In this article, the authors discuss the format, requirements, benefits, and challenges of the new, two-day, 16-hour-long licensing exam for structural engineers (commonly called the SE Exam). In addition, the authors provide direct recommendations to exam applicants on ways to prepare for the exam (including a list of recommended references), as well as suggest valuable test-taking techniques to help maximize their score on exam day.
After graduating from college and getting a job, the next major milestone for most structural engineers is to get licensed. Unfortunately, the path to licensure is not always straightforward. Licenses are issued by state boards, and each state is free to set specific requirements for becoming a licensed professional. A growing number of states now offer separate licensure for structural engineers (SE licenses) in addition to the more common PE licenses.
Complicating things further, an SE license can mean different things in different states. Some states have title or practice acts that require engineers to have an SE license in order to perform certain types of structural engineering work; in other states, SE is a title that carries no privileges beyond those of a PE. In addition, some states treat the SE license as an add-on that can only be obtained after first getting a PE license; in other states, SE and PE licenses are completely separate entities.
If you (as an applicant) find all of this confusing, then start by focusing on the licensing requirements of the state where you intend to practice. The first step is to meet your state’s education and experience requirements. Most licensure applicants have passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam, have a four-year engineering degree, and at least four years of experience working under a licensed engineer who practices structural engineering (a master’s degree will typically count toward one year of experience). Once you’ve met these requirements, the last obstacle between you and licensure is passing a licensing exam.
So what exam should you take? For first-time exam takers, there are essentially two choices: the eight-hour Civil PE Exam (most commonly with the Structural Depth Module), or the 16-Hour Structural Engineering Exam (commonly called the SE Exam).
If your home state does not offer separate SE licensure, passing the SE Exam will only get you a PE license – the same license you could have obtained by taking an eight-hour exam. As a result, many applicants for licensure opt to take a PE Exam, and, in truth, this is not a bad place to start. But, if you are envisioning a long, versatile career in structural engineering, your best bet is to make plans to take the 16-hour SE Exam.
Why take the SE exam?
When the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) began offering the 16-hour Structural Exam in April 2011, they discontinued the eight-hour Structural I and Structural II Exams. As a result, the 16-hour SE Exam is now the only exam available that covers material relevant to structural engineers exclusively. The Civil PE exam, on the other hand, covers a broad range of topics beyond the expertise of most structural engineers (such as traffic engineering and water resources), while barely scratching the surface on important structural topics, such as seismic design.
Furthermore, passing the SE Exam is essential for anyone who plans to practice in a state with a Title or Practice Act for Structural Engineers. The Title or Practice Acts set requirements for types of structures that must be designed by an engineer with an SE license (typically, this includes tall buildings and essential facilities). Some states even require the stamp of a licensed SE on any set of structural drawings before a building permit is issued.
Even if you currently only work in states where a PE license is sufficient, you never know when a business opportunity could come up in an SE state. Passing the SE Exam will allow you to apply for reciprocity (also commonly called comity or endorsement), and obtain SE licenses in most states that offer them. To aid in this process, the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations has established the Model Law Structural Engineer (MLSE) designation. This designation can be added to your NCEES record upon passing the SE exam and will expedite the comity licensure process. Separately, most engineers who pass the SE Exam are eligible for certification by the Structural Engineering Certification Board (SECB). Regardless of whether or not your state offers SE licensure, this credential can make you more marketable as a structural engineer.
While we are still a long way away from uniform, nation-wide licensure requirements for structural engineers, more and more states are adopting the SE Licensure model, as well as practice and title statutes. Our advice to engineers: stay ahead of the game and take the SE Exam now, so you don’t have to later.
What’s on the exam?
Once you’ve decided to take the 16-hour SE Exam, there is still one more decision that you have to make: buildings or bridges. Most structural engineers have more experience with one or the other, so this is typically an easy choice. But, regardless of which option you choose, you’ll have to know something about both buildings and bridges in order to get a passing score.
The SE Exam is offered twice a year (mid-April and late-October), and consists of two eight-hour components: the Vertical Forces component offered on Friday, and the Lateral Forces component offered on Saturday. The Vertical Forces exam component focuses mainly on the analysis and design of structures exposed to gravity loads (dead, live, and snow loads), while the Lateral Forces component focuses on wind and earthquake loads, as well as detailing and analysis of lateral systems.
Each eight-hour component can be further subdivided into two four-hour morning and afternoon modules. The 16-hour exam schedule is therefore as follows:
- Friday morning: Vertical Forces Breadth Module – 40 multiple-choice questions
- Friday afternoon: Vertical Forces Depth Module – four building essay questions or three bridge essay questions
- Saturday morning: Lateral Forces Breadth Module – 40 multiple-choice questions
- Saturday afternoon: Lateral Forces Depth Module – four building essay questions or three bridge essay questions
In the afternoon session, you can choose to answer either building or bridge problems, but you must make the same choice for both the Vertical and Lateral components. Regardless of whether you choose building or bridge problems for the afternoon session, the morning session questions are the same for all examinees, and there will be both building and bridge questions (roughly 75 percent buildings and 25 percent bridges).
To get a sense for the topics covered by the exam, it’s a good idea to download the four SE exam specifications from the NCEES website. These documents provide detailed lists of the material covered by each of the exam modules and the percentage of questions related to each topic. NCEES also publishes a book of practice questions that can help you get a feel for the types of questions typically asked.
To be eligible for licensure, you must obtain an acceptable score on both the Vertical and Lateral components. However, it is possible to take both components separately (e.g., take the Vertical component in April and take the Lateral component in October). Most candidates choose to take the full 16-hour test in a single weekend, but if the thought of back-to-back eight-hour exams makes you uncomfortable, splitting the exam up may be a good choice. It is also possible to take both components together, but pass only one. In this case, you would only need to retake (and pass) the component that you did not pass to be eligible for licensure.
Joseph S. Schuster, P.E., S.E., works for Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. in New York City. He is the author of, 16-Hour Structural Engineering (SE) Practice Exam for Buildings. Milan Vatovec, Ph.D., P.E., is a senior principal at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. He heads the structural engineering practice at the firm’s office in New York.