said that, it was so spot on! I have had my TI-84 graphing calculator for 15 years now... HALF of my life!

I researched the NCEES approved calculator list. I immediately ruled out HP calculators, as the way they do things is not intuitive to me. I came up with two calculators based off of the reviews from Top 5 Scientific Calculators that met my requirements: Casio FX-115ES and TI-36X Pro.

I chose the TI brand out of comfort. I highly recommend this calculator as it isn't completely dumb. It has four lines of text so that you can see what you entered. You can also scroll up and select lines of calculations or any answer to copy down on to your line of entry. It can solve systems of equations up to 3x3. It has an equation solver able to solve for a missing variable with several input variables. A polynomial solver able to solve up to the third power. It can produce tables from equations. It can perform calculus. The only thing I don't like about it is a <>~= button in between the enter button and the + button. At first I would hit it instead of the + button, but after using the calculator exclusively for studying you get used to the layout.

Overall, I LOVE this calculator and highly recommend it for the PE exam. I bought it from office depot for ~$25. I didn't want to pay shipping and handling or wait for it to be shipped. I actually ended up giving my graphing calculator to my fiancé who is taking math classes (he went back to school for a degree in computer programming). I've been using the dreaded TI-30x at work and can't wait for the test to be over so I can use my new calculator at work. I am taking my new TI-36x Pro and an old TI-30x IIS as a back up.

I bought the TI-30x IIS for a chemistry class that didn't allow graphing calculators, but I don't think it was approved for the FE which was why I bought the TI-30x. The TI-30x IIS is better than the TI-30x, but only because the buttons are stiffer and it has two lines of text, one for input and one for output. This is nice as you can see what you entered and the answer and confirm that you entered it correctly.

Other Purchases

Folding File Cart
Folding File Cart (image courtesy of
I also purchased a rolling cart from Office Depot for $24. It is stocked in stores and online. I just picked it up on my way home from work. I'll need it to carry my CERM, three LARGE binders for the HCM, Green Book and MUTCD, and one more binder for my notes from the review class and cheat sheets. I will probably also bring the 6-minute solutions and sample tests, since I might find a problem that is similar to a problem I did. I don't think I will bring the practice problems, as they are too complicated for the exam.

I also got a hotel room in Puyallup so that I don't have to leave my house an hour and a half before reporting at 7:15 am. It also gives me a full day to have stuff go wrong. Like what if my car breaks down? I am splitting the hotel room with a friend who is also taking the exam. I believe the hotel was just over $100. I suggest this if you live an hour or more from the testing facility that you look into a hotel for the night before. We are within 10 minutes of the testing facility and are planning on getting dinner together the night before and treating ourselves to a good breakfast the morning of. We hope this will help us be well rested and fed before the exam.

I plan on bringing in snacks for the exam and eating a bagged lunch in my car. I don't want to risk trying to go somewhere for food and then get back in the allotted 1 hour lunch break.

Hours of Study

Not only is taking the exam a financial investment, but it is also a HUGE time investment. The test is on October 26th (this Friday from when I published this!). I started studying the first weekend of August. I had a coworker who started months before me, but he had planned on a three-week vacation the month before the exam. Somewhere I read that the recommended hours of studying for the exam is around 300 hours. That would have been 3.5 hours of studying every day from the 1st of August.

I'm pretty sure most people don't study that much. Maybe they are able to cram more time into the day then I. It seemed like most people in my review class started studying in September, which is when the review class also started.

Out of curiosity, I decided to keep track of how many hours I have studied. As of today, I have studied 185.5 hours, including hours spent in a review class, over almost 3 months. I typically studied for 1-2 hours Monday-Thursday after work, then got in 4-6 hours on Saturday and Sunday. I may get in a couple more hours this week, but I don't plan on studying one minute the day before the test. I most likely won't study on Wednesday either. It's time to start relaxing my brain before the big day.

My Studying Strategy

I started studying by reading chapters from the CERM and then solving the corresponding problems from the Practice Problems. I studied chapters in a similar order to how we studied them in school, starting with the basics and working my way up. I studied a little from the transportation section, but focused mostly on the AM topics. As I started approaching 1 month from the test, I switched to 6 minute solutions for AM topics in order to wrap up the AM section in a timely manner. Once I hit October (the 26th being the test date), I stopped studying AM and focused on PM topics. I did ALL of the practice problems for PM. I then solved the PM Sample Exam from PPI; I did not treat this as an exam, but used it as extra problems since I had just ordered the 6-minute solutions and was waiting for it to arrive. I then practiced from the 6-minute PM problems in the evenings after work.

The last weekend before the test, I did the NCEES sample questions as a timed test. I completed the PM portion on Saturday and the AM on Sunday. I used a count down watch on my phone and set it to 4 hours. I paused the watch during times of interruption beyond just going to the bathroom (for instance, I stopped it when lunch was ready).

For the PM practice test, I finished with 1/2 hour to spare and got 90% right, which is 4 problems out of 40 wrong. One problem I KNEW was wrong, so if it was the test, I would have gone back and tried to fix it. After grading the problems, I went back and looked at this problem and saw right away that it was just an error of writing the formula down correctly. After re-inputting it into my calculator, I had the right answer. This would have been a problem I would have corrected during the exam.

