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  • What Is the CISSP CAT Exam? How It Works + Tips to Prepare for the Exam
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Last Updated On: June 13, 2024

In December 2017, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) exam embraced a significant evolution, transitioning to the Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) format for the English language version of the exam..

This pivotal change aimed to refine how cybersecurity expertise is measured, introducing a tailored testing experience that adjusts to each candidate's ability level. The shift to CAT represents a modern approach to certification assessments, promising a more personalized and efficient examination process.

In this guide, we will walk you through how the CISSP CAT exam works and what you can expect from it, and we will provide you with tips on how to succeed in this test format. We will also answer some of the most frequently asked questions about this exam format.

Let's get started!

What Is Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT)?

Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) represents a significant advancement in how exams are conducted, particularly evident in the context of the CISSP certification. Unlike traditional testing formats, where every examinee answers the same questions, CAT dynamically adjusts the difficulty and specificity of questions based on the test taker's performance in real-time.

This innovative approach allows for a more precise measurement of a candidate's competency by presenting questions that are neither easy nor hard based on their previous answers.

The essence of CAT is its efficiency and adaptability; it can determine a candidate's proficiency level with fewer questions and in less time than conventional exams. This not only enhances the test-taking experience but also provides a fair and accurate assessment of one's knowledge and skills in cybersecurity.

By leveraging sophisticated algorithms, CAT tailors the examination to the individual, making it a more personalized and adaptive way to gauge professional capabilities.

How Does the CISSP CAT Exam Work

The CISSP CAT exam revolutionizes cybersecurity professional assessments by personalizing the experience according to each candidate's knowledge level. Available only in English, this format enables ISC2 to evaluate candidates' expertise more accurately and efficiently. Understanding the process of this exam can help you prepare better for your CISSP certification.

When you take this exam format, the initial questions are intentionally set well below the passing standard, establishing a baseline to measure your knowledge and ability. With each question answered, the algorithm recalibrates, considering all previous answers and the cumulative difficulty of the questions presented.

This ensures that each new question offers a consistent challenge, maintaining a level where you have approximately a 50% chance of answering correctly. Such a design keeps you engaged with questions that are neither too easy nor impossibly hard, reflecting an accurate measure of your capabilities.

The length and composition of the CISSP CAT exam vary, with candidates facing anywhere from 125 to 175 items, or 100 to 150 items for the updated exam version. Among these, a minimum of 75 operational (scored) items are required to be answered, and up to 125 operational items may be presented, including 50 pre-test (unscored) items. These pre-test questions are indistinguishable from scored ones and are included to assess potential questions for future exams.

The CISSP CAT Exam Scoring Overview

The CISSP CAT exam employs a complex yet precise scoring algorithm to assess a candidate's ability to meet the established passing standard. This scoring algorithm uses three main rules to decide whether you pass or fail:

  1. Confidence Interval Rule: After you answered the minimum required number of items (125 items if you're taking the exam before April 15, 2024, and 100 items if you take it after that), the exam can end if the algorithm is 95% confident that your ability is either above or below the passing standard. If the algorithm deems your ability is confidently above, you pass; if it is below, you fail.
  2. Maximum-Length Exam Rule: If you reach the maximum number of items (175 for the old CISSP exam and 150 for the updated version) without a clear pass or fail determination, the algorithm assesses your performance on the last 75 operational items. You pass if you consistently perform above the passing standard on these items. Any dip below this standard results in a failure, regardless of the confidence interval.
  3. Run-out-of-time (R.O.O.T.) Rule: If the exam reaches its maximum duration (4 hours for the old CISSP exam and 3 hours for the updated version) without activating the Confidence Interval Rule, the same assessment as the Maximum-Length Exam Rule applies. You automatically fail if you have not answered 75 operational items within this timeframe

CISSP CAT Exam Scoring Misconceptions

Let's clarify some common misconceptions about this CISSP exam format to ensure you're fully informed and can approach your preparation with confidence.

  • Question Difficulty: A common misunderstanding is that facing "easy" questions towards the end of the exam signals failure. Due to the exam's adaptive nature, the difficulty of questions is tailored to challenge each candidate appropriately based on their ability. Thus, every candidate concludes the exam with questions intended to be challenging, ensuring a fair assessment of their knowledge.
  • Passing Proficiency Level: Achieving success in the CISSP CAT exam doesn't necessitate scoring "Above Proficiency" in all domains. The exam operates on a compensatory basis, allowing strong performance in certain areas to offset weaker performance in others. This approach takes into account a candidate's comprehensive ability and knowledge across all domains to determine the overall exam result.
  • Failing with Minimum Item Count: Not passing the exam after answering the minimum required number of operational items (75) is not an outright indicator of poor performance. It simply means the algorithm could ascertain with a high degree of certainty that the candidate's proficiency was below the passing threshold based on their responses up to that point.

