CPC Exam: General Preparation and Test Strategies

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At CCO, we have a formula for success that the Help Desk staff shares daily, probably at least a dozen times and it’s a pretty simple formula but it works. If you follow it, we really feel that you will pass the next time you sit for the exam. What ends up happening, when people come to us and say, “I didn’t pass” and they need to take, what we call a retake strategy call, and Alicia and I both do those, we will go over the steps to find out what they didn’t do. I think I’ve had one person, since I’ve been doing this since 1999 that said, “I did all the steps and I still didn’t pass.” I find that a little suspect, but everyone that follows these steps, they pass, and one of the ones is this last one, the timed practice exam, a lot of people tend to skimp on. Would you agree, Alicia?

Alicia:  Oh, absolutely! You ask them, “How many practice exams did you take?” They say, “Oh.”

Laureen:  Yeah. So, we’re going to spend some time talking about this formula. We haven’t done it on a “Live with Laureen” so we thought this would be a good one, and since a lot of people were asking about it, we notice a lot of people taking exams this past Saturday and the Saturday before, a lot of those last minute exam takers, I think things will settle down a little bit and even as we go into the new year.

CCO Proven Process for Passing the CPC Exam

This is the formula, these are the four pieces that we recommend, that you take a solid course somewhere, like what they call an 80-hour equivalent course, like a semester-long course. We hope you take ours, but if you haven’t and you’ve taken the course somewhere else, if you had homework where you did textbook reading and you did textbook exercises and workbook exercises and you spent time with the manual and you use the Index and you turn to the Tabular, or you turn to the main section of CPT.  That’s what we’re talking about, that homework kind of stuff. And then obviously lectures from your instructor, maybe some ancillary activities and end of module or end-of-chapter exam to make sure that you’ve mastered at least 80%.

In our particular program, we require that you get 70% before moving on. I normally advise people to aim for 80%. I do it with my kids in home school, too; I just think that’s a better number. But don’t say “I’m going to keep doing it over and over until I get 90%.” You want to go for that 80-20 rule, just keep moving along, get through the course, because the goal is to sit for the exam and move on and get a job. It’s not about perfection. If you are a perfectionist, then you really need to work in getting that out of your system. So, that’s what we mean by a solid course. Anything you wanted to share about that particular stuff, Alicia?

Alicia:  I think it is real important, like you said about the score. We have people that take a course and they’ll test four times in one chapter, and their grade keeps going up, say 100% or 90%. I always tell them, it’s not about the scorings, it’s about what you retain and how you research. So, I would rather you get 70 and understand the things that you missed than get 100 and just have skimped by through there.  Sometimes missing something is also the best way to retain it.

Laureen:  Yeah, definitely. So, that’s Step 1: Get a good solid medical coding course. Step 2:  The CPC Review Blitz. That’s really how CCO got its start, was our CPC Review Blitz product. It was our only Blitz, so it was called the Blitz. But now we’ve got a COC Blitz, a CIC Blitz; the new CPMA was just released and let me tell you it’s flying off the shelves here.

It’s basically a review, it’s a concise review. There’s no homework per se, it’s about you reviewing the key concepts that you’re going to be tested on. We call them competencies; I think we borrowed that from AHIMA. They call them, what are the core competencies you’re going to be tested on, so we go over everything that you’re going to be tested on, on the exam, and make sure we cover in the review. There is no fluff with this; there’s no, “OK, let’s do a few exercises.” It’s just right down to the nitty-gritty of what you’re going to be tested on. Of course, a good Review Blitz goes over exam strategies, how to take the exam. That’s half the battle.

Practice “The Art of Skipping”

Recently in our CPC Blitz, we released a video called “The Art of Skipping.” It’s something I’ve taught over the years but I finally just refined it and just gave it its own floor space, if you will. Students right that day that learned it, the next day they didn’t do any additional studying, they took a new practice exam and they used that technique of the art of skipping, they improved their points by ten. And I’ve had students say, “Yeah, I did my practice exam.” I said, “Did you work on skipping the hard ones and coming back to them later?” “No. I really took my time and did each one; I’m going to do the skipping thing later.” I’m like, “No, no, no! That’s not how you do it.”

