Post P.E. Exam Reflections

New requirements for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam went into effect late 2018. See the details on the changes in this post.

Calvin Lokko, David Coggin and Ryan Abernathy recently took the PE exam, being the first Sain employees to complete the test with the new regulations. Calvin, David, and Ryan explained what they thought about taking the exam without the previously required four years of experience.

Do you wish you had more work experience before you took the test? Or was it more based on what you learned in school?


In my opinion, the test was primarily based on what I learned in school, so I happily took advantage of the decoupling of the exam requirement and the experience requirement. Over time, it becomes more and more challenging to retain concepts from school that are not part of your typical traffic engineering workload.  One aspect of the exam my work experience aided more than schooling was working with references and codes.  In school, professors are rightfully concerned with conveying the conceptual understanding of how to solve problems, but in the real world codes and references play a significant role in developing engineering solutions. 

At Sain, we are encouraged to study and understand the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which helped significantly when the time came to take the exam.  By anticipating the type of questions that you may have on the exam and where you can find reference materials to help you answer those questions, you can cut down on time spent during the exam flipping pages and combing through indexes.  Many of those questions are low-hanging fruit, so to speak, and being able to answer those efficiently saves more time for the heavy lifting required for other exam questions.


Most of the questions at the beginning of the exam covered topics discussed in the classroom and were similar to the Civil FE exam questions (a test that must be taken before the PE exam). I think this portion benefitted those who are just out of school because experience in the field wasn’t needed for this section. However, the second part of the exam was more focused on actual field work.


Based on my exam experience, I believe the general civil engineering portion of the exam can be successfully completed with the knowledge acquired in school paired with cursory design and field experience.  However, I would anticipate the discipline-specific portion of the exam to be much more challenging without multiple years of applicable experience.  My background is somewhat unique in that I did not practice engineering during the immediate four years after graduating from college.  This created somewhat of a challenge in recalling information and practicing engineering after being absent for that period.

Do you think it’s easier to pass the exam closer to graduation? Or after having some experience?


I believe that the experience requirement is the more important of the two.  Those three or four years of learning and growing as an engineer are vital and should be taken just as seriously as studying for a high-pressure exam that receives a little more of the limelight.  The merits and shortfalls of exam decoupling will always be debated, but being a good engineer requires you to judge your own strengths and weaknesses in any situation accurately.  The learning and growing never stops in a changing industry, so I think that is an important concept to understand as one navigates the path to becoming a professionally licensed engineer.


I think there are advantages for either choice made as to when you attempt the exam.  If you elect to attempt the exam relatively soon after graduating, you are more likely to retain the engineering concepts as well as the ability to study effectively.  Alternatively, I believe that having more experience will mature your thought process and enhance critical thinking.  Studying can help you choose an answer on a test, but applicable experience allows you to understand why you selected that answer.

The changes to the experience requirement for the exam may be beneficial to recent graduates, but there is no substitute for real-life experience. As in any profession, the classroom-based education is necessary, but the field work is where you truly become an engineer.