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Crafting a Personal Certification Plan (2014 Edition)

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Aspiring or active IT professionals seeking certification will want to construct a personal certification plan to reflect both long- and short-term certification goals. This is a living document that you should update at least once a year to react to changes in the job market, personal and professional interests, and work opportunities and situations. In this article, Ed Tittel shows you how to construct your personal certification plan.
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As IT professionals move past the point of deciding to pursue one or more certification credentials related to their current and planned careers, the number of options to consider when preparing for a certification can seem daunting, if not outright overwhelming.

In this article, we will explore the various options that are available, and we'll explain the many and various trade-offs and cost considerations that can help you zero in on those that make the most sense for your situation, learning needs, and pocketbook.

Weapons in the Cert Prep Arsenal

Interesting options abound for those who'd like to earn an IT certification of one kind or another. As you examine the following general descriptions, be aware that not all certification preparation options are available for each IT certification credential. But the more popular and sought-after a certification credential is, the more likely it is to have multiple options for preparation.

The following sections describe the most common types of cert prep elements, any or all of which may be available, depending on the particular certification you seek.

Study Guides

A study guide is a collection of materials that are designed to teach the concepts and background against which any IT certification plays. Study guides also prepare candidates for the certification exam by outlining the skills and knowledge they must possess, and the kinds of situations and scenarios they're likely to encounter on the certification exam(s) they must take to earn a credential.

Study guides generally come in the form of large, imposing hardback or paper-bound books. My original impetus to create the "Exam Cram"series was that their formidable depth of coverage and physical weight—I often call these books "doorstops"—literally made these tools hard to hold and use when trying to prepare for an exam quickly and conveniently.

Wiley (the "Mastering" and "Study Guide" series), Osborne/McGraw-Hill (the "All-in-One" series), Pearson (the "Exam Prep," "Exam Cram," and "Cert Guide" series), and Syngress/Elsevier (the "Study Guide" series) all offer lots of these kinds of books.

Expect to pay $40 to $80 for these guides (the more an exam costs, the more the prep books usually cost, too). In addition, Microsoft Press offers Exam Refs and Training Guides for many of its certifications; and Cisco Press offers Certification Guides, Cert Kits, Quick References, and more.

Training Classes

Get a certification program started and gain some critical mass—by which I mean a certified population of 10,000 or more and some degree of interest and popularity in the overall population of IT workers—and you'll start to find various types of classes popping up to help candidates learn and master the materials involved.

Without going into too much detail here (you'll find that in the companion article titled "Pros and Cons of Classroom and Online Training"), classroom training can cost as much as $1,500 per day for high-end, high-value classes at vendor or training company outlets; and as little as $50 per day at local community colleges or technical schools.

Another important training option comes online with a variety of web-based offerings available for numerous certifications that vary from self-paced, standalone, self-administered training materials to instructor-led and scheduled online classes.

The more an online class resembles a top-dollar, instructor-led class, the more its cost will resemble the classroom equivalent; the more it is self-paced and self–administered, and the less it involves an actual instructor, the more its cost will resemble its community college or technical school counterpart.

Candidates who need to fill in knowledge gaps while studying for a certification exam should explore libraries of courses offered by companies such as Pearson IT Certification (this website), Pluralsight (formerly TrainSignal), and Global Knowledge. Pearson offers individual LiveLessons videos covering a number of certifications, available via streaming or downloadable video and/or DVD. LiveLessons offer self-paced, step-by-step learning for users of multiple skill levels. The other sites typically have pricing plans for single courses along with monthly and annual subscriptions.

Practice Exams

Today, practice exams are usually found in a software environment (although you will still find occasional paper-based question banks) in which you will get anywhere from one to five exams' worth of questions, with varying degrees of statistical tracking and analysis of results, recommendations for skills or knowledge infusions, and the like.

Practice exams usually cost anywhere from half as much to just as much as the real exam for which they help you prepare; and the more bells and whistles (and questions) you get to help that process along, the more toward the high end of that price range you'll pay. Thus, practice exams can cost as little as $50 to as much as $500.

When searching for practice exams online, steer clear of braindump exams. A braindump is created by people who have taken the exam and have written down all the questions they can remember. Not only is this practice a clear violation of copyrights and NDAs but it also devalues the certification. Braindumps are often poorly written; and they can contain incorrect or misleading information. Many vendors, such as Cisco, CompTIA, and Oracle offer their own practice exams; and reputable practice exam vendors such as MeasureUp and Transcender provide exams for several vendor certifications.

Flash Cards

A flash card is a series of practice questions and answers presented in an application or in hard-copy format, similar to the index card method used years ago. Many vendors that offer practice exams also make flash cards available, either as a stand-alone product or as a bundle. Flash cards are a great way to drill through practice questions and can help improve your chances of passing the exam the first time.

Exam Crams

I'm tickled and surprised to find myself the creator of this category of prep materials, designed to help those who have learned the material (be it in a class, through a study guide, or a combination of the two). They are usually short (400 pages or less), tightly focused books that help candidates understand and learn what's covered on the exam and how to understand the questions they're likely to encounter.

They do not teach the underlying background or fundamentals needed to learn the material from the ground up. In addition to Pearson Exam Cram, the Syngress Eleventh Hour and the McGraw-Hill Passport series all tread the same ground. Expect to pay $20-40 for such books.

Labs (Real and Simulated)

As an increasing number of certification exams become more hands-on, access to an environment in which the tools, technologies, and platforms being tested are available to work (and play) with also becomes more important. Lots of interactive Web sites offer access to real or virtual labs online, whereas numerous vendors offer software-based simulators designed to put candidates in the lab seat so they can interact with important systems and software to help them get ready for their testing center encounters.

Examples of virtual online lab environments are the Pearson Simulator Series (Cisco and CompTIA), Cisco Learning Labs, and VMware Lab Connect. Such labs can cost as little as $20 per hour and up to thousands of dollars for kits that include hardware and software, plus setup instructions and scenarios to implement or troubleshoot.

For more self-study resources, see my "Planning Your Next Certification Campaign" webinar and "How to Research IT Certification Study Material" article.

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