How to Study for the CPC Exam

Study Tips to Pass the CPC Exam on Your First Try

Medical coding is a fantastic career, and you’re so close to earning your Certified Professional Coder (CPC) credential that you can taste it. But when it comes to passing the CPC exam, close can feel scary. Not to worry, though. We have the help you need.

Compiled here isn’t just a top-of-mind tip sheet. We polled hundreds of CPCs who have gone before you — some passing on their first exam attempt, others passing after numerous tries — and structured the strongest and most cited of their insights in what we consider the best CPC exam study tip list you’ll find. So, curtesy of your peers, our esteemed AAPC members …

Plot Your Course to Medical Coding Certification

When you have a goal, it helps to have a vision for the path ahead. A plan decides in advance on spur-of-the-moment distractions. A plan arranges for support, preempting stress and confusion. A plan counts the costs, removing elements of surprise when the going gets tough.

Your plan doesn’t need to be finite, just foreseen. Get a vision for what it’s going to take to get you across the finish line. And commit.

  • Passing the exam should be a priority. Study regularly. Devise a strategy tailored to your weaknesses. Maybe that means no TV or cell phone until you’ve logged your study time for the day. Maybe that means joining a study group. Don’t let long periods pass between study sessions.
  • Spend time in the zone. Multi-hour study sessions are great, so long as you’re fully present and alert. If your schedule is packed, or if it’s hard to find a sizable window free of fatigue, then go for quality. Try 15-minute study sessions throughout the day. Experiment to find a routine you can own.
  • Believe aggressively. Know this upfront — you will have moments of cluelessness. It’ll pass, so resist doubt. Affirm yourself. I have what it takes. I will put in the work because I’m worth it. Belief is your firewall. You must believe you will pass the exam. 

CPC Exam Basics

The CPC exam is open book. You’ll be given 4 hours to complete 100 multiple-choice questions. Passing will require you to answer 70% of the questions correctly. The categories tested include:

  • Integumentary Surgical Coding
  • Respiratory Surgical Coding
  • Nervous System Surgical Coding
  • Endocrine System Surgical Coding
  • Digestive System Surgical Coding
  • Urinary System Surgical Coding
  • Musculoskeletal System Surgical Coding
  • Mediastinum & Diaphragm Surgical Coding
  • Male/Female Genital Surgical Coding
  • Hemic & Lymphatic Surgical Coding
  • Maternity & Delivery
  • Eye & Ocular Adnexa Surgical Coding
  • ICD-10-CM
  • HCPCS Level II
  • Radiology
  • Pathology
  • Laboratory
  • Medicine
  • Anesthesia
  • Evaluation and Management
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Medical Terminology
  • Coding Guidelines
  • Practice Management

Learn What to Study for the CPC Exam

  • Not all areas of CPC curriculum require equal study time. From your CPC training course, you know that some chapters took longer to digest than others. Evaluation and management, for example, is more challenging than the urinary chapter. The same challenges will influence how you divide your study time.
    • Concentrate on the more complex areas. Invest your time and effort to ensure you understand key concepts and difficult coding scenarios. Examples: HIV, metastatic cancer, chronic pain, infusions
    • Identify your weaknesses and give those areas extra attention.
  • Know your modifiers. Understand the purpose of each modifier and when the modifier should be appended.
  • Know your medical terminology. The exam will ask questions pertaining to anatomy and medical terminology, and you’ll need to know these subjects to extract important details for coding. Break out the flashcards for a refresher before exam day.
  • Know the letter ranges for ICD-10 and number ranges for CPT® codes. With limited time on test day, the ability to recognize basic info about a code because you know its ranges can mean the difference between passing the CPC exam and not having enough time to finish the test.

    Code ranges allow you to instantly narrow down potential answers. If a question asks about a code pertaining to the musculoskeletal system, for example, you can eliminate all codes that don’t begin with the number 2.
  • Acclimate yourself to the language in the code books. Exam questions use verbiage in code descriptors and code notes. You’ll want to understand the language well enough to look up the answers.

Know the Official Code Guidelines

The guidelines provide instructions for proper code selection. Coders need to read their code books cover to cover and pay special attention to guidelines.

  • Review guidelines for each code set — and review often, particularly the challenging guidelines.
  • The goal is not to memorize guidelines but to understand them. You need to know how to interpret and apply what you read. You should be able to recognize the rationale, purpose, logic, and intent of the guideline by exam day.
    To help learn how a guideline is applied, review codes that the guideline applies to. And practice!
  • Get the basic applications down. Be sure you can respond accurately to Includes, Excludes, Code First, Code Also, etc., without a second thought.
  • Be sure you can follow sequencing rules. This is heavily factored into the CPC exam (as in real-world coding). You’ll want to practice sequencing.
  • Know where to find specific guidelines. Here, too, you don’t need to memorize where every guideline is. You only need to tab and mark your books. (We outline book marking tips below.)
  • Know what topics are covered in chapter-specific guidelines. This will alert you to when you should check a guideline prior to making a code selection.
  • Don’t forget to review coding conventions, notations, EXCLUDES notes for ICD-10, and parenthetical notes for CPT®.

