Life, Work

studying for the CAE Exam

September 21, 2021

I mentioned a few times that I’m sitting for the CAE exam in December. CAE is short for Certified Association Executive and to achieve this credential, you need to take — and pass — a 200 question exam within a 4 hour window.

And while I used to be a solid A/B student through high school and college, I have not taken an exam since 1994.

My biggest hurdle (other than the healthy fear of failing this exam) is discovering how to study in a way that works for my 49 year old brain. When my brain was 21, I could read something once or twice and remember it. Ask me what I had for dinner on Sunday. Mmmmhmmm.

Here is how I’m studying for this exam.

overhead shot of Kim's desk, with 2 textbooks, a notebook, some pens, a  bottle of water, and a candle I bought on clearance and later tossed because it smelled horrible when lit
Not a YouTube worthy aesthetic, but it works for me

Reading: There are a number of books to read in preparation for the exam. I started reading them in January and taking notes as I went along. The upshot of this is that I have hundreds of pages of my own Cliffs Notes, so to speak. And how I was burned by this plan is that one of the books was updated into a new edition, and my December exam is based off of that new edition. (sad trombone) I’m choosing not to spend the $100 on a new book.

Study Group: I joined a study group which meets via MS Teams (ugh) on Tuesday mornings from 8-9am. There are 4 of us and a facilitator. During our meeting we talk about the study guide questions and help each other with sticky concepts and questions that we missed. We have also have access to some practice exam questions. It’s very valuable both for the structure it’s giving me, and the fellowship of others going through the same angst.

Time: I study for at least 1 hour a day immediately after work each day. Sometimes I’ll study before work. And I study for 2 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. I spend 10-20 minutes a night flipping through flash cards. The group recommends 7-14 hours a week of study and this schedule puts me there.

Tools: I downloaded Quizlet for flashcards that I can swipe through on my phone while I’m waiting for water to boil or delaying getting out of bed. For Quizlet, it’s important to search for “CAE 2020” or “CAE 2021” and “Domain XX” in order to find the correct study terms. But although Quizlet is amazing, I learn by writing so I also write my own flashcards on old fashioned ruled 3×5 inch notecards. I bought an 8.5″x11″ Moleskine notebook for taking notes from the readings. It was a bit of an investment, but the cover is sturdy and the paper is a delight to write on. Sticky page flags to mark important concepts in the books. Mint tea.

Stack of books

Ambiance: I can sit at a desk all day to work, but I found that sitting at my desk to study is a whole different ballgame, especially on the weekends. I get distracted, I take too many breaks, I give up. Something that has helped me – so help me God – is watching “Study with me” videos on YouTube. Don’t laugh! College students make videos of themselves studying for anywhere from 1 to 10 (!!) hours. Sometimes they’re in a cafe, sometimes they’re in a library, sometimes they’re in their rooms. The cozy study aesthetics and mellow music are pleasing, but the real benefit is two-fold.

One, I get to see how other people study and I model my behavior on that. Get a hot cup of tea and a cold bottle of water. Use a little scent (candles, diffusers, etc) to relax you just a bit. Light a cozy lamp. Put a pillow behind your back. Watch how your online study buddy reads and takes notes. It’s easy to fall into a groove when there is someone else studying, even if they are only on video. Two, they divide their time up into study blocks of 25 or 50 minutes with 5 or 10 minute breaks in between each one and pop a countdown timer on screen. You can see the timer in the first photo in this post It’s called the Pomodoro Technique and I’ve utilized it for years at work when I get stuck. I find a good video, make it fullscreen, and study away with someone who could easily be my child. I’m not any mom though, I’m a Cool Studying Mom.

Study Process: My study ‘week’ starts on Tuesday. Each Tuesday afternoon, I write down that week’s terms on flashcards, and add the corresponding Quizlet cards to my online study set.

Wednesday, I answer the sample multiple choice questions at the end of the study guide unit. And I fail, because it’s a pretest to show me where I need to focus. I read through the summary outline in the study guide.

Thursday and Friday I start the short answer questions in my notebook. To answer them, I use the study guide, my notes from reading the textbooks, the textbooks themselves, and sometimes related articles on the Internet. There are no short answer questions on the exam but I find value in researching the answers and writing them down.

Saturday’s 2 hour session takes me back to the multiple choice questions. I research the ones I missed and read the corresponding notes/chapters. Half of the misses are due to lack of content knowledge, which I can (and do) backfill. The other half is me needing to be better at parsing what the question is actually asking and answering as K.A. Russell, CAE and CSE of the National Association of Boy Band Members (NABBM) would answer, and not how Kim in TNP’s Membership department would answer. That mastery comes from trying and failing. But after 4 units I’m at the point where I can immediately knock the 4 possible answers down to 2.

Sunday’s 2 hour session is finishing the questions in the study guide, making sure I understand the content outline, and rereading/studying the more difficult concepts.

Monday I review the flash cards from the current and previous units.

I’m not going to lie, this has been really difficult for me to get used to. And I’m very nervous I’ll fail this exam, because failing exams isn’t something I used to do in school. But I still have the entirety of October and November to beef up my knowledge and hone my test taking skills. Stay tuned!


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  • JulZ September 22, 2021 at 11:25 am

    Oh my God, I’m going to die when I decide to take this test, aren’t I?

    • Kimberly September 23, 2021 at 8:48 am

      It’s uncomfortable but not terrible.