From Brian’s Desk

Myths and Misconceptions about Preparing for Exams

In my twenty years of helping candidates pass their certification exams, I have come across many myths and misconceptions that can cause candidates to spend more time and/or more money than they need to. These myths are often perpetuated through the marketing that companies use to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Unfortunately, this marketing can be very misleading as you research the best materials to use to study.

Myth #1: More material means better material

There are not a lot of materials that you need to prepare properly; all you need is a way to learn and way to practice. Usually, this means a textbook (but can also include videos if the videos cover the entire syllabus) and practice questions from past exams. The quantity of pages, number of questions, hours of videos, etc. is not as important as whether or not that material is complete, relevant, and prepares you to pass the exams. You generally do not need multiple question banks, either, because the question banks from each provider are usually very similar, including the same previously-released exam questions.

Myth #2: More expensive material means better material

While it is usually true that “you get what you pay for,” it is true only if what you are paying for adds value for you. When a material provider pays to receive “status” from the examiner or has an affiliate agreement with another site that “recommends” them (more on this next), these are costs that are passed on to you but do not add any value. If someone “approves” or “recommends” certain materials, be certain to find out the criteria for that recommendation. Any non-quality-based recommendation adds no value to you.

Myth #3: Review comparison sites are really unbiased

For many professional exams, there are websites that claim to offer unbiased reviews of the different providers. What is not very well known is that most of these sites receive commissions from the material providers listed on them, meaning that the reviews are not objective. Usually, the company that is rated the highest is the one that pays the highest commission to the review site. On some sites this relationship is disclosed (though often not very prominently), but on many sites it is not disclosed at all.

As an example, one of the review sites for CMA materials used to list HOCK as their #1 provider with five stars. When the owner of the site asked HOCK to join an affiliate commission program but we chose not to participate, we lost 2 stars overnight and went from first place to third place in their rankings. The change had nothing to do with the materials, but rather the review site could make money recommending other providers who would pay a commission.

Besides the undisclosed financial relationship, these sites often have incorrect and/or outdated information because they write a review and then it sits online, unchanged sometimes for years. These sites also give no mechanism for the course providers to provide updated information or to respond to the reviews if there are inaccurate or incorrect statements.

You may have noticed that there are a lot of these review comparison sites for CMA, CPA, and CIA materials that do not include HOCK. This is usually because we refused to pay a commission to the person who runs the site. I am certain that we have lost business over the years because of this decision, but I also know that it has allowed us to keep our prices more affordable for you, because we do not need to include a 20% or 25% commission mark-up in our price. What you pay for HOCK materials goes to value-added activities, and not to expensive marketing relationships.

Myth #4: Pass rates are accurate and honest

Many course providers post a pass rate for candidates who use their materials. I have written about this in the past (https://www.hockinternational.com/why-pass-rates-useless-why-we-dont-publish-them/), but these pass rates mean almost nothing because there is no straightforward and consistent way to calculate them. Which candidates are included? Or excluded? How do we determine a “pass?”

For example, if a candidate buys materials from Provider X and fails, but after purchasing Provider Y materials they pass the exam, is that candidate a “pass” for Provider X, Provider Y, or both? Does Provider X still include the first failure in their pass rate? Provider X could claim a 100% pass rate for that one student because they eventually did pass, but a 50% pass rate would be more accurate and honest.

Or, if a candidate uses materials from three providers and passes on their first attempt, who claims that “pass?” One way that you can see the inaccuracy of pass rates is by looking at all of the providers who publish pass rates. Every company claims a pass rate that is significantly higher than the exam’s published pass rate by the examining body. If these claimed pass rates were true, the real pass rate for the exam would as high as the claims made by the providers.

Myth #5: You must attend a class

For many years I taught live classes, and I know that a good class can be very helpful. However, the materials that a company sells should be sufficient to pass the exam with self-study. If you are going to study in a classroom, please make certain that the class will be value-added. See this post that I wrote previously listing some questions you should ask a classroom provider (https://www.hockinternational.com/questions-live-taught-classes/).

