How I Passed the Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt Exam on the First Try

how i passed my six sigma black belt

Since creating this website I’ve been able to expand my knowledge of Six Sigma practices and techniques to far beyond the preparations I did to pass the Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt exam. The most frequent question I get is centered on How I passed the Six Sigma Black Belt exam on the first try.

It’s an important question. Candidates usually take the exam after months of preparation and sometimes after thousands of dollars spent – either by their company or on their own. Sometimes, passing the exam is a job requirement; fail and you lose your job.

Personally, passing the exam was a job requirement as part of a new prestigious -and challenging – position I was offered in my company. I needed to pass the test as quickly as possible. Of course I had to fit that into a demanding career requiring travel and long hours. My wife and I also welcomed our first daughter during this time. Since we both work, that meant long days and nights for the both of us. Time was at a premium, the stakes were high, so I knew I had to optimize my time.

My plan of attack was as follows:

  • Talk to people who had passed and failed the exam
  • Affinitize the best practices of the people who passed the exam.
  • Find out what the people who failed did wrong.
  • Find people who passed the exam on the second try and do whatever they said made the difference.

Also, since the company I work for was providing it, I took the Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt course.

My Findings

When I talked to people who passed it they said ‘just study and you’ll be fine.’

That wasn’t good enough for me. What if they were smarter, had better memories, or had an easier test than I the one I was going to sit for? Also – study what? There had to be an optimized way of performing.

The Breakthrough

Then I talked to people who failed the first time. I asked what they would do differently. I made sure I did all of that. It was over kill, but I was prepared!!! Here are the best suggestions that I found:

Take a course and master it.

Check. Like I said before, I was taking the Villanova course as my company was paying for it. I resolved to do the following:

  • Complete all of the readings
    • Iincluding those not only required to pass it, but the suggested ones as well.
  • Watch all of the videos
  • Participate in all of the instructor-led lessons.
    • I could never make the time to attend live, but I watched all of the sessions in my off hours.
  • Completed all problem sets for every topic, not just the ones assigned.
  • Do every portion of the graded case study.
  • Retake every quizzes involved with the course.
    • You needed a 70% grade on each quiz to pass the course. I had received a passing grade on each quiz on the first try but since they give you 3 chances to take the quiz, I re-took each quiz until I ran out of chances.
  • I studied any question I got wrong.
    • It was important to know not only the right answer, but why the other questions are not correct.

Study the published Body of Knowledge (BOK)

Each certification organization states the topics they will be covering in the certification. This is referred to as the Body of Knowledge or BOK. An important note to remember is that an organization may offer a training course but that course will NOT teach you everything you need to know for the exam. That means that simply studying provided training materials IS NOT ENOUGH!

You must be fluent with all materials in the BOK.

In order to prepare for the BOK, I made certain I understood each area they were asking me. To help you study, I’ve made a list of each BOK subject for 3 major certifying organizations and linked to my study notes on each topic.

I also studied all the questions I could find on those topics. In order to achieve mastery, you must be able to answer question using any vocabulary set people use. Fortunately, there are plenty of free University resources out there on many of these topics – especially the probability and statistics.

Synthesized the BOK

The BOKs for each certification are excellent. But I found them to be very disjointed. In my mind it makes little sense to organize the demands of the certification that way. After all, that’s not how you would apply the knowledge. Also, there is little context. It’s difficult to see how one concept complements another.

That cognitive dissonance made it very difficult for me to remember all of the material so I chopped the material into sections on how you would apply it. You can see how I did so here under Six Sigma Tools Walk Through.

Along the way I made this website by transcribing all of my hand-written notes to pages! This practice helped me gather multiple viewpoints in one area. For many topics I wrote comprehensive articles on the concepts to help myself learn it better. I also searched for YouTube videos to get different perspectives.

Supplemental reading

Since the certification test is comprehensive and not merely a final exam, it covers more that what is in the course. Whenever an outside reference was mentioned I made sure to read it. Also, Iasked others about how else I could deepen my knowledge.

