By Michael Aldridge
I've got three favorite quotes on preparation:
"Every battle is won before it is ever fought."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
- Benjamin Franklin
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
- Abraham Lincoln
Preparation is the key to passing a certification exam. So what is the best way to prepare for one? The answer is probably a little different for everybody, but I will give you some tips that have helped me and others over the years.
First, you need to choose a certification exam that corresponds to your experience level. Certifications aren't a substitute for experience; instead, certifications should validate the experience you have. If you're just starting out in IT, I recommend pursuing entry-level certifications, such as the CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications. If you already have some real-world experience administering Windows computers in a domain environment, you might consider the Microsoft MCSA and MCSE certifications. Or if you already have some real-world experience administering Cisco devices, you might consider the Cisco CCENT and CCNA certifications.
If you've got a lot of experience, you could take the exam without studying, but I don't typically recommend doing so. There are three ways to prepare for a certification exam:
1. Take the exam without studying. I don't generally recommend taking an exam without studying first. However, if you have a lot of experience, it is possible to do. If you're not sure, you could always use Boson's ExSim-Max practice exams to see if you're ready.
2. Take a course from a training provider. Many people mistakenly believe that you have to take a classroom training course before you are allowed to sit a certification exam. However, only a few certifications require classroom training. If you learn better in a structured learning environment, a training provider might be the best option for you. However, a training provider will be much more expensive than the next option, which is...
3. Self study. This is the option I most often recommend. Self study has several advantages over a structured classroom training course. It allows you to learn at your own pace (not at the pace of the fastest or slowest person in the class), on your own schedule (not at the time the training center dictates), and by using training materials that you choose (not the ones the training provider makes you use), all at a fraction of the cost.
What I typically do is to study one or more study guides that have received positive reviews. Studying from more than one study guide can help you to understand difficult concepts; what one study guide describes poorly (or doesn't cover at all), the other study guide might explain well.
After studying, I will test my knowledge by taking practice exams. Practice exams can help you gain confidence as well as let you know areas where you need improvement. High-quality practice exam products like Boson's ExSim-Max will have the following:
- three or more exams, each with unique questions
- question types that reflect what you will see on the real exam
- detailed explanations that explain why the right answer is right and why the wrong answers are wrong
- references that support the answer and give you more information about the subject
- a money-back guarantee
What I recommend is to take the first practice exam, then after you get your score, read all the explanations. Yes, all of them – even the ones that you answered correctly. Then grab your study guide and review your weakest sections. After you are ready, take the second exam, and repeat the process. Do NOT take the last exam until you think you are ready for the real thing and want one last chance to evaluate your knowledge.
Some people recommend taking practice exams over and over and over again until you get 100%. I disagree with this approach because it can lead you into a false sense of security. Although getting more practice can be beneficial, getting a higher score on questions that you have already seen proves only that you have memorized the answers to those questions. Although the real exam will ask questions that are based on the same topics as the practice exam questions, the questions will be different.
Instead of taking questions over and over, you should spend your energy studying the practice exam explanations. The explanations often contain nuggets of information that you need to know. If you study those, you should do well on the real exam.
If you haven't ever taken a certification exam, you might be interested in my upcoming Boson blog series entitled, "What to Expect". Keep an eye out for it!