I Have Taken the CPC Exam Twice and Failed Twice

Brandi Tadlock is a big help to new coders working on getting their medical coding certification.  With her permission here is a copy of a reply she made to a someone struggling to pass the CPC exam that received rave reviews.


I have taken the CPC exam twice and failed twice. I completed an associates for medical billing and code through a school, but feel the program didn’t prepare us for the test. Nobody, in my graduating class has passed the exam. I’m not willing to just give up but I could use some idea/advice. Should I take the classes through this AAPC website and do you think they might better prepare me so I can pass? Does anyone know of anyone to tutors privatly…? I’m in Kansas city, though, so do you think my local chapter might beable to help me with a tutor? I just don’t know…where to go from this point. I’ve spent a lot of time on this and don’t want to just give up…I am working for a family practice doing ICD-9-CM coding, with a bit of CPT and HCPCS coding and I really enjoy my job but I need to pass the test…sooooo any ideas…on how I can get some help. 

2 questions:

1. Do you make it all the way through the test, or are you rushing through some at the end? And

2. Do you get intimidated by the really long operative note questions?

(If you answered ‘no’, then none of the following will be very helpful to you…but, my guess is that at least one of those is a yes)

Time management is a common pitfall that people encounter. They get freaked out by the sight of really long questions (or get bogged down reading them), and either put them off until the end, or struggle to understand what they’re reading until they run out of time. Or, they spend entirely too much time on questions that look easy, and aren’t. (If all of the code descriptions start to run together and sound the same, you have entered the ‘psych-out zone’)

This advice won’t help you become a better coder, but if you want to pass the test, try to do the following:

(*Remember this very important note: Short questions are not always easy, and Long questions are not always hard – in fact, most of the time, it’s the other way around. Never judge a question by its length!*)

When you start the test, skim through every question, and pick out the ones that you can see the answer to immediately (Like medical terminology, insurance/HIPAA questions, and stuff like that) – I’m talking about the really, really simple ones you don’t even have to open your book to answer.

After you’ve done that, you should give every question a shot – start at the front of the test, and work your way to the back.

If you try to look up an answer, and it takes more than a minute or two for you to feel confident about picking one, make a note of what you think it is (or isn’t), put a star on it, and move on. (A kitchen timer is really helpful for that) I realize it’s hard to ‘give up’ when you’re frustrated (and SO close to getting the answer!), but you have to force yourself to come back to it later.

• Don’t view it as ‘giving up’ on the question – you’re just ‘taking a break’ from it.

• Or, look at it as ‘I’ve already missed this one’…This sounds harsh, but the reality of the matter is: if you’re having a hard time making a confident decision, you’re probably going to end up missing it anyways (some of the questions seriously are just really hard – but there aren’t a lot like that – they’re randomly scattered throughout the test.)

• Don’t waste valuable time that you could be using to answer 5-10 other questions right, trying to answer one you might end up missing anyways; you can always come back to it and give it another shot after you’ve answered everything else.

I can’t stress this enough (especially for the CPT® questions like the ones attached):


I know that’s counter-intuitive – you’re hard-wired to read the questions first, from years of taking tests in school – going all the way back to grade school…(Remember standardized reading tests?)

Trust me on this: you really have to make a conscious effort to NOT do that. Here’s why (I learned this from my own experiences):

1. You’ll waste a ton of time reading irrelevant filler that’s put in there, just to screw with you.

2. All of the jargon (especially on the surgeries) is overwhelming, and you’ll get hung up on words that don’t matter.

3. Many of the questions can be answered without reading the note at all (I’ve given examples on the stuff I attached) – reading the note makes it harder than it needs to be.

With CPT coding in particular, your goal is to answer questions through the process of elimination, by looking for the similarities and differences between the choices, and then looking for keywords in the question to narrow down your choices, or pick the right answer.

I gave a couple of examples to show how easy these questions can be, if you look at them the right way. At the end of the day, it’s a multiple-choice test, and all multiple-choice tests boil down to having good test-taking skills (and not so much really knowing the material, although it definitely helps…).

