By Cari A. Greenwood, RHIA, CCS, CPC, CICA

The secret to preparing for the CCS exam is that there is no secret. Success on the CCS is in your hands and depends in large part on your command of the guidelines, your familiarity with the code books, and your time management skills. Let’s take these one by one:

Command of the Guidelines
The coding guidelines are your coding bible. They are your official source of direction about how to select, build and/or sequence codes in both general and some very specific circumstances. While it would be difficult to absolutely memorize every guideline for every code set, you should be familiar enough with the guidelines to recognize situations where there are guidelines that direct coding and you should be able to find applicable guidelines when you need them.

To become familiar with the guidelines at the level of proficiency required of a CCS it is recommended that you study them, study them, and then study them again. Print a copy of the guidelines (you can find the ICD-10 guidelines here 2023 ICD-10-CM | CMS  and here 2023 ICD-10 PCS | CMS) and take them with you everywhere you go. Make use of all those little fragments of time when you are waiting in line, waiting for your child’s sporting event or dance/music performance to begin or sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s or dentist’s office for review of the guidelines.

Familiarity with the Code Books
If you are currently working as a medical coder, you probably do not regularly refer to a hard copy code book. Your encoder probably does much of the work for you. However, the CCS is intended to evaluate a candidate’s coding skills, not the efficacy of an encoder. As such, encoders and other electronic references are not allowed as resources for taking the test. Instead, candidates must use hard copy code books to find and verify the codes needed to answer the questions on the exam. This requirement means that exam candidates must know what information is found in the books, know where to find the information when they need it, and know how to apply that information to assigning and sequencing codes.

To sit for the CCS you must bring with you a copy of three code books: ICD-10-CM, ICD-10-PCS, and CPT. You must also ensure that the books you bring are for the year the test is based on and of an edition that is allowed for the test. Showing up with the wrong books will result in forfeiture of the exam and the fees paid to take the exam.

Time Management Skills
Test taking is in itself a particular skills set and it includes time management. The day you take the exam is not the time to scrutinize your time management skills!

The CCS Exam consists of between 115 and 140 questions, 9 of which are case scenarios from both the inpatient and various facility-based outpatient settings. You will have 4 hours to complete the exam. This means you have about 2 mins to complete each question. Of course some of the multiple choice questions you will be able to answer right away and the case scenarios will take longer to complete. No matter how you break it down though, you need to manage your time well so you have the opportunity to answer every question on the exam.

Some of the time you spend preparing for the CCS should be used to gauge how quickly you can evaluate answer choices and answer questions. You should consider taking a practice exam (Libman Education offers a great one) to give you a sense of what type of questions are most difficult for you to answer, how much time you spend on certain types of questions and to get an overall sense of how you would fare on the real exam with respect to time and content. The results of a practice exam may also uncover previously unidentified areas where you still need to focus your study efforts on things such as familiarity with coding specific diagnoses or procedures.

Yes, preparing for the CCS is a huge effort. This is a credential that takes time, hard work and dedication to acquire but that is the reason it is meaningful to employers. As an added bonus, keep in mind that once you pass the CCS exam, if you keep up with your CEUs, you never have to take this test again!

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Taught by Cari A. Greenwood, RHIA, CCS, CPC, CICA, an experienced coding educator with more than 18 years of experience in HIM. Learn more here.