So, how you practice taking the exams is very key. I jumped ahead a little bit to the timed practice exams, but that is part of the exam strategy, so they’re very tightly related.

Alicia:  I get a lot of questions, when people call in and they want to know what product will meet my needs? Then, once I know their background and what their goals are, then I can kind of… maybe what they thought they were going to do isn’t necessarily the best path for them as far as do they need a full course or maybe they just need the Blitz because they’ve already taken a course, etc.

One thing that we like to make sure that you understand, you cannot decide to take the exam and get by with just the Blitz. The Blitz is designed for somebody that has already had a course. Now, we say, “I’ve been a coder” and I just talked to somebody yesterday, they said, “I’ve been coding inpatient for a long time” and she want to get her CPC. The more I talked about it and asked her some questions, I said, “I could advise you that you could get the Blitz; however, you really need that full course, you don’t have any CPT background” and that’s what most of the exam is. The Blitz is going to come with the full course. So, don’t go in thinking “I can just do it with the Blitz.” The Blitz is for somebody that’s already had a course, and again we’d like for you to take our course, but you need a course before you can go in and think the Blitz is going to do it. The Blitz is the step with the practice exams before you take your exam.

Use the BHAT® System for Marking Up Your Manuals

Laureen:  Step 3: Marking up your manuals. This has become huge in how we teach. We actually gave it a new name; it got its new name in 2016, BHAT®. That stands for bubble, highlight, annotate technique. We also refer to it as bubbling and highlighting, that’s what I called it since 1999, it’s where this method was born. We have a whole page on our website that talks about this method and how it came about. We did trademark bubble and highlighting; you can put TM on any phrase that you use all the time on your website. We tried to register it, but apparently, you can’t register adjectives like bubbling and highlighting. That is on its way to becoming a registered trademark. Right now it’s just a TM, but it stands for bubble, highlight, annotate technique.

So, we use a cute thing, we always go to the BHAT® Cave to see the videos on how to do it, but it’s really a simple technique. It’s basically in CPT; this is where it got its start. When I was preparing myself, I looked at the study guide from the AAPC and I started to read, I had two weeks prior to my exam, I was definitely a procrastinator. I realized that they’re basically taking the guidelines that are in the manual and they’re basically rephrasing it and saying it back to me. I thought, I can’t bring a study guide in on the exam, but I can bring the CPT manual and the ICD manual, the HCPCS manual, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to make my notes or things stand out to me in the manual, because it’s an open book exam. That’s pretty much how this method was born.

When I started reading the blurb in the study guide, I realized, “Oh! They’re talking about this group of codes and then that group of codes” and I realized that basically the indented codes, it was being grouped in with that parent code, so I just started drawing a circle around it. Then, I started to make comparisons between the neighboring groups now or neighboring bubbles and would see the key word normally in the parent code, so I would highlight it in a different color or rewrite it, so it jumped out at me. That was the goal. I want it, when I was taking the exam, for it to jump out at me so I could see the differences really quickly. And it worked. It helped a lot of people.

So, you’re bubbling that group of codes together and for CPT you’re highlighting everything after the semicolon. I normally tell you to use the pen color yellow and make that your color throughout the whole book. Yellow was reserved for highlighting everything after the semicolon. Then, you could use a different color to highlight other key phrases. For ICD, it’s a little different; we don’t really do bubbling per se in ICD, but we do use the highlighting to bring out key phrases.

