This may be helpful to you when you take it. Half of those who took it with me failed on their first attempt…
To successfully pass the PE exam I believe there are five main areas to consider:
- Motivation to take the exam
- Which particular exam to take
- How much time you should devote to studying
- What studying strategies you should employ
- The resources you should use to study
I will take you through the ways I addressed them. Hopefully my experience will be helpful to you so that you don’t end up on the wrong side of the measuring line:
There are benefits to attaining your professional engineer (PE) license. Maybe one of the most obvious affects your salary: various salary surveys taken over the years show that licensed engineers usually make 5% or more than non-licensed engineers.
There are other benefits which may also lead to higher income. The National Society of Professional Engineers states that “Licensure is the mark of a professional. It’s a standard recognized by employers and their clients, by governments and by the public as an assurance of dedication, skill and quality.”
Along with a higher salary, it lists 4 other benefits of becoming a licensed engineer:
- Career Development
It comes down to responsibility. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” The PE license grants greater authority to the individual who attains it. This brings with it greater responsibility.
CHOOSING THE POWER EXAM
I took the power PE exam almost 14 years after graduating college with my undergraduate degree. “Power” was not my background. Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) was my strength coming out of college. I considered taking the “Electronics, Controls, and Communications” exam because of its breadth, but settled on the Power exam since I had spent a decade in the power industry.
I felt well-rounded and skilled in the basics of the electrical discipline. It had been almost 14 years since I left college, but basic circuit analysis techniques and phasor math were still skills I used regularly.
If this is not the case for you, then you may need to study more than I did.
One thing I found true was this: my years of experience made it easier to pass the exam. Having such a wide background, thanks to years of project work, helped to reinforce power concepts over time so that I didn’t have to learn them for what seemed like the first time.
I had developed knowledge of the National Electric Code (NEC). By the time of the exam, I had used at least 4 editions over the years. I knew the basics of cable sizing, breaker and fuse sizing, voltage drop, motors, some grounding, and so on.
A significant portion of the Power PE exam deals with the NEC–and a few other codes to a lesser extent. Looking up articles in code books with which I was at least a little familiar seemed like easy points to me. So I settled on the Power exam.
Again, if your experience has not at least forced you to learn new electrical concepts that are required by the exam, ones which you didn’t study in engineering school, then you will need to consider studying longer than I did.
I registered for the exam the last days of August. The exam date was October 25, 2019. That gave me about 2 months to prepare.
I have read, and have been told by some, that you should study 6 months or more for this test. I refused to accept that to be true. It turns out I didn’t need 6 months, but that’s not to say you might. Everyone is different.
But one of the main things you will need to do to succeed is be disciplined about your time. You must practice time management. You must get serious about devoting personal time, after work, to your studies. This is probably the quality that most decisively influences your success and separates the winners from the losers.
Can you devote yourself to this task with the same disciplined, focused dedication that you apply in your work? Can you temporarily surrender your evenings of entertainment, extracurricular activities, Netflix, leisure, hobbies, or even family time to accomplish this important goal?
Can you pry yourself from work?
If you can’t do it, or if you are unwilling, then I think your chances of succeeding are low.
HOW MUCH TIME IS REQUIRED?
For the first month, I tried to spend 2 hours a night, 3 nights a week studying. That was about 6 hours per week for a month. Some weeks I didn’t make it all 3 nights. Some nights I didn’t make it much more than an hour. I was working, so I would study after getting home and having dinner with my family. I didn’t study on the weekends. There was too much going on. I knew there would be some nights where I got home so late, or after such an exhausting day, that I just wouldn’t even make an attempt.
Limiting my studies to just 3 nights a week helped with this problem. I could skip a couple of nights and not feel guilty about it.
So don’t beat yourself up about it if you miss some nights, or don’t study as long as you had planned. Something is better than nothing, and consistency is key.
I spread out my materials on my dining room table. We eat in the kitchen, on the kitchen table, so I turned the dining room table into a large study desk for two months. Sometimes my kids would come around.
