I’ve taken ISC2 exams six times. This includes failing the CISSP the first time I took the exam, then passing on the second attempt. I also committed the ultimate dumb ass mistake of letting my CISSP expire because I didn’t get enough CPE credits. This forced me to take the CISSP exam for the third time (and passed). Next I took the CAP exam. After this I took the CISSP-ISSEP concentration. I was told that I failed this so took it again six months later. Failed again. Then, months later I got the “woops, you really passed both times” e-mail from ISC2. I was one of the lucky folks caught up in the ISC2 erroneous grading debacle. So what did I learn after sitting through six ISC2 exams?
1. Bring food and water
The CISSP exam can last 6 hours. Thats an eternity to sit at a desk reading frustrating questions. You don’t want the added aggravation of being hungry or thirsty. Not only is it distracting but can have a negative effect on your comprehension and patience. I know people that suggest gimmicky food or drinks.
2. Bring two #2 pencils and a pencil sharpener
You shouldn’t need to do this, the proctors usually bring pencils for you and they are usually sharp. They key word is usually. In one of my exams the pencil sharpener that they used to sharpen all the pencils before the exam was dysfunctional. All of the pencils were sharpened slightly off center, which caused the wood to extend down the length of the graphite. In order to use them, you had to hold the pencil at a specific angle. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it grows frustrating to color in 250 scantron bubbles with a bad pencil. Take a few pencils and one of those small sharpeners with you just in case.
3. Bring a print out of your admission document
ISC2 tells you to bring a copy of your admission document with you. But for whatever reason not everyone does this. If you don’t show up with a printout of your admission document, then you are at the mercy of the proctor. Some of them don’t make a big deal out of this, after all, they have a list of people, and you can show your photo I.D. to prove that you are on that list. Whats the big deal? The other scenario I see is people holding out their iPhone to the proctor. I’ve never heard of anyone getting turned down for doing this, but it always generates a few minutes of nervous talking about whether or not it should be accepted. Just like the pencil, why take this chance? You want to eliminate any additional stress from your test day. Bring an old fashioned printed copy of the admission document that was e-mailed to you.
4. Get lots of sleep, and get there early
I took one of my Exams in Chicago, a three hour drive from where I live in Michigan. This was a very bad decision. The morning traffic was worse than I expected, there was road construction going over a bridge that caused a minor traffic jam, and I was depending on a printed map to find a location that I had never been to before. Half way there I admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to make it in time, I would have to reschedule the exam and lose the money I paid. Luckily, I had forgotten about the time change. I arrived just in time, even through it took me an hour longer than I planned. This is not the state of mind you want to be in when you begin the test.
Unless you live in a large city or are very flexible about when you schedule the exam, you will probably have a long commute to an exam that starts early in the morning. If at all possible, get a hotel near the exam site the night before. Many exams are inside a hotel. This will let you get a good night sleep and cut down on the stress of finding the location the morning of the exam.
5. Don’t study the night before or morning of the exam
Any benefit of memorizing the last little bit of knowledge just before the exam is not worth the risk of burnout and stress produced from cramming just prior to test time. If you are depending on last minute studying to pass, its too late. This isn’t to say that you can’t glance through your material. If you have had trouble remembering the order of the OSI layers, then it may be a good idea to read over them one last time. Then you can transfer the order onto your scrap paper when the test begins (so that you don’t forget it again). Glancing at notes is fine, but don’t cram at the last minute.
6. Eat breakfast
Earlier I mentioned the importance of bringing food to the exam location. Time spent filling in scantron bubbles for CISSP questions is like dog years, 6 hours feels like 6 days. If you don’t normally eat breakfast then don’t go all out and eat a heavy meal, but eat something. You don’t want to lose energy or have your stomach growling as you busily color in answer bubbles.
7. Take your time
Plan on using all six hours to complete the test. Its very easy to get in a hurry and start glancing through questions and picking answers quickly. An hour into the test you may see people finishing and leaving. Don’t freak out and think that you are going to slow. The exams encompass all of ISC2 tests, including the SSCP, CAP, ISSEP, ISSAP, and ISSMP. These are all shorter than the CISSP. If you see someone completing their test faster than you expect, they are probably taking one of these shorter tests, or failing the CISSP.
8. Read the question, then read all of the answers
Sounds simple enough. But this can get difficult five hours into the exam. The wording on the test is notorious for its use of double negatives and confusingly similar answers. Read the entire questions, rephrase in your head if necessary. If the question asks, “Which is not an incorrect OSI layer”, you should turn this into “Which is a correct layer”.
9. Leave time to transfer answers from the answer book to the score sheet
The format of the test involves reading the questions from an exam booklet, then recording the answers in a separate bubble sheet. Most people prefer to answer the questions inside the booklet, then transfer these over to the bubble sheet when they are complete. Personally, I like to use the bubble sheet as I go. I don’t see a benefit either way, it depends on your personal choice. If you do need to transfer answers, then leave plenty of time to do this, it will take longer than you might think.
10. Make good guesses
You are going to run across hard questions where you can’t eliminate all of the wrong answers. The one thing that is certain is that you are going to have to make guesses. When this happens, follow a three step process. First, if one of the answers comes to mind right away, but can’t explain why, then pick that answer. Mental cobwebs may be preventing you from remembering the reason why the answer is correct. You are subconsciously remembering something. If none of the answers stand out to you then skip the question. As you answer questions later on in the test you may be able to come back and narrow down your choices.
Finally… If you are absolutely stumped. Pick the longest answer. When the folks at ISC2 make test questions they find it easy to come up with the wrong answers. Who’s going to disagree that an answer is wrong? However, the process they use to decide on a correct answer isn’t as easy. Many times the only way they can agree on a correct answer is to make it more detailed and specific. This means there is a small chance that the longest answer will be the correct one.
Image courtesy skippyjon
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