Preparing for my CBAP Exam
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I wanted to share my experience in preparing to write my CBAP® (Certified Business Analysis Professional) exam from IIBA®. Business analysis (my main job role these days) so obtaining my CBAP is an important milestone for me (I have just taken and passed the CBAP).
I’m not going to bore you with the background, and I am not trying to sell you anything, but here’s a quick overview of my exam experience if you’re also preparing for this exam. It’s the sort of blog post I wish I had found when I was looking into how best to prepare myself mentally for the CBAP madness.
General Preparation Advice
I had previously completed the ECBA™ (Entry Certificate in Business Analysis™) a year ago and so wasn’t starting from scratch, but the knowledge had faded in my mind and so regardless of what prior experience you bring to the test, here’s what I consider to be essential:
- You have to know the Knowledge Areas really well and ensure that your whole thinking around business analysis can be slotted into the tasks described in the BABOK® Guide. CBAP contains case studies and scenario-type questions, and it helps you anchor yourself when you know what Knowledge Area and task they are speaking about.
- You’ll also need good familiarity with the elements within each task to know what should be done when, in which task. Is Gap Analysis performed in “Identify Risks” or “Recommend Solution”, for instance?
- As a result, you should also have a good handle on the inputs and outputs from each task – particularly when they create a dependency. You will use these to answer questions like “what should the business analyst do next?” and “what information is the business analyst missing?” and recalling the task and the flow of information into and away from it will help a lot with this.
- I went as far as to memorise the names of all tasks within the Knowledge Areas and learn about half the inputs and outputs particularly around the flow of requirements in all their different states.
- The mapping of guidelines and tools to tasks is a formidable amount of information, I don’t think the test is expecting you to have memorised those.
- You will need an excellent knowledge of ALL techniques listed in the BABOK Guide, what they are used for and when they are appropriate. If you can’t casually describe the difference between “Decision Analysis” and “Decision Modelling” to your mates in the pub, then you need to go back and do some more. And if you don’t have the ROI or PERT formulae tattooed on your bottom or framed above your mantlepiece, are you even serious about passing this exam?! You should be able to spot a made-up technique name.
- You should particularly know the strengths and weaknesses of each technique and the conventions of any diagrams – when would you use a use case diagram, a context diagram or a sequence diagram?
- You should have a good knowledge of the competencies and perspectives and understand how they might be employed/change our business analysis approach respectively. Why might influencing be handy? What is systems thinking?
- The core concepts of the BABOK® Guide and how they apply to each knowledge area was something I concentrated on less as I reasoned that I would be getting a good understanding of this via the study of the tasks in the knowledge areas. You do however need to be crystal clear on the definitions of key tools, guidelines, concepts etc. – in the real business world, we tend to use terms a little more sloppily or even interchangeably so make sure you know, for example, what BABOK® means when it speaks of “solution scope” or “functional decomposition”.
- And finally, be comfortable with the tools and guidelines – know them so you can spot references to them and also hit the glossary as there might be some terms not fully developed in the main BABOK® Guide but which you should know and be aware of (X/Y Management Styles, Pareto charts etc.)
In terms of my own preparation, I read through the BABOK® Guide in its entirety about 3 times and was lucky enough to have my employer pay for a 3-day classroom training.
I’d say that classroom training is appropriate if you’re starting from scratch and want an instructor-led guided tour into the material, but it’s no substitute for going over the book again and again and making your own notes – you should pull out any definitions and pay particular attention to bullet point lists that give you classifications such as:
- The definition of a SMART requirement.
- Possible candidates for modelling attributes of a requirement.
- Different types of scope.
- Different approaches to risk.
CBAP Exam Simulator
I also (for the first time in my life) paid about EUR90 for a 1-month subscription to Watermark Learning’s online simulated test and if you’re thinking about that expense then here are my thoughts:
- The little PHP website that runs the simulated tests is good (they obviously had a good business analyst) with a nice test environment, ability to do practice tests of 25, 50 and 100 questions, drills on specific Knowledge Areas or a full-blown exam.
- The fact that the online test gives you an explanation of the answers was also a big plus and definitely helped me learn when I had no idea about an answer.
- The statistics gathered on your practice exams are also great and helped me focus in on the two Knowledge Areas where I was weak. I doubt any other approach would have helped me do that.
- The style of the questions was spot on and a great preparation for the actual test.
