Learn Smarter: Preparing for a Certification Exam

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Most people agree that the most stressful life events revolve around work, personal relationships, finances and health. Add “studying for an important certification exam” to that mix, and the result can be downright overwhelming. Read on for some tips to reduce stress, improve study skills and achieve a passing grade on exam day.

Years Before the Exam

To lay the groundwork for future success, start preparing early — years ahead, if possible. After all, just about any bit of life experience may come in handy when sitting for an exam. So, at work, volunteer to help on projects that may be only tangential to your main duties; talk to colleagues during lunch breaks and at industry events to learn how they handled different situations; read publications that offer best practices; review award-winning programs; and scan industry magazines and Web sites for the latest tools and solutions.

Professionals select which certifications to attain through a variety of methods. Some do it based on colleagues’ advice, some review salary surveys to learn which certifications are linked to the highest salaries and bonuses and some work for enterprises that require that they hold a specific certification to qualify for the job.

For example, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) issued Directive 8570.1, which requires DOD information assurance workers to obtain a commercial certification accredited under ISO/IEC standard 17024. Likewise, all assistant examiners employed by the U.S. Federal Reserve Banks must pass a specific certification exam before they are eligible for commissioning.

Diverse enterprises around the world are also issuing varying levels of requirements for certification. For example, the Peruvian supervisory body that rules on financial entities, insurance companies and private pension funds managers has recognized a certain certification as an internationally renowned designation that attests to the expertise and specialization of internal auditors. The National Stock Exchange of India recognized a certification as a requirement to conduct systems audits. In Romania, banks desiring to implement distance or electronic payment instruments, such as Internet banking and home banking, are required by law to be certified by auditors holding a specific certification. And the State Bank of Pakistan began offering certain credentialed employees financial incentives, including reimbursement of examination fees and payment of a cash bonus.

“One of the most important steps when making a decision about which designation to pursue is to understand the objectives of the certification,” said Howard Nicholson, CISA, CGEIT, a business analyst in Salisbury, Australia. “Take the time to research as much about the certification as possible, and ensure you understand what the certification is designed to do, what an organization would expect to gain from you having the certification and what it does for your professional career.”

Six Months Before the Exam

Although each person and each certification exam is different, many people begin their initial planning about six months prior to the exam date. Many exams open registration around this time, and test takers may be able to save money by taking advantage of early-bird discounts. It may be a purely psychological response, but actually signing up for the exam can increase the motivation for studying — perhaps because it becomes “real,” with a specific deadline in the future.

Since practical experience is the best way to learn, this is a good time to step up and actively pursue work initiatives that focus on the area that will be covered in the exam. Even if this means putting in a few extra hours at the office in the short run, it can pay off handsomely later.

In addition, this is a good time to begin reading the exam review manuals and articles or documents they reference.

“I recommend that candidates start at least six months in advance and start spending 10 to 12 hours a week studying the review materials,” said Avinash W. Kadam, CISA, CISM, CBCP, CISSP, director, chief operating officer and head of delivery at MIEL e-Security Pvt. Ltd. in India. “One of my strategies is to go through the entire material carefully and mark all new terms, definitions and concepts. This helps me focus on getting the new material internalized. I also build cross-reference tables for quick recall and then refer to them as studying progresses. I then revise these tables as I become more familiar with the content areas.”

Nicholson also believes in starting preparation early. He said he started studying for his Certified Information Systems Auditor exam about five or six months before the test date.

“I put time aside three evenings a week up until the week before the exam to go through the material. Then I didn’t do anything during the week leading up to the exam,” he said.

Even professionals who have logged many years in their fields need to commit time to studying. In fact, many veteran exam takers warn candidates — especially those who have extensive experience — that even though they are in the real-world trenches, they still need to take time to prepare.

“Overconfidence is one pitfall that experienced professionals may encounter,” Kadam said. “Someone may have practiced in the same field for a number of years, but the exam may still spring some surprises. The concepts tested in the exam may not be the same as used in daily practice.”

