15 Reflections from the Process of Earning the CAE
A few years ago, I sat for the Certified Association Executive exam. Thankfully, I lived to tell about it! Reflecting on the process, the exam, and the post-exam timeframe, here are 15 anecdotes/recommendations/ideas I want to share with anyone preparing for the CAE exam next week or the exam in December (which, if you haven’t started prepping yet, you’ll want to get on that ASAP).
Earning the Credits
1. Identify a goal to take the exam and meticulously track your credits/education. If you are thinking about taking the CAE exam, identify when you’d like to sit, and begin thinking about how you’ll achieve the 100 education credits you need to compile. It seems daunting, but honestly, earning the credits is the easiest (and most fun) part of the process. It’s also important to TRACK your education diligently in a spreadsheet. It’s up to you to know what you’ve done—you can’t count on the organizations where you’ve earned your credits to help you remember what you’ve done.
2. Don’t lose credits! So in my preparation, I had set a goal of taking the CAE exam back in 2010, thus I gathered a lot of credits in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Well, stuff happened and I didn’t end up sitting until FIVE years later, making all of my 40 or so credits from 2008 and 2009 obsolete. Luckily, I stayed involved and gathered more, but I’m still kicking myself a bit for losing credits I had earned.
3. Find easy places to earn them. Your study preparation classes provide credits you can use. Webinars are easy places to earn credits. If you’re taking classes for a master’s degree, many of those count. Think about all of the education you’ve done and submit it. If it’s not usable, they’ll tell you.
4. Develop a study routine and be diligent. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most voracious reader. For me to be able to read all of the content, setting up a routine and a week by week goal was extremely important to my success. And having a supportive family is helpful as well. My wife and kids knew what I was trying to do, and they supported me going to the library in the evenings or on weekends to get my readings in.
5. Find someone to share your experience with. I was lucky to have someone at the office who was interested in taking the exam as well, so we formed a study buddy relationship where we would get together once per week and review. While she ultimately decided to wait to take the exam, it was invaluable to me for accountability and assistance.
6. Just the studying is really valuable. The amount of information I gained in areas where I don’t spend my time every day is really valuable. I am a more well-rounded association professional because of the studying I did for the CAE.
7. Stop studying about three-four days before the exam and try to relax. I used ASAE's Collaborate chats to study, but I literally stopped studying around three days before the exam. I was not going to retain anything else, and frankly, I was a little burnt out from the previous 10 weeks of studying. It was time to relax and let what I learned sink in. This was the best piece of advice I received from people who had taken the test before me.
8. Briefly look over notes the day before. I did take one final look at my notes the night before the exam, but only to get things back fresh in my head before the next morning. It was not a cram session, but a light look at the material I needed a little refresher on.
9. Stay in a hotel the night before to eliminate as many distractions as possible. I live around 30 miles west of the test site, so I decided to get a hotel room in the city to avoid any potential traffic or transportation issues the morning of the exam. It was an investment that I could not recommend more highly if you live in an area that has the potential for traffic/transportation issues.
10. Have the right mindset. I went into the exam with the mindset of “I’m confident, but this is not the one and only chance I have to pass this test.” It’s important not to get psyched out about it, and to be confident that you know the material. Ultimately, you can take the exam as many times as you need to, so stressing isn’t a valuable use of your energy.
11. The exam is different than any I’ve ever taken. Most of the questions are experience-based “If X happens, what would you do?”-type questions. You need to be able to apply the concepts rather than just be able to pass through rote memorization. I had never taken a test like this before, and it was difficult, but trust your studies and experiences.
12. Some of the tips/shortcuts that helped me the most were: SPIE (Scan, Plan Implement, Evaluate), LERP (Legal, Ethical, Reasonable, Practical), the option to spend money is typically not correct, asking legal counsel is usually a good response, polling the members is always a good idea, and volunteers should talk to volunteers and staff should talk to staff when issues arise. Antitrust is a big part of it as well, so know about it and the laws that govern it.
13. Immediately post-exam, celebrate! I walked out of the room not having any idea how I did. In my mind, there was a chance I passed and a chance I failed miserably. My dad happened to be in town the weekend I was taking the exam, so after getting my luggage at the hotel and driving home, the first thing we did was go to a local brewery so I could celebrate/decompress. After 10 weeks of studying that culminated in 3.5 hours of intense thinking, I thought I deserved a beer. You will too. Do it.
14. Share your experience with others. When I got back to the office, the few people who knew I was taking the exam immediately asked me what it was like. I talked through it probably five times the following Monday, and it was helpful to reaffirm concepts I thought I knew, and to find out what people thought about ones I thought I missed.
15. Be prepared to wait for your results. Waiting for the results is hard. ASAE tells you it will take between 6-8 weeks for you to receive your results. For me, it took 7 weeks and 6 days. The last week was excruciating, but luckily I was prepared. I encourage you to be prepared as well.
Ultimately, studying for and taking the CAE exam was an incredible experience, and I encourage all association professionals to at least go through the process of studying. It will make you a better professional for your association and your members.
Bruce Hammond, CAE, is the director of governance and operations for the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and the director of marketing and communications for the Hospice Medical Director Certification Board.
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Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to serve as a resource for those who are preparing for next week's or this coming December's CAE exams.