Okay, they came around a lot while I studied. I didn’t mind, though I would sometimes have to tell them to go play elsewhere so that I could focus. Sometimes I would try to explain to them what I was doing. I thought maybe I could teach them the importance of mathematics. I don’t think it’s that hard (electrical engineering is mostly complex algebra, after all–and if it’s something more difficult than that, then we use tricks to reduce the higher-level math to complex algebra anyway!).
My oldest at the time was 6, so it remains to be seen if any of what I taught them will stick.
Once October arrived, I got more serious. I ramped up to 2 hours per night, 5 nights a week. So I aimed for 10 hours per week, though there were still some nights that I just didn’t study at all. There were others where I didn’t make the full 2 hours. But I aimed for at least an hour each night.
And while I generally didn’t plan to study on Saturdays, I usually would try to spend an hour or so if I had some downtime.
Over the course of the 8 weeks, I probably spent about 64 hours studying: 24 hours in September and 40 hours in October. I think this is manageable by most anyone.
HOW DID I STUDY?
I started with the official practice exam you can buy from NCEES. You get a discount if you buy it at the same time that you pay your registration fee.
Starting with the official NCEES practice exam gives you a good baseline. It contains 80 questions, divided into two 40-question halves, just like the actual exam. I didn’t time myself taking the practice exam. But I did try to answer the questions without peeking at the answer key my first pass through.
The official practice exam will reveal to you the areas in which you are most deficient. You will know them when you see them. For example, I realized that I was weak in 3-phase circuit analysis. This didn’t surprise me because we probably spent a week on it during my sophomore year of engineering school. So, I pulled out my old textbook (Do you still have yours?) and dove back into the subject. I worked out some of the problems in the book. I got familiar with 3-phase circuit analysis.
But I also wrote out a solution procedure for myself. The pen & paper exam is open book. If you make notes on notebook paper, you can put it in a 3-ring binder and take it into the exam with you. So that’s what I did for the areas with which I was most unfamiliar. I wrote a step-by-step solution procedure.
But naturally, you’ll probably discover the same thing I did: if you go to this trouble, then by the time the exam comes along, you won’t actually need to refer to your notes. It’s there for safe-keeping, sure, like a safety blanket. But you likely won’t need to refer to it at all.
Which is good for those who take the exam after me. In the not-too-distant-future, the electrical exams will finally be converted to computer-based exams (CBT). These are not open book. You are given the reference materials on exam day. So that means any solution procedures you devise will have to be left in the car.
But I think you should go through the process anyway, primarily for the reason I just said: you won’t actually need to refer to it anyway on exam day. It will have become so ingrained in your thinking that you’ll just know what to do.
This may become an advantage you have over other CBT-exam takers. Some who would have gone through the effort for the pen & paper test, knowing they could take their reference material with them, may decide it’s not worth their time with the new exam format. But they would be overlooking the value in writing out, by hand, the solution procedure in the first place.
**2021 Update**: Zach Stone interviewed engineers who passed the CBT exams. You can watch the interviews on his YouTube channel here: How to Pass the CBT Power Exam.
I worked out practice problems on notebook paper using a pencil and jumbo eraser.
I bought a copy of the current-edition NEC, along with the official (black & white) tabs. The tabs helped. I would recommend them. Practice using them so that it’s not a new experience on exam day.
I purchased a Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro calculator from Amazon for the exam. It was an approved model. And you are going to want a calculator that automatically converts complex numbers into polar notation. You want to be able to mix and match polar numbers and complex numbers in the same equation. This calculator handles this function admirably.
I used some practice exams from Complex Imaginary LLC. I timed myself taking them, learning I could get through the 40-problem sets in about 2 hours (even with the kids occasionally dropping by). They were easier than the official practice exam and easier than the actual exam questions, but they are good practice. They are good at helping you lay down and reinforce your basic skills. These tests were good for nights when I didn’t really feel like studying, but pushed myself anyway–remember, something is better than nothing.
I read and worked through The Electrical Engineer’s Guide to Passing the Power PE Exam, by Alexander S. Graffeo. It is good at explaining how to solve the various problems. The book also provides problems scattered throughout to help test your knowledge. It doubles as a good reference book.