Check here to see the list of supplemental reading materials I covered in preparation for the six sigma black belt exam.

Real Life Application

Whenever I would read something in the Wall Street Journal or anywhere else that applied to Six Sigma principles, I would share it on LinkedIn or email it to colleagues and try to engage in conversation with other members. The goal here was to try to see the applicability of it in what I was learning in the real world. For example, articles on new product development = Design for Six Sigma or TRIZ. New Processes or process changing that led to businesses losing out to competitors usually boiled down to a root cause of the company not mapping CTCs to  CTQs.

Also, I again used visualization techniques to help out. One way I did this was by imagining myself talking to my company’s leaders about opportunities in their divisions in terms of the techniques I was learning. Alternately I’d imagine articulated an elevator speech relating an issue I saw in the world to a concept I learned to various top 100 CEOs.

Explaining what six sigma is and how it could help others is a great way to apply this material to real life. Friends and family in various positions and disciplines are certainly sick of hearing me talk about these materials by now!

Recently I’ve started publishing articles on these real or imagined conversations and other factual examples here under the category heading Six Sigma in Real Life.

Make Study Notes for the Exam.

Each Six Sigma Black Belt exam allows you to have certain kinds of notes. I made lots of decision sheets for myself. Ex. Use these hypothesis tests when this, not that.

It was helpful to have my notes in a format that I understood rather than looking up formulas in text books.

Also, I built Excel macros to help me error check my calculations.

Practice Exams

Retaking all of the quizzes was helpful. I highlighted the items I got wrong and worked those. By focusing on taking my lowest-scoring areas and then getting those individual areas 100% complete let me turning a weakness into a strength. Repeating that process ensured that regardless of how any section was weighted in the test I would be strong enough to pass.

Even though I was taking the Villanova Black Belt exam, I used example questions from any kind of format. This is helping me immensely as I prepared for the ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt exam.

Visualization & Reward

Envisioning yourself succeeding is a powerful psychological technique advocated in multiple disciplines. When I was in school and playing sports, I would envision the game before hand. In soccer, I would imagine where I would line up, how I would play the opposition’s defense, how I would pass, how I would execute the fundamentals of the game.

I’m unsure if this ever helped me play better, but it did drown out the voices of doubt that come into every competitor’s mind. I continue this practice to this day before adventure races, triathlons or other events.

I avoided ever verbalizing not passing or making self-deprecating jokes. Several colleagues would make jokes about having to take the test twice. While that can help calm some people’s nerves, you must be certain not to make those statements a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I also believe that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative. The threat of losing one’s job if you don’t pass an exam is an excellent motivator, but having a positive goal to shoot for is more fulfilling. Instead of worrying about what I would do if I didn’t pass the exam, I focused on what the rewards would be once I did pass. I imagined receiving the Six Sigma Black Belt certificate, I imagined how good it would feel with my mentors and colleagues congratulating me. I imagined updating my LinkedIn resume with the new accomplishment!

Finally, I wanted to reward myself for the effort whether I passed or failed. There was a 3-day weekend coming up right after my test so my wife and I took a day of vacation to extend it to 4 days. We rented a beach house with several of our other friends and their families. All of the guys made plans to do a deep sea fishing trip.

No matter if I passed or failed, I was going to enjoy a great vacation with my family and be surrounded by good friends. I’ll admit that I combined the techniques and whenever the preparation for the exam got tough, I visualized playing on the beach with my family, catching fish with my friends, and telling them over and over again how I passed the exam.

Where to take the Exam

The ASQ is a proctored exam, so you have to take that at the appropriate center. The Villanova is entirely on-line. As we know, ‘Variation is the enemy!’ So I focused on choosing an area where I had the best chance of performing well.

Even though my internet connection at home is not the best, I knew I could focus there. Several colleagues would take the exam at work after hours but this was not going to a great strategy for me.

As I was taking the exam at home I focused on making one room quiet, clean and calm.

I organized all of my notes. I eliminated distractions by cleaning out everything from the room and organizing all of my notes. I even installed Sub blocking drapes so there would not be glare on my monitor.

