The Road to the BCBA

This post is for my peeps.

Lately I have been getting a ton of emails from ABA therapists working towards their BCBA certification, and wanting to know what to expect from the “Big Exam”. The exam is that last step on that long road towards becoming a BCBA, and walking closer and closer to it can understandably cause a lot of anxiety. I was certified in 2012, and I’m happy to share my experiences of preparing for the BCBA exam in the hopes that it can help someone else who is just starting the process.

The specific steps necessary for obtaining certification are provided in detail on the BACB website, but what many people want to know is “So….whats the test like???” The exam is the confidential property of the BACB, so the information found online about the exam will be vague, or speak in generalities. 

So, why pursue certification? You are a fan of data, the science of behavior, and you actually find pleasure in creating graphs. Or, your passion for this field and love of the work make ABA something you want as a career.  In your perfect world, ABA is what you would live and breathe.

If you are pursuing certification simply because you want to make a lot of money (there is great salary range, but a “high” salary isn’t necessarily guaranteed), you want to get away from “the table” (some companies require BCBAs provide direct therapy), you love working with kids with Autism (some BCBAs dont even work with individuals with Autism), or you think BCBAs just have desk jobs (I will explain this more below), then…..maybe this isn’t such a career path for you.
In addition to the requirements of the BACB, I also think that certain personality traits are necessary to be excellent at this job. To name a few: time management skills, excellent oral and written communication skills, creativity, leadership skills, ability to multitask, ability to work autonomously, problem solving skills, and attention to detail. To sum it up, I think many of the traits Type- A personalities tend to have would serve you well in this job.  Being a BCBA isn’t necessarily the cushy desk job some people think it is. It’s super difficult to describe a day in the life of a BCBA because depending on where you work, the population you serve, the ages you serve, etc., there will be much variability. 
So a hypothetical day for a BCBA could include providing direct therapy to clients, supervising direct staff and providing feedback, attending meetings, parent training, conducting workshops or trainings, conducting assessments or FBAs/FAs, school facilitation or observation, community outing skill training, and/or administrative tasks (at home or at the office) such as program development, creating materials, reading research articles, or looking for patterns and trends in collected data.

So now that you know what to expect from the job, here’s some tips for preparing for the exam. These tips may be helpful for you, and they may not. This is just what I found to be successful and helpful.

The BCBA Exam

-          Get into a great study group (either online or in person), that has a few BCBAs in it. It will be really helpful to have people present who have actually passed the exam.
-          Create study flashcards and visuals, and use these to build fluency.  When I study I need to do more than just read material. I made tons of flashcards of terms and concepts and reviewed them regularly, and for some of the cards I would tape them to the walls in my house so I was constantly looking at them. That visual cue was very helpful.
-          Dedicate time each day to reviewing material. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Carve out time, and set a space in your home for studying. For me, I studied best first thing in the morning with no TV, cell phone turned off, and music playing softly. Do what works best for you.
-          Get the “White Book”. The Cooper ABA book is essential in this line of work, and it’s an amazing study resource. Don’t just read it though; study the definitions and terms, answer the end of chapter questions, and discuss the chapters in your study group. This is a book you will reference throughout your career, so it’s a good idea to go ahead and purchase it now. Another study resource that worked for me is the BDS modules.  They’re similar to what the actual exam is like, and present questions in content area modules (such as a Behavioral Assessment section). The modules are also timed, so this is great practice for answering questions under a time crunch.
-          Reference the BCBA exam Task List, to assess your strengths and deficits, such as Ethical Conduct Guidelines. You want to use your study time wisely…it isn’t time effective to spend an hour reviewing material you are strong in. Instead use that time to focus on your deficits. Put on your Behavior Analyst thinking cap: If you were teaching a skill to a child and they just weren’t getting it, would you spend the majority of the session asking them things they already know, or modifying your teaching for the areas they’re struggling in?
-           Try to gain experience in the content areas you struggle in. I know for me, I learn better by doing than by reading about something. If you are stuck on a particular concept or term, such as the difference between a mand and a tact, then discuss these deficits with your supervisor. Seek out opportunities to actually apply these behavior analytic concepts and make the terms “real”. There are many terms that I now understand better because I have  implemented them during a therapy session. Just reading about them wasn’t enough for me to fully grasp it. Speaking of your supervisor, USE THEM! I have provided supervision for people pursuing certification and a common problem I notice is not asking enough questions/not asking for enough help. Especially if you are paying for supervision  then you really need to take advantage of the professional sitting in front of you at your supervision meetings.
-           Lastly, but by no means least of all, what helped me prepare for the BCBA exam the most was Prayer. Lots and lots of prayer. I had so much anxiety about the exam, about being prepared and really doing well, and intense pressure may be necessary to make diamonds, but it’s horrible when trying to learn and process information. Optimal learning just can’t occur when the body is full of stress. Over analyzing and stressing over the exam on a daily basis will only make it that much more difficult when you are sitting down to take the exam.


-A blog with some great evidence based study tips: Mindful Rambles

-If you are unable to find a local study group, an online study group I can recommend is called Students of Applied Behavior Analysis, and it is on Facebook.  The group is a good mix of people at various stages of preparing for the BCBA exam, as well as experienced BCBAs who can share their experiences and tips. The group also has a resource library containing free study materials. 

-This blog post is a must read for all my peeps prepping to cross that line into BCBA status. PLEASE dont get those 4 letters behind your name and then become one of those condescending, egotistical, and just plain rude Behavior Analysts who give the field a bad name.


  1. Thanks so much for this post! I will not sit for the exam until May 2014 but I have already been so stressed. I contacted you at the beginning of my BCBA journey when I first discovered your blog. I am now more than halfway finished with my supervision hours. Your posts have been very helpful and this one is exactly what I needed to see today. Thanks for being such a great resource!

    1. Hi Donyelle :-)

      You are almost at the goal, thats great! Try not to let the stress consume you, its not conducive to learning.

      Im glad the blog has been helpful!

  2. Thank you! I just found your blog. I am finishing up a Masters in Special Ed and beginning a Masters in ABA soon. I am already looking up study ideas, flashcards and material for the exam.

    Caren Stocks

    1. Hi Caren,

      Good luck in grad school! I think its an awesome idea to begin studying/preparing now, and becoming familiar with the Task List and Ethical Standards.

  3. Tameika,

    Thank you for the encouragement and what to become familiar with.

    Caren Stocks

  4. Outstanding Blog. Found it very refreshing that you included Prayer. Relationship are reinforcing so including this as part of the preparation and professional process was exceptional brave.

    1. Prayer changes circumstances!

      Thanks for checking out the blog :-)

  5. Thank you for your post! I am going to share this with my coworkers as many of them are RBTs, but seek to become BCBAs. We are going to post a link from our site to yours to spread this article! Quinn

  6. Glad it was helpful & thanks for checking out the blog!

  7. thanks for this blog post, glad I found it and it's still helpful after all these years. a lot of what you put in the list is something we've found helpful to and even put them in our bcba study manual on our website, BCBA Exam Prep.

    Thanks Tameika for sharing, im definitely going to browse around your blog for other good posts.

  8. Do you have recommended reading materials, especially those we use in courses?

    1. Hi there,

      I will usually make recommendations (if I have any) directly in the post, or at the bottom of the post it may say "recommended reading", or something like that.

      There is enough information out there to read yourself into eternity, so I usually only make recommendations when it's one of those go-to resources that I find myself pulling out over and over again.


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