10 Tips to Pass the CISA Exam

14 Tips To Pass The CISA Exam

R Bhargav

Last updated November 22, 2016


So you’ve decided you need a CISA Certification. Chances are you’ve familiarized yourself with the CISA certification process with our article on the certification. But what’s next on the agenda?

This compilation of tips for CISA aspirants is intended to help you plan your next moves carefully: read on to find out how best to deal with this quirky exam, dos and don’ts for success first time out, and important points to keep in mind before taking the plunge!

At The Outset: Why The CISA?

As the world of IS auditing continues to grow and expand at breakneck speed, the demand for IS auditors and security professionals has increased manifold. With recent developments in the industry, the scope for CISA certified professionals has broadened, encouraging a host of security professionals to take up the CISA exam.
The demand for CISA certification holders has followed an upward trend in the last few years.

Most of the central banks and financial institutes across the globe have started hiring CISA certified professionals for effective security assessments.  And with this comes the attendant rise in monetary compensation: certified CISAs earn among the highest salaries in the IT Security domain, and the IT sector in general.

What Makes The CISA Exam and the Attendant Certification Process Difficult?

As one of the toughest exams in the IT Security domain, the CISA exam is notorious for being difficult to pass and as having a low pass-rate. Although ISACA, the body administering the exam, has stopped publishing information about pass-rates in recent years, feedback from both successful and unsuccessful CISA candidates suggests the pass-rate hovers around the 40-50% mark.

But the question remains: Why is the CISA seem like such a tough nut to crack? Here’s a few reasons why:

  1. The CISA is a paper-based test. Unlike most vendor-specific professional certification exams, CISA’s conventional nature means candidates with little to no experience taking paper-based exams are caught out.
  2. There are no official educational requirements to be able to take the CISA exam, meaning casual candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds register for the exam, creating artificial competition.
  3. The questions on the CISA exam are often ambiguous and subjective, and many candidates complain sample questions offered by ISACA are vague and not relevant to the standards on the actual written exam.
  4. Emphasis on rote learning and memory. A common complaint is that questions on the CISA exam involve recollection of nomenclature and terminology from the IT Security syllabus.

Why Is The Rate Of Failure Higher On The CISA Exam Compared To Other IS Certifications?

While the exam is less difficult than it is commonly perceived to be, thousands of candidates fail to clear the exam on their first attempt. Experts point to a number of reasons for this -  

  • Students with a technical or technological background often grapple with governance and auditing concepts. While technical knowhow is important, the ability to audit and manage IT Security processes is a must for the CISA exam.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, aspirants from audit and accounting backgrounds are excellent in these areas, but struggle with the technical aspects of the exam. Students from such backgrounds would need to understand the concepts and core objectives of the curriculum.
  • Many experienced students insist upon following their own approach to tackling difficult questions and scenarios on the CISA exam, eschewing the standard approach prescribed by ISACA.

All Right. So How Do I Prepare for the CISA Exam?

On to the tips themselves, now. Here are the most-important points to keep in mind before commencing preparation for the CISA exam!

1.    Study The CRM Religiously

ISACA offers the CISA Review Manual (CRM) that serves as the one-stop guide for the CISA exam. It is a comprehensive reference tome that is designed to guide candidates for the CISA exam, and provides all the details related to the CISA exam, as well as defining the roles and responsibilities of an information systems auditor. Overall, this manual is the best self-study guide for CISA aspirants, and it is recommended that serious aspirants complete a minimum of two readings of the CISA Review Manual to be in best shape for the exam.

2. Digest The CISA Review Questions Database

Practicing review questions thoroughly is mandatory for this exam. ISACA’s Review Questions Database is a comprehensive online resource of practice questions, answers, and explanations. 12-month access to the Database is available at $185 (for members) and $225 (for non-members). Get it here.

Aspirants can use the sample questions and answers to understand difficult concepts and areas and improve the level of their CISA exam prep. These review questions and answers are designed to offer an overview of the CISA exam. The Review Questions And Answers Database is kept updated to keep pace with the changing world of Security auditing.

3. Think Like An Accountant:

The nature of the exam calls for aspirants to think like an IT auditor or even an accountant, not an exam-taker: because the emphasis is upon real-world applications, sharpening your decision-making skills by tackling hypothetical problem scenarios and learning to manage, evaluate, and prioritize multiple tasks well will pay dividends.

4. Take Advantage Of ISACA’s Free Resources:

ISACA’s website offers a great collection of helpful free resources for preparants. Here are links to a few - 

  • The Information Security Audit And Assurance Guide. Available here.
  • The ISACA Candidate Information Guide. Available here.
  • ISACA’s CISA self-assessment test, available here.
  • ISACA’s database of free-to-download whitepapers, accessible here.

In addition, Simplilearn has a plethora of interesting, informative, and insightful resources on IT Security: dive right in to take advantage of our open library here!

5.    Put CISA Blogs and Articles On Your To-Read List

Besides the CRM and CISA CDs, candidates should also visit other CISA blogs and articles available online to get better insights into CISA exam prep. Apart from sharing invaluable insights from the world of IT Security that may help aspirants tackle CISA questions from recently-updated knowledge areas, blogs maintained by regular contributors are also platforms where news and updates about the CISA exam are likely to first break.

Here are some great blogs to bookmark and follow as you prepare:

ISACA’s Blogs: For information, tips, and tricks from the horse’s mouth!

