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Common Reasons You Failed the FE Exam & How to Pass It Next Time

The FE exam like any other exam will result in a pass or fail. A failure on this exam (like any other exam) can be a cause of disappointment and even make you doubt your technical skills as an engineer. But like any other thing in life, we can improve on every aspect of our life by proactively planning and working today to achieve our goal tomorrow.

Passing or failing the FE exam doesn’t necessarily reflect your skills or caliber as an engineer but it reflects your level of preparation for this exam and more specifically whether you knew how to cope with the exam topics that were outlined in the exam specification. A so-called smart engineer can fail this exam if he/she doesn’t put in the necessary time and effort. Conversely, a so-called not-so-smart engineer can pass this exam if he/she puts in the necessary time and effort required to pass this exam.

This article will discuss some of the common reasons why students fail the FE exam and how you can overcome them in the future.

Common Reasons for Failing The FE Exam

Here are the 11 common reasons for failing the FE Exam you should know:

  1. Spending more than 3 minutes on questions
  2. Underutilization of calculator
  3. Inability to make educated guesses on the exam
  4. Rushing through exam questions
  5. Trying to solve every single problem
  6. Focusing more on theory rather than practice problems
  7. Focusing more on practice problems than theory
  8. Improperly using units of measurement
  9. Not using the advanced features in the calculator
  10. Lack of familiarity with the NCEES® reference handbook
  11. Being underprepared for the exam

1. Spending More Than 3 Minutes on Questions

Spending too much time on a single problem is one of the biggest blunders you can make on exam day. You have a total of 5 hours and 20 minutes to tackle topics on the FE exam which roughly translates into 3 minutes per question. Whenever you spend more than 3 minutes on a problem, you are practically borrowing time from later problems that will most definitely make it more difficult for you to solve them down the road. Moreover, the problem in the second half of the FE Electrical and Computer exam tends to be more difficult due to their focus on core Electrical and Computer engineering topics.

How to Overcome it?

Take a quick look at each question (less than 15 seconds) and decide whether you can solve it right away. If the question will take more than three minutes to solve, flag it and move on to the next question. In the first round, you should only solve the problems that you can definitely tackle within 3 minutes. Come back to the flagged problems later on. In case you have little to no time, just make an educated guess on such problems. Even with a random guess, you have a 25% chance of getting a problem right due to pure luck.

2. Underutilization of Calculator

If you try to hand-solve every problem on the exam by under-utilizing the calculator then you are bound to go over 3 minutes for most problems.

How to Overcome it?

NCEES® allows you to bring an approved calculator to the exam. Using a calculator in the FE exam will help you solve each problem quickly and also prevent unnecessary errors. Please do yourself a favor and learn all features of your calculator that are applicable to the FE exam.

3. Inability to Make Educated Guesses on the Exam

There’s no doubt that some exam questions are going to be quite difficult. But if you’ve prepared for the exam then you must understand that other students will be finding them difficult too. Moreover, if you’re well prepared then you should be able to at least make some progress on such questions and eliminate obviously wrong options. This can significantly improve your chances of getting the problem right. Conversely, if you fail to make an educated guess on such questions, then your odds of randomly getting a question right are just 25%.

How to Overcome it?

The best way to tackle this issue is by distilling the problem into a much simpler version of itself and trying to solve at least some portion of the problem so that you can eliminate the obviously wrong options as mentioned earlier. To do this, you must have a basic understanding of all topics so that you can make ‘some’ progress on every question. Secondly, you must learn to keep your composure whenever you encounter a tough problem. This has more to do with your exam-taking strategy than your exam preparedness.

4. Rushing Through Exam Questions

Early on in this article, I mentioned how some students end up taking too much time on most problems which end up hurting their chances of passing the exam. A small percentage of students do the complete opposite but still struggle to pass the FE exam by rushing through the exam. They don’t give each problem its due time and make silly mistakes by not realizing what the question is asking for and sometimes selecting the incorrect options even when they have correctly solved the problem.

How to Overcome it?

Stay calm, and read each question carefully. Understand what the question means and how you can solve it in less than three minutes. There are no bonus points for completing the exam early. If you have some time left at the end of the exam then please take it to review your solutions and answers.

5. Trying to Solve Every Single Problem

Remember that the FE exam is simply a Pass/Fail. You need to do well enough to get the green passing result and there are no extra points for acing this exam. Having said that, it is better to pass this exam comfortably than pass it barely. If you adopt the mindset of trying to get every question right, two things will potentially happen. # 1 – You will waste a lot of time on difficult problems at the expense of easy problems. # 2 – You might get overwhelmed, stressed, and burn out during the exam. None of these outcomes will help you pass the exam.

How to Overcome it?

Be smart and strategic in approaching easy, medium, and difficult questions. As discussed earlier, using the flag feature effectively will help you achieve this goal and guarantee that you get all the easy questions right. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve answered every easy question correctly, try to solve the problems you’re not sure about. As a last resort, fall back on the method of elimination and educated guesses.

6. Focusing More on Theory Rather than Practice Problems

Some students love to learn theory and spend too much time trying to understand each and every concept deeply. Knowing a concept inside-out will definitely help you on the exam but if you are doing this at the expense of practice problems then it may not be such a great idea. As the name says, the FE exam is actually a Fundamentals of Engineering exam. You are expected to know the fundamentals of every topic. How you define fundamentals is subjective but at the very least know the basics of the topic at hand is necessary. Having deeper theoretical knowledge is definitely a plus but you need to become proficient in solving the problems as well because, at the end of the day, it is the number of your correct answers that will determine whether you pass or fail this exam.

How to Overcome it?

After learning a new concept, try to do associated practice problems in order to gain proficiency. It will not only allow you to look at the concept from different angles but also allow you to gain a better understanding because you are now learning by doing. This approach is called the problem-based learning approach.

7. Focusing More on Practice Problems than Theory

This is completely opposite of the earlier issue. In this case, some students spend too much time with practice problems and next-to-nothing time understanding theory. Practicing a bunch of problems is good at improving your timing and learning how you can be tested on a concept but if you are not able to apply theory effectively then your chances of properly solving a question with a twist will be very low.

How to Overcome it?

Find a balance between theory and practice. If you are using effective exam preparation resources (like the On-demand Course, Study Guide, and Practice Exams developed by Study for FE) they should help you attain that.

8. Improperly Using Units of Measurement

FE exam uses both SI units as well as imperial units. Sometimes students know how to solve a problem and go about doing so properly but they make mistakes in units of measurement which is unfortunate. At a certain level, this demonstrates a lack of attention to detail which is definitely something that engineers should avoid.

How to Overcome it?

Read the problem statement carefully and handle the units of measurement appropriately. If there’s a conversion required then do it carefully and also handle the exponents/powers and suffixes (mm, cm, micro, nano, etc.) with great care.

9. Not Using the Advanced Features in the Calculator

You’d be surprised to learn about the many amazing features that your calculator has. It is not there to help you with just multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction.

How to Overcome it?

Select a calculator that you are used to and spend time learning about the key features that are applicable to the FE exam. Some of these features include: calculating summations, CDFs, PDFs, standard deviation, matrix manipulation, polar/rectangular conversions, constants, unit conversions, permutations, combinations, base number conversions, vector calculations

10. Lack of Familiarity with the NCEES® Reference Handbook

It is important to understand that NCEES® Reference Handbook is the only reference material allowed during the exam. You must know the applicable sections of the NCEES® Reference Handbook inside-out. Otherwise, you will have to rely on your memory to recall key formulas, equations, conversions, and definitions which will significantly increase your level of stress on the exam.

How to Overcome it?

Get familiar with the NCEES® FE Reference Handbook both in terms of the concepts/topics that are described in it and also in terms of its layout and navigation. There are three main ways of navigating the NCEES® FE Reference Handbook 1) Scrolling – this is probably the most inefficient way of going through any PDF 2) CTRL + F allows you to search keywords. This is not a bad approach but if you are searching for a keyword that makes multiple appearances then you will have to bounce a lot. 3) Bookmarks – This is my personal favorite but it requires spending a bit of time to get used to the handbook.

11. Being Underprepared for the Exam

The most obvious reason for failing any exam is walking into the exam without enough preparation.

How to Overcome it?

FE exam takes 4-6 months of preparation at roughly 10-20 hours per week for most students. This timeline can vary a little bit but generally speaking, it holds true for most candidates. So make sure you put in the necessary time and effort in order to prepare for this exam.

How to Pass the FE Exam the Next Time?

If you have failed the FE exam, you can use your diagnostics report to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Examine your highest-scoring topics and compare them to your lowest-scoring topics. The topics you struggled with are the ones you should concentrate more on. Of course, you should study all of the topics that may come on your chosen exam regularly to ensure that you remember all of the concepts.

Practicing problems after studying is another tried-and-tested approach for passing an FE exam. If you’ve already failed an FE exam, consider practicing ten questions each day and referring to your diagnostic letter to focus on the topics you struggled with. Practicing problems can help you determine which areas you have grasped and which ones you need to review more thoroughly.

If you are preparing for FE Electrical and Computer exam, we recommend you consider our FE Electrical and Computer exam preparation course, which will help you cover all exam sections as per the latest NCEES® specifications.

Conclusion

Failing the FE exam is not the end of the world. If you failed the FE exam, you can retake it once every two months and up to three times per year. Analyzing your diagnostic report can assist you to know your strengths and weaknesses. You can also maximize the chances of passing the FE exam in the second attempt by practicing ten questions each day and giving your best.

Wasim Asghar – P.E, P.ENG, M.ENG

Licensed Professional Engineer in Texas (PE), Florida (PE) and Ontario (P. Eng) with consulting experience in design, commissioning and plant engineering for clients in Energy, Mining and Infrastructure.

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