(In case you’re wondering, I made this for the co-workers I’m tutoring – today, actually – I don’t usually just have this stuff handy waiting for someone to need it)

Originally posted at



Brandi Tadlock, CPC®, CPC®-P, CPMA, CPC®O


24 thoughts on “I Have Taken the CPC Exam Twice and Failed Twice”

  1. I am in the same situation as the girl that wrote above. I grad from a college here close to home in april 2011 with honors in the medical coding and billing field. I took the test twice and failed both times. first time i was even better than the second. I feel like i didnt get the education i needed to be able to get started in coding or billing. the school paid for the first two times i took the test. Now, its a new year and that means hundreds of dollars for new books, and new registration fees that i cant afford. My husband and i barely scrape by now. One reason i went back to school. Its almost been a year now. I feel like i have gone no where and cant afford to go anywhere at this point. Is there any help out there that doesnt cost. Everything i see cost. I need some help but cant even afford new books and i am not working , cant get a job at all right now. Help!

  2. If you’re a member of your local Chapter, you may ask, there. Not many people offer free training, because it requires a significant investment of time, to prepare people to pass the exam. If you’re having difficulty even affording the books, you will probably have a hard time preparing for it: it’s a very hard test, if you don’t have any hands-on experience. You might look into getting a job within a doctor’s office, which doesn’t involve coding, to get you by, until you can afford to take the exam. That would benefit you in 2 ways:
    1. You’ll already have your foot in the door in an medical office, which will greatly increase your odds of finding a coding job, once you have passed your test. Keep in mind, that just because you may be able to pass the exam at some point, you won’t automatically be granted a coding job, so it’s not wise to wait until you’ve gotten certified, to start looking for a job.

    Many newly-certified coders who have acquired their training through vocational schools, are often disappointed to find out that getting a coding job can be extremely difficult, without any experience. If you’re already working in that environment beforehand, it’s much easier to convince an employer to let you get the post-exam experience you need, in order to be marketable as a coder.

    2. You may also have the opportunity to shadow the coders in your workplace, to get practice with real-world situations, while you’re saving up to take the exam again. Unless you can afford classes or study guides (or, find someone who will be generous enough to donate their time in tutoring you), an internship at work, may be the only option you have, but it’s worth the effort.
    I’m sorry that you’ve faced hardships along the way, but it really is worth the investment, if you can manage it.

    On a side note: I had some attachments from example questions, that were referenced in here – if you want to see them, they can be accessed through the original post, on the AAPC’s publicly-available discussion forum, here: http://www.aapc.com/memberarea/forums/showthread.php?t=64283&highlight=Time+management+common+pitfall

  3. I am taking the cpt coding class thru my the local hospital and I feel that I have to teach myself from scratch, My thing is that I have a hard time breaking down the question and getting the best possible answer

    • Hi Julie – If you’re talking about a multiple choice situation then the best thing to do is look up each answer and note the differences. The read your question and pull out what you need to do process of elimination. This strategy is covered in my Medical Coding Review Blitz videos in great detail.

  4. Hi Julie, I think your ideas are great ones. I have failed the exam twice now. I know this material. I know I can do this. But my test taking skills are the biggest part of the problem. I too do not want to give up. I am not a quitter. I will retake the exam again. My question is how soon should I take the exam again? ICD-10 is coming out next and I want to pass ICD-9 first.

  5. Hi…well, I am now officially in despair! I took the CPC Exam three times and failed all 3 times…my second time I gained 10 pts higher than the 1st..my 3rd time-I did worse than the 2nd. I have absolutely no clue as to what I am doing wrong or what I am missing. I received a certificate in MBC in February 2012 with a 3.98 GPA. I took the test in April 2012, December 2012, and February 2013. I am lost, in despair, I feel like crying. I no longer have the willpower, energy, courage, strength, and presence of mind to continue. I don’t want to give up because if others have passed…so can I…its not impossible. I’ve spend hundreds of dollars on study guides, the latest code books, and for the exam itself. Help please! Should I buy the videos?-will I see concrete results? in other words…will I pass?