How to Prepare for the CISSP CAT Exam

Preparing for and taking the CISSP CAT exam requires a strategic approach before and during the test. Here are tips tailored for each scenario:

Before the Exam:

  • Solidify Your Knowledge Base: Ensure you have a strong grasp of all 8 domains covered by the CISSP exam. Use a variety of study resources, including books, an online course, and practice questions, to cover different learning angles. It's also best to supplement your study practice with a flashcard app to reinforce terminologies.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Regularly take full-length practice exams that mimic the CAT format. This will help you get accustomed to the pacing and pressure of the actual test.
  • Identify Weaknesses: Pinpointing your weak areas might seem daunting when studying alone, but there's a streamlined solution available. Destination Certification CISSP MasterClass is designed to automatically identify and adapt to your knowledge level, highlighting the domains where you need further improvement.
  • Develop Test-Taking Strategies: Learn techniques for answering difficult questions, such as eliminating incorrect options and making educated guesses when necessary. If you choose our MasterClass, we'll take this further by sharing targeted techniques for effectively reading and approaching each question, ensuring you're fully prepared to tackle the CISSP CAT exam's complexities.
  • Plan Your Exam Day: Know the location of your testing center and plan your travel. Ensure you have all required identification and materials ready the day before.
  • Rest and Relax: The night before the exam, try to relax and get a good night's sleep. Cramming at the last minute can lead to test-day anxiety and fatigue.

On the Day of the Exam:

  • Slow Down and Be Diligent: In the high-pressure environment of the CISSP CAT exam, there's a natural inclination to rush through questions. Resist this urge. Taking the time to read each question carefully ensures you fully grasp what's being asked.
  • Be Structured and Patient: Approach each question with a structured method. Don't let the stress of the ticking clock push you into hasty decisions. Patience is key in deciphering complex questions and scenarios.
  • Read Each Question Thrice: Adopt the habit of reading each question at least three times. The first read-through is to get a general sense of the question, the second to understand the nuances, and the third to identify and interpret keywords and phrases. This thorough review can uncover the core of what's being asked, guiding you to the most accurate answer.
  • Identify Keywords: In every question, look for important keywords that can significantly influence the meaning of the question or the correctness of an answer. Words like "not," "best," "most," and "least" can entirely change what the question requires from you. Identifying these keywords will help you eliminate incorrect answers and focus on the most relevant information.
  • Use the Process of Elimination: Narrow down your choices by eliminating wrong answers. This increases your chances of selecting the correct answer if you need to guess.
  • Stay Composed: Remember to keep your composure throughout the exam. If you are getting anxious or frustrated with a particularly challenging question, take a moment to breathe deeply and center yourself before returning to the task at hand.

Integrating these practices into your preparation will enhance your ability to navigate the CISSP CAT exam's complexities more effectively, ensuring that your hard-earned knowledge is accurately reflected in your answers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Can You Expect if You Take a Computerized Adaptive Testing Exam?

Expect a personalized test experience where each question's difficulty is based on your previous answers. The exam adapts to your performance in real time, aiming to assess your knowledge and skill level accurately.

How Does Computerized Adaptive Testing Choose Items for Individuals Taking the Test?

The CAT system selects questions based on your responses to previous items. If you answer correctly, the next question may be more challenging; if incorrect, the next might be easier. This ensures the exam is tailored to your ability level.

Can a Candidate Still Take the English CISSP Exam in a Linear Format?

No, the English version of the CISSP exam is exclusively available in the CAT format. The linear format is not offered for English language exams.

Is CISSP CAT a More Difficult Exam Than CISSP in the Linear Format?

Difficulty is subjective; however, the CAT format is designed to be adaptive and efficient, potentially making it feel more challenging as it zeroes in on your level of competence.

What Is the Break Policy for the CISSP CAT Exam?

The CISSP CAT exam allows scheduled breaks, but these are not paused during the exam time. Managing your time effectively is crucial to accommodate any breaks you take.

What Is the CISSP CAT Exam Retake Policy?

If you don't pass the CISSP CAT exam, you can retake it after 30 days. ISC2 imposes a 90-day waiting period for a second retake and a 180-day wait for any subsequent attempts, with a maximum of three attempts within 12 months.

Where Can I Take the CISSP CAT Exam?

You can take the CISSP CAT exam at authorized Pearson VUE testing centers. Pearson VUE is a global network of professional testing centers that offer a secure and controlled environment for high-stakes exams like the CISSP. It's recommended to book your exam slot in advance as availability can vary based on location and demand.

Ace the CISSP CAT Exam With Destination Certification

Conquering the CISSP CAT exam requires not just dedication but also the proper guidance and resources. That's where Destination Certification's MasterClass comes into play, offering the perfect training solution to prepare you for this challenging yet rewarding certification process.

Our MasterClass is meticulously designed to align with the unique demands of the CISSP CAT exam, providing a comprehensive understanding of all the critical domains covered in the test and perfectly aligned with the CISSP exam outline. Through a blend of expert-led videos, interactive sessions, and extensive practice tests, our course ensures that you're not just prepared but fully confident to tackle the exam head-on.

With our targeted training, adaptive learning approach, and unwavering support, you're not just preparing for an exam; you're setting the foundation for your future success in the cybersecurity field.

Join us, and let's tackle the CISSP CAT exam together, ensuring you emerge not just as a candidate but also as a certified cybersecurity professional ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

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Rob Witcher

Rob is the driving force behind the success of the Destination Certification CISSP program, leveraging over 15 years of security, privacy, and cloud assurance expertise. As a seasoned leader, he has guided numerous companies through high-profile security breaches and managed the development of multi-year security strategies. With a passion for education, Rob has delivered hundreds of globally acclaimed CCSP, CISSP, and ISACA classes, combining entertaining delivery with profound insights for exam success. You can reach out to Rob on LinkedIn.

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