The Three Keys to CCS Exam Success

by Mary Beth York, CCS, CCS-P, CIC

Earning your CCS is a hugely ambitious goal. It takes planning and real effort.

Having taught CCS Exam Prep for many years, I see three keys to CCS success. The keys are foundational knowledge of the code sets, in-depth knowledge of the guidelines, and comfort in using the coding books.

There are no shortcuts. You must know your stuff.

Key #1 – Foundational Knowledge of the Code Sets

The CCS tests your knowledge of the three code sets used in hospitals: ICD-10-CM for coding of diagnosis coding, ICD-10-PCS for coding of hospital inpatient procedures, and CPT for coding of outpatient surgical procedures.

While there is always someone able to pass the CCS without experience, it is not recommended. Coders must be able to translate complicated medical prose into the Code Sets. Years of reading records and applying codes provides the hands on experience necessary to successful prepare for the CCS exam. It is the combination of the experience with the demonstrated mastery level credential that makes the CCS coder highly sought after by employers.

Key #2 – It’s the Guidelines

The ICD-10 CM and PCS guidelines are found in a specific section of each book and are available during the exam; however there is no time to look up the guidelines during the exam. The ability to recall, analyze, and apply the Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting within 60 seconds is a must for CCS success.

Let me give you some examples:

  • The CM guideline for selection of principal diagnosis: “In the unusual instance when two or more diagnoses equally meet the criteria for principal diagnosis as determined by the circumstances of admission, diagnostic workup and/or therapy provided, and the Alphabetic Index, Tabular List, or another coding guidelines does not provide sequencing direction, any one of the diagnoses may be sequenced first.”
  • According to the PCS guidelines: “If the intended procedure is discontinued, code the procedure to the root operation performed. If a procedure is discontinued before any other root operation is performed, code the root operation Inspection of the body part or anatomical region inspected.”
  • On the CPT side: The AMA CPT coding guidelines are contained throughout the book and at the code(s) where the guideline applies. However, you do not want to read any specific guideline for the first time during the exam. CCS preparation must include reading the AMA CPT coding guidelines. I recommend highlighting key terms to assist you.


Key #3 – Use of Your Code Books

Encoders are a fact of life in most hospital-based coding positions but there is no encoder available to you when you sit for the CCS exam. A CCS exam candidate must be able to use their ICD-10 CM, ICD-10 PCS and AMA CPT books skillfully. Fumbling through will not work – you need skill and precision.

I work with coders to prepare them to sit for the CCS coding credential. Homework is a big part of how they learn and how I am able to monitor their progress. My students who use an encoder instead of their code book will arrive at the wrong answer but more importantly, will shortchange themselves of the practice necessary to learn to use their code books skillfully.

The CCS is a long exam, 4 hours, but if you are not already comfortable and familiar with your code book you will run out of time. 


Time Running out to Apply for the January CCS Exam Prep
AHIMA’s Certified Coding Specialist (CCS) coding credential indicates mastery-level skills in coding of inpatient and outpatient hospital records.

Learn from nationally renowned CCS exam instructor Mary Beth York! Online studies plus live instruction and proven test-taking strategies that have helped hundreds to achieve CCS success.

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About the Author

Mary Beth York, CCS, CCS-P, CIC
Mary Beth York has over twenty year's experience in coding, auditing and documentation improvement for hospitals ranging from community to teaching hospitals as well as physician group practices. Mary Beth is the author of Libman Education's highly successful CCS Exam Prep course, as well as Libman Education's highly successful CCA Exam Review course. 

2 thoughts on “The Three Keys to CCS Exam Success

  1. Donald E Rouse - December 23, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Is the CCS exam still in Beta? Will it be in Beta on April 1, 2020?

    Best regards,

    • Libman Education - December 26, 2019 at 7:43 pm

      Hi Nick,
      Thanks for the inquiry. The Beta period for the current exam is now over and candidates taking the exam receive immediate scoring. If AHIMA has a Beta period for their new exam, it would start May 1 when the new exam is offered.

      Can we help you prepare? Libman Education offers several CCS preparation options: