Six Things I Learned While Prepping for the CAE That Weren’t on the Exam

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When you think of a Scantron sheet, do you get a little bit of test anxiety?  Just picture all those rows and rows of empty bubbles, with your yellow #2 pencil poised in test-taking position in a room so quiet that mundane noises like pencil scratches on paper and chair squeaks seem to occupy a permeant place in the front of your brain.  

I thought I left this special kind of purgatory in the past when I finished my graduate degree, but I found myself reliving this very moment in early May when I sat for the Certified Association Executive exam, or CAE.  This is the association industry’s professional credential offered by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), and it has been a professional goal of mine for quite some time. Fortunately, AMR is a strong supporter of professional development for employees. When I was hired to work with the National Association of State Procurement Officials in June 2014, I knew I had the support to mark the CAE off on my professional bucket list, so I included it to my performance goals. 

The test itself is 200 multiple choice questions that cover nine domain areas, and it is designed to measure on the job tasks performed and knowledge needed by association executives. How people prepare for the exam varies widely, but I chose to take an online prep course and read suggested materials by ASAE.  I spent more than a few snowy afternoons in February getting familiar with the Handbook of Professional Practices in Association Management and flashcards created for my online class.
 
Much like regular exercise and eating organic vegetables, I resisted at first, but in the end, found that all that studying was good for me after all. I sat for the exam on May 6, and while there was certainly a moment of anxiety when I opened the test and looked at the blank Scantron sheet, I settled in and the felt comfortable that I was prepared and well on my way to accomplishing my goal.  

I won’t likely get results until early July, but no matter the outcome, I do think it’s important to acknowledge just how much I gained both from my studies and going through the process itself.  Here are six things I learned while preparing for the CAE that weren’t on the exam:   

  1. Completing all qualifications and the paperwork to sit for the exam is not fun, but it’s a good opportunity to reflect on your current professional development accomplishments.  The application to sit for the exam is tedious, and it requires you to recount 100 hours of qualifying professional development. When I first set my goal, I only had about half of the necessary credits.  Reviewing the domain areas and recognizing my knowledge gaps provided excellent motivation to take some courses in budget and finance for the nonprofit sector to prepare for the exam.
  2. The online courses offered through ASAE were a lifesaver. I was able to quickly get up to speed to satisfy the credit hour requirement without being out of the office. In addition to ASAE online classes and an in-house training on association management that AMR provided staff in December, I used hours from my participation in Leadership Lexington, a leadership program offered through our local Chamber of Commerce.  
  3. Studying a week before the exam felt eerily familiar to finals week at my beloved University of Kentucky.  To conquer the overwhelming urge to study anything and everything, I remembered long-forgotten study strategy that got me through chemistry and geology in my undergraduate studies. I wrote an executive summary of the notes and concepts I felt certain would be on the test, but I limited myself to using only the front and the back of one single sheet of paper. This forced me to begin with the end in mind with my studying, and the act of writing it down helped me with comprehension and retention.
  4. I had to learn to embrace the fear of failure.  Many times in test prep mode, I would worry… What if I fail? Most of the time, I was able to shake it off.  I reassured myself that I’ve passed comprehensive exams before, and this content was (mostly) familiar to me. But there was also a part of me that decided to just embrace the what ifs and the fear.  While fear can cause doubt, it’s also a good motivator.  The thought of having the study again and sit for the exam again definitely encouraged me to go the extra mile to prevent that fear from coming true.
  5. Experience is a great teacher, but that doesn’t mean your experience was the best or only approach.  One of the most difficult parts of preparing for the exam was learning to let go of how you may have handled a situation or a circumstance in the past, and instead answer the questions in a way that reflects the best practices captured by ASAE.  One of the best test-taking tips I heard was to answer each question as though you are the executive director of a national association with more than 100 employees.  This forced me to think like a chief staff executive, especially in regards to governance, use of resources, best practices and policy development.
     
  6. I get by with a little help from my friends. Two of my colleagues also took the exam at the same time.  We shared notes, took a practice test together and compared study strategies.  We also have the benefit of working with six other colleagues who have successfully passed the CAE exam.  They recently shared test-taking tips with us and sent really nice encouraging notes throughout the process.  This is yet another benefit of working at an association management company – you have instant access to peers who have been there, done that.
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