How to study for the CIA Exam
Studying for the CIA exam is not an easy task (What is the CIA exam and who is it for?). If you are pursuing this certification, you are most likely a motivated internal audit professional with increasing professional responsibilities. You may be managing a growing team and playing a role on multiple projects, in addition to executing against your typical weekly responsibilities. So as you embark upon the process of preparing for the CIA exam, what are some strategies and tactics to keep in mind to make the study process as efficient as possible and, most importantly, maximize your chances of passing?
In this article, we’ll explore some foundational concepts, strategies, and tactics to apply to the process of preparing for the CIA exam (or really any standardized test, professional exam, or academic endeavor).
Recognizing the Relative Importance of Talent & IQ vs. Practice & Preparation
When it comes to performing well in school or on standardized tests and professional exams, most people place far too much weight on IQ, raw intelligence, or “natural talent.” They assume that others may be easily understanding the material while they struggle.
The fact is, yes, some people may “get it” slightly faster than others when it comes to mathematics, others are more comfortable reading and writing, and some people may be better than others at learning new languages. That said, these differences in natural ability are seldom anywhere close to what you might imagine them to be. No one learns how to do math, read, write well, or understand a new language without a lot of practice and preparation and focus on the task at hand. You often just can’t see how much practice another person is putting in and thus assume it’s easier for them.
Quality of Study vs. Quantity of Study
When preparing for a professional licensing exam, it can be difficult to put your finger on the level of “quality” of the study session you just engaged in. Too many people spend a lot of hours studying, but they aren’t studying the right way. For example, simply reading material for long stretches of time is a very poor way to study (especially for tasks that require problem-solving and critical thinking), even though you might feel like you’ve accomplished a lot.
Many studies show that the key to learning and building skills is a concept called deliberate practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is high-quality practice and done in large quantities, often explains what many people inaccurately perceive as “natural talent” in any given domain. While lots of studying is better than some studying and some studying is better than no practice, the quality of your practice matters a lot. Five hours of good studying for the CIA might be better than simply reading notes and PowerPoint slides for 15 hours. But what makes studying “good?” How do you study using the principles of deliberate practice?
It’s about achieving a high level of focus, full engagement, and immediate feedback. It involves, but requires much more than hard work.
When you study for the CIA exam, try to do so in the following ways, which are consistent with the principles of deliberate practice:
- Shift your focus from completion of readings to true understanding. You aren’t trying to finish, you’re trying to understand fully
- Be incredibly focused (i.e., no cell phones, TV, computers, etc.)
- Build a foundation by striving for complete understanding of basic concepts before moving on to more complex ones.
- Break concepts down to their component pieces, looking for patterns in what makes one question easy, the next a little harder, and the most difficult ones the trickiest
- Receive immediate feedback. Do a lot of “mini-quizzes” along the way. You may not be able to have a personal tutor available. But you can do 10 questions and review what you missed immediately instead of doing 50 problems and forgetting what you were even thinking when you answered a question a certain way.
- Push yourself to the mental limits of what you are currently capable of. This is a key dimension of the skill-building process. You should be mentally tired after an effective study session. Your muscles are tired after lifting weights and your heart is beating fast after running a mile. Attempt to give your brain the same workout.
- Don’t study for more than 1-2 hours. This implies that if you are going to spend, just as an example, six hours studying for the CIA, you should break that down into 3-5 study sessions, not one marathon study session on Sunday morning.
One of the most important elements of deliberate practice is full engagement and ownership over understanding the concepts. Read to truly understand. Test yourself often. You must avoid the temptation to open the book and read how to get to the solution unless you are definitely lost and don’t know what to do.
Who is most likely to engage in Deliberate Practice when studying for the CIA?
Many experts in psychology and education believe strongly that the best way to explain why, for example, person X is able to obtain a Ph.D. in Mathematics when person Y failed, comes down to true interest and passion for the material. These experts surmise that those who enjoy a subject and are passionate about it are far more likely to engage in a large number of hours of deliberate practice to build their skills. They are truly curious and dedicated. The Math Ph.D. must focus with passion on learning more and uncovering the why and how of mathematical reasoning. If they aren’t interested in math, they just are less likely to put in the work.
But you are not getting a Ph.D. in Mathematics, you are studying for the CIA exam. In many regards, this makes things easier. Many people have to take math classes in high school and college as part of their major, even though they’d rather not. But you probably are not required to pursue the CIA designation – it is something that you have chosen to do. If you are not truly interested in building your skills as an audit professional, you probably aren’t interested in the CIA material you are studying. The CIA designation is not rocket science, but you must be truly interested and engage with the material and, in some sense, look forward to your CIA exam prep sessions.
How to build a CIA study plan
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to study specifically when you are literally studying. But let’s step back. You don’t want to just jump into studying for any exam. You should always follow the below steps:
- Reflect on the timing of your exam and your personal schedule between now and then
- Plan in advance which days and times of the week you will study
- Review at least a few different types of CIA prep materials to determine what’s best for you. Don’t just go with the first thing that pops up on Google or whatever your friend used. Think about how you learn (text vs. videos, etc.), the amount of content, etc. (Compare the CIA exam study materials providers here).
- Build a detailed study plan taking the above into consideration, and following deliberate practice principles (e.g., don’t try to study for more than two hours in a day).
- Don’t cram your studying into the weeks before the exam. Prepare in advance.
- Take regular practice tests under timed conditions, especially later in your study process
You will be far more likely to pass the CIA on your next attempt if you follow the principles of deliberate practice and recognize that it takes practice and preparation to do well on the exam. You should also be sure to build a detailed study plan that includes regular practice tests to track your progress.
About the Author
Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru in 2010 based on a belief that customized, 1-1 tutoring, following the principles of deliberate practice, was the best way to improve general academic and test prep performance. Today, MyGuru offers a wide range of subject tutoring and test prep. In addition to offering CIA tutoring, MyGuru specializes in GMAT tutoring and private tutoring for many other standardized tests and professional licensing exams. He has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and an undergraduate business degree from Indiana University.