Considering ICF Certification? Here are my insights for the process & taking the CKA Exam

I was thrilled to receive my Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Several clients and colleagues have been asking about the process and what I did to prepare for the Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA) Exam. I thought I’d gather my process insights for them, and at the same time share with any others out there considering certification.

Certification Steps

  1. Complete an ICF-Accredited Training Program (60 hours)

I completed an ICF-accredited training program with Ben Harvey at Authentic Education in Sydney (I love their programs!) plus the 60 hour Accelerated Coaching Course provided me with ICF required “training” hours (ACSTH).

  1. Practice Coaching (100 hours) & Recording

You should immediately start ‘practice coaching’ after your training as you’ll need to log 100 hours of coaching experience with clients (including paid experience) within 18 months after completing your training. You’ll need to send in a sample of your practice coaching sessions to ICF for grading. The recording will need to be approximately 40 minutes. Check the timing requirements as they vary according to geography (as I found with a client in Europe). I found it useful to review and highlight what constitutes a FAIL when assessors review your recorded coaching session. It sounds a bit negative, but for me it raised awareness of what NOT to do and avoided sending in a recording that would not pass. It takes about three months for the assessment so you do NOT want to start over and lose valuable time. When you are nearing 70-80 hours in your coaching practice log, it’s time to find a mentor.

  1. Partner with a Mentor (10 Hours)

You’ll need to complete 10 hours as a mentee (I know, candies spring to mind for me too – please stay focused, this is important). You work with a mentor over a minimum three month period, which you’ll need to document later in your ICF application. You can do this on a 1:1 basis, or I chose a GROUP mentor option with Kim Townsend which gave me the benefit of 1:1 hours with her PLUS group sessions. I found the discussions we had during Group coaching sessions gave greater depth of understanding to the ICF Core Competencies because everyone had different examples of how they interpreted the meaning. The breadth of personalities meant that during the CKA Exam, I would reflect on their applications when a few of the questions could be interpreted differently. PLUS, as my 1:1 mentor, Kim gave feedback on my recording and ways to improve my coaching practice. 

  1. Complete the ICF Application

You’ll need to assemble your recording – a written transcript of your recording ( works a treat); plus your application fee (it is cheaper if you are a registered ICF member-do it); details of your training hours; and confirmation of coaching log (that can be audited, so keep good records). It will take around 12-14 weeks for ICF to review your application, so while you’re waiting, check out these celebs that use coaches and remember why you are going through the process to be one of the best!

  1. Prepare & Take the CKA Exam

You will receive a URL to take the CKA test AFTER your recording has been reviewed and you have passed that part of the certification process. Be patient and take the time to study. The exam is LONG (3 hours) and currently contains 155 multiple-choice test items - but it is NOT difficult. You will pass if you are fully prepared. That preparation started during your training and should have been reinforced with your mentor. Once you complete the exam, you will receive your results immediately. You only need to get 70% to pass – so keep it in perspective. You got this!


Taking the CKA Exam

Here are a few tips from my experience to help you prepare for the exam.

1.  You Got This: Be aware of your ‘student’ & ‘need to achieve’ triggers

I’ve seen more successful professionals get their knickers in a twist at the mention of the exam – as if a ‘test scenario’ was a foreign experience. We all have our own triggers and overwhelm throwbacks from days gone by at high school or college. What a great opportunity to coach yourself :) Be aware of your triggers through the process and get out the affirmation cards. You are completing a journey that likely began 18 months ago with training. Acknowledge that you are growing – Yay. You Got This!

2.  Review & Embody the ICF Foundations

Review the ICF CKA page early in your preparation, as it covers the format of the test, sample questions, timing and FAQs. According to ICF, having a standardized and scientifically constructed test delivered by a credentialing organization is a globally recognized way to help ensure the fairness and strength of the ICF Credential. Note that ALL the questions are based on the ICF definition of coaching, the Core Competencies (the revised version goes into effect 2021), and the ICF Code of Ethics. These are the ESSENTIALS to know, study, review and embody for the test. Remember WHY the ICF is having you complete this test – these are the foundations for the coaching profession – the exam is NOT the place to apply a creative interpretation – just stick to the ICF basics and you’ll do great!

