Beyond the BCBA Study Guide: Exam Success Strategies

You’ve earned your degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). You loved working with kids during your field placements. And you want a job where you can make a positive difference. You’re a prime candidate to be a school-based Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®). 

Female school-based therapist consults BCBA study guide on her laptop computer while studying for certification exam.But to get your BCBA certification, you’ll have to pass the test!

Online chatter about the BCBA exam tends to focus on its first-time pass rate (which has hovered between 60%-65% for the last few years) and the way it makes candidates feel frantic and frustrated. 

Loren Gentile, Director of Behavioral Health at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), can relate. “The fear of not passing the test terrified me more than anything,” she remembers.

And she agrees the exam is formidable. “The test itself is four hours,” she says, “but all the prep is long and draining, as the content areas contain hundreds of terms and principles.”

But Loren wants aspiring BCBAs to know the test doesn’t have to be panic-inducing.

By focusing on more than just the factual content in your BCBA study guide, you can develop a mission plan and mindset for acing the exam!

Five Keys to Successfully Passing the BCBA Examination 

Here are Loren’s top five tips for passing the exam to get your BCBA certification:

1. Know the content areas.

Test success doesn’t end with knowing the content—but it starts there! So do thoroughly familiarize yourself with each content area on the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Task List.

The test asks 160 questions—150 graded questions and 10 ungraded “pilot” ones (you won’t know which are which)—drawn from these 11 content areas:

    • Female Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) sits on floor across from male elementary school student on therapy cushion.Measurement
    • Experimental design
    • Behavior-Change Considerations
    • Fundamental Elements of Behavior Change
    • Specific Behavior-Change Procedures
    • Behavior-Change Systems
    • Identification of the Problem
    • Measurement
    • Assessment
    • Intervention
    • Implementation, Management, and Supervision

What are the best ways to master these content areas?

    • Learn the language.
      Getting behavioral therapy’s terms down cold goes a long way toward test success. BDS (Behavior Development Solutions) offers a great series of practice quizzes to help you become fluent. You can use them as a BCBA study guide.
    • Practice as much as possible.
      You want to build capacity and familiarity with all terms and definitions so they become second nature. Creating your own flashcards is one proven tactic. I found downloading and using “on the go” quiz apps worked best because they let me practice on my lunch break at work, in traffic, or during any downtime.
    • Focus on “chunking” information and finding practical examples.
      Chunking” or “clustering” information you want to master can make the process more efficient. Drawing examples from your daily work can cement your understanding of why that information matters in applied behavior analysis. Chunking will help you make relevant connections that are sure to stick!
    • Dedicate extra time to ethics.
      Everyone says this area is tricky on the test, but it truly is. You are choosing the best response—not always the correct one. Understand the ethical guidelines inside and out so you can readily apply them to various scenarios on the exam.

Female school-based Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) sits on a student’s desk in an empty classroom, holding books.

2. Make a study plan and stick to it.

Find a plan that works, then work your plan! Create a study calendar, for instance, blocking off specific study time each day. And I recommend taking at least two mock exams prior to the real thing, so plan your study time accordingly. Florida Tech has a really great exam you can register for multiple times per month.

3. Give yourself frequent pep talks!

The BCBA exam is a test of endurance! It’s tempting to cram as much as you can into a single study session, but that’s a good way to burn out. Tell yourself over and over again, “Slow and steady wins the race!”

4. Give yourself permission to fail.

My opinion on this point may not be popular, but it was a realistic possibility I had to face. The mere possibility of failing creates doubt within yourself as to whether this profession is right for you, and makes you feel inadequate among your peers. And the thought of repeating all those hours with a BCBA study guide makes a person legit want to throw in the towel! The sooner you acknowledge and release the fear, the more relaxed and focused on the test you can be.

5. Develop a test strategy before you take the exam.

Don’t wait until you arrive at the testing center. Making some key decisions beforehand can keep you calm and confident. Some top tactics include:

    • Female school-based Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) kneels next to and smiles at high school student who sits at her desk.Read all the questions first. 
      Go ahead and answer the ones you’re 100% confident about. Then you’ll have enough time left to revisit the rest.
    • NEVER leave a question blank. 
      A blank question is automatically marked incorrect. Even if you have absolutely no idea, take a guess. You’re giving yourself a 25% chance of getting it right!
    • Take breaks when you need them. 
      The test is LONG. Sometimes just stepping away for a moment can help you refocus.
    • Trust your gut. 
      Use your acquired knowledge and how you’ve applied it in the field. You may be one of the many test takers already applying ABA principles in the field every day. Rely on that experience and believe in yourself!

Find Your Perfect Place in the Behavior Analyst Market with PTS

Passing your exam is only one step in getting your BCBA certification, but it’s a big one! As you work hard to get ready for the test though, let this thought encourage you: You’re choosing a great time to earn this credential. 

Demand for behavior analysts is on the rise. In 2010, about 1,000 job postings required the BACB certification. By 2017, just under 8,000 did. And with a projected 14% increase in psychology jobs overall through 2028—much faster than average—there’s no better time to meet the requirements and get your BCBA certification.

If you want to work with an agency that will help you find the ideal placement where you can do the most good for kids while building a rewarding professional career, be sure to connect with us at PTS. Browse our currently open opportunities today.

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