As engineers with an analytical science-based background, we tend to rely a lot on what the numbers tell us about something. Therefore, the statistics on the Civil PE Exam give us a hint on which depth exam can be considered the easiest one to take and pass. Today, however, Isaac combines his years of experience as a test taker himself and as an instructor to those seeking their PE license to dissect these numbers and the amount of work each exam requires.
By mentioning the specs required by the NCEES for each of the five exams and taking into account not only their pass rates and a number of test-takers but also the preparation time each of them requires from us, Isaac ranks, based on his own opinions and experience, which exam he thinks is the “easiest” one — if there’s such a thing as an easy exam. The number of standards we need to know change from exam to exam, as well as the number of topics we need to cover in order to be ready for each one. Therefore, even though “easy” may not be the perfect word, some of the exams require a bit less than others.
If you’ll soon be a first-time test taker and are not sure which depth exam to choose, this episode will get you covered. In addition to laying out all this information based on statistics and personal experience, you’ll get two pieces of advice in case you don’t know how to choose which depth exam you should go for!
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Built Bar – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/built
CEA Episode 51 (Tim Miller – NCEES) – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/cea-51-the-ncees-chief-officer-of-exams-tim-miller-pe
Civil PE Exam Statistics by NCEES – https://ncees.org/engineering/pe/pass-rates
ASCE 7 (Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures) – https://www.asce.org/asce-7
OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) – https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right, guys. So let's dive right into it. Today we want to talk about which civil PE exam is the hardest and which civil PE exam is the easiest. This can go a lot of different ways, but these are simply based on my own opinions about this and no one else's. So, I'll give you my thoughts about this as we continue on. So let's go ahead and start with what I think is the hardest exam to take. The hardest exam, I believe, to take for the civil PE exam is the structural depth exam. Now, I'm not saying that this should discourage you when you take and prepare for this exam. I'm just simply saying that it's one of the more difficult exams to take. And so, maybe you're asking why am I saying that. Well, if you go and dive into the actual books and codes that you need, the structural depth exam requires quite a few of them. I believe they're at 12, I think, if you go look at it. So what this means is that not only are you required to understand all your breadth material, but you also have to have an in-depth knowledge of your depth material, and you also have to have pretty good knowledge of all of those standards and codes, and at least know where to find them, which means you have to go through them, you have to tab them up. And that just adds to your study time as you're preparing for this exam, which is already a lengthy preparation time.
Isaac Oakeson: So, you know, at a minimum, I always recommend three months. Definitely want more than that. And depending on where your own life situation is, you're going to want more time all the way up to nine months, let's say, as you're preparing for this. Especially if you have children and things you've got to balance in your own life. So guys, that's my thoughts there. So the structural engineering depth exam is definitely one, I think, is the most difficult when you're preparing for the PE exam. And I don't want that to discourage you. If you work in an industry that is structural-related, I say "Go for it!", because you already have the mindset to use that. It's going to help you in your career and it'll help boost your own career and knowledge base, you know? You want to get better knowledge base in there, and that's going too help you do that. So, those are the reasons why I think the structural depth exam is one of the harder ones. And it is the hardest, I'd say. Just something to keep in mind, but don't get discouraged if that's the route you're going. All of these exams are difficult. But if I'm going to rank them, that's the one I'm going to rank as the hardest, okay?
Isaac Oakeson: All right! Let's look at the next hardest exam. And if I was going to rank that, it's going to be construction. And the reason why construction is because -- Well, construction is often misconstrued as being one of the easier exams. And so a lot of engineers go into that thinking it's going to be easy. The problem with construction is that they test you on a range of topics. Like, you have to know every discipline because construction touches every discipline. And also the problems get really wordy. A lot of information that's given on those, you might not need, you may need. And I think people, when they're preparing for that, are always surprised at how difficult the construction depth exam is. And just something to consider when you're looking into those exams.
Isaac Oakeson: You know, there is probably some not good facts or myths about the construction being the most popular. It seems like it's kind of the go-to exam when people are preparing for this, and they're not sure which category they want to take. And, you know, that's fine. If you're in the construction world, take it. I'm just kind of giving you my own thoughts on where it ranks. And that simply because it does require a lot of standards that you're going to have to know on top of the breadth of material that they can ask you. You have to know a little bit of everything. So, those are my thoughts regarding the construction depth exam. And yeah, in terms of hardness, that's definitely going to be right there. Structural is probably the hardest. And then I'd probably put construction right next to that in level of difficulty. So, there you have it. That's where construction ranks.