Further, everyone, including highly experienced professionals, must be comfortable with the question syntax and the common body of knowledge on which the exam is based.

“It’s no use getting into an argument after the exam that your answer was right because that’s how you do things at your organization,” Nicholson said. “You need to understand, as early and as deeply as possible, the context of each question. The best way to do that is to thoroughly review the study material.”

Three Months Before the Exam

This is approximately the time when most professionals begin intensive study for their upcoming certification exams. Candidates will often start with a thorough self-assessment against each content area — sometimes called domains — that the exam will cover. They will test themselves to learn the areas in which they are weakest and then design their study plan to focus on these areas. It’s difficult for anyone to take a hard and unbiased look at his or her weaknesses, but an honest self-assessment is very important and will prove extremely helpful.

“In addition to traditional studying, professionals should perform a personal knowledge gap analysis,” Kadam added. “[This should be done] when starting to study and periodically throughout the process to find out how much of the gap has been narrowed nearer to the exam date. Also, at about one month prior to the exam, candidates should increase the tempo of their studies and spend approximately three to four hours a day reviewing the materials.”

Candidates usually also review their whole knowledge blueprint to confirm their strengths in other areas. Using practice questions is an excellent study method, but be aware that they are designed to teach candidates about the structure of the exam questions and answers. They should not be considered a representation of the complexity of any certification exam.

Candidates also should take advantage of any available resources offered by the certification provider. Most certification providers offer study materials and manuals, as well as practice questions — both in print and on CD-ROM — through their bookstores. In recent years, more organizations have been taking advantage of newer technology and offering online courses, webinars, podcasts and other e-learning opportunities. While in-person training is still the gold standard and offers the additional benefits of networking with peers, the abundant online options are often an excellent additional study method.

For those who are unable to travel or live too far from a study group, the self-study and Web-based materials can be a great help. Either way, it is critical to go through at least one dry run before the actual exam. Many organizations or their chapters or special interest groups organize these types of events.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn also provide excellent forums for open discussion and group formation.

“While there is dramatically easier access to an ever-increasing knowledge base and support network for those preparing for exams, it still requires the discipline to go through the process and gain an understanding of where you need to focus your efforts for maximum benefit,” Nicholson said.

Those who do have the opportunity to travel or attend local events should look for review sessions during industry conferences. If they aren’t already affiliated with the organization that provides the certification, they should consider becoming a member and attending chapter review events or otherwise linking up with study groups. As the saying goes, there is safety in numbers, but there are excellent educational opportunities in numbers, too.

Also, seek out co-workers who have recently gone through the exam process and ask them for advice and tips. If they are open to the idea, ask them to go through the parts of the material that are giving you difficulties.

The Day Before the Exam

If at all possible, get a lot of rest and, while this may be hard for many candidates to actually accomplish, try to relax. Trust in the knowledge and benefits gained from the previous months of intensive study. Every exam and every candidate has different needs, so everyone should find out what works best for him or her.

While Nicholson took a break from the material in the days leading up to the exam, Kadam took this time to go over the cross-reference tables he built and revised over the previous months. They provided him with a high-level overview that helped him with recall, but didn’t overload him with too much detail.

After the Exam

Depending on the certification, candidates may learn if they passed or failed the examination either very quickly or within several weeks. If further steps are needed to apply for the designation after the desired grade is received, follow the recommended actions. When the candidate officially receives the certification, he should consider adding the certification acronym to business cards, e-mail signatures and social networking profiles. His office superiors and the enterprise’s human resources department also should be alerted so records can be updated.

Letting others know about the new designation is important. Attaining a certification provides reasonable assurance that the credential holder has experience in the subject matter. The more highly respected and globally recognized the certification the better. Earning a recognized certification has helped many professionals continue in their career growth and earn increased responsibility and salaries.

No amount of preparation can take all of the stress out of taking a certification exam, but thorough study, effective preparation and an eye focused on the future make it a much more controllable and successful process.

Luis Carselle, CISA, CGEIT, is chair of ISACA’s CISA Certification Board. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.


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