Seven Steps to Passing the CBAP® or CCBA® Exam: A Foolproof Plan

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The CBAP® (Certified Business Analysis Professional) certification was begun in late 2006 to screen, test, and certify qualified and senior BAs. The CCBA® (Certified Competency in Business Analysis) was added in 2011 for intermediate-level BAs. As of this writing, we number about 5900 CBAPs and over 800 CCBAs around the world, with more being added every week. For those who value business analysis as a profession the CBAP and CCBA have become the “gold standards” of our profession, much like the PMP® and CAPM® are for project management.

What are the CBAP and CCBA and Why Become Certified?

The CBAP and CCBA were created by the IIBA® (International Institute of Business Analysis). For those of you who don’t know of it, the IIBA is a non-profit organization created to promote the growth and professionalism of business analysis. A large part of IIBA’s mission is to document and maintain standards for business analysis, and to recognize and certify practitioners. Visit www.IIBA.org for more information, including qualifications you’ll need to apply for the exam.

We estimate there are probably thousands of eligible people thinking about or wanting to become certified, but who haven’t started yet. There is no doubt that both the CBAP and CCBA applications and the exams are difficult. Yet, people do make it through the process! This article briefly summarizes the CBAP and CCBA programs, and how eligible business analysts can create a “foolproof” plan to obtain their certification. Bear in mind that any certification plan is only foolproof if you personalize it, commit to it, and follow it. The majority of the article covers the crucial steps for your plan and several tips to help you execute it to become certified.

Preparation Plan

Step 1: Obtain and Skim the BABOK®

One of the main creations of the IIBA has been its Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (called the BABOK® Guide for short). The BABOK Guide compiles the generally accepted knowledge and practices in the BA profession. There are currently two versions in effect, 2.0 and 3.0. Many of the details in this article pertain to version 2, the version the CBAP and CCBA exams at present are based on. The overall plan steps are valid for both versions.

The other significant creation of the IIBA has been the CBAP and CCBA credentials. The authors are proud to be among the world’s first CBAPs (numbers 16 and 21). The CBAP and CCBA exams are based almost exclusively on the BABOK, so the guide is essential to have and to read. You can download it for free from the IIBA if you are a member, and if not, you can purchase a PDF copy from IIBA, or a paper copy through Amazon.com. Endorsed Education Providers (EEPs) like Watermark Learning will give you a free hard-cover copy of the BABOK® Guide when you attend a CBAP prep class. The BABOK Guide is a solid framework, and worth the cost. Not only will it help you prepare for the CBAP or CCBA exams, but it can be a valuable reference of the commonly accepted practices for business analysis.

The original and updated certification exams came from BA task analysis studies. From those, committees of experts have developed questions for the exam to test the business analysis knowledge of BAs. The questions are based on the BABOK, so knowledge of the information in this guide is essential for passing the exam. We encourage CBAP/CCBA candidates to read the entire guide at least once. Step 1, though, should be to skim the guide and familiarize yourself with the BABOK tasks, which will help you complete your application.

Step 2: Apply for the Exam

Before scheduling an exam, you must apply for it and be accepted by IIBA to sit for the exam. The application requirements are rigorous, and designed for intermediate- to senior-level business analysts. The sidebar lists the requirements for the exam, which you must meet before you apply. If possible, complete your application and get it approved before doing any serious self-study or taking a prep class.

  1. Visit the IIBA Certification page on IIBA.Org as your “home” for applying for the CBAP/CCBA. You will be asked to register first. It has links to the online application and other useful information. Download the applicable Certification Handbook to read an overview of each process.
  2. Start your online application. We suggest you complete the Candidate Reference section first.
    1. You need to add two references who can attest to your BA knowledge and skills. They can be managers, peers, clients, or other CBAPs or CCBAs.
    2. Your references will receive an email form to be completed and returned electronically to the IIBA. Your application can’t be completed until your references return their forms, which is why we advise starting with this step.
  3. Complete the Personal Information and Education sections. These are both simple and self-explanatory. You need a high school or higher education, and be prepared to produce a transcript to prove it. You may be audited as Rich was, and you will then need the transcript.
  4. The Work Experience section is extensive and the most difficult. Before you start, create an electronic record of your projects so you can copy and paste into the online application. Your session may time out if you are interrupted, and you may lose what you entered. Check our CBAP-CCBA resources page for a time-saving and frustration-reducing template to use.
  5. Your application requires a $125 USD fee for applying and it is non-refundable. There is also an exam fee of $325 USD (for members and $450 USD for non-members of IIBA). The IIBA will collect the application fee online when you apply. You will need to send them a check later for the exam once your application has been accepted.
  6. You will need to agree to the IIBA Code of Conduct during the application process.
  7. Submit your application, pay your fee, and then wait for approval. The IIBA promises a 21-day or better response on all applications. Some students tell us their applications have been questioned, so you may be asked to provide more information.

Step 3: Read the Entire BABOK

One your application is submitted, you should begin your preparation in earnest. We recommend that both CBAP and CCBA candidates read the entire BABOK before doing any other preparation. You won’t want to try this in one sitting, but plan to read it over time and take notes as you do.

