Which Civil PE Exam is the Hardest?

A question that often comes up over and over again from engineers is the infamous question - which PE exam is the easiest to take?

And I get it.  You want to achieve maximum results with the least amount of effort - you're busy (we all are)!  

I'll just break it to you right now - every depth exam is hard and requires a high degree of effort; but if we dive a little deeper into it, maybe we can spot some things that might be easier for you.

So here we go, today we will break down each depth exam and give our advice as to which is the easiest (and hardest) to take and why.    


Isaac's Notes: All the breadth exams for the PE are the same.  They use the same specifications.  Your depth exam is where things vary a great deal.  Don't be overwhelmed by this list and ranking if you are questioning what to take.  Choose an exam you feel comfortable doing, have the most experience in, or did better in school on and you should be fine.  Just don't give up on the exam if it takes you more than once to pass and if you do repeat I'll always recommend going back with the same depth section you just did because you just gained a TON of experience!

Construction Depth Exam

Let's start with this baby.  I think this is the most popular PE depth exam that civil engineers take.

Why is that you ask?  

It's because civil engineers work in a variety of different fields but don't specialize in one particular area.  This leads engineers into thinking that they don't know anything except general engineering concepts.

This is the problem though - because engineers think that the topics found in the construction depth exam are easier to understand and solve they gravitate to this topic - but it's a farce.  Those that take the construction depth exam are often surprised about the difficulty of the problems asked.  Engineer's often times end up working on topics or questions that they never studied or that were spun in such a way that they were really difficult to understand and solve.

I you were to look at the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (go get it at www.ppi2pass.com and use our code of CEA15 to get 15% off!) the construction depth exam incorporates topics found throughout the book.  It's not located in one specific area, which makes it a bit more difficult to study the topics you need covered.  You really need a depth specific book (check out our Resources Page for construction).

All of that, and we didn't even mention the standards that are required for this depth exam.  The construction depth exam has 9 listed standards that you'll have to bring in with you - or know well.  You could chance not bringing in some of them, but a missed question here and there really add up when you need to get as many right as possible.

It's not all doom and gloom though.  If this is your strong suit, or you find your work more on construction topics at work, then absolutely go for it.  That's good advice for each of these exams really.

I would rate the transportation depth exam as the 4th most difficult exam.  

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Water Resources Depth Exam

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Water resources is a great depth exam.  If water resources is what you enjoyed studying or what you do for work that I put it high on the list of potential exams to take.

In terms of content it does have some difficult subjects that you need to know.  Are you good with waste water management?  Did you enjoy a little chemistry?  Water quality?  Those topics are the things you'll have to study.  I wouldn't say it's harder than another exam but it's difficult if you don't use or practice these topics every day.

So why do I rank it higher on the easy list?  Because it has NO standards associated with the exam.  This alone will eliminate many hours of flipping through material.  Now, the subject matter is probably more difficult if you don't practice this subject, but again, if you studied it in school and enjoyed it then I say go for it (again check out our Resources Page for more water material!).

I would rank this as the second easiest exam that you would prepare for.  I could be wrong on this, but having no standards alone just eliminated a TON of extra work for you.  Now you can focus on subject mater only.

Structural Depth Exam

Ok, let's just get this out of the way.  The structural depth exam requires a huge amount of additional standards that you have to become familiar with (ten as of this writing).  If you haven't looked at the standards that structural engineers use just know that the books are massive (you should remember them from school though - remember the AISC bible...yeah).

This depth section alone is the reason why people bring in suitcases full of books.  The general material is pretty intense - and to make it more fun you can take additional testing to go all out and become a S.E. (structural engineer) with 2 more exams.  Keep in mind though, if you are just going for the P.E. then you only need to take the structural depth exam with the breadth exam.  You can worry about the other exams later if you want to take them.

I personally think that this is the hardest of all the depth exams so it deserves the trophy.  Not for subject matter itself, but simply because there are so many resources are required to bring with you and know.

Geotechnical Depth Exam

Many engineers shy away from the geotechnical section of the exam.  I'm not sure why.  If you look at the Civil Engineering Reference Manual (reminder: use the discount code of CEA15 to get 15% off at www.ppi2pass.com) you'll notice that the geotech section is the thinnest section of material.  Now, this doesn't mean that you should take this section lightly but it does indicate that the amount of material that they can throw at you might be smaller than other sections.

The other thing that you'll notice is that the amount of standards required for this exam is currently two - the ASCE 7 and the OSHA 29 CFR.  Of all the standards that are out there having these two really isn't bad.  The ASCE 7 is most likely a small load combination like 1.2D+1.6L and the OSHA is most likely material that you can find using the CERM.  

In the past, the geotech section had no additional standards.  It wasn't until recently that they added these.  I personally took the geotechnical depth exam for my PE and can't recall thinking to myself, "self, those those questions just came from those standard!"  

I would rank it as the easiest (but most skipped) depth section to take.  Of course saying it's the easiest doesn't mean it's a walk in the park, you still have to bust your butt to study for it, but I think this one has the least amount of curve balls and codes they could hit you with.

Transportation Depth Exam

The transportation depth exam focuses mainly on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) design books.  If you are in that field and are comfortable using their books then this is your exam.

Most questions seem to be look up type questions you can pull from the codes, but if you look at the spec's you'll see that the AASHTO books aren't the only books required.  You'll have to know about the HCM (Highway Capacity Manual), the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), and more.  Currently, there are 11 standards shown to be included on the exam.  This is the most of all the exams, even structural engineering.

Because most of the questions on the transportation depth exam are look up questions I would rank this as the third hardest depth exam of the group.  If you know the standards then you'll be fine, but that's a lot of money to invest in extra books.

Wrapping It Up

Each depth exam has it's challenges, and frankly, I haven't taken each depth exam, so I can't go into each and every one of them with extreme detail, but I've heard enough from others that I felt I could piece this together.  Below is the summary of the depth exams ranked from easiest to hardest.  Keep in mind this is my own opinion , but I would love to hear yours!  Shoot me an email at isaac@civilengineeringacademy.com and let me know what you think!  

On to the list (ranked from easiest to hardest):

Water Resources

So there you have it.  I think the geotechnical exam is the easiest test and the structural depth exam is the hardest depth exam for the civil PE.

In the end, no matter what you take, you'll be locking yourself in your closet and hunkering down for 3 to 4 months.  Give yourself plenty of time to get through it.  If you need additional help please don't hesitate to ask me questions or check out our awesome review course here.

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The practice problems in the course were great. I was able to read them clearly and they really helped on the exam. I felt very confident about the exam and I would recommend these practice problems to anyone studying the exam!

Jason Zee, P.E. ... Civil Engineer

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