In addition, pay attention to the number of hours in the class. Some classes (including online classes) can include a large number of hours of instruction, which may be used to “justify” a higher price. No matter how good the teacher is, however, you need to spend time yourself studying and practicing questions. Not all of your study hours need to be instructor-led and if the class goes on too long, you are not getting any value from many of those hours.

For the CMA exam, both HOCK and the ICMA recommend 150 hours of study per part, and our videos are currently only 24 hours for Part 1 and 25 hours for Part 2. I have been teaching CMA since 2000 and we use those videos as the basis for our “You Pass or We Pay Guarantee.” If I am able to teach the content that you need in 25 hours per part, you do not need to be in a classroom for 100 hours per part.

Myth #6: Personal counselors are personal and needed

Some companies offer a personal counselor or similar service. While this sounds good, we believe that personal counselors are of limited added value to your studies. There is a specific syllabus for the exam, and every candidate must learn the material on the syllabus. You are able to determine in what areas you need additional study by looking at the statistics in your practice questions. If you have 94% for a topic, you know that topic well. If you have 43% for a topic, you do not know that topic well and you need to keep studying it. Maybe the counselor helps keep you motivated because they contact you every one or two weeks, but a good study plan can also keep you keep on track.

Besides statistics, only you know how well you understand a topic, regardless of the statistics. Are you guessing on the questions a lot? Are you confident in your knowledge as you read questions and answer them? Those are indicators about your preparedness that only you know. The counselor can’t tell you what your understanding and confidence level is.

In the end, interacting with a personal counselor adds time to your study process because the time you take talking to them or trying to meet specific administrative reporting tasks is time that you could be studying and learning the material instead.

Myth #7: There are shortcuts to passing the exam

Occasionally, a company will claim to have materials that reduce the time that you need to spend studying or have a shortcut to focus on “the right topics” for the exam. While that would be nice, there are no shortcuts! There is a syllabus for the exam and you need to learn all of it. Some common shortcuts include mnemonic devices or memory tricks, which may seem like they are working when you practice with questions that you become familiar with in the practice software, but on the exam you will have questions that you have never seen before. If you have only memorized a handful of key terms or phrases, you will not be able to answer questions on the exam that are different than the practice questions.

Using such shortcuts may reduce the amount of time you spend preparing for your first attempt on the exam, but you will spend the full amount of time later when you need to prepare to take the exam again. Not only do the shortcuts not save you any time, they cost you money as well when you don’t pass on the first attempt.

Final Thoughts

I hope that it is not too late for you to avoid some of these myths and misconceptions that could make your studies more expensive or take more time than necessary. You won’t find any shortcuts or marketing gimmicks at HOCK; instead, we will prepare you effectively and efficiently to pass the exams on your first attempt with comprehensive materials and support that give you all of the tools that you need – no more, and no less.

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA

The Theory of Constraints Applied to Studying

The Theory of Constraints addresses the issue that, in any process, there is a step that has a lower capacity than the others. No matter how many units are produced in the other steps, the process is always limited by the step with the lowest capacity. Therefore, when planning a process it is important to make certain that the slowest step will be able to produce quickly enough to meet the production schedule.

I can also apply this concept to my classes. Every class will have one student who is the weakest. As the teacher, I need to identify and work individually with that student, after which there will then be a different weakest student. I need to keep identifying the weakest students and working with them until the weakest student in the class is going to pass the exam. If the weakest student will pass the exam, then the group pass rate will be 100%, which is always my goal.

This same idea can also be applied to preparing for an exam outside of a class. When you are studying, you need to work so that you know 70% of your weakest topic. If there is a topic you don’t know at least 70% of, go back and study it again, until there is another weakest topic. Then study that topic. When you know at least 70% of every topic, and some topics at 80% or more, you are ready to pass your exam.

Remember that you do not need to know everything about every topic that is covered on the exam; knowing everything is simply unrealistic. But, what you need to do is make certain that your understanding of your weaker topics is enough to allow you to pass. Furthermore, it is not possible for every topic on the syllabus to be tested. This means that you can occasionally take a small topic and just accept that you will not know it. Of course, you can’t say that about 25% of the exam topics and still expect to pass.

