9 tips for CISM exam success [updated 2022]

Claudio Dodt
July 4, 2022 by
Claudio Dodt

It is easy to understand why companies are in dire need of information security managers: Almost every day, new threats or vulnerabilities are discovered, and the risk of major security incidents keeps rising.

$150,040 average salary

$150,040 average salary

ISACA CISM is one of the industry's highest-paying cybersecurity certifications for 2023. Take your information security management career to new heights and enroll now to claim your Exam Pass Guarantee!

As security efforts shift from protection to prediction, the expertise level demanded of senior security experts continues to change and increase, and companies are having a tough time finding qualified professionals. One of the best ways to prepare for emerging career opportunities is to use high-level certifications such as ISACA’s CISM (Certified Information Security Manager) to provide evidence of both knowledge and experience.

Compared to similar certifications like the CISSP, the CISM stands out as mainly management-focused. The exam contains 150 questions across four CISM domains that you must complete in less than four hours. 

Earning CISM certification demonstrates that you have sufficient skills to understand the relationship between an information security program and broader business objectives. Here are a few practical tips to help you pass your CISM exam.

1. Read the ISACA’s exam candidate information guide

ISACA publishes a free updated version of its candidate guide every year. It provides lots of practical information for the CISM exam. You can review important topics such as exam registration, deadlines and key details for exam-day administration. It even contains valuable information such as the exam domains, the number of exam questions, exam length and languages. No candidate should take the CISM exam without reading this guide.

2. Learn to think like a manager

Unlike other security certifications, the CISM is management-focused. While it is essential for candidates to properly understand the technical concepts covered by the exam, it is essential to think like a manager. For instance, during the exam, what seems to be the perfect technical solution may not be the correct answer. You’ll need to consider factors such as company strategy, the costs involved and how a security control may negatively affect the business process. Developing a manager mindset and using a holistic, business-oriented approach is the best approach for solving CISM questions.

3. Make good use of the right resources

As with other ISACA’s top certifications, checking the official CISM Exam Resources should be a priority. The CISM Review Manual, available both as a hardcopy and as an e-book, is comprehensive and easy to navigate because it is divided into CISM’s four job practice areas: information security governance (17%), information security risk management (20%), information security program (33%) and incident management (30%). 

The CISM Review Manual features important items such as task and knowledge statements, self-assessment questions, suggested resources for further reading and an extensive glossary covering all the exam concepts. The latest version has been updated to include new elements such as “in-practice questions,” knowledge checks designed to reinforce and enhance the learning process, and case studies, making it easier to gain a practical perspective on the exam content.

Should you decide to use the CISM Review Manual, you can be sure the answer to every exam question is explained somewhere on its pages.

4. Take practice exams

As mentioned before, the CISM Review Manual adequately covers every inch of the exam content, but there is no substitute for practice questions when preparing for the CISM.

You should start by taking the free CISM Practice Quiz and then move to the official CISM Review Questions, Answers & Explanations, which is available both as a hardcopy and as a web-based subscription service. Either way, the content is similar: a question pool with answers explained in detail. Keep in mind that, while questions are not exam questions, the type, structure and difficulty level fully represent what is expected of candidates during the test.

The online version allows the creation of custom sample exams, ranging from quick 20-question rounds to full 150-question simulations. Its record-tracking feature allows you to identify your strengths and weaknesses, based on specific domains or subjects, helping you focus your study efforts accordingly.

5. Create a study plan

Be realistic about your work and life obligations. Try to schedule study time during your downtime or at times when you may be using some of the material you are learning.

Here are other factors to consider while creating your study plan:

How soon do you intend to take the examination? Check the PSI website to find a time that works for you.

How much can you spend on preparation material and training courses? Look for official, certified study materials and CISM training to ensure you thoroughly understand each topic covered in the exam.

What training method best suits you? Some people prefer self-learning, while others think there is no substitute for the classroom. Use your past learning experiences to help you pick the method that will best help you prepare.

How well acquainted are you already with the exam subjects? Your personal experience can save you some studying time, but you should consider factors such as exam length and question logic. Relying too much on experience alone is a poor strategy that will likely lead to poor results.

6. Get involved in an exam prep course

Deciding to use a self-study-only approach may seem like a bold decision, but it may not be the best strategy. A certification preparation course lets you spend time with an experienced instructor who has actual knowledge about how to pass the exam. It is an excellent opportunity to get all your questions answered, share experiences and strategies, and even network if it is in-person training. This results in a greater success rate on any certification exam. 

7. Join the CISM Exam Study Community

ISACA sponsors the CISM Exam Study Community, which is freely open to every candidate. It was created to allow the sharing of questions, study methods and tips for the exam. Community leaders coordinate it; they are past top candidates who moderate message boards and facilitate discussions.

Again, don’t dismiss the CISM exam community: It is a terrific place for learning what to expect the day of the exam, it costs nothing and allows candidates to ask and answer questions, read study tips, share experiences, find exam preparation resources and be in direct contact with other like-minded professionals who are facing (or have successfully faced) the same challenge.

8. Have an exam-day preparation plan

Address these three basic items at least a week in advance of your exam:

Is your exam kit ready? Check the Exam Candidate Guide to make sure you have everything you need for the day of your CISM exam.

Are you calm and well-rested? Many candidates fail because of physical and mental exhaustion. Staying up late doing a final round of study may sound tempting, but last-minute reading is usually not a good thing and may even leave you anxious. If you think it is important to do a final review, do a selective reading instead. Also, do not focus solely on weaknesses. If you have not mastered a specific topic until now, you may prefer to focus on enhancing the areas where you’re good. A great tool for selective reading is using summaries or glossaries.

Did you make arrangements to be on time at the test site? Candidates may not be admitted to the site if they are late. If you are using public transportation, double-check the best routes; if you are driving to the exam site, make sure you know where to park beforehand. 

9. Clear your mind

Use these tips to clear your mind and stay focused during the exam:

  • Be aware of time. During the exam, you may reach a high level of concentration I call “the zone.” This means a greater focus, which is suitable for problem-solving but can cause you to lose track of time. What may seem like seconds can be precious minutes; hours tend to pass quickly, so make sure you have time to go through every question on the exam.
  • Take your time reading the questions. Even with limited time, it is important not to rush. Take your time, pay attention to each answer option and make sure you understand what is being asked. Watch for distractors (options that are obviously false) in multiple-choice questions that can be quickly eliminated. It is also important to pay close attention to terms such as MOST, LEAST, NOT, ALL, NEVER and ALWAYS since they can entirely change a sentence.
  • Try to relax. Remember to stretch and relax your muscles during the exam. A relaxed mind can help you solve difficult questions.
  • Remember, there is no reason to panic. Remaining calm will improve your concentration. If you followed your study plan correctly, your results will probably be great; if not, you will have much more experience during the next try!

All in all, earning the CISM certification is a wonderful way to demonstrate a high commitment to your information security management skills. It will show you have advanced expertise in information security, along with the knowledge and experience required to develop and manage a complete information security program. Plan ahead, use these nine tips as a basis for your study strategy, and consider enrolling in ISACA CISM official training.

For more information on the CISM certification, view our ISACA CISM hub.



Claudio Dodt
Claudio Dodt

Cláudio Dodt is an Information Security Evangelist, consultant, trainer, speaker and blogger. He has more than ten years worth of experience working with Information Security, IT Service Management, IT Corporate Governance and Risk Management.