Updated: March, 2022

Is the FE Exam hard?

Is the Fundamentals of Engineering exam hard? Well, it depends who you ask. We at PrepFE posted a simple poll recently to see how the community felt.

Source: Reddit r/fe_exam

So what does this mean? About ⅓ of people thought the FE exam was similar to their expectations, which sounds about right given three options. We may anticipate ⅓ to find it harder and ⅓ to find it simpler than expected, but a lot more find it harder, coming in at 46%!

Put simply, yes, the FE exam is hard!

But why do so many people go in underprepared? Let's get back to that after we briefly review what the FE exam entails.

Jump to section

What's on the exam?

FE exam passing rate

Is the FE curved?

What's a passing score?

Test-day experience

How to prepare for the FE exam

What is on the exam?

The FE exam consists of 110 problems, and the great majority are multiple-choice. There is no penalty for guessing on problems. However, a handful of them are multiple-answer, point-and-click, drag-and-drop, or fill-in-the-blank type of problems, and these are harder to guess on.

The topics on the FE exam cover most courses taken by someone who’s completed a 4-year degree in engineering. The lists of specific topics covered on the FE exam can be found here. We know engineering courses are hard, but what really adds a level to the FE exam is having to apply knowledge from all of those courses in one sitting!

What is taking the FE exam like? What is the experience like?

You are given 5 hours and 20 minutes to solve 110 problems total. The 110 problems are split in half into two sections. After you complete the first section of the exam, which is 50-60 problems, you move on to the second section and are given an optional 25-minute break in between. The 25-minute break does not count against your allotted 5 hours and 20 minutes to take the exam. Similarly, not taking the break won’t give you additional time to spend answering problems in the second half of the exam.

The FE exam takes place on a computer where you have access to the screen with the problems and a searchable pdf-like version of the FE Reference Handbook. The FE Reference Handbook is over 500 pages long and has all the equations you might need to solve the problems you could encounter. The FE Reference Handbook only has the formulas you might need for the exam, the Handbook does not include example problems. Do note that many conceptual-theoretical problems do not use equations, and therefore the FE Reference Handbook is of no help during the exam. We estimate roughly 15% of the problems you will face are conceptual-theoretical problems that do not require number calculations.

You are not allowed to take anything into the computer-lab exam room other than your FE-approved calculator. The person proctoring the exam will provide you with a spiral notebook and thin markers that you can use to perform hand calculations.

We've gotten the basics of the exam down. Over 5 hours is a long time for an exam, and that's going to be tiring and difficult on its own, but what's really adding to the challenge of the FE exam here? Here are two big factors:

Time per question

You have just under 3 minutes to solve each problem, 2 minutes and 54 seconds to be precise. Some will be solvable quickly such as plug-and-chug and conceptual problems. Sometimes just knowing how to solve them with calculator tricks will be the key. Others may take longer, especially if you don't exactly know how to solve them when you see them or where to find them in the FE Reference Handbook.

One thing that makes the FE exam easier is that you can flag problems for review and return to them later. Then you can go back and spend extra time on those trickier problems. But how much extra time can you afford to spend? Extra time spent on a problem can hurt later in the exam.

Distributing your time between the two sections

Once you finish the first section and move on to the second section, you are not allowed to go back and revise questions from the first section. Therefore, you must determine how much time out of your 5 hrs and 20 minutes you should allocate to each of the two sections.

You should strive to roughly distribute your time between them evenly. A mistake would be spending 4 hours on the first section (first 50-60 questions), leaving you only 1 hour and 20 minutes to answer the remaining 50-60 questions in the 2nd section.

So not only do you have to solve individual problems quickly, but now you have to strategize how much time you decide to spend on each half of the exam! It's a cost-benefit analysis you'll have to do on the fly.

PrepFE also polled the community about timing and asked whether examinees ran out of time or not on the exam.

Source: Reddit r/fe_exam

65% did not run out of time. 35% ran out of time. Running out of time means a lot of guessing problems at the end - a situation you can avoid with adequate preparation.

Pro tip: Get used to the real FE exam experience by doing FE practice problems under time pressure

Use an FE exam prep service such as PrepFE (as seen below) to get you used to the time pressure you will experience during the real FE exam.

Start FE exam simulation >

What’s the passing rate like for the FE exam?

We've seen some of the challenges the FE exam presents. Let's take a look at the bigger picture, the passing rates.

The NCEES posts passing rates bi-annually here.The most recent reported pass rates are:

70%+ pass rates. But in this table, the NCEES is strictly reporting examinees who fit three criteria: (1) first time exam taker, (2) attended an accredited school, and (3) took the exam within 12 months of graduation.

