Over the years, I have taken more Microsoft certification exams than I care to think about. Even so, I will never forget the butterflies in my stomach as I drove to my first exam. There is just something unsettling about preparing to take a certification exam for the first time. Perhaps it's because of all of the horror stories on the Internet or because of bad experiences in high school. Whatever the reason, I'm sure that at least some of the jitters come from the fear of the unknown. That being the case, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain what you can expect from your first exam.
The Testing Facility
One of the things that you will have to do when you register for an exam is to choose the location in which you want to take the exam. There are testing facilities all over the country, and it is common to have several different choices even within a single city.
Learning centers that provide training for Microsoft certification exams often provide testing facilities as well. Sometimes it may be comforting to take an exam in the same place as where you trained for the exam. I used this approach on one occasion, and bumped into my instructor just before I was scheduled to take the test. He was able to give me a couple of last-minute pointers and some much-needed words of encouragement.
I didn't take all of my certification exams at that particular facility because it was nearly 50 miles from my home, and there were other places that offer exams (but didn't offer training) that were much closer.
Arriving for the Exam
When you arrive at the testing facility, you will typically be asked to provide a government issued ID (such as a driver’s license or passport) as a way of verifying your identity. After providing the necessary identification and signing in, you will be asked to place all of your personal belongings in a locker or in your car.
Even though Microsoft does not allow candidates to bring anything with them into an exam, I have taken exams at a few different places, and have found that different testing facilities enforce this rule to different degrees. One of the testing facilities that I used would not even allow me to wear my jacket while taking an exam. Another facility where I took a couple of exams would typically remind me that I couldn't bring anything into the exam with me, but never required me to remove my jacket or empty my pockets.
Even though you are not technically allowed to bring anything into the exam with you, the testing center may provide you with a few things to help you with the exam. For example, I can’t seem to recall ever taking an exam when I wasn’t given a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I was even provided with a calculator when I took a couple of exams that involved subnetting. Keep in mind that I have no idea whether Microsoft tells the testing centers to provide such items, or if a few of the testing centers just do it on their own.
Taking the Test
Once the sign in process is complete, it is time to take the exam. You may be placed in a private room for the exam, or you might be in the same room with others who are also taking exams. The place where I took most of my exams had several exam rooms, and each could accommodate up to four people. Even so, I was almost always in a room by myself. I can only remember having someone in the room with me on one occasion.
So what happens if you are one of those people who requires absolute silence when taking an exam? Well, there are no guarantees, but if you let the testing center know that you don’t do well with noise they will try to place you in an empty testing room, if one is available.
Even though you may have other people in the room with you who are also taking tests, you probably won’t have to be scrutinized by a proctor while you take the exam. I have never once had a staff member from the testing facility to sit in the room with me while I was taking an exam.
That’s not to say that you are on the honor system. Microsoft goes to great lengths to prevent people from cheating on their exams. Even though you probably won’t have a proctor in the room with you while you are taking an exam, testing facilities are required to use security cameras and microphones in the examination rooms as a way of preventing cheating. Hence you never really know if or when you're being watched.
The Testing Process
The exams themselves are administered on a computer. Most of the questions on Microsoft exams are multiple choice, but there are several types of questions that you may encounter. For example, you may be asked to arrange items in a particular sequence, or you might have to work through a simulation. Check out this article for more detail about the types of questions that you are likely to encounter when taking a Microsoft exam.
As I mentioned, many of the Microsoft certification exams contain simulation questions in which you are required to perform a specific task using an interface that mimics the product that you are being tested on.
I have read posts in some of the message boards from people who have expressed anxiety over the simulation questions. However, this anxiety may be unfounded. As you are no doubt aware, there are often multiple techniques for accomplishing a stated goal. On some of the older exams, simulation questions were only scored correctly if the objective was achieved by completing a specific set of steps. More recently, Microsoft has begun using server virtualization for simulation-based test questions and the questions are scored solely on whether or not you accomplished the stated objective, not on how you did it.
If you would like to get a better feel for what the exam questions might look like, I highly recommend getting some practice exams, such as the ones offered by Transcender. The practice exams won’t have exactly the same questions as will be on the real exam, but they will give you a feel for the types of questions that you can expect to see on the real exam.
When you sit down to take the real exam, there is an option to take a tutorial before starting the test. If you have never taken a Microsoft exam before, it is a good idea to go through the tutorial so that you will know exactly how the test interface works. You may even find that taking a few minutes to go through the tutorial will help to calm those last minute nerves.
The Time Clock
All of the Microsoft certification exams are timed. Your time starts when you click a button to begin the exam, not the second that you sit down. That being the case, you don’t have to begin the exam until you feel ready to do so.
As you work through the exam questions, the remaining time is displayed somewhere on the computer screen. That way you will always know exactly how much time you have left to complete the exam.
Most people complete the exams in a single sitting. I have heard a few unconfirmed stories of some of the testing facilities allowing breaks during an exam, but there were some pretty stiff requirements for those alleged breaks. According to the stories, breaks were only allowed for a visit to the restroom or the vending machine (food and drink are not usually allowed in the exam room). More importantly though, the exam clock keeps ticking regardless of whether you are actively taking the exam or taking a break.
After the Exam
The exam ends when you click a button on your screen to score the exam. At that point there will be a brief delay while the results are tabulated. After 20 or 30 seconds you will see a message on the screen telling you whether you have passed or failed. As you exit the examination room, the person who is working at the check-in desk is preparing your official exam results. The results are a computer printout of your score. This printout is stamped with a raised seal by the testing facility as evidence of the document’s authenticity.
It’s only natural to get a few jitters before an exam. You will typically find however that you become less nervous before an exam once you have a few exams under your belt.