I highly recommend the sample exams at CramForThePE.com. I purchased one practice exam about 2 weeks before the test date. I should have bought it sooner. It was a lot closer in difficulty to the actual exam. I also recommend the reference book. It is concise but packs in lots of little scraps of information that you may not have studied for, but which could pop up on the exam.
The key to success is working lots of sample problems. I asked coworkers for their tips. They all said this was crucial. They were right.
When you come across a subject you know nothing about, and which your textbooks know nothing about, scour the Internet. There are some good resources out there.
Something like Electric Machinery Fundamentals by Chapman is a good textbook reference for transformers and motors, among other topics. His explanations are concise. He gives you the circuit model and the math.
You can get used copies of old editions for relatively cheap on Amazon.
Zack Stone at Electrical PE Review offers some free articles that are packed with useful information that help you understand some common questions. He also sells a study course that his students really like. I did not take it, but it is another resource available to you if you think you need it.
I carried a small Publix canvas bag into the exam site. It contained three code books (NEC 2017, an outdated copy of the NESC, and an outdated copy of NFPA 70E), my three-ring binder containing my notes, a couple of reference books, and two calculators (one a backup that I didn’t use).
Make sure you circle the answers in your test book as well as fill in the bubble on the answer sheet. You need to cross-check the two once you finish. I spotted one instance where I filled in the wrong bubble on my answer sheet–yikes! Thankfully, because I had also circled the right answer in my exam book, I was able to easily catch the mistake.
It took me longer to take the actual exam than it did the practice tests. I finished my first passes in about 3 hours. That gave me time to revisit the tough ones I struggled with (and passed by) on my first cut through, as well as cross-check my answer key.
I even took a bathroom break during the morning session.
ONE MORE THING
Buy a cheap Timex watch. Why? Smart watches are not allowed inside the exam room. And you would be nuts to go in without a watch to keep track of time.
I saw one guy wearing a pink unicorn wristwatch. And I knew immediately what happened–he remembered too late.
I have three daughters. It could have easily been me in the same boat, also wearing a pink watch. Thankfully, I thought about this a couple weeks in advance.
You can’t beat a cheap Timex.
Find ample motivation to take the exam. If you aren’t motivated, you won’t have the fire in your belly required to push through.
Then, read the official exam rules. You don’t want to get disqualified.
Determine which exam you should take. Take an honest stock of your basic engineering skills, your breadth of experience since going to work, your particular areas of interest, and how much time you have spent on your own over the years, after work, improving your skills through self-study. The intersection of these areas is likely to identify the exam you should take.
For some, this likely won’t be a problem. They majored in power. They went to work in the power sector. And they still love power. So, they won’t have a hard time figuring out they should take the Power PE exam. But others, like me, may have to weigh this decision more carefully. The idealist in me wanted to take the generic breadth exam to prove I still “had it,” but the practical side won out. I decided to swim with the tide rather than against it.
Establish a study schedule and stick to it. Consistency matters. So does something, which is better than nothing at all. Studying for even half an hour on a night you really don’t want to will keep you moving forward. You’ll feel better that you did it. You won’t second-guess yourself after taking the exam. “I should have at least done something those nights I didn’t do anything.”
You will have to make room in your routine to add 6-8 hours (or more) of study time each week. My suggestion is to examine your leisure time. Convert leisure into productivity.
Start with the official practice exam to establish a baseline, then focus first on the areas in which you recognize you are the weakest. Use the official exam specifications to manage your time wisely. Buy sample exams and work as many problems as you can. This is how you pass. Work lots of problems. Write out solution procedures, even if you don’t or can’t take them in.
Buy an approved calculator that converts complex numbers into polar form and vice versa. Here is a short list of the resources I used:
- Texas Instruments Ti-36X Pro
- Practice tests and reference book from Cram For the PE Exam (James Flanagan).
- Practice tests from Complex Imaginary LLC
- The Electrical Engineer’s Guide to Passing the Power PE Exam, by Alexander S. Graffeo
- A cheap Timex wristwatch (to substitute for your smart watch)
- Internet resources, like the free articles at Zack Stone’s Electrical PE Review.
Lastly, double-check your answers. Make sure you filled in the correct bubbles (the ones you intended to bubble). Mistakes can happen here. You don’t want something like that to sink you.