The Day Before the Exam

I had to work . Being busy there was a blessing. Diving deep in to work is a great distraction! Leading up to the exam I made time for exercise -even if it was only 30 minutes a day I would be sure to have a great workout and follow a clean diet avoiding sugar and caffeine while being sure to have as many vegetables and fruits as I could.

After work I avoided television, internet, and anything else. To clear my mind I played with my daughter. After she went to bed I read fiction all in a bid to avoid anxiety. Cramming the night before is counter productive. If you have prepared, you will succeed. If not, maybe you will get lucky. 24 hours out the die is already cast.

The best thing you can do is to have restful night’s sleep so I focused there. Sleeping aids leave me drowsy but I find Melatonin Tablets are a good natural alternative. I honestly don’t know if there is any science to melatonin. To me it’s irrelevant; even if the benefits I get from it are the same as a sugar pill I still get a great night’s sleep.

The Day of the Exam

Per my plan I worked from home. Made sure no one was around the house. I blocked out 4 hours. Dropped my daughter off at daycare, got my coffee, put up dark sun blocking drapes. Organized my materials in my home office / guest room. Things were on the bed behind me and all over! The excels that I made were up. Had my calculator set.

Took 4 hours and I went through answering all the ones I was sure of and ‘starring’ anything I did not. I made a list of the questions I was close, but not certain. I made a 2nd list of the ones I had no idea.

I went through working the ones I had narrowed it down and re-read. Hoping my subconscious had a chance to digest it. Also made sure that I read the questions correctly.

Many people warned me about how awkwardly worded the questions were and that they might make no sense with uses of double and triple negatives! I noted any question that had awkward writing and made certain to revisit those and read carefully.


Six Sigma Reward Fish!

Six Sigma Reward Fish!

A day or two later the results came in. I passed with a great grade. Even better, I dramatically improved my understanding of Six Sigma tools and techniques gaining skills that have helped me create great value for my clients and my company.

I followed through with my plans and had a great weekend with my family and friends. We even caught a bunch of tasty fish!


15 comments… add one
  • John

    Just curious, was the Villanova exam based off the same question bank (i.e. similar questions) than those from the course exams?

    I’m studying for my Green Belt now and always get a little anxious before taking an exam.


    • Hey John. Congratulations on finishing up the training. I can relate to the nerves. For the Villanova CSSB the questions were very different than the ones in the quizzes. There was no overlap. In fact, a few weeks before the test the person in charge of Six Sigma training for Bisk – the partner company for Villanova – sent an email stressing that the exam was NOT a final, it was a measure of the entire BOK.

      My advice is to know your quiz questions backwards and forwards – but do not expect to see them again. Make a concerted effort to go through every single portion of the BOK and know every topic they bring up there.

      A good way to practice other questions would be to look at the free practice exams I’ve listed here:

      What kind of studying have you been doing? What would you tell others to do to prepare that you’ve found useful?

  • Rey Torres


    I need advice regarding how to study for Villanova SSBB and MBB exams.


  • John W Harding

    First of all, thank you for making such a great website, it has really helped me with studying. After looking through a few practice questions, especially Indiana Quality Council’s, I am a bit nervous about this exam. Although I did well in the black belt course, passing every exam on the first try, and then retaking all the exams at a later date, I have a strong feeling the questions on this test are going to be significantly harder, or at least more awkwardly written. I found the ones from the Indiana QC Primer to be subjective at times. For example:

    8.21.What is the best definition of takt time?
    a.It is a calculated time element that equals customer demand
    b.It is the speed at which parts must be manufactured in order to satisfy demand
    C.It is the heartbeat of any lean system
    d.It is the application of kaizen to continuous flow manufacturing

    Although A through C are all correct to some extent, my first reaction was B, since that is the explanation that was written on iSixSigma, and in class. The answer was A.

    Is it best for me to assume the questions will be at this level, or will they be more similar to the quiz questions?

    • Hi John, Thanks for the warm words! I’m very glad the site helped! Not to worry, I think you’ll find the Villanova exam to be much easier than the QCI questions which I completely agree are subjective and poorly-written.