Isaac Oakeson: All right, the next one on my mind is going to be transportation. Now, if you actually look at transportation and the numbers behind it, you'll see that transportation and water resources have the highest amount of test takers. And they also have the highest pass rates. So I would rank the transportation exam somewhere right in the middle. So maybe, you know, number three here on our list, if we're going up. Transportation has the most standards that you have to know. But the beauty of transportation is that most of the problems involved in that are just simply, like, look-up problems. You just have to know those codes and standards really well, and you plug and chug. So you'll look it up, you'll go find it, you'll plug in what you need to know, and you move on.
Isaac Oakeson: So if you can know those and you're referencing everything out of those, that's really where the volume of questions are coming from in the stuff that you have to know. So, it has a very high amount of test takers that take it. If you go look at the NCEES organization, they have very high amounts of test takers and their percentage of passing is always pretty high as well relative to the other disciplines. So, we've got structural as the hardest. Next we've got construction. Then I list transportation right there. So, that's my thoughts surrounding transportation. What do you guys think? I'm curious. You know, leave a note in the comments or email me. I'm curious what you think about that list so far.
Isaac Oakeson: Let's go to the next one. The next one which I would rank as the second easiest, or in terms of difficulty, it's going to be right above transportation. So a little easier than transportation. And that is geotech. And a lot of people never take geotech. Maybe they hated it in college. I don't know. Maybe they disliked it there, whatever the reasons are around that. There's a lot of different reasons. But if you look at the NCEES website and the statistics on that, geotech has always ranked as one of the fewest in terms of the volume of students taking that exam. And it also has pretty low pass rates. But that's a little deceiving because there's just not that many people taking this exam.
Isaac Oakeson: And I also think, if you actually look at the Civil Engineering Reference Manual, which I have sitting somewhere around here -- Yeah, right here. We'll grab this bad boy. Just for a visual. So I got a Civil Engineering Reference Manual sitting in front of me. If you don't have it, go to civilengineeringacademy.com/ppi, use our discount code of CIVAC, get 15% off this. But you can see in here there's tabs. They've built in some tabs here. And each tab shows the thickness or the amount of material that's related to each topic. And if I just thumb through here, I can see structural. This guy is structural. You know, it's like an inch thick of structural material, and there's quite a bit in there. Transportation's pretty thick in there. Construction's very small. Other sections are very small. And if you actually thumb through what we call the geotech material, geotechnical, it is seriously like a quarter of an inch thick. It's this guy. Not a lot in there. So my thought is that the volume of material that you actually get tested on is very -- It's pretty limited. There are two categories that usually catch people with geotech, and that is the deep foundations and seismic material. But even if you don't know those, it's not going to be a hangup on you passing this test because there's only, like, two questions surrounding those topics. So, I think geotech is ranked as second easiest.
Isaac Oakeson: I personally took geotech. Yeah, I was a repeat taker, and that comes with its own ball of wax and mindset surrounding having to repeat. Because if you look at repeat test taking statistics, they drop drastically. And we did a whole episode about that. In fact, go check out our episode with Tim Miller. We discussed that and the reasons why. Tim Miller is the director of the NCEES examinations. So it was really fun to have him on to talk about that. But I think geotech is ranked up there just because the volume of material is not extremely huge and you can dive into each of that and really study it. It also doesn't require a lot of standards. There's only two standards listed. If you go to the NCEES website, you can go see that there are only two standards that are required. It's like the ASCE-7 and the OSHA Manual. And you're only going to get a few questions on there. And if you know how to do live loads and dead loads, then you've probably already got the ASCE-7 covered. That's the extent of it.