Annotating Your CPT Manual

Then, the annotate part are just those keywords, what’s the difference between the groupings, between the bubbles, or key notes to put in the margin to remind you of things. Maybe in ICD, it’s to remind you of those guidelines way back in the front of the book that we forget are even there. It’s like, remember that guideline in section 2.c. – whatever, and you might even write a page number for you to flip back to in the front of your book or cross-reference you to somewhere else in the manual. So, I would say bubbling and highlighting or the BHAT® technique/system is your current self, being kind to your future self when you’re taking the exam. It helps people in the real world. Maybe, Alicia, you can share some examples from students that you’ve coached on how the methods helped them with their course work and their exam experience.

CPC Exam General Preparation and Test StrategiesAlicia:  We usually tell people, with our PBC course, I tell them to start this with chapter 6 because this is the start of CPT with our PBC course. I can tell you that once they start doing this, the CPT manual is divided up into body systems, so that’s exactly how the course is laid out. They find that once they start this, that they can answer more quickly. Their eye is drawn to just the pertinent information, that’s what I keep hearing over and over again. We know this works because Laureen has been doing this since the 90s. I know the video that she did, Boyd and Barbara from way back when, and I was looking at that and said, “This is such a solid technique to use.” That it’s been around since Laureen originated it. What it was, is there was a need and she found a way to fulfill a need and it’s not it really changes, it’s just that it makes things leap off the page for you.

I’ve gone through times when I didn’t have mine done and we went to one of the conferences together and I didn’t bring my manuals on the plane, but Laureen handed me hers and I was thinking, “Oh, this just makes everything so easy.” So, don’t leave your CPT manual naked, you need to have the BHAT® technique in there and you will find that you don’t have to think as hard, you will be able to answer more quickly and you will get the right answer more often because of the BHAT® technique.

Laureen:  And we had a situation where we were trying for years, when I would do my Blitz Review and I’d flip through my pages of CPT and some student would see a note flash by in the upper left corner and say, “Wait, what was that note?” I’m like, “You don’t need it.” “But I want it.” “You don’t need it for the exam. Focus on the core principles that you’re going to be tested on.” And those are just notes that I have accumulated over the years but they wanted them, they wanted all my notes. So, we were trying to provide all of the notes, and the AMA is not too keen on us showing every single page of CPT on video, so we had to take those videos down.

We do have an alternative now where we’ve used like an artist’s rendition where the notes are and things like that, so we’re slowly releasing that for 2017. The feedback that we’ve gotten so far from people that have access to the BHAT® Cave really appreciate the extra effort. So, it’s become very popular, it’s become mainstream; we have competitors copying it claiming that they’ve created it. We’re the ones that started it. We’ve, I think, perfected it and we’re going to continue to add to it over the years.

The History of the BHAT® System

So, if you want to read more about the history of it and see all of the… let me take you to the site. Up on the top, you’ll see where it says BHAT®. If you click on that, that’s our whole story, it’s our BHAT® story. You can see this video interview of Barbara Chiappini.

Alicia:  Definitely you want to watch that. That was great, that was fun to see.

Laureen:  In one of our interviews here and she happens to live locally, she was one of my first students and she became one of my instructors when I had a local school. She brought this book in the background and you’ll notice it looks a little different because it’s a three-ring binder. That was because of the year, the year 2000 that they actually had the CPT in a 3-ring binder. I still wish they had that format. And she still bubbles and highlights my book every year for me, and she’s a sweetheart. So, check that out. Look at the timeline, look at all the stories, these are all people that have been using this method for many years and I want you to read it because bubbling and highlighting is a pain-in-the-butt to do, to be quite honest. It’s very tedious; it’s simple but tedious, and it’s worth doing.

