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Wednesday, 27 May 2020 10:49

Five Crossword Tricks to Help Pass Certification Exams

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I love to complete crossword puzzles. More than a pastime, they are more like an addiction for me.

At any one time I have 3-4 different puzzles in progress, of varying levels. I am no expert, but I have learned a few techniques that surprisingly matches advice I have given over the years to help candidates pass their certification exams.

You see, it helps to approach your exam like a puzzle. Why is that? The “puzzle” creators, the certification exam writers, devise tricky and challenging questions like a crossword editor does. They are difficult because the exam writers want to test your knowledge of business analysis, project management, agile, security or whatever your certification interest. I think it will be helpful to treat your exam like a puzzle to help get in the right mind frame.

To that end, I have developed a few tricks over the years to help me solve crossword puzzles. Here are five of my best tricks and an explanation of how they apply to cert exams.

  • Skip over hard answers – work the easy ones first. No matter how easy or difficult a puzzle I work on, there are always some clues and sections that are easier than others. Use those to help answer harder ones and to build confidence. Leave answers blank you are unsure of and only lightly pencil in those you are partly sure of.

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Skip hard questions and leave them blank the first or second time through your exam. Exam creators like to devilishly put hard questions near the beginning to test your meddle. It is easy to spend 10 or more minutes on early difficult questions, which leaves you that much less time for the remainder. Skip them! From my own and others’ experience, difficult questions are easier the 2nd or 3rd time through.

  • Rely on patterns to figure out answers you are unsure of. When I am uncertain of a crossword answer, I find it helpful to look at surrounding words and letters for clues. In English, certain letter combinations are more common and others will not occur at all. For example, if a word ends in “K,” odds are the preceding letter is an A, E, C, L, N, R, or S.

CERTIFICATION: APPLICATION: Look for distracters (e.g., oxymorons like “assumption constraint”) to spot incorrect answers. Look for answers that have 3 commonalities between them and one that does not (odds are good that is the correct answer, but not always.) Wording from one question can help you with others (this happened on every certification exam I took).


  • Make sure you understand the correct meaning of a question. Clever crossword editors use clues that could have several meanings depending on how you interpret them. For instance, a simple clue of “Free” on a puzzle I just finished could mean the verb “to free” or the noun “to be free”. It could be free of cost, free of constraint, or carefree, such as “free and easy.”

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Just like clever crossword editors, clever exam writers try similar tricks to make you think and not just recall. For instance, suppose you encountered a question that makes common sense but contradicts your body of knowledge. Once example I remember from my PMP preparation had to do with paying bribes to get a project approved in a foreign country where that was common practice. That option would not be the correct answer because it violates the PM Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®).

  • Use multiple iterations to complete your answers. I have heard of expert puzzlers who complete the Sunday New York Times in one sitting (in ink no less). Most people cannot do this and on difficult puzzles I need several attempts to complete it and I always use a pencil!

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Unless you are an expert test taker, expect to do two or three iterations of reading through and answering questions on your exam. If you follow rule #1, you should leave blank every hard answer on your first read-through. You should also flag any questions you are partly sure of as mentioned in rule #2. From observations in teaching numerous certification classes I know the importance of this. After practice exams in class, many students reported they changed an answer or two only to discover their first one was correct. Do not let this to happen to you on your exam! Leave answers blank until you are sure of them.

  • Use your best guess if you must. Sometimes I will write down a crossword answer even if I am not sure of it. I do this more often near the end of a puzzle to help me with adjacent answers. Confession: I have been known to fill in words to complete a puzzle just so I can finish it and move on.

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: If your time is nearly up and you have unanswered questions, by all means use your best guess. There is no penalty for guessing, only for not answering a question. Try to pace yourself so you have time to make an educated guess. If you are seriously close to the end, put down any answer. In other words, like a crossword, go with those “lightly penciled in” answers. One of my students early on told me an urban myth that answer “b” occurs most often in exams. I am not sure if that is true but putting answer “b” on say five blank answers probably ensures you get one or two of them correct.

I have worked with certification preparation and exam strategies for many years, including training countless candidates. One common denominator among virtually all my students has been exam anxiety. We all face it and there is more than one approach to combatting it.

Treating an exam like a puzzle is one approach to reducing exam anxiety by providing strategies for navigating difficult questions on your exam. Using crossword tricks like the ones outlined above can help reduce your exam anxiety and improve your score. Let me know what you think and share your own tricks that have worked.

Richard Larson

Richard Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA, Founder and former President of Watermark Learning, Richard Larson is a successful entrepreneur with over 35 years of experience in business analysis, project management, training, and consulting. He has presented workshops and seminars on BA and PM topics to over 10,000 participants on five different continents. Rich is a frequent speaker at Business Analysis and Project Management national conferences and IIBA® and PMI® chapters around the world. He has contributed to the BA Body of Knowledge version 2.0 and 3.0, was a lead author for the Needs Assessment chapter of the PMI publication Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide, and was an author of the PM Body of Knowledge, 4th edition. He and his wife Elizabeth Larson have co-authored five books on business analysis.

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