Six Tips to Pass the Civil PE Exam Breadth Section

Introduction

If you’re a civil engineer, you must pass the Principles of Engineering (PE) Exam. It’s a necessary step if you want your engineering career to go anywhere. Without a PE license, you’ll be relegated to “grunt” work and someone else will have to review and stamp your designs. So is the test hard? It can be. But, if you study and prepare the right way, you can pass on your first try. The key is knowing what you’ll be tested on and preparing accordingly. This guide is not meant to be used as reference material. You won’t bring it with you on testing day. Instead, it will help guide your preparation for the exam. Good luck!

Reference Materials

You can answer (almost) all the questions in this section with the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (CERM) by Michael R. Lindeburg.

It’s a must-have for the exam. You don’t need to bring the latest version, though.

The key is to go through and tab all the relevant sections. The CERM is vast in terms of content, but fortunately you only need to know the basics of each sub-discipline of engineering for the breath section. Which brings to me to tip #1:

Tip #1: NCEES tells you exactly what to expect.

On the NCEES website, you’ll find a list of exam specifications for all the Civil PE exams. These PDF documents not only will you find a list of all the references for the depth section, you’ll also get a precise breakdown of how many of each type of question to expect on the exam! Take, for example, geometrics (transportation):

When you take the test, you can expect to see one horizontal curve question, one vertical curve question, and one traffic volume question. Review these topics in the CERM, highlight the corresponding equations, tab the sections, and you’re all set for transportation engineering on this section of the test!

I will, however, add one word of caution: simply knowing the equations or where to find them will not help you on the PE Exam. That brings me to tip #2:

Tip #2: The Exam focuses more on concepts and trivia than on computation.

If your strategy is to prepare for the exam simply by memorizing equations and procedures, you’ll be screwed. In order to do well, you must understand both what is happening and why it’s happening. The sadistic engineers who write the PE Exam will take a simple problem…and then change it slightly. If you understand the theory behind it, you’ll recognize what they’re doing and get the right answer. For this same reason, if your strategy is to bring in books of solved practice problems and hope there will be similar problems on the exam, you’ll also be screwed (there’s just too much material for them to draw from.)

Quantitatively, the test doesn’t get too complicated. Note how NCEES prohibits graphing calculators, allowing you only a simple one. They don’t give you scratch paper either: all your calculations will be done on the test booklet itself! Trust me, that won’t be a problem: even the most math-intensive problem required just a few lines of calculations.

Tip #3: Tab the heck out of your CERM.

As I mentioned before, the CERM is your best friend. You don’t need the most recent version for the exam. Any edition within the past five years or so will work. You can save yourself time by tabbing all the important chapters with tabs and then marking them with an ultra-fine point Sharpie (if you use a gel ink pen, it’ll smear and be unreadable.) It’ll look something like this:

I never had to use the index!

Also, color-coding by subject helps. Not just the CERM, but all your references. Many of the questions on the PE Exam are simply finding a standard or looking up a definition. The faster you can flip to it, the better.

Tip #4: Don’t attempt every question on your first pass.

Some of the questions are much tougher than others, but they’re all worth the same amount of points. If a problem looks like it’ll take you more than 45 seconds to complete, mark it and skip to the next one. Using this method, I was able to find solutions for half the section in less than an hour. You may look at a question and think “holy cow, I don’t know where to begin!” but as you continue, your brain keeps working on the problem and the solution will suddenly come to you later down the line. It happened to me a couple times! So yes, save the most complicated problems for the end.

Tip #5: They’re trying to trick you.

The PE Exam is trickier than it is hard. The insidious NCEES test-writers want to lull you into a false sense of security by finding common mistakes…and then including those mistakes as options on the test. Some of their favorite tactics include:

  • Conceptual problems disguised as quantitative problems. These problems will give tons of data, but if you understand the concept, you’ll see the correct answer right away, no number-crunching necessary. For example, they might show you a simply supported beam with point loads, distributed loads, an applied moment, and a hinge in the middle, and then ask you to identify the correct bending moment diagram from four possible choices. Before you start crunching numbers and drawing two elaborate diagrams, you notice that only one of your four options includes moment discontinuity. Aha! Everyone knows that the moment at a hinge is zero, so that eliminates all the other choices! The NCEES folks were hoping to trick you into wasting your time with unnecessary calculations.
  • Including one key detail that will change the entire problem. They’re hoping you’ll read the question too fast. Of course, they’ll make the answer without this key detail one of the choices. Remember you have one right answer and three traps.
  • Throwing in superfluous information to mislead you. Make sure you’re answering what the question is asking. They especially love using this tactic on quantity take-off problems (those questions about how much dirt needs to be excavated from a geometric area.) They might throw in a measurement that you don’t need and hope that you’ll use it.

Tip #6: There’s one more reference you need.

You’ll need a civil engineering dictionary. Look for one online. When I took the exam, one of the geotechnical questions gave a definition and asked me to identify the corresponding vocabulary word. I perused the soils section of the CERM and couldn’t find any of the options in there. A dictionary would’ve helped in that situation. I found two similar questions (except I had to identify the definition) in the depth section. They were tricky because I knew what they were referring to, but I couldn’t think of a succinct definition.

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Civil Engineer. Veteran. Public Servant. Educator.

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Alex Kolkena, PE

Alex Kolkena, PE

Civil Engineer. Veteran. Public Servant. Educator.

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