5 study strategies for acing your certification exam

Passing a standardized test isn’t necessarily about what you know—it’s about delivering the answers graders look for. That’s a subtle distinction, but probably one most teachers can relate to.

In any given year, as many as a thousand prospective school administrators take the California Preliminary Administrative Credential Examination (CPACE). Nearly 70% miss the mark and have to take it again. Often it’s not because they don’t know the material but because they didn’t adequately showcase their knowledge.

Certification exams like the CPACE are designed to rigorously test not only what you know but also how well you can apply it. The graders are looking for specific signals that you’re capable of doing the job, and it’s up to you to provide them. Before you take the test, there are a few things you need to know.

  • Which primary content areas will the test cover?
  • How will each section be scored?
  • What key concepts and phrases are the graders looking for?

Once you’re armed with this information, you can focus your study efforts on the areas that will prove most valuable. Below are a few tips to help you formulate your study strategy.

Step 1: Start with the standards.

Standards form the bedrock of your professional knowledge, so they’re the first thing you should brush up on, said Sandra Miller, lead consultant and presenter for the Aspiring California Educators (ACE) test preparation program.

Begin by learning all of the standards related to your desired certification level. That means if you’re aiming to become a principal, you’ll need to know the standards for administrators as well as for teachers.

Step 2: Study the rubric.

People often trip up on the constructed-response section of an exam because they “will answer halfway, won’t really read the question or don’t understand how to write answers to make it easier for graders to grade them,” Miller said.

To prepare for constructed-response questions, get to know the scoring rubric. Read through the sample answers to discover what graders like to see, and use them to devise a recipe for structuring your responses. For example, a teacher studying for the CPACE might decide to include the following components in each response: collecting and analyzing data, consulting all stakeholders, and creating a solution that draws upon both data and stakeholder input (all key practices for a successful school leader).

Step 3: Learn the buzzwords.

As you familiarize yourself with the primary content areas the exam will cover, watch for key phrases. These are the types of buzzwords you’ll see in the professional standards as well as the official study guide, and using them effectively lets the graders know you have a firm grasp on important concepts. Use them in your constructed responses where it makes sense.

Key phrases for aspiring administrators might include:

  • Community involvement
  • Home-school communication
  • Key stakeholders
  • Ongoing use of data
  • Professional development

Keep an eye out for key phrases when working through multiple-choice questions, as well. They can often point you toward the correct answer.

Step 4: Time yourself.

Taking practice tests is critical, and here’s why: Time is limited. One of the main reasons people fail is that they run out of it.

“One of the hardest things for people is figuring out how much time to allot to each part of the test,” Miller said. “Some people end up spending a lot of time in one section, and it’s fine for them. They might know they’re a quick writer so they spend more time on the multiple choice. Other people feel more confident on the multiple choice and less on the writing.”

Timing yourself on the practice test lets you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. Once you see where you’re spending the most time, you can work to improve.

Step 5: Get feedback.

An outside perspective provides a valuable mirror to help you see where you can improve. If possible, have someone grade the written portion of your practice test using the official rubric. You can use their feedback to figure out how to craft stronger responses.

This is where a test prep class comes in handy. In Miller’s workshop for the CPACE, people grade each other’s practice exams so they learn what graders look for in a well-written answer. It also allows them to see how other people answered the questions, which helps them refine their own approach.

When you’re studying for a certification exam, there’s a lot of ground to cover. The more you understand how your answers will be evaluated, the better able you’ll be to tailor your preparations—and your test answers—to achieve the highest possible score.


For more thought-provoking content, check out ACSA’s leadership tips and other articles. ACSA is dedicated to providing K-12 administrators with relevant content and building events that focus on today’s most important school administration issues. Become a member and join us for our world-class Leadership Summit, Every Child Counts Symposium, professional development events, a free one-on-one mentorship program, our ongoing Equity Project, statewide advocacy efforts, members-only benefits, and much more.

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