FE and PE Examinations Set the Bar High

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examinations provide a higher bar than many in the public, and in the engineering profession, might think. Based on the data and estimation procedures below, it is estimated that some 30–40% of civil engineering exam takers, anda similar percentage of electrical engineering exam takers, are unable to pass one of the two examinations.

A recent paper(Musselman, Nelson, and Phillips) shows pass rates (available from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) for the FE exam for a five-year period, as presented below.

Average NCEES FE Exam Pass Rates, 2005 through April 2010

Engineering Discipline Discipline-Specific Module
Pass Rate
Chemical 85%
Civil 74%
Electrical 70%
Environmental 79%
Mechancial 81%

For civil and environmental engineers, who comprise about two-thirds of licensed engineers, the failure rate on average was 26% and 21%, respectively. Some of those who fail re-take the FE exam, although pass rates decline with subsequent attempts.

Next, take a look at the pass rates for the October 2010 PE exams below.

Pass Rates for the October 2010 PE Exam Administration

Exam First-time Takers Repeat Takers
Architectural 68% 50%
Architectural (April 2010) 75% 47%
Chemical 82% 36%
Civil 62% 27%
Control Systems 69% 47%
Electrical and Computer 66%
Environmental 77%
Fire Protection 52%
Industrial 80%
Mechanical 73%
Metallurgical and Materials 64% 50%
Mining and Mineral Processing 79% 46%
Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (April 2010) 85% 75%
Nuclear 57% 50%
Petroleum 80% 44%
Structural 47% 21%
Structural II* 54%
*Note, the 16-hour structural engineering exam has replaced the previous Structural I and Structural II examinations.

The pass rate in October 2010 for civil engineers was 62%, and the pass rate for environmental engineers was 77%.

The data in the tables above are from NCEES. The estimates provided below were made by the author using that data, and do not reflect any official position of NCEES.

The net effect of the two examinations for environmental engineers is that 21% are failing the FE exam, and 23% of first-time takers fail the PE exam, a total of 44%. If one assumes that three-quarters of those who fail the exam take it again, and with an assumed pass rate for multi-time takers of 48%, then the overall pass rate for environmental engineers might be estimated to be about 80%.

The situation for civil engineers is not quite as positive. The pass rate on the PE exam for first time takers was 62%, in October, 2010. A 26% failure rate on the FE exam, combined with a 38% failure rate on the PE exam yields 64% of civil engineers who fail one of the two exams upon taking it for the first time (less those who fail each exam on their first attempt). If three-quarters of those who fail repeat the exam twice if necessary, and if the pass rate on both FE and PE exams for multiple-time takers is 27%, as reported for the October 2010 PE exam administration, the net pass rate on the two exams for civilexam takers is on the order of 60%.The pass rate for the April, 2011 administration of the PE exam for civil engineers was reported to be better – 69% for first time takers and 40% for repeat takers. Using these pass rates, and the estimation procedure outlined above, the net pass rate on the two exams for civil engineering exam takers would be estimated to be about 70%. Can it be that about 30–40% of the civil engineering exam takers in the U.S. are unable to pass both the FE and PE exams? That appears to be the case.

I don’t mean at all to pick on civil engineering. By the same estimation procedure using the October, 2010 PE exam data, electrical engineering has about a 66% overall pass rate, which is in the same ballpark. It should also be noted that some civil engineering exam takers are not graduates of EAC ABET engineering programs, but rather may be educated in technology programs, other engineering disciplines or other fields of study, if and as approved for the exam by individual state boards. This is a small, but not insignificant, percentage.

I would caution anyone from drawing conclusions from the varying pass rates in different engineering disciplines. Each is a different examination, assessing a different body of knowledge. The different bodies of knowledge assessed yield different cut scores. In some disciplines, like civil and environmental engineering, most graduates take the examinations, while in other disciplines, it is a smaller subset of all graduates. This can make a significant difference in the pool of exam takers. The FE examination is now used commonly for outcomes assessment. As such, there may be a difference in preparation for the FE examination among those who need to pass for eventual licensure purposes and those who are making a good faith effort, but only for outcomes assessment purposes.

The FE and PE exams set a higher bar than many people, including those in the engineering profession, might think.

Editorial input for this piece was provided by Bernard R. Berson, P.E., F.NSPE and L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE.

Published June 29, 2011 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE

Filed under: PE Exam, FE Exam,


I am a Civil Engineer practicing since 1972.  It seems to me that some of the subset exams are not difficult enough. In my judgment, the quality and knowledge of registered professionals has been in decline over the past 15-20 years.  I think the "bar" has been lowered.

I am in favor of exams based more on engineering (science) fundamentals, both essential in problem solving.  Many of college graduates are instructed to follow "recipes" and "industry norms and guidelines” without question. These two ingredients are preventing the civil engineering profession to innovate and solve problems.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 12:01 PM by Jorge D. Perez, P.E.

In my opinion the requirements to become board certified are better than they once were (15-20 yrs ago).  For starters, early on, many engineers were grandfathered into professional certification without having to take even one exam.  Secondly, before ABET accredidation, many programs accepted a "D" in program specific classes.  A "D" in an ABET engineering program means does not pass.  Now that state certification programs are only accepting degrees from ABET accredited programs, it mitigated the cracker jack engineering degrees given to anyone with a heart beat.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 8:41 PM by John Doe

I don't agree with the first comment and I do agree with the second comment. I am a recent license holder and I can tell you that the curriculum and exam are not as easy as our first colleige comments. I don't recall being taught industry norms and recipes in college. I was taught engineering principles and the lack of industry norms (construction practices) was my handicap when I got into the work force. Now that I am more versed in practicing engineering I think we, PE's, end up being more focused on "industry norms" than our graduate engineers. I recall plenty of moments as an EIT when I tried to redesign a connection or maybe approach a design from different angle and my mentors warned me that my new design was not a construction norm and might add to the construction cost. So.....my advice, PE's should be more inclined to be challenged by graduate engineers to keep a fresh eye on our designs and constructions.