Choose any Knowledge Area (KA) you feel comfortable with to start, since business analysis is iterative and non-linear. Start by listing out the Knowledge Areas and their tasks. There are seven Knowledge Areas, and 32 tasks among them as the following chart shows. Note that the Underlying Competencies Knowledge Area has no tasks and is not listed. Some candidates find it helpful to read a chapter at a time from a study guide, such as the one we wrote, in conjunction with each KA from the BABOK Guide.

Most people encounter a terminology “eye opener” when reading through the BABOK. What we mean by this is that some or even many of the terms in the BABOK don’t agree with your actual practice of business analysis. The tasks and techniques that are brand new to you are one thing, and you will have some learning to do. We consider this to be positive for BA practitioners, since the exam leads us to discover and learn new things.

The trouble you will more likely have is dealing with different terms for the same thing. For instance, we have worked with software packages since 1980 and are quite familiar with them. Although commonly used in some organizations, Rich’s first reaction to the term “COTS” in the BABOK was “what are they talking about?” After discovering COTS was just an acronym for “Commercial-Off-The-Shelf” software packages, he adjusted his own terminology to match the BABOK. You will undoubtedly have your own moments of “terminology tension” as you adjust to the IIBA terms. Remember to use and study the BABOK terms, even if they are “wrong” (we mean that tongue in cheek).

Step 4: Absorb the BABOK

Some people may be able to read the BABOK and then pass the exam. Most of us, though, need something more, and a foolproof plan should include additional study to help absorb the key concepts of the BABOK. The three main methods are the following:

  • Study Groups
  • Classes
  • Individual Study

RESEARCH FINDINGS

We have done two informal research studies of CBAP and CCBA recipients, and the median study time in our survey has been 100 hours of study time (80 hours after taking a CBAP preparation class). Some have reported as many as 200+ hours, but that is at the high end. Our research also reveals that the ideal time to take the exam is anywhere from 6-8 weeks after taking a prep class up to 3 months. 

Study groups are effective ways for many people to study. Being part of a group that meets regularly can be motivating for participants to keep up with studying. Participants report that they learn from each other, they learn by teaching each other, and by letting people “think out loud.” These are all helpful learning aids. You can also benefit in a study group from using prepared or self-made flashcards of key terms and concepts and working with a partner to coach and encourage each other. Visit our CBAP-CCBA resources page for a free template to create your own flash cards.

Prep class. Another beneficial study method is to attend a CBAP/CCBA preparation class, whether in-person or virtually. A class is a way to get your study off to a quick start or as a review and to give you confidence right before taking the exam. It also helps you to compress your study time. You get the benefit of learning from the instructor and other students, some of whom you might be able to keep in touch with after class, and form your own informal study group.

Individual study. If group learning is not your preferred way, or you don’t have access to study groups or classes, you need to try the individual approach. Even if you take a class or participate in a study group, you will likely need to do some individual studying. You can create your own study outlines and flashcards as you read the BABOK, and practice using them on your own.

Study by Style. Research from Insights Corporation shows that individuals study according to a few preferred styles. Table 1 summarizes the four basic learning styles and offers some ideas for how to orient your approach to preparation according to your preferred style.

BLUE

  • Give me the details
  • Thorough processing
  • Research
  • Data/facts

Study Tips:

  • Re-Read BABOK
  • Take Notes
  • Complete practice exams
  • Study your notes

RED

  • Action-oriented
  • Get to the point
  • Practical action
  • Immediate and fast

Study Tips:

  • Take practice exams
  • Re-Read Study Guides
  • Use Mnemonics

GREEN

  • Reflective
  • Give me time to process and review
  • Structured activities

Study Tips:

  • Practice Exams
  • Training Class
  • Flashcards
  • Notes revie

YELLOW

  • Experiential
  • Get me involved
  • Interactive
  • Spontaneous

Study Tips:

  • Flashcards with a “buddy”
  • Training Class
  • Take practice exams
  • Audio Flashcards
Table 1: Learning Styles by Color. © 2000 Andrew Lothian, Insights Learning. 

Step 5: Take Practice Exam Questions

In addition to the above methods, practice exams are a great way to prepare. Based on our own exam preparation experience a suggested approach is to use a study guide that also contain practice questions in them. Use online exam simulators for practice answering questions via computer. Take numerous practice exams and keep track of your progress. For the Knowledge Areas you are not scoring well on, do additional reading and studying. Practice exams are the best feedback in your preparation because they let you know how well you are absorbing the BABOK. There are a few online exam simulators available on the web. Visit our CBAP/CCBA products page for a link to our own study exam and exam simulator.

Step 6: Do Final Preparation

Whatever your methods or style of studying, you will want to spend your final preparation by focusing on areas you have had trouble with. If you kept track of your practice exam results, focus your final preparation time on the Knowledge Areas, tasks, or techniques that were the most challenging. If you can, practice taking exam questions on those subjects. Make sure to re-read the BABOK in the areas you are struggling with. Rich did this before his exam and it helped.

