A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on the methods that I use for studying when I am preparing to take an exam. As important as it is to have an effective study method though, it is equally important to have a plan for taking the exam. Sure, you can just sit down at the computer and start answering questions, but your odds of passing the exam go way up if you have a good strategy for taking the exam. That being the case, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some of the techniques that I use when I am taking an exam.
Get an Early Start
I will be the first to admit that I am not a morning person. But as much as I may not like waking up early, I have found it to be beneficial to get an early start on exam day.
When I am taking an exam, I try to schedule the exam for as early as possible. The idea behind this is that I can take the exam with as few distractions as possible. I have taken exams later in the day before, and I have always found that when I take exams at a later time my mind tends to be more on the daily chaos than on the exam. By the time the exam starts, I have already spent half of my day dealing with phone calls, emails, and the latest IT emergency. As such, my mind is not nearly as focused as it should be.
By taking an exam first thing in the morning, I can usually wait to deal with any phone calls or emails until after the exam. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I simply roll out of bed and head straight to the testing center. On the contrary. I prefer to wake up at least three hours before the exam. That way I can take a few caffeine pills and have time for them to take effect before the test. Likewise, I try to do some vigorous exercise before the exam as a way of getting the blood flowing and making myself more alert.
Taking the Exam
I don’t know whether or not all of the testing centers do this, but the testing facility that I use provides each candidate with an ink pen and a blank piece of paper. When I sit down to take a test, I jot down some notes before I actually begin the test (the clock is not running at that point). That way, I don’t have to worry about forgetting the material or getting confused by distractors once the exam actually begins.
Keep Things Simple
Once upon a time, Microsoft certification exams were notorious for being chocked full of trick questions. However, this process has long since been discontinued. There are no trick questions on Microsoft exams, so don’t fall into the trap of overthinking your answers.
I have been involved in the Microsoft exam creation process on occasion, and I can tell you that Microsoft’s official policy regarding multiple choice exam questions is that the correct choice is 100% correct and that the distractors are 100% wrong. You should never encounter a question that makes you choose between two correct answers with one answer that is “more right” than the other.
For example, about fifteen years ago I recall seeing some exam questions that asked you what steps you would perform to accomplish a certain task. At the time, two or three of the possible answers might actually accomplish that task. The key to getting the question right was to know which answer best adhered to Microsoft’s recommended best practices. Today if you see a question asking you what steps are required to accomplish a certain goal, you can rest assured that only one of the sets of steps will achieve that goal. The other procedures simply will not work.
Use the Process of Elimination
If there is ever an answer that I’m not sure of, I try to use the process of elimination to figure out the correct answer. Multiple choice questions (which make up the bulk of the exam) typically have four choices. If you were to take a random guess at the answer to such a question then you would only have a 25% chance of getting the question right.
Having said that, the questions are often constructed in such a way that one (and sometimes two) of the possible answers are absurd and can easily be omitted as correct choices.
If one of the possible answers can be eliminated then a random guess would have a 33% chance of yielding a correct answer. If two possibilities can be eliminated then the odds of guessing correctly go up to 50%.
Once I have narrowed down the possible answers to a question that I don’t know, I will mark the question for review and write down on my scrap paper what the possible answers are.
If there is sufficient time at the end of the test, I will go back through all of the questions and look for clues that may help me to answer the questions that I don’t know. Microsoft tries to design their tests so that the wording of a question does not give away the answer to another question, but sometimes clues to correct answers slip through Microsoft’s review process and make it onto the exam.
If I am short on time at the end of the test, I will go back to the questions that I didn’t know the answers to and take a guess based on the possibly correct answers that I have written down. Microsoft does not penalize you for guessing at a question that you do not know the answer to. If you simply skip a question because you don’t know the answer then the question is scored the same way as it would be if you had answered it incorrectly. If you take an educated guess (or even a random guess) at a question that you don’t know then you will at least have a chance of getting it right.
Manage Your Time
One of the keys to passing a Microsoft exam is to manage your time well. On a positive note, Microsoft gives you more time than they used to. It used to be common practice for Microsoft to allocate about a minute per question. I remember taking some exams in which I had about 50 minutes to answer 45 questions. Nowadays it is not uncommon to be given two to three minutes per question.
Even so, it is amazing how quickly time can slip away. As such, time management is crucial. My strategy is to make multiple passes through the questions.
For my first pass, I will answer any question that I am relatively sure of the answer to, saving all of the more difficult questions for later. My goal at this point is to answer the easy questions up front in as little time as I can (but without getting sloppy).
Once I have answered all of the easy questions, I look at the number of questions that still need to be answered as well as the amount of time that remains. I then figure out how much time I can potentially spend on each question, while also setting aside a few minutes at the end for review.
At that point, I begin working through the more difficult questions, all the while keeping an eye on the time to make sure that I don’t spend too much time on any one question. If I am taking way too long on a question, I will come back to the question at the end of the test. My experience has been that I can figure out some of the more difficult questions relatively quickly and therefore have more time that I can spend on the really problematic questions at the end of the exam.
The Last Five Minutes
I don’t always end up needing the full amount of time allotted for the exam, but if I am running short on time, I like to spend the last five minutes of the exam going back through all of the questions one last time just to make sure that I have answered all of them. It’s rare that I find that I have skipped a question, but it has happened. Of course if I don’t use the full amount of time allotted for the exam, I still do a final check before I click the button to score the exam.
Unfortunately there is nothing that you can do to ensure a passing score short of making sure that you know the exam material very well. Even so, you can make the odds of passing much more favorable if you go into the exam with a plan.