Prep Your Medical Code Books

The CPC exam is open book, and everything you need to know is in your CPT®, ICD-10-CM, and HCPCS Level II code books. The more intimately you know your books, the kinder time will be to you on exam day.

The goal is to be able to quickly locate anything and everything — codes, guidelines, tables, instructions, illustrations, etc. — so continue familiarizing yourself with the parts of your books.

  • Tabbing your books will help you identify pages. Most people reserve tabbing for guidelines and chapters in the tabular lists, but anything you need extra help with is an area you might want to tab. You might also want to tab the things you don’t normally search for.
    These are your books, so tab and mark them according to your needs. Some people feel that tabs get in the way, others feel they’re essential for the exam. Do what works for you.
  • Be strategic when marking your books. You don’t want to lose important notes in the chaos of too many notes. The same goes for highlighted text. Try to keep your notations relevant to the exam.

    Make notes where you can you find them. Some people prefer to write short notes near the codes versus filling blank pages with notes. Choose whatever approach helps you quickly locate what you need.
  • You may not add writing surface to your books. Taping, gluing, or stapling anything into your code books is prohibited. This includes sticky notes.
  • Tips for adding notes in your books are recommendations others found helpful. Choose only what makes sense for you.
    • For codes with guidelines that give you trouble, write the guideline next to code. Some people also do the reverse — adding code examples next to the guideline.
    • Draw an E/M table to help you determine E/M services (CPT®).
    • Mark out of sequence codes (CPT®).
    • Write definitions of procedures next to the codes in CPT® or highlight differences between codes with subtle variations of body parts or layers (e.g., integumentary).
    • Write main terms, prefixes, and suffixes on your anatomical illustration pages next to corresponding body parts.
  • Tips for highlighting information in your books are also suggestions. Choose only what you find helpful.

    ICD-10 highlights
    • Code first notes, use additional code notes, codes that are excluded from a category
  • CPT® highlights
    • Keywords in the subsection guidelines (e.g., new and established patient definition in the E/M section)
    • Keywords in the Repair (Closure) guideline section defining simple, intermediate, or complex repairs.
    • Guidelines for services included with Adjacent Tissue Transfer or Rearrangement procedures.
    • Key words in the Musculoskeletal System guidelines defining surgical procedures, such as closed, opened, percutaneous skeletal fixation, or manipulation.
    • All parenthetical notes found in the code description or following the code.
    • Make note of procedures performed percutaneously, with any type of scope (endoscope, laparoscope, etc.), or by open technique (meaning the doctor had to cut into the patient to perform the procedure)

Practicing for the CPC Exam

Use smart tools. Once you’ve studied, you’ll want to take advantage of as many practice tests as possible.

  • Treat practice exams like real tests. Study for them, follow time constraints, and note which questions you answered incorrectly. Go back and review the areas you struggled with. Retest and repeat.
  • Keep practicing for time management. To complete the CPC exam in the allotted 4 hours, you need to answer questions in 2 minutes or less. Practice like an athlete to improve your pace.
  • Keep practicing for test-taking skills. Eliminating answers is an effective strategy for both accuracy and time management. Practice using what you’ve learn to cross out answers.
  • Keep practicing for accuracy. Keep practicing until you score 80% minimum.

Exam Week

  • Read your guidelines three days before the exam so they’re fresh in your mind.
  • Verify the start time and examination address a few days prior to your test date. If you’re unfamiliar with the exam site, consider mapping your driving directions in advance. Factor potential delays en route and arrive 10 to 15 minutes early.
  • Gather items you’ll be taking to the exam — code books, a printed copy of the ICD-10-CM Official Guidelines*, a surplus of #2 pencils, an eraser, photo ID, member ID. It’s also a good idea to bring a watch** or stopwatch to remain aware of the time.

    *You may highlight, underline, and make brief notations on the printed side of the ICD-10-CM Official Guidelines. Long passages of information are not permitted on the blank pages of the printout

    **Smart watches or anything that can connect to the internet are not allowed. Confirm what exam materials are allowed during the CPC exam, if you haven’t already..
  • Test your camera if you’re taking the CPC exam online. It’s not a bad idea to have a backup plan in the event of unexpected technical issues. (Materials allowed for online exam differ from the onsite exam, so be sure to confirm which materials are permitted. a printed copy of the ICD-10-CM Official Guidelines are not allowed, for example.)

Certification Exam Eve

Close your books. You’re done studying. If you’re taking the online exam, set up your webcam and test area, and try to have a good night sleep.

In the morning, enjoy a healthy breakfast (nothing too heavy) and bring light snacks and water to keep you energized during the exam.

Stay positive. Breathe. Repeat your mantra — I can do this. I’ve got this. Deep slow breaths.

Good Luck?

We would say good luck, but you know this exam isn’t about luck. We know it, too. We’re going to wish you well, instead. You are ready. You’ve worked hard. All of us at AAPC are rooting for you.

Related to - Tips for Taking the CPC Exam

Last Reviewed on Nov. 18, 2021 by AAPC Thought Leadership Team

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