Six Tips & Suggestions to Prepare for the CAE Exam

I’ll be honest—when I committed to becoming a Certified Association Executive (CAE), I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I knew that there were a number of requirements—five years or more of experience in association management, 100 continuing education credit hours, adherence to a code of ethics, and, oh yeah, something about a test?

It wasn’t until a several hundred page study guide landed on my desk that I realized what exactly I’d gotten myself into.

After several months of studying, I sat for and passed the (four-hour, 200-question) CAE exam in December 2014, joining the ranks of approximately 4,000 association professionals who hold the credential.

While I am certainly no expert in all things CAE, there are a few key takeaways for anyone preparing for this exam:

  • Map out your study plan—and start early. The aforementioned Study Guide, while lengthy, is a great resource and lays out all the required readings and supplemental material you’ll need to cover when preparing for the exam. Work backwards from the date of your exam, and divide out the readings, study questions and sample exams accordingly. I began studying in mid-August for the December exam and set aside anywhere from 4-12 hours per week to study. The exam really is all about preparation, and it can become very overwhelming without a roadmap of what you need to study and when.
  • Do the readings! Don’t think you can “wing it” and be prepared for this exam—you need to know the material. The required readings aren’t always riveting, but the information is crucial. Take good notes and refer back to them often.
  • Use the practice questions. CAE exam questions can seem tricky. While the test is a multiple choice format, often several of the answers are correct and it is up to the test taker to determine the most correct answer. You have to learn to think like the test—it takes a while to decipher what the question trying to ask, and which answer is your best option. There is no substitute for success here. You simply have to put in the time and take the Study Guide practice exam questions in each domain over, and over, and over. Eventually, it’ll click.
  • Find study buddies. Above anything else, this is the most important takeaway I’d recommend to anyone sitting for the exam. I participated in not one, but three different study groups. Two of my RGI colleagues and I began meeting weekly to review the readings and practice questions. The three of us also participated in a study group held by the Indiana Society of Association Executives, where we could bring any questions we had to a larger group of association professionals and find answers together. And finally, I participated in a study session that several members of ASAE’s Collaborate Community put together. This group hosted weekly webinars on each domain, where an expert in that topic (who was also studying for the exam) presented the key concept. This ensured that by the time I took the test, I had covered the material several times, in several ways, and had heard several perspectives on it. Plus, knowing that others were holding me accountable for the reading helped to keep me on track with my study plan.
  • Don’t be afraid to change it up. Sometimes just reading and taking notes isn’t enough. You have to find which study methods work for you. That might be flashcards, or spending time on Google to find something that you can’t track down in one of the reference books, or talking about it with colleagues/other CAEs, or coming up with creative mnemonics, or finding webinars on the topics… there’s no shortage of ways you can come up with to learn the material. Ultimately, you’ll get out of the experience what you put in, so find ways to make the content stick—whatever it takes.
  • Come up with your test-taking strategy. Just as important as your study plan is your test-taking game plan when taking the test. Know your limits—do you need to tell yourself to stand up and stretch every 30 minutes? Do you want to answer each question as you get to it, or do you want to skip the ones that you don’t know immediately and come back to them later? How much time should you spend per question? How will you handle distractions in the testing room? If you’ve done the prep work, by this point you’ll have a good idea of the types of questions and the content. Now it’s all about managing your nerves and acing that test!