How to Become a Microsoft Certified Professional
3.3. Practice Exams 101 – Part 1
By Val Bakh
In the first two blog posts of this series, we discussed Microsoft certifications and touched upon a couple of study options. It turned out that Microsoft’s online technical libraries and product documentation are no longer suitable as primary exam preparation tools. In this blog post, we’ll explore practice exam products: what they are and how to find the ones that are worth your money and effort.
3.3.1. The Ancient Adage
“Read the manual first!” is an ancient adage that has been haunting humankind since the days when we invented printing. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? And still, often times, we buy some new high-tech gizmo, bring it home, unpack it, and then immediately start pushing its buttons and playing with whatever other controls it might have. But somehow it always seems to happen that we can’t make the thing do at least some of what we expect it to do. We scratch our heads, we push more buttons, and only after exhausting our creative zeal, we recall having seen a small brochure that came with the thing: the instruction manual. We dig it out from the depths of the packaging garbage and … slap our foreheads in exasperation. It turns out it was so easy and we were pushing all the wrong buttons. It’s all right here, in black and white: press Button A and then press Button B. Next time, we swear, we will read the instructions first. But by the time we buy another toy, the promise is long forgotten and the new buttons look a lot more appealing to our itchy fingers than an unobtrusive booklet, almost lost somewhere at the bottom of the box.
What does all this have to do with taking exams? Isn’t it obvious that, before mastering a new skill, one must learn it? That, before taking an exam, one must study for it? But surprisingly enough, many people overlook these steps. How can this possibly happen? It’s not that we are so arrogant as to believe we already know all we need to know. It’s a bit more subtle.
Suppose my previous blog posts in this series, or perhaps the advice of some friends or colleagues, have convinced you that practice exams will help you prepare for a Microsoft certification exam. You go to the Internet, search, and find dozens of offers. Almost all of them come with some form of a money-back guarantee, and that suddenly makes you feel overconfident about your chances of passing the exam. Not knowing what to expect and how to choose the best practice exam the marketplace has to offer, you pick a product almost at random and immediately start playing with its shiny buttons. In the context of preparing for Microsoft certification exams, this means that you rush in to start looking at the practice questions and answers, somehow subliminally expecting the thing to magically bring you a passing score. But that is not going to happen. Having a good practice-exam product is essential, but its money-back guarantee does not mean that you will pass the exam just because you bought the right product. To pass the exam, you must study, and the guarantee only means that the vendor is confident that its product is the right one for you to study. And before you do, “Read the manual first!”
3.3.2. A User Guide
A decent product should always come with some sort of instruction manual. It can be in the form of Online Help, a PDF document, a Microsoft Word document, or just a link to a webpage; but, one way or another, the developer of the product should tell you how its product is intended to be used. The very fact that such a user guide exists is, on its own, a good sign because it is the evidence that the developer cares. And if you also find that the manual is well-written and provides useful information, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to assume that the product itself is likely to be good, too, and that the vendor probably provides some level of customer support for it. These two things—a User Guide and friendly, accessible, and responsive customer support—are the first signs that distinguish a reputable company from amateurs and crooks. A decent vendor/developer will never leave its customers out there in the cold.
Do not expect the manual to contain technical information on the exam’s subject area; after all, that’s what the product itself is for. The manual is only supposed to help you use the product in the most efficient manner. As for customer support, it is not for holding your hand while you are having pre-exam jitters. The primary mission of customer support personnel is to help you use their products and address any technical problems that you might discover in those products.
Before you buy a practice-exam product, download a free demo and take a thorough look at it. Many vendors offer this option. A demo usually supports only a subset of the full product’s features. If you can’t locate a user guide in the demo, see if you can contact the vendor’s sales department or customer support and ask about it. Chances are, if there is a meaningful user guide and you like the demo, you will like the product too.
3.3.3. How to Recognize Braindumps
In the first blog post of this series, I mentioned so-called braindumps and the fact that Microsoft deems them unauthorized materials and can punish you for using them. In case you missed the previous blog posts, here is a reminder: A braindump is a document, often disguised as a practice-exam product, that contains real exam questions and, most of the time, what their “authors” claim to be the correct answers. The first and foremost consideration pertaining to your use of braindumps is that it is dishonest. Of course, it’s understandable that you want to pass the exam. But if that’s all that you want, then these blog posts are not for you; they are for those who want to pass the exam and be a proud IT professional who really knows the stuff in the exam you have passed.