- The questions were generally good but there did seem to be about 15% of them which were just too specific and relied on memory work! Questions such as “which of these is not a recommended technique for Assessing Risks?” or “What forms the culture of an organisation?” where the simulator was looking for you to know the exact phrase, bullet point or list from the BABOK® Guide.
This last point is the really important one. It was pretty infuriating getting questions that you could only possibly answer if you had memorised the whole guide like some sacred text and I’m happy to say that there were very few of these sorts of questions on the actual exam.
Even though Watermark included these obscure and fussy questions, and they cost me points in my practice tests, they did force me to go and look up each wrong answer in the guide and continue learning in this way, so they served a purpose!
In fact, before I took the actual CBAP exam, I was only scoring between 60 and 70% on the Watermark practice tests – this really worried me and made me feel less than ready but hey, as a result of the practice testing, there were even parts of actual exam that felt EASIER than the simulator!
In short, the simulator seemed to be about 40 – 50% really fiddly questions (exact definitions, phrases, pick which items is not present in a long list in the book etc.) and the actual exam had less than 5% like this.
So, in conclusion, the practice test was worth the money in that it focussed my study and guided where I needed to polish my knowledge, but the questions generally felt harder and more pure memory-based than the actual exam. If you can survive the Watermark exam (or another endorsed training prep company) and get around 65 - 70% then you are probably ready.
So, the format of the exam is described on the IIBA website. 120 multiple-choice questions for which only one answer is correct. There were no questions with multiple answers. Questions come from across the whole BABOK® Guide and are distributed as per the published strategy.
My own feeling leaving the exam was:
- 10% scenario questions with about 1 to 1.5 pages to read and digest. Luckily the test tool allows you to highlight text. These were the more challenging ones and required some careful thought as to what Knowledge Area(s) we were in, what stakeholder attitudes were indicated, what the BA might have missed etc.
- 10% straight-forward questions where the right answer was pretty obvious based on a first one reading of BABOK® or your background BA knowledge.
- 20% questions where I really needed to work on a process of elimination of answers because no one right answer stood out.
- 20% that needed a good understanding of the techniques and their appropriateness to a particular BA problem/modelling scenario.
- 5% of questions required some number crunching calculation – so know any formulae mentioned in BABOK® and there was an on-screen calculator (as well as pencil and paper) to help the numerically challenged.
- The rest of the questions were all somewhere in the middle of the difficulty spectrum, they required some thinking, some reflecting on the Knowledge Area involved, relevant tools, guidelines, and techniques. You also have the ability to flag questions for ease of returning to them.
When I did my practice exams it was always under time pressure (lunchtime at work, for example), and I was blasting through them in about 1 – 1½ hours. As a result, I thought I would have lots of spare time on the exam. My planned strategy was to make one quick pass and then go back in more detail to validate my first answers.
It didn’t work out that way, 3.5 hours went by very quickly! I had time to do one full pass through, taking my time to really consider my answers and then review about one third of the exam that I had flagged for further thought. As a result, I probably changed about 10 answers when I understood the question in more detail or in a different way on second reading.
And one thing I noticed was that it took me about 10 questions at the start of the exam to really get my brain firing and into the exam language, spirit and material. I paid particular attention to these when I went back and reviewed.
I can only echo advice I found elsewhere. You must be very comfortable with the BABOK® Guide material, know your way around the Knowledge Areas, their tasks and elements, input and outputs in detail and understand every technique and its purpose. You should be able to recognise tools and guidelines from BABOK and roughly know where (in what task) they will be useful.
Beyond this, a knowledge of the competencies, perspectives and core principles is foundational for the knowledge mentioned above.
If you were starting from scratch (to give you an idea) then 2 - 3 months of part-time study would do it, picking up the book several times a week, reading through – digesting, rereading to really understand the whole thing in detail. Towards the end of that time period, you would be practically living with the guide and doing practice tests each day. Lucky you!
Thinking of Getting Certified?
To get CBAP certified you need 7,500 hours of business analysis work experience and a minimum of 900 hours completed in four of the six BABOK® Guide Knowledge Areas (KAs). If you have less than the minimum required hours consider obtaining the CCBA (Certification of Capability in Business Analysis).
About The Author:
Kevin Crampton is a lead business analyst in the IT department at the World Health Organization in Geneva. He is dedicated full time to the health emergencies program and has been involved in the responses to Ebola, Zika and now the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. His work primarily concerns supporting project delivery for emergency response, including spells working in the Congo and Uganda for Ebola and in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.