    • Hi Diana,

      Sorry to hear of your experience but unfortunately it is not uncommon. The coding certification exams are hard – no doubt about it. Here is my CCO Proven Process formula that has helped many to pass on their next try:

      1) 80 Hour Coding Course or equivalent coding experience
      2) Review Class or Blitz Videos
      3) Bubble & Highlight CPT Manual (covered in Blitz review)
      4) Timed Practice Exams until you are getting an 85%

      All of our corresponding courses and practice exams can be found on this page https://www.cco.us/.

      Feel free to reach out to our Help Desk as you have more questions.

      Best wishes!


  6. I just took the CPC test and I failed, I actually purchased the AAPC test to pratice on , but I still failed. I am taking it again in May , the test is hard you have so much to read on each question. I have to study really hard so that I can pass it this time around. What is the best way to do that I just finished up at Essex Community it took 1 year. I did fine on that , but I cannot pass the AAPC test. I try to just focus on what the patient is having done ,but when they give you the codes to choose from the codes sound alike so it is hard to decide on the answer. Well all I can do is try again and hopefully I will pass.

  7. I need someone to tutor me in Columbus ohio for CPC..I have taken twice and am a nurse and still not understanding the coding answers.. I received a 62/68 test score and going to have to pay out of pocket for next exam.The school I attended has poor passing grade for 90% of students Is there anything I can do or do you have an suggestions? Thanks annie

  8. I took the CPC exam 3 times and failed, each time, my score was one point higher in the mid 50s. I have studied like crazy-some days non stop. I purchased AAPC practice exam, and a practice exam from another source. I am a minute away from giving up. I have been studying coding for about 2 years including the online coding course. I recently purchased the review blitz,-I will review this exam prep review before I take another exam. Any pointers to help prepare me for when I take this exam for the 4th and final time. I can really use a pick me up right now.

    • Hi Barbara – sorry for the delayed response on this. Blog comments don’t get as quick a response as our helpdesk. We can definitely help you. You have the Blitz membership so definitely take advantage of our weekly support calls. And do lots of practice exams. Here is a link to our CPC Exam Success Formula – http://cco.pe/RE9MaO

      Happy Studying!

  9. I failed the CPT test as well and I figure I can still go into medical records because I passed those courses at least! Maybe God is telling me to do something else in medical records or something! I will go online and look for medical record jobs after this class and I do think something will come up. What do you all say?
    Sincerely, Bridget

  10. Laureen, I really can’t schedule an interview with you because I think getting into medical records is a better choice for me. I don’t think I can handle the coding and all it takes, but I did pass my medical record classes and I want to go into the medical records. If I fail CPT, should I put that on my resume? Thank you.

    • Hi Bridget – no worries – I do consultations all the time to help people talk things out about what direction to go in this business. Regarding your question on putting failing CPT – no I would not do that. Resumes should highlight your accomplishments. Best wishes to you.

  11. I could really use some help here. I have taken the COC test 3 TiMES and have Failed it all 3 times. The first time I failed with a 68%, the second time I failed by a 67% and this time I failed it by 69%( 1 freaking % away). I fond the first two times were hard for me to finish the test and would up just bubbling in answers but this time I had notes in the back of my books, gathered some helpful info from Quizlet.com and I finished the exam with 20 min to spare and go go back and check to make sure all my answers were bubbled in and answered just a few questions I had left with a just a 50/50 chance of getting the right answer because I had already crossed, such as A and C not being right so i just had to choose between B or D. I thought I really had this one in the bag with being able to answer all the questions and being able to read all the questions and answer them all this time around. I will sit for my AAPC-COC exam one more time and IM DONE. Any HELP would be grateful at this point.

  12. I have taken the CPC exam twice and failed first time I got 52 second time 60. I actually work as a coder in a orthopedics practise but I still cannot pass this test. Time is not a factor for me because I always finish with time left over to review my test. I am little discouraged but my kids motivates me and tell me not to quit. So I will resume studying again and retaking it. Just need some guidance and a better strategy.

    • I’m not sure what you mean exactly, so here are a few answers.

      • When you go in to actually take the CPC exam, you can only take your AMA CPT Manual and any vendor ICD-10-CM Manual with you. They do not give you any manuals ot books.
      • When you take our PBC Course or CPC Review Blitz, we do not provide any books or manuals. Those must be purchased separately from https://www.cco.us/books/

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