3.  Preparing for ‘Test Day’

These are my top three tips used to prepare (and trick my brain to reduce anxiety) before Test Day:

  1. Gather review documents for Test Day - What REALLY worked for me, before and DURING the test, was to have a printed version of my review documents (refer to ii.). I added examples in the margins from my group mentoring sessions (different interpretations), and highlighted the subcategories in each domain, so I could readily glance down for easy reference, and/or re-read sections when more difficult questions needed reflection.
  2. Take a sample test - The ‘sample questions’ for the CKA on the ICF website bold the correct answers, so it doesn’t really give you a real test situation. Taking a course on how to take the test seemed like overkill. Instead, I tried Cathy Shaughnessy (MCC) sample quiz to get a feel for what it is like to take the exam. My brain was happy with the familiarization of the format and answer set up.
  3. Prepare the place you’ll take the test – You will have three hours to complete the test. Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. I like to surround myself with beauty – flowers, nice scenery, jug of water – we are all different. Be sure to remove all distractions – the usuals – phone off, lots of water, eat well prior. And since the online test can be taken 24/7, take advantage of your best energy and focus time. I completed my test first thing in the morning and was celebrating success at lunch.

Test Day

These are my top three takeaways for Test Day:

i.  Tech Check

When you get your URL with log in details for the portal, it will advise you to turn off your pop-up blocker and enable cookies ahead of ‘taking the test’. You’ll need to change the password when you log in. Write it down so if you need to log in again, you’ll have it. Technology always freaks me out a little, so I made sure I had copied the test LINKS and passwords AND wrote them down as a back-up ‘just in case’ I got logged out. It happens, as shared by John Inge S Hervik in his useful post about his CKA experience. I loved John’s advice to take a deep breath, log in again, and press the ‘resume test’ button. Thanks John.

ii.  ‘Take Test’ & Timing

Once you log into the portal, follow the instructions. You’ll need to click ‘take test’ several times before you actually BEGIN and the timer starts. It is worth doing the short tutorial to settle you in and familiarise the format. You have the option to extend the summary questions in view from 10 to 50 (I didn’t bother, you are really only focused on the one question you are answering). You can click a question to ‘mark for review’ but I just jotted question numbers on a scratch pad on my desk instead. I would review if I had time. I am a bit of a control freak, so was keen to ensure my three hours was split across the 155 questions accurately (i.e., about a minute per question). I also used my cell phone to track time, setting an alarm for one hour segments. Both stop gaps were unnecessary as the timer on the screen was enough of a reminder, and of course some answers were simple, and others I contemplated for far too long.

iii.  Question Review & Results

We all answer tests differently. I decided I’d work through each question and answer it to the best of my ability first time through –noting the questions I would review if I had time. My advice would be to skim through the competency areas quickly BEFORE starting to answer in that domain area. This allowed me to really put myself into that topic space, refresh the ‘wording’ used by ICF (remember stick to the basics), and quickly answer the straightforward test items. I had more time then, to consider the tougher questions. After finishing the first few domain areas, I relaxed a bit more, until I hit the ethics questions. These required me to shift gears and rely more on the practice of coaching and scenarios I’ve personally found myself in when working with clients. This area for me took a little longer – more reflection time for some scenarios – but overall, I was still finished the test – including my question review, within two and half hours. I did not race through questions, and took at least three ‘comfort stops’ (all that hydration).  Three hours is plenty of time, but don’t dawdle. You’ll immediately receive your results. I’m sure you will pass if you prepared, but don’t despair if you don’t – you can re-take the exam again (for a fee) up to two more times each quarter.

Good luck with your preparations and taking the CKA exam. It is an exciting step to join the ICF and our 20,000 coaches around the world with ICF accreditation. ICF is the ONLY international coaching organization that offers independent certification.

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