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Beyond your degree: taking the FE exam as an undergrad

Written By: Amanda Thuss


Senior year of college is a busy and exciting time for students. Graduating as an engineer, you will want to make sure you are doing everything you can to prepare for your future career, whether that be interviewing for jobs, working hard to get your capstone project done, or studying for finals. But an important thing for senior engineering students as well as younger undergrads to keep in mind is the importance of licensure.

As a civil, environmental, or geological engineer, an important step in preparing for and launching your career is taking the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.

What is the FE exam?

The FE exam is offered in seven engineering disciplines and is the first step in attaining your Professional Engineer (PE) license. As a career professional, having your PE will distinguish you from other engineers, increase your salary potential and the job opportunities available to you, and show your ethical and professional knowledge to employers. Some companies will only promote licensed engineers to senior engineer or management level positions.

The civil engineering FE exam has about 100 multiple choice questions that are grounded in undergraduate engineering curriculum topics. The exam costs $175 and is taken online at an NCEES-approved testing center. It is a supplied reference exam, which means you can use a reference book supplied by NCEES to help determine your answers.

Professors and engineers in the field alike highly recommend that students take the FE exam during their last semester of coursework because the information is still fresh in their mind. “The exam success rate for BSCE students drops from 94% to 85% one-year post graduation,” shares Greg Harrington, UW-Madison Professor and Undergraduate Chair for Civil and Environmental Engineering. “That figure drops another 15%, to a 70% success rate, two years after graduation.”

UW-Madison students in the undergraduate Civil Engineering (BSCE) program are encouraged to take the civil engineering exam, even if they are in the environmental engineering option of that degree program. Students in the new undergraduate Environmental Engineering (BSEnvE) program are encouraged to take the environmental engineering exam. While there is no specific geological engineering exam, students in the undergraduate Geological Engineering (BSGLE) program will still benefit from licensure and are encouraged to take the civil engineering exam or the “other engineering disciplines” exam, both of which have a 90% success rate for GLE majors.

With a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited program (like those offered at the College of Engineering) and a passing score on the FE exam, early-career engineers are halfway to licensure.

Final steps for engineering licensure

Once you’ve passed the FE exam, the next and final steps to engineering licensure are to gain four years of experience in engineering practice under the guidance of a licensed engineer and pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam.

Like the FE exam, the PE exam is also taken online in a multiple-choice format. What makes it different is that it’s an open book test with 80 questions. The PE exam is also a state-specific exam, so you should expect to take it in the state where you are practicing as an engineer. Once licensed in one state, you can apply for comity in other states, but some states may require you to take their PE exam, even though you have passed it in another state. Applying for the PE exam also requires a supplemental experience record that includes letters of recommendation from licensed engineers who know your work record.

PE licensure: why is it important?

Licensed professional engineers have more job opportunities available to them and earn more during their careers than those who are not licensed. In some organizations, engineers cannot advance to higher-paid positions without a license, causing their career to plateau. Not having a license can also make it challenging to change employers because many employers seek a combination of prior experience and licensure.

“Having a PE license shows that you have the education and experience needed to lead engineering projects,” says Harrington.

In fact, recent statistics show that licensed engineers earn about 10-20% more than unlicensed engineers, which is a lifetime bump of $250,000 to $300,000!

Tips for success on the FE exam

The most common reason senior students have for not taking the FE exam is a lack of time to study, which is understandable given how busy senior year already is, but don’t let the stress of studying for and taking the exam overwhelm you.

“Overall, the test wasn’t too hard, and I ended up passing, but I was much more nervous than I needed to be about it,” shares Emma Norian, spring 2022 BSCE graduate.

As a senior student, the concepts and subjects explored in the exam will be familiar to you, because they are the same things that you studied in class. With a little planning, preparing for the FE exam should be a smooth process. Start by familiarizing yourself early on with the NCEES website and the FE exam. Prep materials including exam specifications, practice exams, and the FE Reference Handbook are all available online.

“If you know the handbook well and what to search for, you won’t have too many problems with any of the engineering content-based questions on the exam,” says Jack Karnes, another spring 2022 BSCE graduate.

Make sure you have what you need for the day-of, including the FE Handbook and a calculator that meets NCEES exam rules. Study early and study often, pacing yourself on the path to success with a thoughtful review of the material that works for you and your schedule. Some students start prepping months in advance, while others focus more in the days or weeks leading up to test day.

“I prepped for two and a half weeks and passed! One to two hours every weekday and that was just fine,” shares Riley Hughes, BSGLE.

Fellow Badger Engineer Lucas Adrian spread his prep out over a longer time frame and also found success. “Block out a few hours a week for a couple months leading up to the exam to prep,” says Adrian. “This way you don’t have to overwhelm yourself with lots of cramming at the last minute. I did this with a friend, and we felt very comfortable going into the exam. Studying with a friend is great as well because you can discuss problems you are encountering and solve them together.”

When it comes to preparing for test-day, other tips for success from Badger Engineers include:

“Start by getting your hands on a practice test (with an answer key) and the FE Reference guide. When you have a free day, sit down and try to do the whole thing using only the reference guide to simulate actually taking the test.” – Michael Brennen, BSCE 2022.

PrepFE on the internet was so helpful! It’s a cheaper online website that gives you loads of practice problems and exams.” – Riley Hughes, BSGLE 2022.

“It might be helpful to know the format. You are given the whole time to complete the 110 questions. Once you reach 55 questions answered, you can review them and take a break or review them and move on. Once you pass those 55, you cannot go back and change anything. I recommend that once you reach the halfway point, you take your break. Otherwise, if you spend more than half the time on the first half, you have less time to finish the second half and could be setting yourself up poorly.” – Emma Norian, BSCE 2022

“Focus on questions you know and initially skip over questions that seem confusing when you’re taking the exam. This is typical of all tests and exams, but I found that I had plenty of time left to solve the harder questions, once I answered all the questions I could answer right away.” – Jack Karnes, BSCE 2022

FE exam: next steps and where to start

You’re in your last year of coursework and have decided to take the FE exam, so what’s next? Since the exam is computer-based, it is taken at a local testing center on a flexible schedule, with several dates/times/locations to choose from. It’s a national exam, so regardless of what state you wish to practice engineering in, you can take the exam in Wisconsin. Visit NCEES online to create an account, access prep materials, choose your exam date, and learn more about the FE Exam and PE licensure.

If you have questions along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professor on campus. “We’re always happy to help our students sort through uncertainties and answer questions that come up as they prepare for the FE exam,” Harrington concludes.