How to Fail The Customs Broker License Exam (and what to do about it)

1) Do Not Take Practice Exams

    The US Customs Broker’s license exam requires high reading comprehension skills and excellent time management.

     Specifically, there are 80 questions and you have four and a half hours to get it done.  My Marshall University math tells me you have about three and a half minutes per question.  Taking multiple practice tests hones the critical skill of sorting out the information within the passage question meant to debase you from the core regulatory matter at hand.

     If you want to pass this exam, you must take no less than five and preferably 10 timed practice tests from start to finish.  While you can start with just practice questions here and there, you must practice starting to finish with all 80 questions while being timed at four and a half hours.

     With that much practice, you’ll develop the ability to skim the questions first and reread them as needed. Exam Takers who don’t correctly practice, run into difficulty because they read each passage too closely multiple tries and lose track of time. You simply cannot afford to end up reading many of the passage questions three to four times.

     By using the skimming technique and becoming familiar with what 3.375 minutes feel like and you will develop logical patterns with a comfort level to allow great time management.

2) Obsess About Indexing Your Tariff Book and 19 CFR

     It’s just not practical to mark and highlight every possible point that might be an answer to an Exam question. Since the Exam is “open book” there has been a lot written about the preparation of material, but it’s very easy to go overboard. Over-preparation of material instills a false sense of readiness and is often a mask for the Taker’s fear of failing as they develop a reluctance to actually take the Exam- even though they are “preparing”

     This “Exam Reluctance” is really about being honest with yourself and overcoming that fear. You do that with the confidence developed with study and practice- not tabbing and highlighting. Ask yourself if you are really committed to the effort and the time it takes to get through it.  Many people go into the Test through work incentives or a promotion might be hinged on getting a License- It’s real pressure! 

     All of this busy work, absent of actual study and practice, mounts even more pressure. When it gets close to test time some Takers think they’ve not had enough time to prepare and they just drop out.

     Exam topics typically include: Entry; Classification; Trade Agreements; Valuation; Broker Compliance; Power of Attorney; Marking; Drawback; Bonds; Foreign Trade Zones; Warehouse Entries; Intellectual Property Rights; and other subjects pertinent to a broker’s duties.(1)

     My recommendation is to tab Part 111 in Title 19 as past Exams tend to focus in this area. For the Harmonized Tariff Book, tab the General Rules of Interpretation along with the Chapters and General Notes.

The bottom line is to keep it simple- don’t get lost in endless details.

3) Set up a Huge Group Study with Co-Workers

     In most cases, Takers are already in Customs Brokerage or Logistics and are working a full day. I’ve witnessed study groups and many (not all) waste enormous amounts of time. Group participants end up talking about the day’s work and the latest office gossip. It’s easy to waste an hour (or more) of valuable time. 

      Additionally, ask about the benefit of spending an extra two hours a day studying with folks you’ve just spent at least eight hours with working. You are in a much different setting than classroom groups back in High School and College. Classroom lectures are only a few hours a week and it’s great to share notes from the lecture- we’re not talking about note-sharing here.

Get a study buddy (that means one) to help hold you accountable, but skip the study groups.

4) Dwell and Fret about April versus October Exam Dates

     The Broker’s Exam occurs each year in April and October. There is no evidence that US Customs manipulates the pass rate at certain times of the year.  

     Schedule the test when it makes sense for your schedule during the time of the year you are best able to prepare. The important thing is you find the study time and put in the work. Ask yourself when you are most comfortable during the year and target that range.

Forget about the April versus October conspiracy theory. It’s a distraction.

5) Do Not Establish Study Goals with Milestones

     My personal recommendation is to work within a four-month time frame. How you dice your study time will depend on your work and personal life balance.  Get that support from not only your study buddy but also from those close to you in your life.  Talk to your employer and family so they are aware of the demand they can help you succeed by giving you the time you need.

     The truth of the matter is, the time you should spend preparing is unique to you and not something I can prescribe; no one person digests information the same and each has different test-taking skills.

      What you don’t want to do is to begin the process with only two months or less.

     If you purchase Exam study courses, most will have a logical sequence of recommended study. Some will even have timeline goals. Regardless, I recommend mapping out, in writing, where you want to be within what time frame. Repeat as necessary and then repeat!

      While it’s a difficult test it’s not impossible. There are approximately 11,000 active Licensed Customs Brokers in the United States, so thousands have made the journey.

Good Luck!

Useful Link to get you started:—preparation-and-training-suggestions-for-customs-broker

Credit: US Customs; Customs Broker License Examination – Notice of Examination; August 2016

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