So, my advice today: don’t get hung-up on needing every single note. If you do the bubbling and the highlighting prior to listening to the review of that section, say it’s integumentary, go in and do the bubbling and highlighting for integumentary. Then, listen to the review lecture. Now, your books are marked up as far as the bubbles and highlights, and when you listen to the lecture, that’s where you’re going to write the notes down. Because I’m going to say, “Look at bubble A and bubble B, what’s the difference?” And it makes you think, and that’s the better way to learn. Look at the two bubbles, what’s the difference? “OK, location, location, location. This one is of the trunk. This one is of the arms” and whatever the difference is. That’s what you make a note of. You don’t need to copy. If you think it through, you’ll learn more. And that’s really how I originally taught it. Yes, we spoiled you and now we give you all the notes, but don’t lose the point of what it’s for, it’s to help with the process of elimination.

Alicia:  You’ll be able to see codes you didn’t even know existed because you’re going through the process. Like, “Oh! I never knew there was a code for that!”

Sharing Your BHAT® System Success Story

Laureen:  We have a little form here, if you have done the BHAT® system to your book, fill out this form and we are giving away CCO items, mugs, tote bags and things like that, if you have a really good compelling BHAT® story to share. Let us know how it’s helped you on the job because people said, “Do I have to bubble and highlight every year?” No. If you work for a cardiologist, then obviously take the time to do that section because you’ll be looking at it the most. If you never do anesthesiology, then no, I wouldn’t bother doing that.

But if you become a CPC Blitz customer, you will have access to that for a year. If you become a CCO club member, you can have access to it indefinitely year after year after year, new CEU opportunities, it’s a great way to stay current and keep your manual up-to-date. That’s the third step: bubble, highlight, annotate technique. Do that to your manuals.

CPC Practice Exams Are Essential to Passing the Exam

Last step: Timed practice exams. Maybe you want to talk about that for a minute, Alicia?

Alicia:  Absolutely! The timed practice exams are really, really important. You can get, we have a free CPC practice exam, we have a free ICD-10 practice exam. Some people think about it and they say, “Well, I just need the CPC.” But a big chunk of the CPC exam is ICD-10, you want to be really, really savvy with both areas. Not only does this help you with your timing, you got your timing down, it’s going to help you rule out questions right away. Third, it’s going to give you an idea of what it feels like to sit for the exam.

We’ve been told multiple times that our practice exams are harder than the real exam, and we’ll have people come back and say, “I took the CPC exam on Saturday, and let me tell you, your practice exams were much harder,” and we’re proud of that because the practice exams we give you the rationale. It’s OK to miss a question because the rationale is going to help you figure out what the right answer was, but you need to be getting an 80-85%, really an 85% on the practice.

What To Expect on CPC Practice Exams

The first time you take one, you’re probably not going to do that. It’s going to give you that exposure you need what to expect. The shorter practice exams that we’ve done are like 50-60 questions, you can’t sit there for six hours in taking an exam while you’re getting right, these are two-and-half-hour exams that have a portion of everything that you’re going to be tested on. You’re going to be knowing cardiology, the pathology, CPT, ICD, anatomy. It’s going to give you a highlight of all of those to make sure that you’re comfortable going in to the CPC exam. If you can get an 85% or better, you’re golden, you’re ready to go. That’s what you’re shooting for.

We have the three, you may want to do our gem ones: the ruby, the sapphire, topaz. Don’t worry – you can buy them separately or you can buy them as a bundle. I advise that you get them as a bundle, get all three, because they have different questions in them, of course, but it is an overview of everything that you’re going to be tested on and it’s going to give you the flavor of what to expect when you sit down. That’s the biggest thing that people fear when they go and take the CPCs: what do I expect? You open up that test booklet and the very first thing on the first page is a case, it’s a page-and-a half. You won’t freak out on that because you know what to expect, you’ve taken the practice exams and you’ve gotten that good 85% or better. Those are the people that come back and tell us that they got an 80 or 90 on the CPC exam.

Laureen:  Yup! Definitely. And another tip for those timed practice exams: use the sample Scantron form. The AAPC has allowed us to have a copy and share it with our students. We’ve got it on our site, I believe if you can’t find it, then you can request it from our Help desk. 

