Preparing for (any) Certification Exam

by | Feb 15, 2024 | Self-help | 0 comments

Certification exams are different from tests you take at the end of a class because they are intended to measure industry expertise, typically developed with experience in a specific field. That means certification exams typically assess the test-taker’s understanding of a combination of industry terms, accepted standards and practices, and the extent they are able to bring that information together and apply it. Because of those common themes, there are things test-takers can do when preparing to take any certification exam that can increase their chances of passing!

Create a Plan

This may seem a little redundant as this entire blog post is about creating a plan for taking a certification exam, but it’s important enough to plainly state. If you are preparing for a certification exam, you need to create and follow a detailed plan that includes how you will prepare and what you will complete by when. This type of plan is the best way to keep yourself on track, ensure you complete all of the necessary tasks, and make effective adjustments as you go.

Understand the Exam

It’s common for test-takers to wait too long to understand – or even miss entirely – the exam format. Certifying agencies typically provide detailed exam information that can help you best understand how the test will be delivered (online, at a testing center, handwritten, etc.) and what question types will be used (multiple choice, short answer, essay, etc.). It also helps to know the length of the exam, so you can practice answering questions for an extended period of time and the “question fatigue” that often comes with that kind of experience.

As an example, the NISM Candidate Handbook provides details like the six content domains covered by the exam, test-taking options, and this description of the exam itself:

“The total testing time for the SMS examination is 3 hours. Two hours and 50 minutes are allotted for answering the test questions and 10 minutes are allotted for login, tutorials, and survey questions. The NISM examination contains a total of 165 questions: 150 questions are scored and 15 questions are unscored pretests. These are not identified and are randomly distributed throughout the examination. The candidate’s examination score is based on the responses to the 150 scored questions.”

You may think, “I know the content, so it doesn’t matter how they ask me the questions!” But it will help you to practice retrieving the exam information in the same way it will be requested on test day!

Review the Exam Content

Most certification exams provide a clear breakdown of exam categories and what percentage of the exam questions are associated with the various topics. This is extremely helpful when you create your study plan. You can choose to spend your time studying the topics that are most heavily weighted on the exam.

You also want to take into consideration what topics you are already most familiar with compared to what is on the exam. And never assume that your definition of their exam topic is the same as the certifying agency’s definition – always check. For example, you may think that “compliance and governance” on the NISM exam is about social media policy best practices, and you’d be partially correct. But look what else is covered:

  • Create a social media policy to govern activities.
  • Define when and when not to participate in a conversation.
  • Maintain social media policy as change occurs.
  • Monitor terms of service to protect the company’s intellectual property interests.
  • Create a procedure explaining how to participate and converse in a variety of situations.
  • Comply with company policies regarding social media use.
  • Work with key stakeholders to ensure efforts are supported.

A small amount of research will ensure you’re on the right path for your exam prep – answering questions you may not have even thought to ask!

Obtain All Available Materials

Even if you don’t think you’ll use them, consider all of the materials available for the exam. This includes, but is not limited to, the following items:

  • Prep courses offered by the certifying agency
  • Prep courses offered by third party vendors (always confirm their legitimacy and how recently their content has been updated)
  • Online videos and tutorials, especially in specific areas where you may be interested in a little additional information
  • Books and other reading materials
  • Practice exams (again, be sure to verify their validity)
  • Flashcards, apps, and other tools used to review key terms
  • Study groups, tutors, or online groups that provide support and encouragement (be careful not to join any groups that violate exam guidelines by revealing test answers – you don’t want to risk your certification before you even achieve it)

Not every item listed above will be available for every exam, but it gives you a list to start with! Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing because you didn’t know to look for it in the first place. When creating your plan, you can work through this list and make sure you’re at least aware of the materials available.


Be sure to add practicing the exam content to your study plan. What does that mean? Practice ideas can vary by exam topic and person. It might be something simple like reviewing flash cards (practicing remembering terminology) to creating something from memory related to the exam (practicing the steps of a SMART goal by using them in a real-world environment). You can decide what will work best for you, but here are some ideas to get started.