Risk3Sixty: Maintained by a couple of IT auditors with extensive experience, Risk3Sixty is aimed at professionals working in the IT Security Auditing space. The blog covers several day-to-day issues and challenges you can expect to face as a certified CISA auditor, and will help you settle into the auditing mindset.

6. Practical IS Audit Experience

For a hassle-free CISA certification experience, gaining practical, hands-on work experience in the IT Security domain can be immensely helpful. Although similar to financial and resource audits, IT audits have a very different scope, and deal primarily with information. An aspirant should have a fair idea of business processes, audit scope definition, audit planning, and reporting in industry.

Even a little exposure to IT Sec processes can help: where and when practicable, seek out IT auditing professionals or the IT Security department at your current organization to familiarize yourself with the roles, responsibilities, and daily activities of CISA and other Security positions.

7. Plan Your Preparation In Advance

Managing study hours and allocation of time by subject areas is essential to achieve success in the CISA exam. If you are a working professional, planning for the examination 3-4 months before the examination would be ideal. Aim at dedicating at least 1-2 hours for study on a regular basis.

In addition, it is recommended that you tailor your preparation and study-plan to your professional background and level of experience, as follows:

8. Optimal Division Of Prep Time:

According to CISA exam prep coaches, spending 35-45% of your time on the manual, 15-20% on coaching, and another 35-40% on simulation exams and practice tests would be an optimal utilization of available prep time.

9. Adaptability: Keep An Open Mind

In the context of the CISA, one of the best pieces of advice for anyone to take away would be this: unlearning what has been learned is almost as important as learning fresh content. The ITS industry is dynamic and ever-changing and, consequently, so are IS auditing principles and techniques.

When preparing for and writing the CISA exam, it is important to keep an open-mind that is receptive to new and innovative ideas, and a neutral stance on developments that appear to go against the norm. The CISA manual is kept up-to-date with all such changes, so following the resource religiously would be a welcome first step in this regard.

10. Managing The CISA Question Paper

As with many competitive exams, success on the CISA is a also a function of how well and efficiently you manage the paper itself: a common theme among unsuccessful aspirants is a lack of time to complete the exam, which results from mismanaging the question paper. By reviewing the previous years’ question papers and mock-test questions, you should devise a plan-of-attack with estimates on the amount of time to be expended on each question and subject area so as to cover the paper fully.

After all, a successful CISA is expected to think on their feet to take quick, effective decisions: managing the CISA paper to maximize your score is perhaps the first step in your journey!

11. Join CISA Groups And Forums

Participants can join CISA groups and forums to interact with other CISA aspirants and past CISA participants. There are several discussion forums on CISA certification on the web. Such platforms can provide both theoretical and practical knowledge on IS auditing and help improve the candidate’s grasp of the concepts and their real-world application.

At Simplilearn, we host a lively discussion forum of our own where industry experts, CISA professionals, and aspirants meet to engage in constructive debate and knowledge sharing. Come join the discussion here!

12. Explore The CISA CDs And e-Learning Material

Although a portion of the CISA syllabus calls for rote memorization, acquiring a degree of proficiency and fluency with the concepts of IT Security necessitates a thorough grounding in subject matter areas. And this is where CISA’s knowledge bank CDs come into their own.

Presented in an easy-to-assimilate, storyboard format, ISACA’s electronic material is available on CD-ROMs, and may be purchased from the ISACA e-store. For best results, candidates should also look to acquire previous years’ CISA CDs, as well as the mock-exam generator that is shipped with CDs.

13. CISA Certification Training Courses

Many accredited organizations offer CISA certification training courses online and in-house. Enrolment and participation in a well-structured and comprehensive training course is highly recommended: when done right, a training course entails classroom discussions, interactions with other experienced Security professionals from across the globe, and significant knowledge-transfer –invaluable stepping stones to a CISA aspirant’s success on the exam!

As the world’s leading professional certification training provider, Simplilearn has a network is a leading training organization that offers CISA certification training via a unique blended model approach that includes CISA classroom and CISA online training courses.
CISA Certification
ISACA also offers review courses for candidates who have enrolled for the exam. If you feel learning independently is a tough ask given your professional and\or personal commitments, you may wish to consider attending a review course offered by your closest ISACA Chapter. For more information, visit ISACA’s page on their Chapters and their geographic distribution here.

Here is a 20 minute preview of Simplilearn’s CISA training course! 

14. Brush Up Your Verbal Reasoning Skills

For candidates who have to take the CISA exam in a language other than their first-language, several questions on the exam may seem daunting. Open-ended, case-study based MCQs are generally presented with subjective choices that call for verbal reasoning to deduce expectations and arrive at the right set of answers. If you feel your VR skills are poor or not quite up to the mark, some training before you take the CISA exam will prove beneficial.

It also recommended to download ISACA’s CISA Glossary Of Terms to acquire familiarity with IT Sec technical terms in English as well as acronyms applicable to the CISA exam.

In Closing

Although a difficult exam, with proper planning, hard-work, and the right guidance, clearing the exam on your first attempt is far from being an impossible ask. If you’ve followed the tips presented in this article and devise a study-plan customized to your own, unique needs, cracking the exam is almost a given.

And once you’ve made it as a CISA, don’t forget to let us know: your success story stands a great chance of being featured on this blog!

About the Author

An experienced process analyst at Simplilearn, the author specializes in adapting current quality management best practices to the needs of fast-paced digital businesses. An MS in MechEng with over seven years of professional experience in various domains, Bhargav was previously associated with Paradox Interactive, The Creative Assembly, and Mott MacDonald LLC.


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