FE vs PE Exam Comparison: What You Need to Know About Both Exams

For those interested in embarking on a career in engineering, questions often arise concerning the FE and PE exams, including what they are, how they differ from each other, what they cost, and their degree of difficulty. Once they mentally assent to taking one or both of the exams, they then search for clues on how to study for the exam they’re about to take and, of course, how to pass it.

This article will take the guesswork out of the FE and PE exams. We’ll answer all your questions about them, prepare you for either or both, and ultimately help you along your path to becoming a professional engineer.

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What is the FE exam?

The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam is the first exam you must pass in your journey to become a licensed professional engineer in the U.S. It’s a 110-question multiple-choice test covering most of the material contained in undergraduate engineering classes. 

There is a six-hour time limit for the exam, administered by computer at Pearson VUE test centers. You can not bring notes into the test center, only an approved calculator.

Why take the FE exam?

You’ll want to take the FE exam because passing it allows you to file the paperwork necessary for engineer-in-training (EIT) certification. In addition, having this certification and four years of experience will enable you to progress down your career path and be eligible to take the PE exam.


What is the PE exam?

The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam is the final exam you must take to become a licensed professional engineer. It is an 80-85 question long exam that takes about 8 hours. Like the FE exam, the PE exam is computer-based and administered at an approved testing center.

Why take the PE exam?

To be certified as a professional engineer, you must pass the PE exam. This is critical because every state’s Board of Engineers legally requires those practicing engineering to have a PE. Taking the PE exam also demonstrates your commitment to practicing the highest standards of the engineering profession, which all employers value.


What is the difference between the FE and PE exams?

The primary difference between the FE and PE exams is where they are placed along your career path to becoming a professional engineer.

The FE exam is typically taken immediately following graduation, with a four-year undergraduate degree in engineering. In contrast, the PE exam is taken after you’ve accumulated four years of work experience in engineering.


PE vs. FE exam difficulty

Most individuals who have taken both exams feel that the PE exam is the more difficult of the two. While the FE and PE exams both test your knowledge of the material covered during your undergraduate studies in engineering, the PE exam also challenges you with questions concerning the particular field of engineering you’re engaging in, like civil or structural, for example.


What are the FE and PE exam costs?

There is a cost associated with both exams, much as with any professional examination required for certification like the CPA or bar exam.

FE exam cost

The cost of the FE exam is a flat rate of $175.

PE exam cost

The PE exam costs $375 to take. In addition to the exam fee, many students purchase reference manuals and practice exams, ranging from $50 to $100 each.

Students who don’t pass the exam on their first try often take review courses that cost $1,000 or more.

People who take the exams also purchase an approved calculator they can bring into the testing room, such as a TI-36X which costs about $20.


When is registration for the FE and PE exams?

The registration for the particular examination you wish to take will vary by where you are in your career progression.

Registration for FE exam

You can register at any time for your FE exam. Still, it is highly recommended by engineering graduates that you register and take the exam during the second semester of your senior year or immediately following graduation from engineering school. This is because exam questions cover material you’ve covered recently, which increases your probability of passing.

Registration for PE exam

Registration for the PE exam is typically open for the 2-4 months preceding the exam date. 

Technically, you can register for the PE exam during the registration period any time after passing your FE exam. However, that’s not recommended because even though you may pass the exam, you still won’t be certified until you’ve completed the required four years of engineering work experience.


What are the FE and PE exam dates?

The exam dates vary according to the type of exam you’re taking.

FE exam dates

You can take the FE year-round at a Pearson VUE test center. However, you can only take the exam three times in any 12-month period.

PE exam dates

PE exams are offered twice yearly, typically in April and October.


What are the pass rates for the FE and PE exams?

Because the degree of difficulty is higher for the PE exam, its passing rate is lower than for the FE exam.

FE exam pass rate

The FE exam pass rate varies by the type of exam taken, whether it’s the chemical, civil, or mechanical, but averages 71% for first-time exam takers who took the FE exam within 12 months of graduation.

PE exam pass rate

The first-time PE exam pass rate across all engineering disciplines is 65%. Test-takers with four years of professional experience tend to have a higher pass rate than those with less experience.


What is the passing score for the FE vs. PE exam?

The passing score for the exams is different because the methods of grading the exams are different.

FE exam passing score

There is no numerical FE exam passing score; it is a “pass/fail” exam. The number of correct answers you’ve selected is converted to a scaled score which compares your ability level to the minimum ability level for your exam. Based on that score, you either pass or fail.

PE exam passing score

eThe PE exam passing score will vary by the type of engineering exam you’re taking but generally averages 70%, which comes out to 56 out of 80 multiple-choice questions.


What are the FE and PE exam topics?

The FE and PE exam topics are determined using different criteria.

FE exam topics

FE exam topics depend on the type of engineering career you’re pursuing. For example, the structural engineering exam includes questions concerning statistical analysis of beams, columns, trusses, and frames, elementary statically indeterminate structures, loads and load combinations, and component design.

PE exam topics

PE exam topics can be summarized into six basic categories:

  • Construction
  • Structural
  • Transportation
  • Geotechnical
  • Water resources
  • Environmental

In addition, candidates testing in California will also be tested on seismic and surveying material.


How to study for FE and PE exams and pass

Because of the exams’ different degrees of difficulty and the exam-takers’ varying backgrounds, study methods for the exams will differ.

How to study for FE exam and pass

To prepare for the FE exam, review the “FE Reference Handbook,” do some of the many practice problems found online, take a free FE practice exam online, and get a FE prep course to give you better chances of passing. You should spend a minimum of 50 hours of preparation to study for the FE exam.

How to study for PE exam and pass

Experts recommend a minimum of 300 hours of study for the PE exam. This should include studying reference materials required for your particular area of engineering’s certification, whether it be electrical engineering, industrial engineering, or civil engineering. Then you should study with a PE exam prep course and take a practice test.

As you can see, the FE and PE exams are important milestones in your life and engineering career. Your investment of time and financial resources signifies your commitment to meeting your employer’s and the public’s expectations of meeting the engineering professional’s high standards of quality and safety.


Conclusion

When you break them down, you start with the FE exam and then move your way towards the PE exam to become a licensed professional engineer. The differences between them discussed above are the topics covered based on the type of engineering you will get into. With the right prep courses and study materials for each exam, and investing the study time, you’ll be on your way to becoming a licensed engineer in due time.

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