Knowing how to prepare for the CPC exam and having an effective strategy for taking the exam is just as important as your medical knowledge and coding skills. There are a number of things you can do to make sure you pass on the first try.
Make sure you understand what will be included on the exam. There are 150 multiple choice questions that are broken down into roughly fifteen sections including medical terminology, pathology, anesthesia, etc. To pass, you need to achieve 70% overall (not 70% in each section). Also, make sure you understand basic coding concepts including who develops, maintains and updates CPT, ICD-9 and HCPCS and that you have a general understanding of HIPAA, reimbursement rules, CMS guidelines and audit procedures.
Plan your time. The fact that you have five hours and forty minutes to complete the exam does not mean you set aside two minutes, fifteen seconds for each question. Some questions will take much longer while there will be others you can answer on the spot. Answering the questions you know on your first pass, then going back for the harder ones, is always a good strategy.
Prepare your manuals. The CPC exam is open book (with an approved CPT, ICD-9 and HCPCS manual). If through your studies, you have not learned how to mark up your books with important notes, guidelines, reminders or use the “bubbling and highlighting” strategy, make sure you do so. Use tabs to help you locate certain sections in your manuals. You can also mark up your answer sheet such as crossing out wrong answers and marking questions you plan to answer later.
Learn how to remain calm and focused. Here are common mistakes that happen under pressure (and what you can do about them):
Choosing the wrong answer when you know the right one. This happens a lot so always double check. And be very careful when marking the answer grid.
Not understanding the question. Read each question and scenario carefully and look for key words to help you find the proper code or answer. And be aware, for example, that a scenario that talks about a 52-year old man doesn’t always mean that age or gender will be a factor in choosing the correct code.
Leaving a question blank. Even though you’re not sure, make your best guess. You have a 25% chance of getting it right.
Getting tense and losing focus. It’s a great idea to take deep breaths on a regular basis and it’s OK to lean back in your chair and close your eyes for a few moments to recharge.
Dreading a part of the exam. It’s important to note that even though you feel that there is a section (topic) that is a weak point for you, the questions in that section may come easy.
Look up the answers (codes) first for surgery questions. At first, this may seem an odd approach but it works well for specific coding questions, Rather than reading the scenario word for word, looking up the codes first allows you to eliminate one or more of the wrong answers. Then you can go back and ascertain the right answer.
Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good, light breakfast. Cramming the night before may do more harm than good. A good breakfast is important and you can bring water, snacks or candy (cinnamon disks are great for staying alert!) to the testing location.
Passing the CPC exam on the first try is within reach if you fully prepare for the exam and know how to make the best use of your time.
Dale A Schmidt is a medical professional and educator who lives in Bellingham, WA. He specializes in medical coding for physician based practices.