CISA and CISSP Preparation

Recently I have received a number of questions seeking preparation tips and insights for the CISA and CISSP certifications. I hold both of these certifications, and passed them both on the first attempt using very different preparation approaches. I took the CISA first, and based on a few lessons learned, I radically changed my preparation plan for the CISSP.

FYI, the official preparation information, qualification requirements, exam requirements, etc. can be found at:

Are You Ready ?
A few basic questions to ask yourself to gauge how ready you are:

  • Do I meet the spirit, and not just the letter, of the experience requirements ?
  • Has there been sufficient diversity in my experience ?

Both of these exams cover a very broad spectrum of subjects. It is my personal belief that the experience requirements exist as an aid to whittle test takers down to candidates who have the professional experiences required to be successful, and to discourage people from taking the exams before they are ready. If you truly meet the background requirements, then you should have had some contact with many of the core topic areas for the exam.

If you are looking at the core content of the examination, and do not believe that you really have the breadth of exposure to be able to describe and discuss each domain at a high level, then you may be better served by delaying the exam in favor of working with your management to gain broader professional experience.

Five Step Approach to CISA or CISSP Exam Preparation

  1. Perform an initial benchmark and assessment of your readiness
  2. Read a “survey” level preparation guide cover to cover
  3. Perform a secondary benchmark, and compare your readiness
  4. Review official, or “deep dive”, preparation materials on areas identified as your weaknesses
  5. Re-benchmark, and repeat targeted reviews until ready

For the first certification that I prepared for, I did not perform the first three steps outlined above. I went directly to the official source materials and began trying to review them cover to cover. I passed the exam, but I also spent a lot of time & energy reviewing things that I already knew “well enough”, and was burned out when reviewing the areas which could have been richer learning opportunities. No matter what your professional background, no one knows-it-all or does-it-all, so there is always an opportunity to learn new things while you are preparing for the certification exam. The goal of this five step approach is to focus your time where you have the greatest learning opportunities. Hopefully this focuses your time and energy in the most rewarding way.

Performing the Benchmarks
For the Benchmarks, I like to complete a timed half-length or full-length examination.

It is my feeling that a half-length exam is long enough that fatigue, maintaining focus, and pace are all stressed, as they will be on examination day. This of course requires access to a large set of test questions or sample tests, preferably with explanations of incorrect answers. In addition to commercial third-party test preparation tools, there are good (and free) test preparation quizzes available from www.cccure.org.

Survey Materials
I find the “Exam Cram” series to be very useful survey literature. I purchase books from this series when I want a high-level and quick handling of an entire subject matter area. As a result, I own survey books from the series in topic areas which I have no intention of pursuing certification for. Obviously the books I recommend for these certifications are:

Deep Dive Materials
There are exam preparation materials available from a variety of sources that fit the bill in this area. What we are looking for are books that contain solid coverage of the areas where benchmarking has shown the most significant need for improvement. In addition to the materials from (ISC)2 and ISACA that I list below, consult your local library – often they will have books that fit the bill. (And, of course, consider arranging a donation of good materials if they do not.)

Final Thoughts
Good luck on your journey toward Information Security or Audit certification. One word of caution: Make sure that you have realistic expectations about what actually being certified will mean. Although I do think being certified helps a person establish credibility more quickly, and is helpful when searching for new employment, often people are underwhelmed by the “Congratulations, that’s nice” from their current employer. If your expectation is that a big raise, bonus, promotion, etc. is hinging on your being certified, then I would strongly encourage you to reality-check that with peers in your organization.

Cheers, Erik

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