Another problem I got wrong but I thought it was right, so I wouldn't have known to go back. I MIGHT have caught it while going back and double checking answers. I did not have a reference manual for this problem nor an equation, so I used engineering judgement. I had all the right numbers, but I switched a denominator and numerator in a ratio. If I thought it through more carefully, I would have gotten it correct.

The last two problems I had guessed on them. One of them I might have gone back to and tried to read up on as I did have some notes on it. I had rounded down, when I should have rounded up. I'm still not sure exactly how it works, but it will be something I remember for the exam.

There were a couple of problems on the sample test that I didn't have the reference material for, so I couldn't have found the right answer even if I wanted to. The 4th problem was one of these. I'm shocked I got the other problem right. It was an educated guess, but it was a total WAG. The other problem I could have used engineering judgment on, but the wording of the problem confused me at the time. Once I understood what the answer was, I understood the question.

For the AM test, I finished with 1.5 hrs remaining and 95% right! The two problems I got wrong were on the very first page. I just misread a couple of things in the problems. I was able to correct them without looking at the solution in the back. It wasn't concepts that were the problem, just going too fast and not fully reading the values they gave me. I *think* I might have gotten 100% on that test if in the actual testing situation, since I would have had plenty of time to read every single problem and double-check every single calculation.

I'm feeling pretty confident.


Well... wish me luck! I can't wait till this is finally over and I can have a life again! I remember that when I took my FE exam, it was also in October and at the same time a coworker where I was interning was taking his PE exam. We both got our results on Christmas Eve. I remember my results went to my parents house and my mom sent me a text message to let me know that it was there and did I want her to open it or wait till after Christmas? Before I could respond, she texted me, "you passed!" What's funny is, I imagine it will be the same thing this time around. We weren't sure if we might move between the time I registered for the exam (back in July) and by the time I got the results, so I registered with my parents address to be safe. Hopefully I will get a pleasant Christmas present.

I will follow-up this article next weekend with how I felt while taking the test. Whether I felt like I studied enough or not. What I wished I had studied more of, etc. If you are a young engineer planning on taking the exam or someone thinking about engineering, feel free to ask me questions! I will also let you know whether I passed once I find out. I'm sure I will be shouting it out to the world. Haha!



  1. Wow! I love the detailed, thoughtful description of how you prepared, what you used to prepare, and how you're personally feeling about the preparation. I hope it helps some fellow aspiring engineer out there.

    I am not cut out to be an engineer. However, I greatly admire and appreciate people who are. Good luck on your test this Friday. It sounds like you're going to kick its butt! :)

  2. Thank you! I'm feeling pretty good about it, but then again, 8 hours is a long day of testing. I'm sure my brain will be so tired by the end. I hope it helps someone else out there, too. It also helped to kind of release what I've been doing. Like writing it all down helped release some of the tension and anxiety I've been feeling. I'll let you know how it goes! :D

  3. Just wanted to stop by and say, "Good luck tomorrow!"

  4. Thank you! Just got home from my test. Bleh! A coworker who took it in Spring came out thinking she did poorly but ended up passing. I'm sure I did fine, but it was definitely hard! I hope I don't have to do that again. :)

  5. Hi! Just stumbled across your blog while researching some studying strategies for the PE exam. I am taking the exam this April, Transportation depth. Did you feel that the "Big Three" provided you with enough resource for the afternoon section? Is there anything you wish you had? Did you have anything other than those three books? Do you have any prep. tips you'd be willing to share? Glad to see you passed! Congratulations. :)


  6. The "Big Three" was enough. I found that the review class really focused in on LOS, so I ended up studying the HCM more than the other references (after studying the CERM, of course). This was only a fraction of the afternoon section. I found the Green Book to be used just as heavily.

    My biggest problem during the test wasn't actually doing the problems. Being 6-minute average problems, they were really simple calculations or questions, often not even requiring actual calculations. My problem was finding the right spot in the reference manual. Even though I had gone through and tabbed everything out, I was still struggling to find stuff in the Big Three. I had a ton of wasted time just flipping through sections of these books.

    If I could go back and study something, it would be sight distance problems. I didn't have any sample problems covering this topic, so I didn't know to study them. If you are in a PE Review class, I suggest asking your Transportation professor to give you some sight distance practice problems.

    I brought the 6-minute solutions, practice test and the NCEES Sample test. I didn't use any of these except for one problem in the morning session. The morning session is really straight forward and very similar to the NCEES published sample test. Because of this, I did reference a problem from the sample test for the morning session.

    I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any more questions. Good luck!

  7. Do I need the updated version of the HCM. I have version 2000. Didn't know if the 2010 changes were relevant?

    1. Hi Jhobbs,

      See the official list of reference material here:

      They list the 2010 manual. Since my test referenced the 2000 version, I used the 2000 version and am unfamiliar with what the differences between the two are.

      Perhaps you can ask someone who is more familiar with these two manuals. Are you taking a prep class? Asking the professor is a good option. Alternatively, if you know someone who specifically works as a transportation engineer, ask them.

      Personally, I would try to get my hands on a 2010 manual to be on the safe side. I found that the afternoon test was more about looking up obscure references in the manuals then actually performing calculations.

      Hope that helps! Break a leg! :)

      ~ Bethany

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