Isaac Oakeson: So anyway, those are my thoughts regarding the geotech. It's kind of a myth. There's not a lot of people that take that one. But I myself work in the transmission industry and the utility world. So I design transmission lines. It does involve foundation work as well as structural and tensions and, you know, a lot of other things. But I felt like it was a good complement to what I was doing at work. And that's specifically why I took the geotech exam. You may consider it too. Maybe you just hate the topic and that's fine. But if I'm ranking these, I'm going to rank geotech as probably the second easiest, simply on the fact that there's not a ton of material that you're going to have to spread everything thin. You're very focused on what you need to know and you don't have a lot of standards. So you don't have to know a lot of extra stuff out there in order to ace this exam. Hopefully that makes sense to you. It makes sense to me in my head. So, you know, let's get on board with that.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Coming up now, we want to talk about the easiest exam. And I believe that is the water resources. So the reason why I believe this is the easiest exam is simply because -- Well, there's a couple reasons. For one, there are no standards required for this exam. Zero. Zilch. Isn't that nice? Like, yeah, the volume of material is quite a bit. Like, if you looked in the Civil Engineering Reference Manual, there's still quite a bit of material that you need to know in there. But again, you're going to be very focused on it. That's all you need to know. That's all you need to study. And so you don't have to know everything about everything. You just dive into water resources, which is super nice. And you don't need to know standards. So you don't have to dive into other books and reference other material that's going to lose you or that you have to study, and tab up, and mark up, and you lose time doing that. Or you could just be studying the topic that you need to. So that's nice. You don't have any standards.
Isaac Oakeson: The other thing is the historical pass rates. If you go to the NCEES website, again, you can go see pass rates, and water resources always ranks the highest. Like, always. It's always high. And so, you know, right now, if I go look at the site, I believe the last test period that they had, they posted results, and it's 71% of first-time takers are passing. And they also have one of the highest volumes, if not the highest. It usually bounces between transportation and water resources. But water resources, I believe, is the highest right now. And so you get a 71% pass rate. If you're repeating the exam, it's also a higher pass rate as well. So you can just see by the statistics of it, as well as the standards and the material that you're studying. I feel like water resources is definitely the top of the list for what we would consider the easiest exam on the civil PE.
Isaac Oakeson: Now, take that with a grain of salt because every exam is difficult and I'm not here to discourage you from taking any of those, especially if it relates to the field that you are in. If you are considering, or you're confused about which depth exam to take, there are a few things that I recommend. First is obviously look at what you're doing for your employment and what's going to benefit you or complement what you're doing there. Because it's nice to study additional material so you can get better knowledge and help you at your workplace. So that's the first thing. If you work in an industry or you're doing something that just has no relation really to a specific topic, I would go back and think about what I did in college. And if you scored extremely well in transportation topics, maybe you want to consider that. I did well in water resources. So, you know, maybe I should've considered that. I did also well in geotech, so I felt like I was okay doing that as well. So, those are the things you want to consider. But that's my advice if you are confused about which depth exam to take. And that is also my advice on which exam is the easiest as well as the hardest to take on this exam.
Isaac Oakeson: So, that's my opinion. Those are my thoughts. I'm curious what you guys think. Again, shoot me an email. Let me know in the comments what you think is easiest, which is hardest. I never know how to really word this. Do we say "which exam is the hardest"? Or do we say "which exam is the easiest"? I think a lot of people care which one's the easiest, because that's the one they want to take in order to pass this thing. I totally get it. You know, you want to get the initials and move on with life and that's okay. Anyway guys, hopefully this was helpful to you as it was for me. I help a lot of people with these exams. Those are my experiences. Those are the things I hear from others. But if you have other comments, let me know.
Isaac Oakeson: Also, I also want to hit on that the structural depth exam is unrelated to the SE exam, which is the Structural Engineering Exam, where you get initials S.E. after your name. Those are two separate things. Anybody in the world, if you've reached the qualifications to take the PE, you can take the structural depth exam. If you feel good and confident in structures, go for it. But to take the SE is a separate category. It's a separate set of exams that you've got to do. And you really have to be focused in bridges or buildings to head that route so that you can design those things. So, just wanted to clarify that. A lot of people get confused about that a little bit. So wanted to make sure we're clear on that. Are you clear on that? I'm clear.
Isaac Oakeson: Anyway guys, with that, we'll go ahead and wrap this up. Thanks for joining me today. If you have any questions about anything related to the PE or the FE, or becoming a professional engineer, head to civilengineeringacademy.com. We are excited to help you on that journey. And just as a teaser, we are working on a California Seismic and Survey Review Course for people. We know that will help you on your journey if you're trying to get licensed in California as well. So we want to be able to do that. So, stay tuned on that. It's coming out soon. Just wanted to tease that out there a little bit.
Isaac Oakeson: Anyway, hope you guys are doing well and we'll see you in the next one. Bye.
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