How to Prepare for a Certification Exam

By Jason W. EckertExam preparation is widely considered to be a laborious task. When I asked my daughter for her opinion regarding exams, she was very succinct: exams suck.However, the process of getting certified in IT can be fun at times and highly educational. Even pouring through sample exam questions and configuring software technologies that you haven’t spent much time with before can consolidate your understanding of those technologies that you are familiar with.Preparing for a certification exam allows you to break from your daily routing of configuring technologies and organizes your thoughts. You will make connections that you wouldn’t otherwise make, and will become better at explaining technologies to others. Plus, you will always find a few technologies or features that you didn’t know about before preparing for the certification exam.In that sense, preparing for an IT certification exam is less of a test of your current knowledge and more of a project that allows you to complete your knowledge of a certain topic. If you treat it as a project, preparing for a certification exam can be enjoyable.What you need:

  1. Experience configuring the technology AND/OR some educational resource (textbook, course).
  2. A test lab at home or work you can use to play with the technology during your preparation. This test lab should have all the necessary software – often, vendors of proprietary software offer free evaluation copies, which are ideal for exam preparation.
  3. Some practice questions. This may come on the CD in the back of your textbook or from an online source such as Self Test Software.
  4. At least 7.18 kilograms of freshly ground Starbucks coffee.

If you have textbooks or courseware that relate to the material tested on the certification exam, I would spend some free time going through that material while you have access to a test lab that you can use to configure the appropriate technologies. The whole purpose of this stage is to become comfortable with the technology and its implementation.Next, you need to apply your knowledge to some sample questions that came with your textbook/course. If you didn’t use a textbook resource or sit a course, you can purchase practice questions online (i.e. Self Test Software). Stay away from braindumps (exact copies of real exam questions spread on the Internet) since they provide absolutely no educational value and are often incorrect. This is an appropriate time to apply the Starbucks coffee listed above.As you are going through these questions, you will often find that interpreting them may be difficult. Following are some tips that will help you as you are answering questions on any IT topic:

  1. Read the question and answer it if possible before reading the answers supplied. Most exam questions are designed to confuse the student who does not know the answer. The problem with this technique is that it also confuses students who are nervous or who have low confidence even though they know the answer.
  2. While answering the questions, be sure to identify why the answer is correct or incorrect. This makes each question’s value as a learning tool increase. It may be time consuming when you first start, but it will be worth the investment. You will turn each selection into a learning experience.
  3. Some questions are essay format or provide extra information that is irrelevant. This is meant to confuse the student who does not know the answer, but again this technique tends to confuse students who are nervous or who have low confidence. One way to approach this type of question (or any question in general) is to pick out key words. Sometimes one word can change the answer – some examples include: NOT BEST ALL SHOULD / SHOULD NOT
  4. When answering scenario questions, read each “Required” statement and determine in a word or two what is needed to meet this requirement. Repeat this with the “Optional” statements. As you read the “Proposed Solution” statement, you can then identify the required and optional statements that are met or not met.
  5. With large questions, always read the statement with the ? first. Determine what is being asked and then read the rest of the question and pick out the relevant information. This avoids re-reading the question numerous times, which can be time-consuming and confusing in the long run.
  6. Certification exams are timed – if you come across a question that you are unsure of, mark it and come back at the end (if the exam allows you to). Quite often, there are questions farther on that may answer the one you were not sure of.
  7. Try to avoid changing your answer. Many students tend to select the correct answer, doubt themselves and change the answer to an incorrect answer. Remember that there is usually a subconscious reason for your first choice.
  8. If you are unsure of the answer, most times you can narrow it down to two choices through the process of elimination.
  9. Many certification exams use long answers to make the answer seem like the correct one. This technique is designed to confuse students who doubt themselves. Quite often, the longest answer is not always the most correct!
  10. In most certification exam centres, you will receive a small dry-erase board you can use for notes during the exam. Do not be afraid to write things down, even simple things can be forgotten under pressure. Draw the question as it is being described – visual representations always help.
  11. Never study for long periods of time. The maximum human attention span is about 45 minutes and the average is about 20-30 minutes. Be good to yourself and take long breaks between study times.
  12. Don’t try to do too much. If you neglect your personal life, you may be adding to unwanted study stress that will make it more difficult to study effectively.
  13. When studying, try to avoid details at the onset (i.e. tables of registry values, log files or obscure performance counters) and introduce them as necessary when you do practice questions. This will allow you to put everything in perspective quickly, use your time effectively and prevent you from being overwhelmed by non-essential details.

Remember that answering certification exam questions is different from configuring the technology. Don’t expect to get 100% the first time you start answering questions. Often, you will need to do some research or learn from your mistakes when you realize that you missed a “trick” in the question after seeing the correct answer.For simulation questions, ensure that you complete ONLY what the question asks – no more and no less. Certification exams often give you a Reset button where you can reset your simulation to the beginning if you make a mistake. If you need to search for a particular setting during a simulation, use this button after you locate the setting and then go directly to the setting afterwards.After applying your skills to practice questions, there will be a time when you feel comfortable enough to write the certification exam. This time will be different from person to person, but in general you should be getting over 90% on the practice questions to safely write the certification exam.Now, you need to book your certification at a testing centre. There are two main test centres: VUE and Sylvan Prometric. Make sure that you check which testing centre offers your certification exam and then register using the 1-800 number or online website. You will need a credit card to complete the registration. If you do not have a credit card, some testing centres allow you to register in advance at the testing centre itself and pay using cash or debit card.Finally, you can take the certification exam! Ensure that you pass it. That helps.

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