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Every licensed engineer has been there. They made it through their education to earn a B.S. Degree, passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam, worked through their required four years of professional engineering experience, and then they get to the grand finale: The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. Passing the PE test is the last milestone in the journey towards your professional engineering license. So, when it came time for me to register for the exam, I was naturally very excited, nervous, and a little overwhelmed. Throughout this post I will touch on the application process and share tips for determining your “Depth Section” topic when your work experience hasn’t been directly tied to one of the designated fields. It is worth noting that I applied for the PE test in the state of Maryland, so the following will be in relation to Maryland’s procedures and requirements.

I am scheduled to take the PE test in April 2018 (Friday the 13th to be exact…luckily, I’m not superstitious). The first important thing to know is that my application, including all required forms and fees, was due to the MD Board of Engineers in Baltimore no later than 120 days before the exam date. The application process can be somewhat tedious, so I recommend starting that as early as you can. You will need to get your college education transcript transferred directly from the school you attended and a few forms passed around to qualified engineers to sign on your behalf. Once my application was complete, the MD Board of Engineers reviewed and approved the package. I received a letter by mail notifying me of my approved application, which came with an applicant “Track #” that must be provided to register for the exam with both the MD Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation and NCEES (National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying).

Here is where things got tough. The PE Exam is an eight-hour test broken into two sections. The morning four-hour session is called the “breadth” exam and covers general engineering questions in all facets of civil engineering. The afternoon four-hour session is referred to as the “depth” test and tests you in detail on a specific area of your choice. The five depth section options I had to choose from were Construction, Geotechnical, Structural, Transportation, and Water Resources/Environmental. I have worked in telecommunications for the past four years and, although that field may touch on most of these topics, I wouldn’t call myself an expert or specialized in any single one of those areas. It was beginning to look like I would be studying from the ground up for whatever topic I chose.

How do you decide which of these five areas to be tested on when you don’t have an abundant amount of experience in any of them, you ask? I’ll tell how I came to my decision….

  • Consider your experience and interests. The first thing I thought about was my college education and classes I took covering each topic. I distinctly remember being somewhat bored and uninterested while studying for geotechnical and structural courses; so, I ruled those out immediately. The remaining options were Water Resources/Environmental, Construction, and Transportation. The Water Resources/Environmental classes were popularly thought to be the hardest courses in the University of Maryland Civil Engineering program while I was enrolled, and I haven’t applied any of that material since graduation in 2012. I decided that topic may not be the best choice. I took a couple construction-based courses for my minor in project management and really enjoyed the material, although they were somewhat difficult. That topic stayed in the running. The last topic to consider was Transportation. I don’t remember taking too many courses that touched on that area, but I have always been very interested in traffic engineering and thought that interest could come in handy when I lock down and start studying full-time in the coming months.

  • Check pass rates. Next, I started picking the brains of a few engineer colleagues and friends that had already taken the test. The feedback I received was very helpful. One colleague who had also worked mainly in telecom told me he had the same thought about these depth sections. There didn’t seem to be any options that overlapped greatly with what he had learned over his professional career. He advised me to look on the NCEES website for recent pass rates for each section. That would give me a good idea of the overall difficulty of each section. After a little digging-around on the NCEES website, I found this helpful information on pass rates. It appears that first time test takers had a pass rate of 59% and 69%, respectively, for Construction and Transportation. Those rates ranked lowest and second highest among the five sections.

  • Preview the exam. Lastly, while on the NCEES website I also came across some exam prep materials for sale. Looking at the previews of the practice exams for each discipline helped jog my memory of which areas have questions that are easier to study for. For example, I saw that the solutions for the construction problems were very long with a lot of calculations being worked out. The transportation solutions seemed a lot more intuitive and required less steps.

After considering these factors, I have concluded that I will be taking the Transportation depth section for my PE Exam in April. I’m sure that each person will have different results based on their past experiences, but I hope that walking you through my thought process has helped you develop a personal approach to determining your depth section. For more tips to help you prep for the PE exam, check out this post from my colleague Parker Ross, who took the exam in October 2015.

About James Marooney, PE

James Marooney, PE, is a Regional Leader for Wireless Services in Washington D.C. at Foresite Group. He graduated from University of Maryland with his Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Project Management. James enjoys working with a communicative team in order to get the job done on time. He has a special interest in working with a variety of carriers, especially learning how each carrier implements their systems and methods to complete a job.


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