To help internalize important BABOK terminology and concepts that may be different from “real life,” many people find practicing with flashcards beneficial in the final preparation stages. Start with a broad cross-section of terms and concepts, and narrow them down to the ones you have trouble with. Some people like the tactile feel of paper or cardboard flashcards, while others prefer “virtual” flashcards on a computer. There are also audio flashcards available to use while you are driving, walking, or exercising.

REST WELL = TEST WELL

You will be better served by having a relaxed and rested mind before your exam than by staying up late and cramming.

Your final preparation step should be to get plenty of rest the night before the exam. You will be better served by having a relaxed and rested mind before the exam than by staying up late and cramming. We know of one person who booked a room at a hotel the night before her exam to ensure she would be relaxed and refreshed for the exam. Not everyone needs to or is able to go to that extreme, but it demonstrates a great commitment to preparing for the exam.

Step 7: Do a “Brain Dump,” then Pass the Exam

On exam day, make sure you eat a nourishing breakfast or lunch to give you energy during the exam. Drink “enough” water, but not too much. You are able to visit the restroom during the exam, but it uses up some of your allotted time for finishing the exam.

You won’t be able to bring anything into the exam that could help you answer questions. You will need to place them into a locker or other storage when you check in for the exam. You should be able to obtain a white board and markers or note paper and a pencil at the exam site, and we encourage you to use them during the exam. We advise for both the CBAP/CCBA and PMP exams that you do a “brain dump” at the start of the exam. Write down key terms, mnemonics, formulae, lists, and sequences. This will help to clear your brain, relieve some test anxiety, and serve as a reference for you during the exam.

The exam is comprised of 150 multiple-choice questions, some of them very difficult, some fairly easy, and most are challenging. Intensive exams like the CBAP or CCBA will typically challenge you by giving you difficult questions at the beginning. Don’t get intimated by this! Skip any difficult questions until you find one you are confident of, even if that means skipping the first five or ten. One stressed but successful candidate said she spent 20 minutes on the first question, which was quite difficult. Better to skip the hard ones at first than devote 20 minutes to one. You have 3.5 hours for all the questions, so you will have plenty of time to go back and review any questions you skipped. You can review any of the questions throughout the exam, and add answers to the questions you skipped after you’ve built some confidence and momentum.

Summary

If you are like most BA professionals, you haven’t taken a major exam like this in a long time, if ever. With the cost of the exam, the amount of time needed to study, and the pressure to pass, you want to make sure you succeed. This article laid out a foolproof plan for passing the CBAP or CCBA exam in seven steps:

Step 1: Obtain and Skim the BABOK
Step 2: Apply for the Exam
Step 3: Read the Entire BABOK
Step 4: Absorb the BABOK
Step 5: Take Practice Exam Questions
Step 6: Do Final Preparation
Step 7: Do a “Brain Dump,” then Pass the Exam

If you follow these 7 steps and devote the 80-100+ hours of study time needed, you will greatly increase your odds of passing. Above all, try to enjoy the experience. Obtaining a professional certification is an enriching experience, and one to be savored. Well, now that you have your plan, it’s time to get started and become CBAP or CCBA certified!

IIBA®, the IIBA® logo, A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge®, BABOK®, and the CBAP® and CCBA® logos are registered trademarks owned by the International Institute of Business Analysis. PMP® and CAPM® are registered trademarks of the Project Management Institute. 

Authors: Richard Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA and Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA

Since 1992, Watermark Learning has translated the complexity of industry standards into practical application through engaging and informative business analysis, project management, and agile training and coaching. With our academic partner, Auburn University, Watermark Learning provides Masters Certificate Programs to help organizations be more productive, and assist individuals in their professional growth. Watermark Learning is an IIBA Endorsed Education Provider and a PMI Global Registered Education Provider. Our CBAP/CCBA Certification Preparation class, CBAP-CCBA Online Study Exams, and CBAP Certification Study Guide have helped 56% of all CBAP/CCBA recipients pass the CBAP and CCBA exams. 

For more information, contact us at 800-646-9362 (US), or +1-952-921-0900, or visit us at www.WatermarkLearning.com.

Posted in: CBAP, IIBA & BABOK
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COMMENTS

mmonteleone posted on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 4:23 PM
Thanks for this summary on preparing for the exams. It reminded me of my PMP/CBAP exam prep experience. I like your comment "enjoy the experience." Looking back, I honestly can say I enjoyed the journey. It was like training for the NY Marathon - 80% of the runners that show-up at the starting line finish and crossing the finish line is a great confidence booster. Most of life is about showing up.
cstandrew posted on Thursday, January 28, 2016 1:59 PM
This is great. Is there one for the new exam PMI-PBA?
This one is a bit different from the CBAP.
Rich_Larson posted on Thursday, February 11, 2016 3:35 PM
@Mark, thanks for weighing in and confirming how you enjoyed the journey.

@cstandrew - do you mean a similar article listing steps to pass the PMI-PBA? Not yet, but we will. We do have some blogs posted that might help in the meantime; please visit: http://www.watermarklearning.com/blog/category/pmi-pba/.
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