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Overall Certification Preparation Overview

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Certification candidates can benefit from a better understanding of how to prepare for a certification exam as well as the various prep methods, resources, and study tools available and how best to utilize them. This article will explore some common certification exam preparation activities and how they can benefit certification candidates.
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A few years ago, one of my coworkers decided to adjust his IT career path and move from a senior engineering position in software development to a position as an IT project manager. The career move seemed logical as he’d managed a few small projects and possessed many of the skills necessary to become a successful project manager. As a part of his career move, he was required to obtain the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. Obtaining certification required passing an arduous four-hour, 200-question exam. Unfortunately, the outcome was not a success, and this very well-educated and experienced engineer was left scratching his head and wondering how the train left the station without him.

What happened? Why did someone well-skilled, smart, educated, and experienced find himself on the wrong side of the certification tracks? In this case, lack of adequate exam preparation was the culprit. Too often, IT professionals assume that their experience or education alone can carry them successfully through a certification exam. While this might be true for entry-level certifications (especially if an IT professional is experienced but just entering the certification process), the same cannot be said for more advanced certifications. Frequently, advanced certifications require weeks or even months of carefully planned and deliberate study and preparation to pass the exam. With a little care and planning, my coworker’s certification outcome could have had a different ending. Instead of figuring out when he should retake the PMP exam, he could have been celebrating as he embarked on his new career.

To avoid an unsatisfactory outcome, some proven methods can help you prepare for—and pass—your desired certification exam on the first try. Here are some cert preparation activities you’ll want to explore:

  • Create a study plan. One of the first steps to successful preparation for any certification exam is to understand where to focus your energies. Examine the certification objectives and determine your personal strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the skills, concepts, knowledge areas, and technologies to be tested. Your personal study plan should emphasize areas where your skills are not yet sufficient to meet the standards required for the certification. As a part of your personal study plan, consider the overall time required to obtain the certification and the amount of prep time you’ll need to master each knowledge area before the certification exam. Once you develop your plan, every subsequent learning activity should be designed specifically to help you gain proficiency in each skill area identified in your plan. (For a more in-depth look at creating an exam preparation plan, read Outlining from Certification Objectives.)
  • Explore training options. Training options come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, designed to meet the needs of busy IT professionals. White papers, technical journals, blogs, and tech articles are great informal sources of information. In addition, formal classroom training abounds for most certifications. Such training comes in various formats including instructor-led courses (both live and online), video-taped (or DVD) classes, and self-paced courses. Training programs are also a great way to gain hands-on experience, which can be useful when any certification exam also includes a lab exam.
  • Obtain hands-on experience. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to completely understanding a certification knowledge area. In addition to written exams, many certifications, such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the Check Point Certified Master Architect (CCMA), require a lab examination to test your applied skills. If your current position is in a different area from the certification being sought, you’ll need to find a way to gain the practical experience necessary to pass the exam. Formal training courses, shadowing someone in the field, and working with a mentor are great ways to obtain such experience.
  • Utilize experts. When you hit a road block, ask the experts! You can find experts almost anywhere: blogs, community forums, training courses, vendor websites, and professional associations are some examples. Chances are that no matter what your question is, someone else has already asked (and received an answer to) the same question. You’ll find that most experts are more than happy to share their knowledge with you.
  • Connect with online communities. Online communities are a great way to connect with others who share the same certification goals. Many vendors sponsor social networking activities on their websites, as do technology sites, professional associations, trade journals, and so forth. Unofficial, unsponsored enthusiast/candidate sites also abound, and can be great resources as well.
  • Join study groups. Study groups are an excellent way to maximize your study time. These types of groups can be formal, such as those sponsored by vendors or professional organizations, or informal, such as those you create in association with others seeking the same certification.
  • Professional associations. Most professional organizations have resources available for use by those seeking certifications. Such resources may include mentors, tutors, practice exams, and instructor-led study groups. If you’re a member of a professional organization, don’t overlook the resources they offer. If you’re not a member, this may be the time to join and take advantage of their knowledge base to help you on your certification quest.
  • Practice exams. Practice exams are essential to success in passing your certification exam. Sometimes, understanding how the questions are formed and presented can be as important as your knowledge of the topics. Certification exams often have red herrings included in the questions designed to throw the test taker off balance and off track. Understanding test psychology is an important skill. Practice exams not only provide feedback on your understanding of the skills, concepts, and technologies to be tested but help you become comfortable with the test structure (and occasional mind-games) as well.

Regardless of the type of certification you seek, you must be thoroughly and completely prepared before entering a testing facility. Relying on your education and experience alone may not be enough to ensure that you pass your exam. To ready yourself for that encounter, understand what the certification exam requires and how your current skills rate in comparison. Create a plan to address each deficiency. Use as many resources as necessary to ensure that you master the skills and concepts needed to pass the exam. Careful planning and disciplined study will enable you to reach your certification goals.

One final admonition: not even your authors have passed every cert exam they’ve taken on the first try. If you do hit any snags during testing, be sure to make notes (paper if allowed, mental if not) of those topics, tools, and technologies where you came up short or didn’t feel comfortable. You’ll be able to put that intelligence to good use if you must repeat your preparation processes for another attempt at the same exam!

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