Create resources. Convert whatever materials you’re studying to a presentation, flashcards, an app, or a blog post. The idea is to take materials and experience them in a different way, increasing the depth of your understanding.

Review your mistakes. If you complete a practice exam, game, or quiz, separate the answers you got right from those you got wrong (and maybe add in the ones that were a guess). Review the material you didn’t know and then complete the same exercise (exam, quiz, etc.) focused on just those materials. 

Teach others. Edgar Dale famously said, “we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, and 95% of what we teach others.” Whether you’ve realized it or not, you probably experienced this very phenomenon. Have you ever read something and then had no recollection of what the content was? Or explained something to someone and then felt surprised later when you could recall so much of the detail? If you have the opportunity within your community, in an online group, or in a professional setting to explain a concept, take advantage of it! It is a great way to solidify a concept you are learning. And if your audience asks questions – even if you have to look up the answer – that’s even better! Every engagement will deepen your understanding of the content.

Simulate the exam environment. It’s different for every test-taker, but to some degree for everyone, the exam environment will contribute to your success. If you’re used to having music playing when you study or work, you’ll want to practice taking your test in a quiet environment (as that will likely be required for your test). If your exam is 2 hours long, you’ll want to practice answering questions for an extended period of time – both your brain and body will appreciate the practice! It even helps to simply practice recalling information. All of these little things add up to help you feel more confident on test day and prevent potential distractions.

If all you do is take in information by listening to videos or reading information, it’s much more difficult to determine if you’re prepared to demonstrate what you have learned on an exam. Sometimes practicing what you’ve learned can feel stressful, but it is worth it! You will be able to use what you learn to make the best decisions about how to spend your preparation time.

Manage Your Own Health

It’s also important to create a study plan that allows you to prepare for your exam with as little stress as possible. Test-taking is naturally anxiety-inducing, but there are things you can do to keep stress to a minimum.

  • Set a realistic schedule. Don’t commit to taking your exam too quickly or too far in the future! Review the material and your schedule and make a reasonable schedule for your exam prep.
  • Set boundaries. If you work two jobs, are a part-time student, and are responsible for caring for an ill parent, it’s unlikely that you will be able to squeeze enough time into your schedule to prepare for an exam. It isn’t enough to just want to test. You have to have the time – which may mean taking time off of work, a term off of school, or getting help from family members to cover some of your personal responsibilities. Whatever you decide, make sure that your plan to make time for studying is feasible.
  • Take breaks. Your brain needs to rest occasionally while you’re preparing for your exam. This may mean you select only specific days to study or that you cap your study time each day. Whatever works for you, just remember to consider rest and recovery in your plan. 
  • Celebrate your successes. It can be easy to focus on how far you have to go, so don’t forget to celebrate how far you’ve come! At the end of study sessions, take a break to reflect on how much you covered. When you increase your score on a practice exam, put that high score on your refrigerator. Tell your friends about things you accomplished – they’re your friends, so you know they want to celebrate with you!
  • Approach the exam with a positive attitude. Go into your exam knowing that you can pass. You work in your field, you studied the material, and you are ready. 

There’s no way around feeling some stress associated with taking a certification exam. Think about what you need to manage your mental health.

Have you used any of these techniques to successfully prepare for an exam? Or maybe you have additional details or an entirely different recommendation? If you do, join the conversation and drop it in the comments!


About the Author

Dr. Amy Jauman is an author, ghostwriter, international speaker, podcast researcher, and university professor. She is a certified social media strategist and certified digital marketing professional with a master’s degree in experiential education and a doctorate in organization development. Amy also holds a graduate certificate in crime analysis from Boston University and is an active member of the International Association of Crime Analysts. In addition to her ghostwriting projects, Amy has authored three textbooks, five ebooks, and multiple articles and blog posts.


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