How do I study for a certification exam? Do I need to pay for a review course? What are some good study resources to prepare? These are just a few of the questions I asked when I was preparing for my first certification exam, and that I have subsequently been asked by other professionals beginning their journal to certification. Here is what I have learned through the years as someone who has been successful with many certifications and actively is involved in preparing others to be successful.
Question: Do I need to pay for a review course?
Absolutely NOT! Many people can be and are successful at passing exams like the ASP, CSP, CIH, and CHMM without having gone through a review course. My first professional certification was the CHMM, and I studied for that exam without a review course. So the answer to the question is more about you and what you think you need to prepare. The nice thing about a review course is that it gives you some structure for your studying and can also expose you to subject matter that you may not have been familiar with beforehand. This is the reason I took review courses for the ASP/CSP, the CIH, the CHP, and the CPP exams: I really had very little clue as to what to expect from the exam. The review course laid out the structure for what I should focus on and I also found very useful tips and tricks provided through the various courses I completed. I’ll also say that having incurred the cost (or having my company pay for) a review course also made things seem a bit more “real” to me and encouraged me to study hard so that I didn’t feel like I was wasting their or my money.
Question: How do I study for a professional certification?
Start with the exam blueprint. Every legitimate professional certification in the safety, health, and security arena provides an exam blueprint that breaks the exam down into different domains and tells you what skills will be evaluated and what percent of the exam will cover that particular domain. The exam blueprint is an invaluable resource to start guiding you on your exam preparation journey. Next, identify and get study resources that you think will help you be successful on the exam (more details on this in the next section). After this, submit the application packet. One of the leading reasons people don’t successfully become certified isn’t because the exams are super hard, but instead its because they never actually take the steps to begin the process. So fill out the application, pay the fee, and make it “real” that you are going to do this. Next, and I think this is super important for anyone with a busy professional and personal life, set an appointment with yourself to study. I know there is a lot of things that are whole lot more fun than cracking open a CSP study guide and working through practice problems. If you don’t set an appointment with yourself on the calendar and block out time dedicated to studying, I can almost guarantee that you will find other things to occupy your time. For me, I used my Outlook calendar and set appointments where I was studying. This helped to prevent me from having other things get scheduled and allowed me to prioritize my time studying. Finally, you need to schedule the exam. Don’t wait until you think you know everything on the exam. You don’t need to know everything to pass the exam, and the people who write the exam don’t expect you to know the answer to every question. So don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: schedule the exam so you’ve got a deadline looming in front of you to help push you to prepare!
Question: What are some good study resources to prepare?
I recommend at least two things: one good study reference textbook and one source of practice problems. Below I have listed the textbooks I used for each exam and that I recommend.
(Notice: I do not receive any sort of compensation for these recommendations and this list is based purely on what I used and my experience with these books).
- Safety & Health for Engineers (2nd or 3rd Edition) by Dr. Roger. L. Brauer , or
- Safety Professional’s Reference and Study Guide by David Yates
If you need help with any of the ASP/CSP equations, then I recommend:
- Occupational Safety Calculations: A Professional Reference (2nd or 3rd Edition) by Stewart et al., or
- CSP Exam Equations simply explained and with examples by Dr. Daniel Farcas
- TLV s and BEIs Guidebook by ACGIH (you don’t need the most recent edition; read all of the narrative; don’t memorize tables), and
- A comprehensive IH text such as:
- Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene by Barbara A. Plog, or
- The Occupational Environment: Its Evaluation, Control, and Management edited by Salvatore DiNardi
If you need help with any of the CIH equations, then I recommend:
- Industrial-Occupational Hygiene Calculations: A Professional Reference (3rd edition) by Stewart et al., or
- CIH Exam Equations simply explained and with examples by Dr. Daniel Farcas
- Managing Hazardous Materials (Revised or 3rd Edition), by the IHMM, or
- Hazardous Materials Desk Reference, 3rd Edition, by the AHMP
These two texts by Joseph John Bevelacqua:
- Basic Health Physics: Problems and Solutions, and
- Contemporary Health Physics: Problems and Solutions
- The Complete Guide for CPP Examination Preparation, by Anthony V. DiSalvatore
For sources of study questions, I used software such as Datachem and Span, I signed up for free weekly study questions through Bowen EHS, I used end-of-chapter questions found in the above textbooks, and then for the exams where I used a review course, those review courses often offered access to large repositories of study questions to work through. When doing practice problems, always remember to focus on the principles behind the questions; don’t waste your time memorizing specific questions and their answers. Remember how to solve a problem and why you answered it the way that you did.
If there are things you struggle with or have difficulty remembering, make some flashcards. I strongly discourage people from buying pre-made flashcards. Part of the learning process is creating the flashcards, so by buying pre-made flashcards you’re missing out on part of the benefit. Also, the pre-made flashcards I have seen that you can purchase are terrible and not worth the paper they are printed on (cough Mometrix cough).
William J. Pate, DrPH, MBA, CHP, CIH, CSP, CHMM
Dr. Pate has over 10 years of environmental health and safety experience in academic, research and healthcare settings in both the public and private sectors. Dr. Pate's EHS experience has ranged from collection and management of radioactive, chemical, and biologic waste streams for a major research university to management of a comprehensive EHS program for a large multi-facility health system. Dr. Pate has been responsible for the development and delivery of a variety of EHS training topics, and his goal is to assist Bowen EHS clients in achieving their professional development goals. Outside of work, Dr. Pate enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.
Read more from Dr. Pate on his blog: Unsafe Musings of a Safety Professional
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Bowen EHS.