Why Does Speed Matter When Preparing for the CPHQ Exam?

Failure to recall facts, loss of motivation, waste of resources, and ultimately a significant deterioration in the chances of passing the CPHQ exam are some potential problems of a prolonged exam preparation period. Planning a relatively short but effective period to prepare for the exam will better serve candidates.

How long does it take to prepare for the CPHQ exam?

One month? Two months? Three months? Six months? Longer?

The most obvious answer is: “It depends.” While I cannot disagree with this, it has not been my answer to this frequently asked question in the last 13 years.

I now advise people to make their CPHQ exam preparation short and sweet. (By the way, the same advice also applies to other endeavors, such as hospital accreditation, quality improvement projects, policy writing, and for the same reasons.)

The Problem With “It Depends”

“It depends” is a cliché: everyone, especially the novice, uses it.

If you are not familiar with the principles and concepts in healthcare quality, you will take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam than someone who has been in the game for three decades. True, but only to a partial extent.

If you have never worked in a US healthcare setting, you will take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam than someone who has worked in several US hospitals over the last two decades. True, but only to a partial extent.

If you have a full-time job plus a husband and two kids at home, you will take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam than someone who has a part-time job and no family commitments outside working hours. I don’t know about this one; it may or may not be accurate.

Suppose the above statements, highlighted in green, were factual.

How do you explain the fact a person who has never set foot in the US, has less than 12 months of work experience (in only one hospital), and has to juggle multiple commitments, passing the CPHQ exam with a score above the 50th percentile among certificants?

How do you explain the fact that not one CPHQ, but at least fifty(!), in similar situations, passed the exam? All passed with excellent scores—nothing less than 103/125 (I should know—I was fortunate to contribute to their success).

Here’s the problem with the idea that the time needed to prepare for the CPHQ exam depends on various factors: it makes it sound as though all these factors – work commitments, family commitments, work experience, etc. – are beyond the control of the candidate. In reality, anyone who considers sitting the CPHQ exam will have some ability to address the factors that affect the duration of their exam preparation. They may need external help to overcome some barriers, but my experience with hundreds of different candidates (from all parts of the globe) tells me that people can problem solve.

The most common issue that candidates complain about is a “lack of time” for study. For a few individuals, their schedules are complete, and they struggle to find the time to study, answer practice questions, attend workshops, etc.

However, most CPHQ candidates merely have to adjust their schedules to dedicate some time to CPHQ exam preparation. Impossible? Certainly not. As the saying goes, “We never have enough time to do it right, but we always find time to do it over.”

Getting organized, disciplined, and determined is essential to a successful strategy.

Make It Short and Sweet

The duration of exam preparation is the interval between the time a candidate commits to be certified as a CPHQ (which we recommend the person documents somewhere and tells an important person in their life to promote accountability) to the time they pass the CPHQ exam. This interval does not begin when the candidate starts “thinking about” taking the exam. Exam preparation ends only if the outcome is a passing score on the actual CPHQ exam. There’s nothing sweeter than the taste of success.

But how “short” should exam preparation be for it to be “short and sweet”?

I encourage people to consider an exam preparation period of fewer than 100 days or about 14 weeks. One hundred days is, of course, an arbitrary figure. You could easily choose 120 days or 90 days instead, which will still be better than “as soon as possible” or “sometime later in the year.” Planning requires concrete numbers; you will be far more successful in completing your exam preparation promptly (and therefore be certified) if you give yourself a definite timeframe.

There is always a risk you give yourself too little time to do everything you need to do to prepare for the exam adequately. Setting yourself an unrealistically short timeframe will be counterproductive because you may not pass the exam and, as a result, will have to wait a further 90 days before your next attempt.

Preparing for the CPHQ exam is like going to war. Victory (passing the exam) is most likely with proper strategy and meticulous execution.

Suppose you view your preparation for the CPHQ exam as if you were getting ready for war (as some do). In that case, you may appreciate Sun Tzu’s wisdom about the speed at which we should conduct operations in his famous military treatise, The Art of War:

While speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish – if only because it means impoverishment to the nation.

We may err by attempting the CPHQ exam before being fully prepared. Still, it would be a more significant mistake to take too long before sitting the exam because, if nothing else, it would unnecessarily involve more resources (time, effort, money).

Balancing adequate time for exam preparation and brevity of the preparation period is critical; 90–99 days seem about right for most people.

Why Speed Matters

The sooner you get certified, the sooner you stop toiling for the exam, and the sooner you can reap the benefits of being a CPHQ. Getting certified as quickly as possible seems like common sense; however, if you had the chance to see the number of people who drag their feet over the exam, you’d have second thoughts.

Extending the exam preparation period beyond about 100 days carries at least the following risks:

  1. Forgetting what you’ve learned or read. Most adult learners find it hard to remember things they have studied or read, especially if the facts are unfamiliar or not part of their daily activities. You don’t need me to tell you that memory diminishes with time when left untested or neglected. The longer you prolong the exam preparation period, the greater the likelihood of you failing to recall what you’ve studied, read, or learned.
  2. Losing motivation. The longer it takes to realize results in any endeavor, the greater the likelihood that inspiration wanes. Quoting Sun Tzu in The Art of War again, “Victory is the main object of war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed.” (Passing the CPHQ exam is the primary goal of exam preparation. Undue delay in certification will diminish the effectiveness of what resources you employ and undermine your morale. I have witnessed this happening to several candidates who, for whatever reason, thought it was prudent to take as much time as possible to “study” for the exam.)
  3. Wasting resources. Unnecessary delays in sitting the exam will inevitably lessen any positive effect of resources, e.g. attendance at a workshop, reading a book, attempting sample questions. In addition, a prolonged preparation period will probably entail the use of more resources, which may or may not be helpful. This behavior is akin to shopping trips: the longer you stay in a supermarket, the more you buy, regardless of whether those things are essential.
  4. Exam failure. The combined effect of 13 is that you are less likely to pass the CPHQ exam. In our experience, persons who spend less than 100 days on exam preparation and make a decent effort will have roughly an 85% chance of passing the exam. This success rate falls to about 50% for those who spend between 100 and 180 days preparing for the exam. The pass rate among those who take longer than 180 days is even lower, somewhere around 30%.

Speed Alone Is Insufficient

While we firmly believe that CPHQ candidates should complete their exam preparation in less than 100 days, this view assumes the commitment to adopt the changes to bring about exam success. We do not recommend that candidates try to wing the exam, which has a meager success rate and has other negative consequences that most test takers do not consider.

Given a defined period (99 days or something else), the candidate should sit down to plan what they will do during that period, using project management principles and techniques. In particular, creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) can be extremely rewarding.

The strategies and tactics you employ during the exam preparation period (beyond this article) are other significant determinants of exam success; a speedy period alone is insufficient.


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