CDRE Part 2: Exam Structure and How to Prepare

Hi again, Brie here! Welcome to Part 2 of my blog on the CDRE. If you haven’t yet checked out part one, you can by clicking here. This time, we’ll be going into a little more detail on the format and structure of the exam. Before we begin, I want to stress that most of this information can also be found in the CDRE Prep Guide.While I’ve highlighted some of the important points, I strongly suggest you still read the guide, too!

The CDRE Prep Guide


You know how new appliances come with a disclaimer that says “please read the instruction manual before operation”? Well the CDRE comes with a similar suggestion, except this time you really should open it and read it thoroughly! It may seem tedious, but the CDRE prep guide covers everything you need to know about writing the exam. Every. Single. Thing. I’m talking so much detail that on their list of things you can bring in with you, it even lists your glasses!

Exam Format

Before you dive into studying, it’s important to understand the format and structure of the exam. The CDRE consists of 185 multiple-choice questions, which you have 4 hours to complete. There are some independent questions as well as passage-based questions with 3-6 questions related to a single case or scenario. It’s done completely through a computer-based system, but you do have a white board and marker to help you work through your thoughts. The good thing is that you definitely don’t have to waste time re-learning how to draw the Krebs Cycle!

Cognitive Categories

The exam is broken down into three cognitive categories, so different questions test varying levels of cognitive ability. When reading the exam questions, look for words that indicate the cognitive category. For example, the word ‘integrate’ indicates a higher cognitive level than ‘identify’.

  • 15% of questions demonstrate broad knowledge
  • 35% demonstrate comprehension of knowledge
  • 50% employ critical thinking (analyzing, interpreting, and applying knowledge)

Practice Competencies

The CDRE tests performance indicators from one of five practice competency areas. Pay close attention to each question and what it’s really asking, because it can be tricky. For example, the setting might be in a food service kitchen, but the question is actually testing a communication-related performance indicator. It’s really important to identify which competency area is being tested since it can influence your answer! (See How to Read an Exam Question in the prep guide).

  • 15% Professional Practice
  • 13% Communication and Collaboration
  • 35% Nutrition Care
  • 15% Population and Public Health
  • 22% Management

Knowledge Topics and Tips


            If you’re here looking for a specific list of what to study, I’m sorry to disappoint… Not only is that impractical, I’m also not allowed to discuss any exam specifics! I can, however, give you a few tips that might guide your studying decisions and better prepare you for taking the exam:

  • Check out Appendix G: Knowledge Topics of the prep guide. This is the closest thing you’ll find to a study guide! Remember, while it is a long list, it’s not all-inclusive.
  • Crack open old textbooks and read over internship notes. I found my nutrition care and food service management textbooks especially helpful.
  • Know your clinical conditions. As indicated by the distribution of the competency areas, the exam is heavy on nutrition care
  • Do your research on clinical areas that you weren’t exposed to yourself during internship placements. The CDRE will touch on pretty much every condition and clinical area in some way, so be prepared for that!
  • Don’t memorize conversions or equations. All the calculations will be done for you so that you can focus on just applying your knowledge!
  • Be familiar with common lab values. While the normal range may be given to you, you should still be able to interpret the lab values an entry-level dietitian would deal with.
  • There might seem to be more than one right answer. When this happens, use temporal clues to figure out what answer is the most correct. For example, “What should the dietitian do first?”.
  • Do the practice questions in the exam guide!!! They are perfect examples of actual exam questions and will help you get used to the wording.

Exam Scoring

            Something I really struggled with heading into the exam is not knowing what “score” I needed. It’s not surprising – throughout our student careers, the value of a number or letter grade is drilled into our heads. However, the CDRE is simply pass or fail. It measures if you demonstrate minimal competence, not HOW competent you are. The actual passing score for the exam is not released, and since you don’t know what “score” you’re aiming for, it’s totally normal to leave the exam not knowing how to really feel about it. But the good news is, it’s over! There’s no sense in dwelling on it, or else you’re in for a long 6 weeks.

Remember, you wouldn’t have a degree and an internship under your belt if you weren’t capable of passing this exam! And for those who don’t, that’s ok too, it happens. Just pull yourself together and kill it on the second round!

Good luck and happy studying!


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