AAPC Social Hour: Certification Exam Tips

The AAPC Social Hour on Facebook Live, May 26, at 11 a.m. MT (1 p.m. ET) focused on how to prepare for and pass your upcoming certification exam. Moderator and AAPC Social Media Manager Alex McKinley (AAPC Alex) was joined by Dianne Estes, CPC, CPB, COC, CPMA, who had plenty of advice for making the most of your prep time and test time, having taken four certification exams herself. Estes is the Region 3 mid-Atlantic National Advisory Board (NAB) representative from Kentucky and has been working in billing and coding since she was 19 years old, on both the provider and payer side of healthcare.

Study and Prep Tips

When studying and preparing for an exam, you must consider more than just learning content. The way you study and prepare also plays a big role in your success. Use the following tips from Estes to get on the track to success from day one:

  • When formulating a study plan, study every week. Don’t let a long period of time pass between study sessions. And try to finish studying in four to five months if you can. Joining a study group can be useful, as it helps with encouragement and motivation.
  • Recognize where your strengths and weaknesses lie to go into the exam with a plan. Tab the things that you don’t normally search for. Taking the practice exam is a good way to discover these topics. Also, break up the ICD-10 book by tabbing each letter to make it easier to go directly to the alphabetical section you need quickly.
  • Don’t write too much in your book. It can be distracting to have too much handwritten information, especially if you can’t remember why you wrote a note in the first place. The answers you need are usually by the code.
  • Be aware that the test questions are made from a lot of the verbiage underneath the CPT® and ICD-10 codes. The exam will use this verbiage to make sure you have an understanding of how to look up the answers.
  • Don’t study the night before the exam. (No cramming!) You may want to go over a few practice exams, but “don’t try and do any heavy lifting the night before”. Get a good night’s sleep and be at the exam a little early for book checks to avoid the stress of rushing.

Check out the AAPC Social Hour: Pro Tips blog from March for more expert advice on exams and preparing your code books.

Be Ready for Anything

Estes suggested the following general tips for the day of your exam:

  • Eat a good breakfast. Also take snacks with you (quiet snacks of course) in case you get hungry.
  • Have the proper clothing for any circumstances and ear plugs at the ready if you are easily distracted by temperature or noise. You want to be comfortable and focused.
  • Take a break and move around for a few minutes at an in-person exam. “I always find that when you’re able to get up and breathe and think, and just kind of get away from it for a minute, even if you don’t have to use the bathroom, it just allows you some time for your brain to reset and to reflect.” Ask your proctor what the break rules are before the exam starts so you know what is allowed*.
  • Wear a regular watch in case you end up too far from the wall clock. Smart watches or anything that can connect to the internet are not allowed, so be prepared. You need to stay aware of time yourself. Don’t rely on the proctor to tell you how much time remains — you never know what kind of time prompts you may receive, and you don’t want to run out of time.

*When taking an online exam, you are not allowed to get up until you finish, but the test is broken into two parts, which is helpful. Learn more with the AAPC Exam FAQ.

Time Management During the Exam

In her time on the NAB and as an AAPC mentor, Estes has heard many people say that they don’t manage their time well. However, time management during your exam, according to Estes, is of the utmost importance. Moving through your exam too slowly and inefficiently can mean that you fail to finish the exam in the allotted time. Estes suggests avoiding the following time wasters on exam day:

  • When you have a long operative report associated with a question, don’t read through the report first — read the question first. It may be that the question only refers to a small part of the report and that you don’t need to read through the report in its entirely (e.g., a question about a discrepancy in date of service).
  • Answer the truly difficult questions last to ensure you answer everything or as many questions as possible. If you skip a question, tab the spot in your book and return to it later. It can be frustrating to spend a lot of time on a question and still not be able to give an answer, so leave those questions for the end.
  • There are five columns of 30 questions each on the answer sheet. Plan to spend about one hour on each column, which then leaves 40 minutes at the end to go back to anything you skipped and to make sure your sheet is correct.
  • Try to eliminate a few of the multiple choice answers quickly (This is usually possible. e.g., if a CPT® code is coming from the wrong section in the code book and you know that already from your work experience). Then you can look up the remaining two choices. Estes warns, “If you look up every single thing it’s going to take you forever.” Be smart with your approach.

Books and Practice Exams

Two of the questions that AAPC hears a lot were brought up in the live social hour by attendees: “Will I be in trouble if I use old code books?” and “How do practice exams compare to the actual test?”

Estes recommended using a code book from the current year because of the many changes that are implemented each year. McKinley mentioned that the AAPC Director of Curriculum says there are new questions every year that reflect the new code sets, so you are putting yourself at a disadvantage and risk not passing if you choose not to use the most current book. Estes agreed, citing the recent evaluation and management (E/M) changes.

Estes also encouraged taking the practice exams, which she said are very thorough and just as difficult as the real exams since the questions are very similar. “It is so well worth it,” Estes said. The practice exams will not only prepare you for the content you will encounter, but also help you “get your timing right.” Many AAPC members agreed wholeheartedly in the chat.

Click here to find more Knowledge Center articles with tips on taking AAPC certification exams.

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