Monday, June 11, 2012 11:21 PM by Moises A Cruz, PE

Some people also pass the FE and PE exams based on experience.

I do not hold a college degree. However, I flew from Georgia to California to take the FE (more popularly called EIT then). I later returned to California and sat for the NCEES exam after working sufficient years under licensed engineers.

I passed the NCEES exam on the first try.

A note about your 44% estimate. You left out at least three critical phases of the path to licensure. First, some never pursue engineering because of fear or inability. Second, some quit the engineering tract due to the work load required. Third, many also do not take either exam and find easier paths.

My first job in engineering, I sat beside two other young men my age. Both held engineering BS degrees. Both now work for the local government, without ever acquiring the FE certificate.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012 7:21 PM by Robert A. Avila, PE

Does anyone have historic pass rates going back to the beginning of testing?  

First time pass rate and repeat pass rates?  

How about a breakdown by state?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 1:01 AM by tim mcnally

The fact that this author is a PE shows that the bar was too low.  How could any PE add the 21% FE fail rate and the 23% PE fail rate and conclude that the overall fail rate is 44%?! His PE should be revoked.

Thursday, December 27, 2012 6:42 PM by A PE

The main problem I have with the FE Exam in general is that some fields like mine (Computer Engineering) employers really do not care if we passed the FE Exam or not. All they care about is if you know how to code or have a CCNA or SQL certificate. I know more Software Engineers who are MIS majors than I know Computer Engineering majors and Software Engineering majors (you know...real engineering candidates who have an ABET degree).

I'd be more motivated to take the exam if I knew I would gain any benefit from it instead of burning $200-$400 for a study guide and a chance to pass the exam...and for what reason exactly? To say that I have a fancy P.E. by my name. It's no wonder why many Dr.'s live their whole lives hating that piece of paper medical degree hanging on their wall. And I don't blame them. spending 4-6 years for an undergrad, and then another 8.5 yrs for med school and residency. That's not education. That's an academic enslavement camp designed to punish students into financial misery and rob them of their personal happiness in life...

Thursday, January 03, 2013 2:55 PM by J_Gres

I think you want Civil Engineers and Electrical Engineers to be licensed because of safety reasons. If Civil or Electrical Engineers have a bad design people's life could be lost.
In Computer science, you only code. No safety issues.

Sunday, October 19, 2014 1:57 AM by Mario

"The fact that this author is a PE shows that the bar was too low.  How could any PE add the 21% FE fail rate and the 23% PE fail rate and conclude that the overall fail rate is 44%?! His PE should be revoked."

You sir, made me laugh.  I award you the internet for the day (presumptuously of course).

Thursday, January 03, 2013 3:28 PM by Sun O, SE

The math in this article IS pause for concern. I already addressed the reasoning in an earlier comment.

I worked out the actual numbers for the FE, how many eventually pass, and how many never pass because they quit (did not retake the exam). Using the 48% and 75% assumed by the author (with which I do not agree, but use to check his math based on his own assumptions), then 86.6% of all FE examinees eventually pass.

Using the author's numbers again for the PE examinees in environmental, the pass rate is eventually 85.3%

Overall, eventually, 73.9% will pass the PE. This means 26.1% fail, not 44% claimed by the author- using his numbers (again, I don't like some of the assumptions taken).

(44-26.1)/26.1 = 68.6% error. That is either a member that will very likely fail, or is overbuilt to increase cost, and maybe concentrate forces.

Sunday, January 20, 2013 9:04 AM by Robert A. Avila, PE

In earlier years the exam was not multiple choice but essay. In both the breadth and depth portions of the exam, the examinees were given multiple questions and they got to pick and choose which questions they cared to answer. You were able to eliminate(to some extent) the topics that were not in your field of expertise! I have not been able to find the pass rates for examinees when the test was given in essay format. I doubt it was 38%(when I sat for the exam). The boards give an implication that it is the stupidity of the test takers not the exam. They fired one of my college Professors who gave a C or worse to 80% of his class(I was not one of them, fortunately). I was Tau Beta Pi and Chi Epsilon in college. I am not stupid, yet I have had trouble passing the exam. I need to refine my exam taking strategy, not my knowledge base! "Kids" that I actually trained at work passed the exam and I failed. I am a good engineer, I am a poor PE exam taker. As to the first comment in this thread, how typical it is of the older generation feeling that younger generations are stupider than they are. The textbooks from say the 80's cover about 1/2 of the material they cover now!

Friday, February 22, 2013 10:30 AM by Bob the Engineer

I just passed the Civil engineering exam this past April.  It was my second time taking the exam as I took it once about 2 years ago as a junior in college prior to learning half the material I was being tested on as it was a requirement for graduation.  I came up a few points short of passing.  I didn't study either time but after actually completing the courses I was being tested on I actually found the exam to be quite easy.  TOO easy for that matter.  The format is the problem, 2 minutes per problem means a good number of easy problems.  Good test takers like me can thrive on this exam where smart engineers who aren't great at taking tests may truly struggle as they apply too much pressure on themselves.

Monday, May 20, 2013 12:32 PM by Justin

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