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Certification Requires Practice

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Classroom training and book study are crucial to your preparation for certification exams, but perhaps the best way to prepare is through practice. Derek Schauland shares his experiences in taking (and sometimes failing) certification exams, and he offers some practical tips for making the most of your practice in preparing to take the test.

As someone who has taken a few certification exams, some after live training and some after self-study, I find the idea of sitting these exams almost always a little nerve racking. Because of the number of technologies out there that the average IT Pro comes into contact with, practicing with the technology is one thing, but what about practicing for the test? As you will see, I can say from personal experience that practice testing is worth the price of admission.

A few years ago, I attended Microsoft Exchange 2000 training so I could get up to speed with my new company’s mail server. The live class was great; I thought I learned a great deal working through exercises and being able to ask questions about the content. At the end of the weeklong session, I felt I should take the certification exam because the content was fresh, and I felt pretty good about what I had learned. The instructor asked me if I was serious and then again if I was sure, which should have been a sign that maybe some extra studying was needed. Then I scheduled the exam for just after lunch and went to sit it. While I was taking the test, my fellow classmates and instructor were taking bets on the time at which I would finish the exam. All of them seemed to think I would fail.

I failed the exam in approximately one hour and 15 minutes. Why? I believe now that it was because of lack of practice. Did I understand the concepts of exchange? Sure. But had I worked with the technology or scenarios which may be presented on the test? Not so much.

Think about learning to ride a bicycle. Very few people saw the bicycle, said I am going to ride it, and then proceeded to ride around the block. It took practice to ride a bike. Falling down and getting back on again, adjusting the training wheels so that they let the bike balance a bit more on its own, and peeking over your shoulder to be sure Dad was still holding the seat as you pedaled, were all part of the practices for riding a bike. Sure there was the day that Dad let go of the seat and maybe you hit something and fell over while checking for Dad, but you learned something about riding the bike.

The unfortunate thing about technology is that it isn’t enough like riding a bike; you can forget and need to brush up on your technical skills, while riding a bike seems to be a skill that sticks around forever. But with the right practice materials and methods, remembering what you learned during certification won’t be so hard. You will also be better prepared as new releases of a product come along; even Microsoft doesn’t seem to completely change how something works very often. Sure, they move this button or that menu, but the core feature still functions the same way. Add/Remove Programs is a good example; it was moved to Programs and Features to allow those using Windows 7 to think about program and feature management, which is what the tool accomplishes, but in most ways it works almost identically to its predecessor.

Spend the money on yourself

Test preparation takes hard work and time. Sure, it costs money to take exams, but spending money only to take exams and not the preparation leading up to them makes the spending of that money a bad spend for the test taker. Could you get lucky? Sure. But wouldn’t it be much better to feel confident and prepared than nervous because you have to take an exam?

Purchasing practice exams can be expensive, but the chance to see a test layout and work through similar questions that you are likely to see on the exam is quite an experience. There are optimized exam scenarios that focus on areas where you feel that you need work, and there are other exam experiences where the test looks and feels like what the actual exam will be like.

Think about the technology covered by your chosen certification

Be sure to consider actually using the technology you are studying to certify on. You might be able to use it at work or in a virtualized environment on your laptop, but play with the applications to get an idea of how they work. I don’t mean to imply you need to know where every checkbox or button is, but you should be familiar enough to ensure the stuff makes sense, thus increasing your knowledge as the studying/practicing goes forward. When you get to the practice testing sessions, the technology will make a good deal of sense for you.

Have a goal during the practice sessions

I realize the ultimate goal of the certification seeker is certification, but before you dive in and schedule the paid exam, consider the practice testing phase. When you start practicing, set a goal for the sessions and when your goal is reached decide if you are ready to schedule the exam. Another example might make sense here:

When I begin studying, I read the materials and books to understand the objectives I am likely to see. As I do this, I will play with portions of the technology, at work and in a lab at home. Then I will chase after the practice tests. Once I get to the practice tests, I usually take a practice test to see how far I have to go. Then I set a goal for practice testing so that I can quantify my practice testing.

Usually my goal requires me to pass four or five practice tests. Once I have passed some practice tests, many times when I get to attempt 3, 4, or 5, they begin to come somewhat consecutively. When this starts happening, I hit the Internet to schedule the actual certification exam.

If I feel solid about the material, the appointment will be closer to the current date than if I feel there might be more studying needed. When I am scheduling, in most cases I will not schedule things past two months out unless there is a viable reason (center closed, holidays, etc.).

Once scheduling is set, I continue practice testing. Maybe not every day, but at least a couple times of week to ensure I don’t lose my momentum by the time the exam hits. After that it’s all about the testing for me.

What about on test day?

I have heard that some people cram the day of the test. However, I am not a fan of that particular method. On the day of the test, I will usually hold off on coffee if the exam is in the morning and arrive early at the test center. Once I am signed in and ready to go, depending on the rules of the center, I will grab water before I head in. If they allow me to test early and get started right away, I might get a quick drink, and get right in to the seat to start the test.

It almost seems like test day preparations are like rituals. You find something that works for you or calms your nerves and once you pass a test, you stick to that every time you take an exam forever. As odd as it seems, it works for many, certainly for me.

Just try a few things that normally calm you down before the test and remember to test when you are comfortable and ready. If you are a morning person, then that is when you should test. If not, scheduling an 8:30 am testing appointment might not be right for you. As you begin moving down the certification testing path, these things will become apparent and eventually feel as if they just are how you prepare. Test day preparations will fit into your normal routine of getting ready to study or practice for an upcoming certification exam.

Just remember to grow your confidence with practice

Do yourself a favor and take the time to practice with testing materials before going in to the exam room. Setting goals of the number of attempts that need be successful before you pay to take the real test is a good way to measure what you know and raise your confidence level. Testing for certification is a nervous experience, even for those who test all the time, and should you choose to go after a certification, having the best possible opportunity isn’t cheating or anything like that. It is good preparation and good preparation gets the best results. Get out there and practice, it will help you in your attempts to get ready, and good luck on your next certification exam.

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