Anyone who has ever earned a Microsoft certification knows that the process involves a lot of work, and taking all of the necessary exams can be quite expensive. You might have noticed, however, that some people just seem to have a knack for earning certifications. You know the type of people that I'm talking about. They are the ones with about a zillion different acronyms appearing after their names.
You might have assumed that these types of people are simply the academic type and have a knack for taking tests. You might also have assumed that they have a corporate sponsor who pays for all of the training and the exam fees. However, often times the people who hold the most Microsoft certifications take advantage of Microsoft's beta exam program. This program can be a virtual gold mine for anyone who wants to quickly accumulate a lot of certifications without spending a lot of money.
What is the Beta Program?
When Microsoft first introduced their certification program many years ago, a lot of people complained that some of the questions were not fair. There are rumors that there were legal challenges to trick questions, vague questions, and questions with incorrect answers. Whether or not these rumors are true, there is no denying that Microsoft puts an incredible amount of work into making sure that exam questions are legally defensible.
As someone who has actually been involved in the process of creating a Microsoft certification exam, I know all too well that in spite of their best efforts, not all of the exam questions that Microsoft comes up with are perfect. My nondisclosure agreement with Microsoft prevents me from revealing details of the exam creation process, but I will tell you that each potential question is extensively debated by a group of IT professionals before there is ever even a possibility of it showing up on an actual exam.
The debate process should ensure that all of the exam questions are valid. However, Microsoft does not immediately begin offering the exam. Instead, Microsoft puts all of the questions into a beta exam. The beta exam provides technology professionals with a chance to review the potential exam questions and to provide feedback to Microsoft about any concerns before the exam is made available to the general public.
Why Take a Beta Exam?
Okay, so obviously the beta exam process is helpful for Microsoft. After all, this process serves as the last measure of quality control before an exam goes live. But why should any self-respecting IT professional take a beta exam?
There are actually numerous benefits. For starters, beta exams are free and if you pass a beta exam, you automatically earn the certification without having to take the real exam when it becomes available.
Not only is the beta exam program a great way to get your certifications for free, but it is also a way for IT professionals to beat other pros to the punch. Think about it: you could become certified in the latest Microsoft product before the exam is even made available to the public.
So what if you don't pass the beta exam? There are still benefits to having taken the beta exam. Because of the way that Microsoft's exam development process works, there is a very good chance that the questions appearing on a beta exam will be exactly the same questions that make it into the final exam. As such, even if you do not pass a beta exam, you have still been given the opportunity to see the actual exam questions (for free no less). That way, you will know exactly what to study when you get ready to take the live exam.
Getting Into the Beta Program
The biggest downside to Microsoft's beta exam program is that it can be difficult to be given the opportunity to take a beta exam. If you are seriously interested in taking beta exams, then the first thing that I recommend doing is registering with Microsoft as a Subject Matter Expert, who are given the first opportunity to take beta exams. There are a very limited number of seats available for beta exams, and Subject Matter Experts are given first dibs on those seats.
You can be recognized as a Subject Matter Expert by submitting what Microsoft refers to as a SME profile, which you can create here.
Even if Microsoft does not recognize you as an SME, you are not necessarily out of luck. Often times there are more seats available for beta exams than can be filled by SMEs. In these situations, Microsoft puts out a general invitation to take a beta exam. However, only those who have actual work experience with the related product are eligible to take the beta exam. Microsoft has this requirement to ensure that anyone taking the beta exam has the necessary technical skills to provide meaningful feedback about the exam questions. Fortunately, however, Microsoft does not give any preference to those who have more experience than others. That way, Microsoft can ensure that those who are taking the beta exam have a variety of skill levels.
When Microsoft issues a public invitation for a beta exam, the first trick is to find the invitation. Beta exam invitations to appear on any of several different technology blogs, but you can usually find the latest beta exam invitations here.
Taking a Beta Exam
One of the big questions that people always seem to have about beta exams is whether or not they have to travel to Redmond in order to take the exam. The answer to this question is no. Beta exams are made available through the same testing centers that offer the regular Microsoft certification exams. The catch is that not every testing center will offer every beta exam.
So how do you know if a testing center offers the exam that you are interested in? The trick is to look at the exam numbers. Microsoft always assigns a numeric code to their exams. In the United States, all of the Microsoft certification exams start with 70-. For example, the System Center Data Protection Manager 2007 exam is numbered 70-218.
Most of the testing centers list their exam catalogs online. Occasionally, beta exams are included in these catalogs, but the testing center may not tell you that they have beta exams available. The way to spot a beta exam is by looking at the exam number. Beta exams start with 71-. For example, when the System Center Data Protection Manager exam was in beta, it would have had an exam number of 71-218.
One thing to keep in mind is that simply spotting a beta exam in a testing center’s exam catalog is not enough. You cannot register for a beta exam without an invitation (regardless of whether the invitation is public or private). Each invitation includes a registration code, and you have to present this code when you register for the exam.
When the Beta Exam is Complete
One of the big differences between a beta exam and a real exam is the scoring process. When you take a real exam, you are given the exam results at the completion of the exam. However, this is not the case for beta exams.
When you take a beta exam, you will have to wait for the score. One Microsoft site indicates that the waiting period is generally 6 to 8 weeks, but I have heard of situations in which the waiting period was much longer.
The reason why Microsoft makes you wait for so long has to do with the exam development process. When an exam is being beta tested, Microsoft does not release any of the scores until after the beta process has been completed. When the beta period closes, all of the scoring data is sent to Microsoft for review. At that point, a group of Subject Matter Experts examines the scoring data for each question, as well as any feedback that was provided by the beta participants. Throughout this process, the Subject Matter Experts determine whether or not changes need to be made to any of the questions or if there are any questions that need to be thrown out. For example, if a large percentage of the exam participants missed the same question, and some participants have provided feedback indicating that the question is poorly written or unfair, then the question will likely be either modified or omitted.
As you can see, there are tremendous benefits to participating in Microsoft's beta exam program. However, it can be tough to get approval to take a beta exam so if you are serious about beta exam participation then you should make sure that you have an up-to-date SME profile on file with Microsoft.