When you have a topic that is difficult for you, try to identify the main and/or basic elements of that topic. Looking at the past exam questions will help you see what has been tested in the past. Make certain that you are able to get the basic questions correct, even if some of the advanced elements are unclear to you.

For exams that have essays or problems on them, it is critical that you know at least enough to get some points on each problem. You never want to get a 0 on an essay or problem, even if it is only 5% of the exam. Every point counts, so even getting a couple of points out of five on one problem could be the difference between passing and failing the exam. Even for complicated topics, you can usually get partial credit for showing a basic understanding of the concepts or process being tested.

If you have used a similar method in your studies, please feel free share your strategies in the comments. I hope that you will be able to use the Theory of Constraints and similar strategies to help you prepare to pass your exams!

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA

Three Stages of Passing the Exam

When it comes to passing certification exams, every candidate has to learn the same content. Whether you prefer to prepare by reading, listening, or watching, you must learn the content and be able to answer the questions that are asked on exam. Unlike preparing, there is only one testing method for the exam regardless of how you prefer to learn or communicate.

There are three stages of preparation that you must go through in order to pass the exam: learning, practicing, and passing.

1. Learning

As long as you are learning what you need to know, how you learn is not as important. You may choose to use a textbook as your primary learning tool, or you may prefer videos or audios. But, no matter what method you use to learn, you need to use materials that are designed specifically for your exam. There are a number of different providers for most exams, and every provider has the same knowledge and information about exam content (regardless of what some companies may claim or advertise). While any materials from these exam prep providers should be geared specifically to the exam, it is always good to have a copy of the syllabus that you can refer to as you study. On the other hand, if you use materials that are not exam-specific, you run the risk of studying a lot of things that are not on the exam, or not studying important topics that are on the exam.

How many hours you need to spend learning will depend on your background, education, and experience. You may find that different topics require different amounts of time to learn. Do not let yourself get locked into a specific number of hours. If you think you have learned a topic a bit faster than you expected, that is OK. Similarly, if it takes a bit longer than expected, that is OK too. The key is to learn the content, not stick rigidly to a time budget that may not lead you to success on the exam.

Of course, keep in mind that for any exam that the passing mark is usually 70-75%, so you do not need to learn 100% of the details about 100% of the topics on the syllabus. You just want to make certain that you are closer to 100% coverage than 75% coverage so that you have a margin of error.

After you have learned the material, you need to “activate” it with practice.

2. Practicing

In order to pass the exam, you need to make certain that the knowledge that you learned is “activated” for the exam and the way that exam questions are asked. The best way to do this is to practice past exam questions, which will enable you to learn how the questions have been asked in the past and the language that is used in the questions. This practice will also help you see what the examiners have thought are the most important questions within a topic. For example, on the CMA exam, process costing is a big topic, but in looking at past questions you will see that the calculation of equivalent units produced has the most past exam questions about it.

When you are practicing questions, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • More questions is not automatically better. The questions that you are practicing need to be on-topic and similar to the questions that are asked on the exam. It is easy to do a lot of multiple-choice questions that are just definitional in nature, but if the exam does not ask definitional questions, then those questions will not help you pass the exam.
  • Do not memorize questions or answers. Ideally, your software will change the order of the answers when it repeats a question, but even in that case, you do not want to memorize that the question about Johnson Co. is $600,000. What you want to be able to do is understand why the correct answer is correct. On the real exam, the questions will be different than what you practiced. If the real exam question is changed in what it asks from a similar practice question, unless you truly understand the topic, you will not be able to get that exam question correct.
  • Use the incorrect choices as a learning tool. Just as you need to understand why the correct answer is correct, in many questions you can also practice by being able to understand why the incorrect answer is incorrect. In some cases, changing just one word in the question would make one of the incorrect choices correct.

While you are practicing the questions, using flash cards (whether you prepared them or they were provided with your materials) is also a good way to practice what you learned.

Sometimes when you are practicing, you may realize that you did not fully learn a topic or two. This normal, and not a problem. When you do not understand the questions for a topic, just go back and look at the textbook or watch the videos for that topic to make certain that you have learned it. Many times, when you re-learn a topic after doing some questions you can learn it much better because you have an understanding of what you need to know having answered some of the practice questions.