Then, when you’re all done and your 2 hours and 10 minutes you’ve given yourself is up, then go online and pop your answers in but make sure you have time to review. Unless you don’t mind popping them back in the next day, if you just want to get your score and then go over it again the next day, that’s fine. You can go in and do that. Give yourself enough time to really go over every rationale, even the ones you got right because you learn so much from that especially it’s the [rich] rationales. We have very good rationales; the AAPC has very good rationales.

Just to let you know where to get practice exams, you can in a timed fashion. On our website, this is, if you go to the main menu under practice exams and then you go to CPC practice exam. This is going to take you to our, Ruby, Sapphire, Topaz. Those are the code names that we’ve given these exams. There are 60 questions each, not 50 like the AAPCs. The reason we do that is the Scantron form is five columns of 30 questions each, that’s how to get 150 questions, so it’s a lot easier to practice timing methods. We teach a one-hour per column method, so that makes it nice and easy, 30 and 30.

Get Your Free Practice Exams

You can also get a free one on our site under Freebies. If you go to the very middle menu freebies and you scroll down, and we’ve got several practice exams now, here’s our free CPC one. We have a free COC and recently released a new billing one, the CPB (Certified Professional Biller) practice exam. It’s our goal to have a free one for every credential that we help train for, but these are the four we have right now. ICD-10 was more for when you had to do the proficiency, but we have people, like, 10 people a day taking this free one just to work on their skills; so take advantage of that. If you are a CPC Blitz customers, there’s also an additional Blitz practice exam in their as well; so those are different places to get that.  

Alicia:  And all of our students for the PBC course, they have a final, which is like a mock.  

Laureen:  Right. A big one. So that’s our formula for success. It works, if people come to me and they didn’t pass, we start exploring all of those steps and come to find out sometimes they had practice exams but they did it more like homework. They didn’t time themselves. That’s critical. Or they didn’t practice the skipping, or they didn’t do the one-hour per column, time management strategy. To me, that’s wasting these precious gems, that’s why we gave them gem names. These practice exams are so hard to create, they’re so hard to maintain. It’s a lot of work. That’s why it upsets me when I hear about people paying for it $30 and giving it to ten friends. It’s like, “Come on.”

Let us keep supporting it and make sure it’s a great product year after year. They’re very critical to the success. Watching videos is not going to make you pass the exam. That’s just the tool to help get the knowledge into your head, but the actual making it work and stick is doing the practice exams.

I use the analogy all the time on my consultation calls that I do, picture back when you learned how to drive. You first started by reading the paper manual, and you learned all that stuff and you could do the written test, but you couldn’t do the driving test unless you put hours behind the wheel and you practice. It’s the same thing with the CPC exam. So many say, “I’m just going to go take it and see how I do.” But why would you want to do that? Because it’s 5 hours and 40 minutes; that’s a long practice exam, when you can do a practice in 2 hours and save those for the real event because you don’t get the benefit of true rationales if you don’t pass; so it’s wasted, in my opinion.

That is the best test taking and study strategies that we have.

The “CPC Exam: General Preparation and Test Strategies” video segment originally aired on Live with Laureen #011.

List of CPC Exam Resources

4 thoughts on “CPC Exam: General Preparation and Test Strategies”

  1. Hi Laureen, I have the youtube video of you explaining some highlight and bubbling in the CPT book and you said you can download the video where you go through your book. I am very interested as I am going for my CPT again. I have been studying but my problem is it is taking me to long to find codes and pulling them out under 2.2.minutes because 1 it take to long to read operative reports. I really would love to see how you do the book but not sure where to find it. It is worth purchasing it from you the course on how highlighting and bubbling is done your book . Could you please help me.I so so want to succeed so bad . I have been and am trying so hard, exhausting every avenue and I am regrouping. Thank you so much for your time, Kelly B

  2. Hi Ms. Laureen. I need your help. I took the CPC in 2015. I’m going to take it in 2018 but I need to know where to start.
    Can you help me. Do you offer a refresher course


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