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  1. Weapons in the Cert Prep Arsenal
  2. Combining Cert Prep Elements / Factors in the Planning Process / Building Your Personal Certification Plan
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Combining Cert Prep Elements

Many candidates who must fund certification study entirely out of their own pockets take a minimalist approach to acquiring the necessary cert prep elements. At the barest minimum, it means a study guide (average price $50), a practice exam (usually $50), and an Exam Cram (average price $25). This puts a bottom line budget in the neighborhood of $125 at the low end to $610 at the high end. Remember: the more the exam costs, the more the prep materials will cost.

At the other end of the spectrum—which often means candidates get support from their employers or decide to bite the bullet and finance a full-boat preparation package—it's not unusual to spend $3,000 to $5,000 on classroom training, with an additional $2,000 to $3,000 for travel, meals, and lodging when candidates must travel to attend class.

Add the minimalist package in for good measure, and you've got a high-end range from $3,125 to $5,610 without travel, and from $5,125 to $8,610 with travel costs included.

Don't forget that high-end certifications such as the Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) or the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) also come with hefty exam costs: $3,000 for the RHCA (five $600 exams) and $1,850 for the CCIE ($350 written plus $1,500 lab). Be sure to figure these costs into your budgets as well.

Factors in the Planning Process

As you begin constructing a personal certification plan, you'll want to zero in on the best options for each of the cert prep elements available for your exam. Where books are concerned, you can use customer ratings on Amazon.com, plus reviews or reports on study group or cert-focused websites and forums, to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. This approach will also help you identify the best classes and practice tests as well.

Do your homework! Although there are many options among which to choose, you still only get to spend the same dollars one time. That means your budget has to go up if you buy a practice test or take a class, only to decide that it's not really doing the job you need it to do. If you have to go out and buy more stuff to prepare for your certification, you'll have to come up with more money to offset those added costs. That's why shopping wisely and selecting the best available options are so important to controlling costs.

I've learned to shop with vendors who offer a no-questions-asked return policy for books, and some kind of satisfaction guarantee for classes and practice exams (most reputable training companies allow you to drop out during the first day of a class and get a full refund if you're not happy with the instructor or the facilities).

Also, when it comes to classroom instruction, it's impossible to overestimate the value and contribution of the instructor to your learning experience. Be sure to investigate the best instructors on your topic, and sign up for classes from such instructors. Given that you can pay $1,000 a day or more for time in the classroom, it's absolutely imperative that you get your money's worth from that kind of outlay.

Building Your Personal Certification Plan

Once you learn the options available for the certification you've chosen and you have identified which of those options you can afford, you can start putting a personal plan together. Even if you're going to participate in a 3- to 5-day classroom training adventure, I urge you to spend at least 10 hours per week for a month or two in advance of the class reading through a study guide on the same subject matter. This reading will acquaint you with the basics of the class and prepare you to make the most of your classroom time and the access it provides to your instructor.

Likewise, you'll want to take at least one round of practice exams to identify those subjects that you'll want to pay most attention to and seek out the most help from your instructor to help you prepare for the exam.

It's typical to create a plan that looks something like this:

  • Select and acquire your study materials (and sign up for a class, if you're going to take one).
  • Take an initial round of practice exams to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to drive your study efforts and focus.
  • Work your way through a study guide or class to learn and master material with which you may be unfamiliar or with which you may be entirely comfortable.
  • Take another round of practice exams to identify areas in which further study, learning, or practice is needed.
  • Repeat the three preceding steps until you achieve a practice test score that's 10% higher than the minimum passing score (to offset test anxiety).
  • Sign up for and take the real exam.

With the right set of cert prep elements and a good plan of attack, expect to spend anywhere from 1-6 months preparing for most certifications. High-end credentials (such as the CCIE or RHCA) can take from 12 to 18 months. Other certs typically fall somewhere in-between.

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