3. Passing

After you have completed your learning and practicing, it is time for the third stage. But, before you take your real exam, you need to pass your mock exam. The mock exam should resemble what will be on your real exam, and you will want to complete the mock exam in the same time limits as the real exam. If you have 3 hours to complete your exam, you need to take your mock exam in 3 continuous hours all in one sitting. You want to go through the process of sitting for three hours answering exam questions so that you know what to expect when you take the real exam.

A very common question we get is what score on the mock exam indicates being ready for the real exam. We suggest that you want to be at least 5-10% above the pass rate for the exam, which usually works out to 80-85%. Higher is better, but keep in mind that repeating the mock exam to get a better score is probably going to be counter-productive due to memorization. Instead, use the mock exam as a final assessment of any weak topics that you still need to go back and review.

Once you have learned the material, practiced what you learned, and passed your mock exam, the last step is to pass the real exam. Think of the real exam as being the final step in your success. Having prepared properly, you can go into your exam confident and relaxed, rather than stressed. You are ready to pass!

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA

Time Management on Essays and Problems

Written essays or problems on exams are a source of anxiety for many exam candidates, but having proper time management strategies will help reduce your stress level and earn the most points possible on these questions.

Candidates usually have one of two problems when writing answers on essays or problems:

  1. You know the topic very well, and don’t have time to write everything that you know.
  2. The question requires a lot of calculations or preparing a financial statement, and you need more time to finish it.

The solution to both of these problems is budgeting your time. When you get to the essay or problem portion of the exam, briefly scan through all of the questions so that you know what is required, and then roughly allocate your time for each question. This will ensure that you can write something for each question because unlike multiple-choice questions, you cannot just quickly guess on the last questions and hope to get a few correct. Earning zero points on just one problem will significantly reduce your chance of passing the exam.

The budget will also keep you moving through the essays so that you do not spend too much time writing everything you know about a topic. There is usually a diminishing return with the more time you spend on a question. If you spend 20 minutes on a question that has 20 available points, it is likely that you will get 10 of those 20 points in the first 5 minutes. In the next 5 minutes, you might get 6 more points. In the last 10 minutes, you are working for only 4 more points. If you exceed the twenty minutes, you are maybe going to get 1 or 2 extra points, but you are giving up the time that you need to earn any points on another question.

To give an example, let’s say that a question requires preparing a short balance sheet and you felt very comfortable with your answer, but the balance sheet does not balance. Do not panic! You probably got (for example) 18 of the 20 points and only made a simple math error or transposed two numbers. If you spend 10 minutes trying to balance your balance sheet, you might get those 2 extra points. But, in those same 10 minutes, you could have started another question and earned a substantial portion of the points available on the next question. Of course, if you have extra time after answering all of the questions, you can go back and try to balance your balance sheet.

By managing your time and sticking to a time budget on the essays or problems, you can be certain to maximize the number of points you earn and therefore also be more likely to pass the exam.

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA

Experience Matters When Taking an Exam

We all know that as we gain experience at work, our work becomes easier and we are able to perform our tasks more efficiently. Just as experience contributes to our success at work, experience also contributes to our success on an exam. This does not mean taking an exam just to take it and fail it; there are other ways experience can help you pass an exam.

1. Your experience with the topics on the exam

While most candidates want to pass exams as quickly as possible, you still need to spend time preparing for the exam. Even if you have significant experience with the topics that are on the exam, you still need to spend time learning how these topics are tested. A very good example of this is ratio analysis, because different companies may calculate the same ratio in different ways. What is included in “income” for ratios that use income? What is included as the amount of “investment” in the ROI calculation? As you can see, even if you have a lot of experience with ratios, you still need to learn how the ratios are calculated for the exam.

Additionally, some topics that are new require time to “settle” in our minds. For example, many candidates have difficulty with internal controls on the CMA exam. There are no formulas and no calculations, but there a lot of key ideas that can be applied to any part of a business. For internal controls, I advise candidates spend a bit of time each day going slowly the textbook and questions. You will be able to understand and retain a lot more by studying internal controls one hour a day for seven days than by studying five hours a day for two days.