      I found the main benefit of QCI studying using the questions not their actual help, but for the fact that you had to parse their meanings (and often times grammar) so carefully that the concepts are indelibly inked in your memory.

      The “trick” to the Villanova exam is that 1) it is not a ‘final exam’ of what they instructed but rather a comprehensive exam on every thing they offered. and 2) there is specific “Villanova” verbiage that I just don’t see elsewhere in the industry.

      For point #1 review your old quizzes and ensure that you have mastered everything there. Not only the questions but every option on the multiple choices. Then go through your project, all of the recitation notes, and all optional / supplemental materials. When I was researching how to pass the test I found colleagues who failed the exam. They claimed that there was a lot of material in the Villanova exam that wasn’t taught. What I found was that, yes they test material that is not covered in the lectures or the quizzes but is certainly in the supplemental material. I also found that you must be familiar with how their video presenters phrase concepts (George Eckes, et al.)

      In the end, if you can go line-by-line on the Villanova Black Belt BOK and write a few paragraphs from memory on each concept, you’ll do fine. Have your reference materials available and a quiet room and you’ll do fine.

      Wish you the best of luck and let me know how I can help!

  • Baruch

    Greetings, thank you for creating an excellent resource for those of us who aspire to eventually become SSBB holders. Before I get bogged down into a grueling study regiment, I need clarification on one basic point – work experience. I am currently a Warehouse & Distribution Mgr for a Japanese based logistics company. Kaizen, JIT, 5S, TQM, Continuous Improvement, kanban etc, are integrated into our management system and SOPs. I have been applying Lean principles and concepts in Warehouse and Distribution before I knew it had a name – I’m a 15+ veteran of the industry. As an ISO 9001 company, I have served as Internal Auditor for about 10 years and ISO DMR for one. My tentative plans are to take the SSGB exam with a local college provider. Then, begin preparing for the SSBB exam with ASQ in OCT 2016. I want to make sure I would meet ASQ criteria of “three years of work experience in one of more areas of the SSGB BOK.” Can you give me any insight?

    • Thanks for the warm words and you’re very welcome! Glad it helps!!

      The affidavit and FAQs do not elaborate beyond that statement. Anecdotally, I’ve known people in a similar situation be accepted so I’m optimistic you would. It would be best to contact them. It might also be a good idea to make sure you list the six sigma tools and practices that you’ve utilized clearly on the resume that you need submit. Hope that helps! I think you’re a good bet, but let me know if you find out otherwise.

      Don’t for get that I’ve to got the entire ASQ Green Belt BOK and ASQ Black Belt BOK covered here (along with free quizzes, downloads, etc) for when you do start. Let me know what I can do to help out

      • Baruch

        Thank you very much. I will definitely follow-up with ASQ for final confirmation. Utilization of the earlier mentioned SSGB BOK will certainly be made.

  • Emily

    Did you complete the green belt certification course before pursuing a black belt?

    • Yes. Years before taking the BB I took a green belt course through a local college. I had to lead a project and pass the exam.

  • First, Thanks for taking the time and energy to put all of this together. I am going to reuse all your good work. Next, I got her via searches for ‘excel for six sigma formulas’. You said that you created one to verify your calculations. Can I have a copy of that to save myself some time?

  • Moreno Castro

    Hi Ted,

    Like you, I completed my LSSBB Course at Villanova University and I’m planning to take the Black Belt Certification this coming May or June. How many months will I take to prepare for the exam?

    I started reviewing materials from Villanova and I am basing my review on the study guide that you have provided. Do you think 4 months is enough to prepare for the exam?

    Thank you,

    • Hi Moreno. Congratulations on completing the course! Certainly a large investment of time. I think 4 months is more than enough time. Careful not to take too long – it’s difficult to retain all of the information you need to have at hand. Be sure to have a strategy for exhaustively studying each topical area as well as doing regular comprehensive exams to ensure you’re not losing any ground with material you’ve already mastered.

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