4 Essential Tips for Passing the ITIL Foundation Exam

Congrats on deciding to take the plunge and get ITIL Foundation certified! If it’s been a minute since you’ve sat for an exam, you may be a little anxious about the whole thing. Totally understandable. I’m here to rid you of those worries with these four time-tested tips to help you pass the ITIL Foundation exam on the first try.

Off we go!

1. Take an ITIL Foundation Class

This is hands-down the best way to ensure success on the ITIL Foundation exam. Can you take the exam without the class? Yep, but it will dramatically increase your study time – and stress level. There is no substitute for taking a class from an instructor who’s seen the exam a thousand times, knows the material backward and forward, and has implemented ITIL concepts in daily life. Plus, through discussions with your instructor and other students, the class offers a ton of insight around how to implement ITIL concepts, which I hope is the reason you’re interested in getting the certification in the first place.

NOTE: If you decide to take an ITIL Foundation class, do your due diligence in choosing a training provider. Not all trainers are created equal. Ask these questions before you register to be sure you’re getting on board with the right people.

BONUS NOTE: Our classes come with an exam pass guarantee to further cut down any worries you may have. So, there’s that. 

2. Be Smart in How You Study

This one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think they can simply attend a class or read a few blog posts and pass the ITIL Foundation exam with flying colors. While those things will certainly improve your likelihood of passing, they’re not by any stretch a replacement for studying.

Plan on spending about an hour each evening after class studying key concepts. (Please avoid the all-nighter the night before the exam – it does not work.) If your training provider is a good one, they’ll give you activities to make studying more fun (we use crossword puzzles and other fun games) and/or quick reference guides that highlight the essential information from class. The key here is to concentrate your study time on the most important ITIL concepts; It’s critical to understand the why behind it all.

Why the why? First of all, you’ll encounter a ton of new vocabulary (terminology, acronyms, etc.) over the course of a three-day ITIL Foundation class. But the exam doesn’t stop with asking you to define these terms – it asks you to put them into real-life context. So, simply memorizing the vocabulary flashcard-style isn’t going to cut it. It’s like learning a new language: You can memorize all the nouns you want, but if you can’t conjugate those verbs and form a complete sentence, they don’t do you much good. The more effort you dedicate to studying the truly important things (the whys in addition to the terminology), the less time you’ll need to study overall – and the better prepared you’ll be to take the exam.

3. Remember to RTFQ

Similar to the old IT adage, RTFM (read the *flipping* manual), make sure to Read the FULL question on the ITIL Foundation exam! This is important because one word can change the entire meaning of the question. Some of the questions can be worded in a tricky or confusing way, so make sure you understand exactly what the question is asking you before moving on to the next one. Students who are most successful on the exam make a conscience effort to slow down and Read The Full Question as well as each of the four answers. Keep in mind that you have a full hour to answer 40 multiple-choice questions. This is plenty of time to go through the exam more than once – to revisit any questions you may have been unsure about on your first pass. Don’t rush through it and end up losing a few test points as a result – be methodical. If you took me up on tip No. 2, you’ll have more than enough time.

4. Write on the Exam

If you’ve taken the PMP exam, you’ll remember one of the things most instructors tell you to do is take time at the beginning to do a “brain dump”. Some students find it helpful to do the same at the beginning of the ITIL Foundation exam. I recommend taking the exam on paper (that’s how we deliver it in our classes) because you can write on the exam itself; you can write down any mnemonics or tricks you learned during class (eg. “Sue Doesn’t Take Others’ Input” to remind you of the five phases of the IT Service Management lifecycle: Strategy, Design, Transition, Operations, and Improvement). Online exams exist but in taking that route, however tech-savvy it may seem, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to create your own reference manual of sorts at the outset. It’s a truly valuable asset and I humbly suggest you take advantage of it.

Another helpful way to mark up the exam is to cross out any answers that are obviously wrong. The sadists who write the exams like to test your knowledge of certain concepts by asking several variations on the same question. There may be a few questions checking that you know the difference between a function (a team of people) and a process (an activity or set of steps), for example:

Which process is responsible for restoring normal operation as quickly as possible?

  1. Incident Management
  2. Service Desk
  3. Problem Management
  4. IT Operations Control

Answers B and D can be eliminated because they are not processes, they are functions. Choosing between A and C is easier than choosing between A, B, C, and D! Putting pen to paper and physically crossing the obviously wrong answers helps you in a couple ways (the answer’s A by the way). On your first pass through the exam, it helps in that you’re visually reducing your choices, simplifying the decision-making. It also helps should that question be one you want to revisit later; it’s a huge load off when you come back that second (or third) time around and remember you really only have two options. I can assure you any bit of relief is a life saver when you find yourself in panic mode toward the end of a timed exam.

So, that’s it.  Take a class, be smart in how you study, read each question carefully, and don’t be afraid to write on the exam. If you follow these four tips, you will successfully pass ITIL Foundation the first time, have bragging rights forever, and be able to put a shiny new certification on your résumé.

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Originally published May 05 2017, updated December 12 2019