P.E. Exam, Persistence Pays

PE Exam

Here we are, a couple weeks away from one of the biggest tests of your life, the Principles and Practices of Engineering Examination (P.E. Exam). Is it your 2nd, 3rd or greater attempt? That is okay. Why, because life happens. I’ll highlight some key points from my story as encouragement and lessons learned for you as you prepare. On a quick note, a personal goal throughout my career has been to be a licensed engineer, for the ability to build trust with others and show technical capability to solve their technical challenges.

In college I studied mechanical engineering, then focused on energy systems engineering during my master’s degree and began working in an electric utility doing electrical power engineering. More recently I have been working with SCADA and cyber security of critical infrastructure relating to electric power. I like to think of myself as a well-rounded engineer with versatility to adapt, learn and excel in new fields. When it came time to think about the PE exam, I defaulted signing up for the thermal and fluid mechanical systems exam, because that is what I had studied it in undergrad. I had not practiced mechanical engineering since college, but I knew I could relearn it well enough to pass an exam.


I studied alone a couple of times a week for a couple of months leading up to the exam. I used the NCEES practice exam, referred to my engineering textbooks from college, tabbed what I referenced. Preparation was set for my first and only attempt. However, by the end of the exam I did not think I answered more than half the questions intelligently. It is a good thing I did not pass the exam that first attempt. I was (a little) arrogant, and I had not put in the necessary time and effort to plan and practice thoroughly, especially given my experience background compared to the exam I choose to take.

Now, I thought I was under a time crunch with my state board (Pennsylvania). I thought if I did not take the exam within 1 year from my original application request to sit for the PE exam, then I would need to reapply if I took the exam more than 1 year after. This later turned out to be a wrong understanding. If you do not pass your first attempt, check with your state board about how long an application is valid for license applicants. I signed up for the next exam NCEES PE exam, only 6 months later. However, nothing changed with my situation, I didn’t prepare well, I didn’t seek out support in studying and preparing.


What changed for me the 2nd time because I was not diligent in preparing, was that the Mechanical exams changed from having a general breadth a.m. session and specific depth p.m. session to being fully depth focused. Over half the books I brought were not useful, and again I floundered. Additionally, I had the birth of my second child only 1 month prior to sitting my 2nd attempt. I do not advise anyone in their right mind to attempt to sit for the exam one month following a major life change.


It took almost 2 years to work up to taking the exam a 3rd time. I learned that I needed to use a preparation course. I chose an online self-paced program given my family situation. Preparation started almost 6 months in advance, and diligently for at least the 4 months prior. I knew there were no changes to the exam format. I knew my state board requirements for application (which is when I found I did not need to reapply with all the forms and references, I only needed to provide proof of passing the exam). With my resources consolidated to those I knew and practiced with, created a couple of reference binders with material I copied and printed from other resources. And while I still studied alone, the online course tracking mechanism and the accountability of my wife and friends kept me working hard.

Passing the Exam

·        Know your strengths, what you know and work with often enough, and identify areas you do not work with consistently

·        Find a clear and methodical way to study for the exam and use it

·        Practice, Practice, and more practice of problems

·        Give yourself time, think months

·        Life happens, show your adaptability, adapt your study, adapt your timeline and more importantly your own expectations

·        Stay humble

·        And if you don’t succeed, get up and try again, and again.

We need engineers who know how to persist to overcome the challenges because the problems we tackle are not easy. That is just one of many reasons why it is rewarding to be an engineer. And after my 3rd attempt, I am proud to have the mark of a P.E.

Author – Nathaniel Nichols, P.E.

Senior Engineer at PECO, an Exelon Company


His background includes electrical capacity planning, project engineering of electric distribution, electric distribution reliability engineering, customer service, and a master’s degree in energy systems engineering.

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