2. Your experience answering questions

If you were to take a 100-question mock exam before you start studying, you would probably miss 15-20 questions just because you did not read the question correctly. As you practice answering past exam questions, you can be certain that you will be able to read and understand questions correctly on the exam. You will know to look for and how to react to words like “always,” “never,” “most likely,” and other similar phrases. It is much better that you go through that learning curve while you are doing practice questions than while taking your exam.

3. The experience of your teacher and/or materials provider

In the same way that you benefit from experience on the job or while studying, materials providers also benefit from experience, and that experience is something that good providers can pass on to you. The more a provider interacts with students, the more they know what topics are usually challenging. The more feedback that they have from students, the better the provider knows what changes need to be made to their materials and their classes so that they better prepare candidates for the exam.

For live-taught classes, the more experience that a teacher has preparing students for the exam, the more effective their classes will be. A teacher with a lot of real-world experience may not be able to effectively teach a course for an exam, because they could over-emphasize topics familiar to them or skip over topics that they are not as comfortable with. You want to be certain that the people who are helping you prepare for an exam are experienced in helping candidates pass that exam.

At HOCK, all we do is help people pass exams. Our team members are 100% working on exam-related issues – whether it writing, editing, or improving the materials, or answering your questions; everything we do is focused on helping you pass your exams!

In summary, while it is natural to want to take the exam as quickly as possible, you need to be certain that you spend the necessary time to get the experience needed – from studying, from answering questions, and from your materials or course provider – to pass the exam.

Brian Hock, CMA, CIA

Studying for the Exam #6 of 6 – The Day Of Your Exam

In our Studying for the Exam series, HOCK international President Brian Hock guides you through the stages of studying, beginning with the day you receive your materials and ending with the day you take your exam.

In this video (#6 of 6), Brian discusses some tips for exam day: how to eat, how to dress, how to prepare mentally, what to bring with you to the exam center, and offers some final words of encouragement.

You can also learn more about the HOCK CMA, CPA, and CIA materials and support – start studying today!

Studying for the Exam #5 of 6 – One Day Before Your Exam

In our Studying for the Exam series, HOCK international President Brian Hock guides you through the stages of studying, beginning with the day you receive your materials and ending with the day you take your exam.

In this video (#5 of 6), Brian discusses where you should be with one day before your exam. Limit yourself to some quick reviews and get as much sleep as you can. You are prepared and you are ready to pass the exam!

You can also learn more about the HOCK CMA, CPA, and CIA materials and support – start studying today!

Studying for the Exam #4 of 6 – Two Weeks Before Your Exam

In our Studying for the Exam series, HOCK international President Brian Hock guides you through the stages of studying, beginning with the day you receive your materials and ending with the day you take your exam.

In this video (#4 of 6), Brian discusses where you should be with two weeks before your exam. Continue studying with timed tests to practice time management, reviewing all of the materials, cramming if you have extra time, and planning for exam details like your calculator and how to get to the testing center.

You can also learn more about the HOCK CMA, CPA, and CIA materials and support – start studying today!

Studying for the Exam #3 of 6 – Six Weeks Before Your Exam

In our Studying for the Exam series, HOCK international President Brian Hock guides you through the stages of studying, beginning with the day you receive your materials and ending with the day you take your exam.

In this video (#3 of 6), Brian discusses where you should be with six weeks before your exam. Continue sticking with your study plan, reviewing previously-studied materials, using the flash cards, and plan when you will take your first mock exam.

You can also learn more about the HOCK CMA, CPA, and CIA materials and support – start studying today!

Studying for the Exam #2 of 6 – One Month Into Your Studies

In our Studying for the Exam series, HOCK international President Brian Hock guides you through the stages of studying, beginning with the day you receive your materials and ending with the day you take your exam.

In this video (#2 of 6), Brian discusses where you should be 1 month into your studies and staying on track with your studies by sticking to your study plan, keeping up with the practice questions, reviewing previously-studied topics, and asking questions as you have them.

You can also learn more about the HOCK CMA, CPA, and CIA materials and support – start studying today!

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