I’m not the analytical type. I thrive on sensory learning cues—Smells, textures and colors inform my decision on how much oregano to add to my marinara sauce, not a measuring spoon.
Much to my chagrin, the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist® (CEBS®) study guides did not come in a scratch-and-sniff option. As I was negotiating my way through assignments such as Designing Cost-Effective Health Provider Networks and Active and Passive Investment Strategies, I had to dig deep.
Throughout the course, I dedicated several hours each Sunday afternoon to reading the assignments and reviewing the study guide questions. Once I got through all the assignments, about two weeks before my testing date, I took the practice exam.
I never tested well on that first run, but that didn’t bother me. The practice exam would queue up how I did on each assignment, and there was always a pattern—There were a few assignments that I performed spectacularly bad. I would go back and read those pages, often explaining the concept out loud to my faithful study partner, Greta James Van Wonderpants. (She totally got it.) Then I’d take the exam again. I’d usually do much better the second time, but I would still trip on the more abstract concepts. These I would write out in longhand. The physical act of writing helped cement the correct answers in my mind.
Everyone studies differently, so I asked a few of my peers who recently earned their CEBS designation what their tricks were. Here’s what they had to say, along with their practical study tips and that little extra boost that helped to ease their testing jitters.
Tip #1: Take the Practice Exam Repeatedly Until You Nail It . . .
“Mine was taking and retaking the tests and quizzes until I knew why the right answer was right and why the wrong answers were wrong. I found that although most questions as they appeared in the practice test were not on the final exam, the information included in the questions and answers (even the wrong ones) often appeared on the final exam. I didn’t take the test until I could get a 98-100% on the practice exams and quizzes.” — Teri Dougherty, CEBS
Tip #2: . . . or Limit How Often You Take the Practice Exam
“I usually only took the practice exam twice. One time a month before to gauge where I was and then once the week before I was scheduled to test. Taking it too many times almost burned me on the first exam because I memorized the test questions and overlooked what wasn’t on the practice exam.” — Rose Plewa, CEBS
“I’d wait until about two days before the test to take the practice exam. And then on the day before the test, I would go over the answers from the practice exam, particularly looking at the ones I got wrong, and review them in connection with the information referenced in the binder and book. I found this to be helpful because it put the questions into context as well as allowed me a chance to review more of the information than just what was asked on the practice exam.” — Adam Abelson, CEBS
[Related Reading: Rule CEBS Exam Day]
Tip #3: If You Got It Wrong, Write It Down
“I would go through the exam once and write down everything I got wrong and what the correct answer was. Then, I would study off of that and go through the exam a few more times.” — Amanda Wilke, CEBS
“I make a ‘cheat sheet’ with the two or three Key Terms/Concepts that are the most challenging for me from each module. I add a brief definition in my own words and any important information related to the term. I refer to this sheet over and over again to get ready for my exam.” — Christine Vazquez, CEBS
“I would lay my written-out concepts (those that I struggled with) on the passenger seat of my car for the drive to Prometric, so I could grab it at a red light and review if I found myself second guessing something!” — Sandy Tellefson, CEBS
Tip #4: Find a Good Study Partner, Even if They Think You’re Silly:
“My last-minute cramming techniques included having my husband read my flash cards out loud. He had no clue what they meant (he swore he read the same thing 5 times in a row), but it was helpful for me to hear him read the answers. I could then “hear” him during the exam in Prometric.
I’d also read the study guide out loud to my youngest daughter. She would want to have mom snuggle time (she was 4-5 at the time of my last exams) and since she is my last kid, I didn’t want to miss out on that time. So she got bed-time stories about defined contribution plans and target date funds. Again, the auditory learning helped me retain the information. And, I got fun memories of raspberry kisses and ‘momma you so silly’ during the exam.” — Jennifer Mathe, CEBS
Tip #5: Review and Refresh . . .
“For my cramming technique, I used the two days (well, nights) before the exam to divide the study materials in half. I would reread the first half of assignments on the first day and the second half of assignments on the second day. If I knew an assignment cold, I would read it quickly. If an assignment gave me trouble, I would slow it down and focus on trickier concepts. My thought process was to refresh all of the terms in my mind right before the exam, figuring that exam questions might trigger my memory just enough to score an extra correct answer or two.” — Robbie Hartman, CEBS
Tip #6 . . . . Or Put the Books Away and Open a Nice Pinot
“Study until the afternoon before the exam. Then stop and put everything away. By then you either know it or you don’t and another half day won’t make a difference. Have a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea; go to bed early and rest your mind.” — Rose Plewa, CEBS
[Related Reading: 25 Reasons to Earn Your CEBS—Straight From Your Peers]
Tip #7: Know That You’ve Got This
“I did a lot of breath work – before studying, during when I felt frustrated or anxious, and before I entered the testing center. Inhale confidence, exhale anxiety and doubt!” — Sandy Tellefson, CEBS
“To get into the testing mindset, I visualize myself passing the exam and I tell myself positive affirmations. I assure myself that I know the content and that I’m mentally prepared to pass the test.” — Christine Vazquez, CEBS
“I would arrive early so that I could step into the restroom, take some deep breaths and tell myself, ‘I studied hard. I put in the work. I got this.’ It worked for the first exam, and this became my go-to routine for all five.” — Robbie Hartman, CEBS
CEBS Testing Day Playlist Suggestions:
Many CEBSers say they found themselves seeking a certain melody on the drive to the testing center.
“Foo Fighters and Linkin Park would dominate my playlist on my drive to Prometric. Alice Merton’s No Roots dominated GBA/RPA 3, and when I hear that song now I get a smile because that was my last exam to earn the CEBS.” — Jennifer Mathe, CEBS
“On the way to Prometric for the first exam, I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. It felt like a good, upbeat way to get my brain to wakey-wakey and focus on something other than the exam.” — Robbie Hartman, CEBS
“Every time I tested in December, I would listen to Christmas music on the way to Prometric. And each time it happened that Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, which is my favorite song, came on. And I just knew it would be good luck, and it was.” — Rose Plewa, CEBS
I’d love to hear your CEBS studying tips! Please share in the comments below.
Stacy Van Alstyne
Communications Director at the International Foundation
*Passing grade not guaranteed