ISTQB Series – Part 4: How to Prepare for the ISTQB Certification Exam

In the previous parts of the series, you could learn about ISTQB and its certification scheme, my view on certifications through the eyes of an employee and employer's eyes. If the articles have moved you to the decision to take the certification exam for any of the modules of the ISTQB certification scheme, you will find the summary of the exam rules and tips that will increase the likelihood of passing the exam useful.

The basic rules for the exam

The ISTQB exam has different lengths for different modules, ranging from 60 minutes for the basic level (for 40 questions) to 180 minutes (for 65 questions) for the Test Manager module at the advanced level. In case of taking the exam in a language other than the native language, the candidate is entitled to a time bonus of 25%. Detailed information on exam lengths and other areas related to the exam can be found on the CaSTB website.

Success in the examination is conditional on obtaining at least 65% of the marks. The cost of taking the exam is between €120 and €200, or between 3,000 CZK and 5,000 CZK.

How to prepare for the exam

A pass mark of 65% may give the impression that the ISTQB exam is an "easy" exam. Don't let the relatively low bar fool you! Worldwide, 50-80% of candidates pass the exam, depending on the module and region. How to prepare for it?

  • Read the syllabus text carefully (downloadable from the Castb website) - underline the essential information, note down words or phrases you don't understand and look up explanations on the internet or in the literature.
  • Revisit the 'mock' practice tests (3 sample tests available to download on the Castb website)––an important part of your preparation to familiarise yourself with the logic of the questions and the different answer choices.

  • For a flawless understanding of the official terminology, it is beneficial to go through the glossary of terms for the sub-concepts listed in the Keywords section at the beginning of each chapter of the syllabus.

  • If you are new to testing, completing an accredited course will significantly increase your chances of passing the entry-level exam. More senior test takers have a decent chance of succeeding on the entry-level exam even without a course. For the advanced level, I would already recommend the accredited course to everyone - it will provide you with information useful for the exam and for practice.

Tips for the actual exam

Let's now move to the room in which the exam (whether face-to-face or online) takes place. What to remember?

  • Arrive at the exam well in advance, walk to the toilet calmly, and don't increase your stress by studying "until the last minute".

  • Prepare a pencil, ideally a regular pencil with an eraser, a few blank papers for calculation aids (you will be given these by the examiner for the face-to-face exam), or a dictionary if you are taking the exam in a foreign language.

  • Remember that the ISTQB exam is all about the theory of correct procedures according to the ISTQB methodology, which may not be the same as how you practice. Many questions are about an unerring knowledge of the terminology given in the ISTQB syllabus or glossary, which is somewhere different from the established terminology in practice.

  • Some questions may be ambiguous or ask which alternative is best or worst––select the best answer according to the basic principles of testing (see the Certified Basic Level Tester curriculum).

  • When considering the correct answer, always base your decision only on the information in the assignment––never make additional assumptions that are not in the assignment.

  • Read the questions carefully––make sure you understand the question before deciding on an answer.

  • You can write/underline in the question sheets (for paper-based exams). Read the question paper carefully and underline the relevant passages (verbs defining the question, parts defining the correct question, e.g. "at the system level", adjectives relevant to the meaning of "most/least", negative phrasing...).

  • Cross out obviously nonsensical answers and circle the correct answers in the assignment (will be useful in the final check).

  • Make a note of the questions you want to return to.

  • Be careful with negatively worded (e.g. '...not ...' or '...unlikely ...') and difficult questions. If the question asks which option is wrong (or right), mark them with T (true) or F (false) first, then you can more easily see which does not fit in with the others.

  • In case all the answers seem comparably right/wrong to you, take a guess! Negative points are not awarded; you still have a chance of guessing correctly.

  • Watch the time limit. If it takes a long time to think about a question and deduce the correct answer, skip it and come back to it later.

We're coming up to the finals. What to do before submitting?

  • If you're tempted to change your answer, do so only if you're absolutely sure; if you're not sure, it's usually better to let your first instinct guide you.

  • Make sure you have ticked the boxes for all the questions on the record sheet. The online exam software will usually highlight unanswered questions.

  • Double-check that you have marked the letter of the answer (so it is a good idea to circle the 'correct' answer on the record sheet as well) that you want and have it on the correct line (especially if you have skipped a question and come back to it).

Good luck with the exam!

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Author: Miroslav Renda

Mirek has been working in various project roles in the IT business for more than 25 years. For the last 8 years he has enjoyed interesting projects in large Czech banks and in the automotive industry as a test manager. He is a co-author of the book Effective Software Testing published by GRADA. He loves his two children, nature, and sports in any form.