photo of engineer working in the office Jason Dixson Photography
The P.E. exam format changes April 1.

The P.E. exam format is changing April 1 to focus its content more specifically on the discipline area the test-taker is pursuing.

Will this make the exam easier? More difficult? How will it change the way civil engineers prepare for the exam?

Longtime instructor for ASCE’s P.E. review courses, J.P. Mohsen, recently talked with Civil Engineering Source to answer those questions and more.

Civil Engineering Source: Because I know we’re going to talk about what’s changing with the P.E. exam this spring, let’s start with just a quick outline of the current format.

J.P. Mohsen: The current format of the Principles and Practice of Engineering – or  P.E. – exam has what they call the breadth segment and a depth segment. The P.E. Civil Engineering exam has five focus areas that we normally refer to as the depth areas, and these are subdisciplines within civil engineering – construction, transportation, structural, water resources and environmental, and geotechnical.

So the candidate used to take the breadth segment of the exam – common knowledge from all five of those areas – in the morning, and then in the afternoon pick one of those subdisciplines for the depth segment.

From my experience, the breadth segment had questions related to what a curriculum would have in the second year and third year of a civil engineering undergraduate program. The depth part, however, was more what a student would take in their senior year and graduate courses as well as on the job experience post-graduation. It was designed to address what a civil engineer graduate would experience during the first four or five years of his or her career.

Alright, so that is the current format. But soon, I’ll call it the old format because it’s changing in just a few weeks – April 1.

Source: OK, so this is a perfect time then to ask what exactly will be changing with the exam?

Mohsen: The breadth part of the exam has either been completely removed or at least minimized, depending on which of those five depth exams you choose to take.

So there are now five different exams. Other than some brief topics that may be common in two or three of the exams, the rest of the exams are independent of each other.

For example, the structural engineering exam is much more structural than anything else. It’s the same thing with the geotechnical exam. It does have some project management, but mainly, it is geotechnical elements.

One of my students, when she looked at the new specifications for transportation exam, her comment was, “Well, finally, the transportation exam is now a transportation exam.” Most of the general topics that were not directly related to transportation have been eliminated.

Source: So how will those exam changes affect the P.E. review course that ASCE offers?

Mohsen: Our review courses have consisted of breadth presentations and specific depth presentations for each of the five areas.

However, in response to recent changes, we have created five different review courses. Each one is a standalone course addressing the content that is generated and specified by NCEES for that particular topic’s depth exam.

So the bottom line is we will not have a series of breadth presentations anymore.

Source: These certainly are significant changes. Do you think they will make it easier for civil engineers or more difficult?

Mohsen: The answer to that question depends on the background of the person taking the exam.

The changes mean they won’t test you on some of the general information that they used to. However, the questions are more in-depth and more inclusive of the area in which you plan to practice. So it’s closer to the practice of engineering than maybe it was before. That's one way that I could put it.

I think for some people who have a lot of practical experience, who have been out of college for, say, seven or eight years, the new format might be easier for them. For someone who is closer to fresh out of college, it may be more challenging.

Source: You’ve been helping people with the P.E. exam for a while now.

Mohsen: Yes, this is the 19th year we’ve offered the series of P.E. review courses at ASCE.

Source: So before this upcoming switch in formats, what was the last significant change in the exam?

Mohsen: Over the years there have been many changes. But probably the biggest change also happened pretty recently. In the spring of 2021, the exam went computer-based, CBT: computer-based testing. Before that, the exam was open-book, and the candidate could take any resource with them to the exam – any notes as long as they were bound, any resources. And it was totally open-book.

When the exam became computer-based, it became closed-book, and no one could take any resources with them to the exam site. NCEES provided a handbook during the exam, which was a series of formulas, available in a digital format. In addition, several design codes and standards are available in a digital format.

Going from open-book to closed-book was a big change. We overhauled the review courses then and began using the NCEES handbook as our textbook.

Fortunately, the format changes coming in April won’t change that approach. The content specifications are very similar to what they were before April 1, and it will remain closed-book. The big difference now, as I’ve said, will be removing those breadth segments.

Learn more about ASCE’s newly released on-demand P.E. Civil Exam Prep courses.