To see the pass rates that includes all examinees (first-time, repeat takers, and disregard to graduation date), you can look at the NCEES's annual publication called Squared, dating back to 2014. At PrepFE, we've looked through them and have some findings for you. Let's compare NCEES's posted pass rates with the actual pass rates for 2021.

Exam Pass rate Volume
(1st time & Repeat Takers)
Chemical 66%
Civil 54%
Electrical & Computer 57% 5,722
Environmental 66% 2,784
Industrial 63% 558
Mechanical 66% 11,608
Other Disciplines 51% 3,691

The FE Civil exam, for example, has the highest volume of any exam. And there are about double the number of annual exam takers if you count all examinees (first-time and repeat takers). Additionally, you can see the actual pass rate is 54% and not the 62% you might find posted prominently on the NCEES website. A 54% pass rate is a hard exam, the hardest among the FE exams. The FE Mechanical and FE Environmental exams now have the highest pass rate at 66% (see our chart in the next section below), and a 34% failure rate is something we consider very demanding. It is realistic to say you can pass the FE regardless of you are fresh out of school or you have been out of school for several years. However, the pass rates are definitely favorable for those who haven't been out of school very long when they take the FE.

Is the FE exam curved?

Not exactly. To protect the integrity of the exam, examinees are taking unique exams, generated from a large, volunteer-sourced NCEES problem bank. This is why the NCEES provides a scaled score report, so while exam difficulty is generally about the same for everyone, they do vary some, and the scaling is necessary for comparison purposes. Passing scores are established by the NCEES and are not curved relative to other examinees' performances. This is pretty clear when you see that each exam's pass rates are different from others and vary year to year.

Since we have pass rates back to 2014, let's see how difficult the FE exam is over time.

Besides the Industrial exam, which is has the most volatile pass rates over the years, all exams pass rates are overall trending down over time!

Is the FE exam getting more difficult over time? It's hard to say but difficult to argue that it's not when you see the same pattern for each exam.

What's a passing score on the FE?

NCEES does not officially state how many questions must be right to pass. Instead, NCEES claims that a passing score is based on psychometric statistical methods without revealing what the actual passing score is. What we can say empirically is that a third of people come out of the test room thinking they did well on the FE. Usually, those people tend to pass. About a third of test takers come out thinking they are on the fence of passing e.g. they got many questions right but they also guessed quite a bit. In this second group, the majority seem to still pass but a few do fail. And the last third is those who do not think they passed because they ran out of time and/or guessed on the majority of the questions, and those tend to fail the exam.

It's often unofficially claimed you can pass if you score above approximately 50% on the exam, but we have not verified this.

How can you prepare for the FE exam?

Here's a recap on some of the aspects of the FE exam that make it difficult and how you can be prepared for it.

Breadth of content

You are required to know the fundamentals from all your undergraduate engineering courses or at least enough to pass.

You don't have to remember everything. Drilling on the same types of problems you'll see on the exam will train your muscle memory. Focus on your strengths and weaknesses and strategize your FE review time.

Exam duration

Over 5 hours long. 110 engineering problems. The FE exam is arduous.

Tip: Do extended study sessions before your exam and get used to problem solving over a few hours. Try taking the NCEES Practice Exam in one sitting.

Problem timing

Just under 3 minutes per problem.

Tip: Time management is key. Practice timed exams, know your FE Reference Handbook in and out, and be familiar with calculator tricks.

Section timing

You can move from the first half of the exam to the second half when you're ready. But rushing the first half or spending too much time on it can be detrimental to your overall exam timing.

35% of examinees run out of time.

Tip: If you aren't sure on a problem, flag it and move on quickly! Answer what you know, and save the trickier problems for later. Eliminate obvious wrong answers. Leave enough time for the second half. Keep it mind that the first half of the exam contains the first half of the exam topics provided by the NCEES, and the same goes for the second half. You can divvy up more time for either half based on your confidence of those topics going into the exam.

Pass rates

The FE exam is difficult by nature, and the pass rates show it.

Tip: The best takeaway from the NCEES reports are that examinees who take their exam near the end of their engineering degree or within 12 months after have a much higher success rate!

Doing many practice problems is the best way to prepare for the FE exam

We created PrepFE knowing the FE exam difficulty from our own experience and designed it with one thing in mind: To get you to pass your exam. PrepFE aims to be the best resource for you in your FE exam preparations, and here are some of things you'll find at PrepFE:

  • similar problems to the official NCEES exam
  • timed exams
  • constantly updated and honed materials
  • solutions including how to use the FE Reference Handbook to solve them
  • breakdowns of your strengths and weaknesses by topic

See FE practice problems >