I’ve always been a good test-taker. I was a model student with great grades in K – 12 schooling and beyond. I also spent almost two years full-time teaching students how to raise their scores on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, PSAT, and HSPT. I know tests and test-taking! Still, I put off my SPC exam until I only had a few days remaining. I can clearly remember crossing my fingers, holding my breath, and clicking the submit button, eyes intent on the screen … “You passed!” Commence happy dance.
Yet my journey to being Certified SAFe® started long before that happy day. To get there, I applied the same guidelines that I used with my former students.
Know your exam
You first must know what it is that you must conquer. You need to know the style of the exam, the number of questions, how much time you have to complete the whole exam, the average time per question, the passing score, and the rules of the exam. You can find all of the information you need on our certification webpages.
Know the exam content
To be Certified SAFe means you have “the skills, knowledge, and experience required to successfully perform the job in a SAFe working environment.” This means that if you pass the Product Owner/Product Manager exam, you’re showing that you can successfully perform the role of a SAFe Product Owner on the job. That’s a high bar, and it’s powerful! It’s no wonder that simply attending the course doesn’t cut it. That’s right, attending the class does not equal an exam pass at Scaled Agile. Here are a few ways to get to know exam content outside of being an engaged and willing participant during your course.
Step 1: Study SAFe materials.
Review the course slides and your notes after the class. Crack open your Learning Plan, download the study guide provided, and read through it. There you’ll find some suggested reading, the majority of which can be found on the Scaled Agile Framework website. Start with topics that you intuitively know you don’t understand very well. For me, I automatically knew I was not as strong in topics dealing with the portfolio level because I don’t participate in portfolio events, so I read the Lean Portfolio Management and Value Streams articles.
Step 2: Target your weaknesses.
To make the best use of your time, you need to target not only your perceived weaknesses but your objective weaknesses. One of the best ways to do that is by taking the practice test in the same conditions that you’ll take the certification exam. For SAFe 5.0 exams, you can see exactly which questions you got wrong. I know a few people who like to take the practice test again and again and again until they get above a 90 percent. I recommend using the practice test as an assessment tool, not as something to memorize, because your real exam won’t have the same questions. Focus instead on concepts. Make sure that you’ve clarified all the terms and content that you felt shaky on in the practice test.
Step 3: Engage creatively with the content.
So now you need to try to learn the material you’re weakest in; reading the articles over and over again isn’t going to cut it. These were my favorite ways to study:
- Explain the SAFe Big Picture to someone. If you’re familiar with all of the icons on the Big Picture and can explain it well, you’re in good shape.
- Build a case study. Use a real company, your company, or a fictitious company and try to apply some of the abstract concepts that you’re struggling with. When I was studying for the SPC exam, I made up a fake company called Lib’s Lemonade. I outlined its strategic themes and objectives and key results (OKRs). I made a Lean business case for a proposed product. I attempted to map the company’s value streams. Bonus points if you share it with someone else who is knowledgeable in SAFe and who can check for correctness.
- Look at your work through the SAFe lens. What matches with the Framework? What doesn’t? Does your team write stories using user-story voice? Do you really use the IP iteration for innovation and planning? Does your team have WIP limits on its Kanban board? Do you have a scrum master? What would it be like if your company did things differently? Have a conversation with a coworker about these discrepancies. Better yet, if you have some influence, make some of these changes. Or shadow and learn from someone else in your company who works in the same role for which you took the course.
Take the exam
The only thing left to do is bite the bullet and take the exam. Make sure to take your exam within the deadline and ensure you have the time, space, internet connection, and quiet to focus on the test. The countdown clock at the top of the screen will help you keep track of the time. Make sure to read each question carefully and review your answers before submitting. Only change your answer when you know with certainty that your other answer was a mistake. Changing your answer based on a whim is a bad idea. Here are some of my other favorite tips:
- Use the process of elimination. Sometimes when you read the question, you won’t be sure what the correct answer is. But chances are you’ll know that some answers are incorrect. Eliminate them and don’t look at them again. This will free up your working memory to focus on the final two or three options remaining.
- Prime your mind. The power of association is strong. And according to this study, the sense of smell most strongly recalls memory. So, if you chew mint gum while studying for your SAFe exam at the desk in your home office at night, research shows that you’ll be better primed to do well on the exam if you chew mint gum while taking your SAFe exam at the desk in your home office at night. Some people use a scented perfume, lotion, or lip balm to elicit the same effect. And as long as you were in a good headspace while studying, you’ll likely be in a good headspace while taking the exam.
- Calm your nerves. Many people have test anxiety. Knowing what to expect for the exam can help significantly. Being confident from knowing that you studied the content can ease your nerves. Keeping in mind that you are well-prepared always helps. If worse comes to worst, and you don’t pass the exam on the first try, knowing that you can take the exam again and pass can be a comforting feeling.
Pass the exam
All of us at Scaled Agile welcome you with open arms into the Certified SAFe community. Certifying is a big deal! You worked hard, so be proud of your amazing accomplishment. Show off your certification with a digital badge. Brag about it on LinkedIn. Most importantly, know that by applying the tools, techniques, and mindsets you learned in your course, you’re contributing to the success of every organization you work with.