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How to Pass a Code Exam

by Mark Lamendola

So, you need a state license and must pass a code exam to get it. You can choose between taking the test and hoping for the best (the usual approach), or preparing for the exam and passing with flying colors the first time. Letís assume you donít like to waste time and money, and donít want to wait six months or longer for a retest. That assumption means you must know how to prepare for the exam.

To prepare for electrical code exams, click here.

Step 1: Buy and review a current code book. You canít know the code unless you read it.

  • See how itís laid out. Notice which sections provide the definitions, purpose, limitations, and applicability of the code. Then, notice which sections apply to general circumstances and which to special circumstances.
  • Carefully read the definitions. Make it a point to carefully read one definition each day between now and the test day.
  • Note the major divisions, categories, or chapters. You may find it beneficial to read a separate book on those general topics you have no knowledge ofódonít count this toward your exam study time, but do it if you need to. If time is short, skim the supplemental booksóread the headings, then read the first three chapters. Thatís generally all youíll need to do to get a general understanding of the topic.

Step 2: Find out about the exam.

  • Is it open book? If so, which books can you bring? Can you mark in your Code book, underline things, use tabs, highlight things, provide your personal notes, etc.? Can you bring a calculator, computer, or PDA? Ask the test registrar for a written copy of the rules. Learn these, and obey them.
  • How long is the exam? Does it have sections, and what are they and how long does each last?
  • Are there penalties for guessing, or do you need to know the answer?
  • Ask if you can have a copy of a previous exam or if there is a place to get one. Youíll want to make copies of this exam, and take it once a monthóeven if you donít have the answersóso you are used to taking that kind of exam.
  • Does the exam focus on application or theory?
  • Does the exam require doing calculations? Which ones? What percentage of the exam, and of your score, are they?

Step 3: Study

  • Obtain an exam prep course (we offer these for the National Electrical Code).
  • Set aside 6 hours per week to study. One way to divide up the 6 hours is to use one hour every night except Wednesday, and then study for 2 hours on Saturday. Whatever regimen you set up, make sure you stick with it. Provided you have several months prior to the exam, it will not be necessary to study more than the 6 hours. If you have less time than that, schedule two or three sessions with someone who can tutor you, and interleave these with your self-study. Trying to proceed with too difficult a study program leads to burnout.
  • Donít have a supply of chips and other junkfood on hand. Declare your study time a "no food zone." Drinking water is fineónothing else, though. The last thing you want to do is emerge from your study efforts with two additional inches of waistline. Absolutely no food or water while practicing taking the exam.

Step 4: Practice.

  • Work all the practice questions that come with the exam materials.
  • Make a photocopy of the practice exam that was in your exam prep materials. If you have no such exam, prepare your own. A few weeks before the exam, take your sample exam once, and then carefully research your answers. Study again wherever you had difficulty. This differs from taking a previous exam, because in this case you have the answers. If you do develop your own, try simply modifying the previous exam and coming up with answers. When you take the exam as practice, do so under the exam time limits.
  • Two weeks before the real exam, take the sample exam again. Study where you had weaknesses.

Throughout the course of the exam prep, you can gain an edge by tending carefully to your health and other obligations.

  • If you smoke, quit smoking until you have passed the exam. The carbon monoxide in your blood deprives your brain of oxygen. Your IQ will actually go up if you are off the cigarettes. If you try to quit less than 3 weeks before the exam, youíll have withdrawals while you are trying to take it. If you donít quit at all, youíll have the tobacco shakes as you try to sit in an exam room all day without your fix.
  • Get on a regular exercise program. This will help you oxygenate your brain, plus insulate you from fatigue on test day. See for helpful suggestions.
  • Forget oddball diets like high carb, low fat, etc. Give your body good fuel. See for helpful suggestions.
  • Take a day or evening off every other week or so. This gives you a break. It also gives you time to spend with family and friends, so you avoid the depression that can come from too much isolation.
  • Ask a friend or family member to quiz you. Itís OK if you write the quiz and provide them the answers. The point of this exercise is to involve others who are important to you. It also serves as a good review. Writing the questions and answers forces you to think them through. Acing quiz questions builds your confidence, provided they arenít "cakewalk questions." Stumbling on quiz questions shows you where you need more study. Be sure to express how much you appreciate the help. This method is especially valuable if you have company from out of town. They wonít mind helping youóin fact, it gives them something to brag aboutóas long as you also arrange for something special for them (see your local information center or town hall for suggestions on sights that out of towners will love).

Passing a code exam is tough for most folks, but easy for some. Follow these tips and youíll be in that second group.