ncees fe exam

How the NCEES FE exam is designed to throw you off.

So, what’s the FE exam really testing? What are the NCEES people trying to test when creating these exams? Are they trying to test the subject matter or maybe there’s something more they’re looking for?  

I think this FE exam is designed to test more of our knowledge of the subject matter and our ability to get an answer. It is designed to test our:

  • subject matter (conceptual and computational) 
  • endurance 
  • problem solving abilities/skills
  • efficient application of the handbook
  • time management

All of this under the time pressure to complete both sections in a span of 5 hours and 20 minutes. So yeah, the FE exam is NOT only designed to test the subject matter

But what I want to discuss with you today is how the FE exam (and the PE exam) can be so tricky. This exam is also designed to test:

Our ability to avoid simple or “silly” mistakes

Simply put, the NCEES designs the FE exam to try to trip you up, throw you off, and make you second guess yourself by designing their questions in a particular way. 

Let’s look at the most common tricks that you always want to look out for when solving practice questions: 

1) They will try to throw you off by giving you extra unnecessary information in the problem statement or given figures.

They do this on purpose to try to overwhelm you with too much information. They want you to second guess yourself by wondering if the information given is needed to arrive at the final solution. Do not panic. Remember, these questions are designed to be solved with 1 to 3 steps at most, using enough of the INFORMATION given. If some information is left unused, that’s perfectly normal. Get an answer and move on to the next question.

Let’s look at this example

Can you find the extra unnecessary information? 

Answer: The information in red is not needed to arrive at the final answer! Information in green is needed! 

2) They will give a numerical value as an answer choice that you attentively punched out on your calculator as one of the answers, but it will be in the wrong units, ultimately making it the wrong answer.

So, you do all the hard work when solving the problem and not get credit for it just because you did not pay attention to the unit conversions or the units they are asking for. 

The best way to avoid this trap is by actively noting down the final units the question is asking for. The question may give some variables in one set of units and ask for an answer in another. So, make sure you have a solid understanding of your unit conversions by constantly having this question in the back of your mind:

Do my units cancel out in a way that results in the correct units for the final answer?

Let’s look at the same example from above: 

Notice that if we forget to convert the 120 mm to 0.12 m, we would get around 170 m! This would be the wrong answer! 

3) They will have answer choices that are not exactly the same as the numerical value you get.

For example, if you get 223.14 cfs, the closest answer from the given choices may be 225 cfs. The answer choices should not be too far from the final correct answer. You should be able to confidently select the right answer.

For the same example from above, the closest answer should be 120 m.

4) They will throw some fill in the blank questions at you.

These FE exam fill in the blank questions are designed to be solved in a way where you should get a whole numerical answer. If it is not, it should be very, very close to a whole number.

Let’s look at this simple fill in the blank FE type question: 

  • Notice how we kept all the digits when determining the 14.85 tons/truck
  • Notice how we converted 2.020 trucks to 2 trucks. Use your engineering judgment and common sense when typing the final whole answer. 

Again, these fill in the blank questions are often designed to yield a whole number!

Now that we know these NCEES tricks, we are better equipped to avoid falling for their traps.

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