With that settled, let’s put our distaste for all those shady things on hold for a moment and approach the issue with only cool logic. Suppose you honestly want to study—both to pass the exam and to really know the subject matter. What’s wrong, then, with taking a sneak peek at the real exam questions, researching them, and finding the right answers? Wouldn’t it improve your chances of passing? The problem is that most braindumps are not trustworthy. The goal of their authors is not to help you pass an exam or learn anything useful; all they want is simply to make a quick buck. They are usually just petty crooks who have no idea of the technical substance of the exam questions. Honest IT professionals are unlikely to risk their reputations and careers by engaging in stealing and selling exam content. Consequently, braindump questions are very likely to contain all sorts of errors, from incorrectly picked “correct” answers to various typos and other mix-ups that effectively invalidate the questions. Missing or mismatched exhibits, missing or substituted words or entire sentences, or choices accidentally “borrowed” from a different question are just a few examples of the irregularities that are typical of braindumps. What would the point of your researching a question be if you could not be sure that it was valid? If you know the subject matter well enough to be sure, then you don’t need the braindumps at all. And if you don’t know the stuff yet, perhaps you should prefer to base your studies on the materials that come from a reputable source and will allow you to actually learn the subject matter.
In addition to containing real exam questions—contaminated with all the distortions thereof mentioned in the previous paragraph—braindumps can be identified through the following telltales:
- Most questions include a purported correct answer but no explanation to support it.
- Some questions might contain explanations. Most of the time, those “explanations” are simply snippets from TechNet articles with no meaningful attempt to explain their relevance.
- In those very rare cases where an author tries to really explain something, the explanations are often technically flawed or outright confusing.
- Poor grammar, wrong choice of words, and awkward sentence structures seemingly jump out at you whenever the author steps away from simply presenting stolen Microsoft exam questions verbatim and tries to communicate on his or her own behalf.
Suppose I have convinced you that braindumps are bad and persuaded you not to use them. If you have never taken an exam, how are you supposed to know whether a particular practice-exam product is a braindump of that exam or whether it is a legitimate product? You can download the product’s free demo and take a look. A demo usually contains 5–10 questions packaged into the same test-engine application as the full product. If there is no test engine and the demo is just a PDF file or a set of screenshots, then it is most certainly a braindump. Legitimate practice exam providers with enough intelligence to produce high-quality content will most certainly possess enough resources to develop an equally high-quality test engine to package the content into. But the lack of a test engine is, of course, not the main criterion for identifying a braindump. What makes a practice-exam product a braindump is the fact that it contains real Microsoft exam questions. Therefore, to be able to recognize braindumps, you must be able to recognize real Microsoft exam questions, even if you have never seen them in the real exams before.
If you have ever taken any Microsoft exams, you will, no doubt, immediately recognize their distinctive style. Without disclosing any specific details of Microsoft exams, we can discuss only their general characteristics. The following list presents a few examples of those:
- Real Microsoft exam questions are very succinctly worded. They might occasionally contain a piece or two of redundant information—just to see that you can identify what’s pertinent—but most of the time, every word you see in a question is intended to have some import on the correct answer.
- Microsoft usually does not use contractions in its exam questions. For example, you will probably not find words like don’t, doesn’t, aren’t, isn’t, you’re, or you’ve. Instead, you will see do not, does not, are not, is not, you are, or you have.
- A question itself (that is, the interrogative sentence that appears between the scenario and the choices) is usually a bit presumptive in the sense that it asks what you should do (in general) rather than which of the presented choices is or are correct.
- Microsoft tends to spell out most acronyms, including ones that anyone in the IT field can reasonably be expected to know. On the first mention of a specific term in a scenario, Microsoft presents the full term followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, even if the abbreviation is not subsequently used. If a term for which an acronym exists appears in the choices rather than in the scenario, Microsoft defines the acronym in each of the choices. This is probably because choices can be randomized and it’s impossible to tell which one will appear first.
- Names of all computers, users, groups, files, folders, applications, and other relevant elements are usually neutral: Server1, DC1, User1, Group1, File1.txt, Folder1, App1. You are unlikely to encounter any human names in Microsoft exam questions. The names of organizations and their corresponding DNS domains come from a relatively fixed pool of widely known fictitious names, such as Contoso, A. Datum, or Fabrikam.
- In most questions, there is a human participant referred to as “you.” That person is rarely explicitly assigned to any specific roles or job positions and, instead, is usually implicitly assumed to be an all-powerful administrator with all the necessary authority to perform whatever tasks are required.
Microsoft's exam writers are regular humans and, as such, are not immune from mistakes. However, their questions primarily sound very businesslike, deliberate, and unhurried; in addition, they contain no traces of humor or flowery language whatsoever. All this information is a bit on the general side, but it is quite accurate. Once you’ve taken a couple of Microsoft exams, the above list will help you identify Microsoft’s style with a very high degree of fidelity.
Now that you know how to recognize braindumps, the best thing you can do is stay away from them. As exam prep tools, they are illegal and are pretty lousy ones too.
3.3.4. What’s Next?
Next time, we’ll discuss what you should expect from legitimate practice exam products. We’ll take a look at a few examples that will help you distinguish between good ones and not-so-good ones.