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Yup.  I’ve been slack and I have a stack of certifications that need to be updated to current versions and another stack that I need to complete.  So what better topic for an article than preparation steps.  I’ve taken more than 100 certification exams for more than 8 different vendors over the course of my IT career as well as written exam questions for 2 vendors, so hopefully this might help someone who is facing that first exam.

  1. Figure out which certification you want to achieve.  Go to the vendor’s site and look for “certification paths” or “certification roadmaps”.  This can save you both money and angst since for many vendors there are overlapping exams and exams that pretty much don’t count towards any certification at all.
  2. Make a list of the exams you need to take and any courses or books that are recommended.  Make sure you include the costs of the exams, books and courses in the list.  This can add up quickly and a lot of people don’t realize the total outlay to getting a certification.  Courses can be optional or they may be required, depending on the vendor.  Note whether the course is required and whether there is an online or self study option (these may be cheaper, but you need more self direction using this path).
  3. If courses are required, start looking at training companies, costs and schedules now.  If a course you have to have is only delivered every 6 months locally and is coming up quickly, you may need to adjust your schedule to get that in “out of order”.  Double check that the course aligns with the exam you are planning to take – sometimes all the topics tested aren’t part of the course.
  4. Start a notebook, either paper or virtual (whichever works best for you) to collect all the exam and certification information.  Add your overall list from step one and your cost sheet from step two.  Go to the vendor site for the specific exam and look for a list of “skills measured” (or something similar).  This will be all the topics that will be covered on the exam and (generally) a weighting of which topics will have more questions.  Print this out for your first exam and add it to your notebook.
  5. Set up a study area with a computer and your notebook.  As you take courses or purchase books, put these here as well.  Don’t try to drag things around with you everywhere.  If you are planning to take online courses, invest in a webcam, headset and microphone.  Don’t go cheap on the headset – you’ll be wearing it for long periods.
  6. (Optional) If you have never taken any exams by a particular vendor, see if they provide or recommend any sample questions or sample test providers.  Knowing the format, timing and exam methodology can be the difference between taking an exam once and spending the money twice.  Make sure you know the type of exam and whether you can skip questions, take notes, and the scoring mechanism for questions.  Watch for specials – sample tests providers will periodically have sales or offer bundles for entire certification tracks.
  7. Make sure you have access to the software if you are taking a software exam.  I know this seems common sense, but it is critical that you be able to SEE and DO what you are studying.  Evaluation and demo copies may be fine for this purpose, just make sure that the evaluation period coincides with your study schedule so you don’t run out of evaluation before you are ready to test.
  8. Lay out a study schedule.  Make sure it is reasonable and you can stick to it.  Include any courses in the schedule.  Make sure you leave time at the end to review the skill metrics and go back to the areas where you are still a bit shaky and might need a bit more work.
  9. If you opted for purchasing sample tests, take at least one first.  This should identify your strong and weak areas up front and give you an idea of the areas in which you need to focus.  Don’t skip areas based on this, but use your time wisely.
  10. Schedule your exam.  Yes, schedule it up front.  This gives you a hard and fast date to aim for and will keep you from putting it off and losing motivation.  Nothing like cash on the line to keep you on track.
  11. Take your course or start studying your books.  (Can’t skip this one, I’m afraid).  Take notes as you go on the areas that may need additional review.  Important – if you take a course, take the exam no more than two weeks after you complete the course.  Memories fade.
  12. Exam day minus 1-7 days!  Review any ID requirements or materials needed.  If you are taking the exam online, make sure your computer meets the requirements and run any tests for webcam, headset, microphone, etc.  Take any sample tests and review any areas of weakness.
  13. Exam day!  Don’t cram.  Eat a good breakfast.  Double check that you have any required exam passes, ID, materials, etc.  Use the bathroom before the exam begins.  Keep an eye on the clock.  If you can go back and forth on the exam, do the questions that you know first, return to the ones about which you are unsure.  (Do NOT do this for a dynamic exam – dynamic exams determine the next question based on the answer to the previous one and you can fail quickly by guessing or skipping questions.)  If there is paper available, write down (quickly) any key tables, formulas, etc. that will make answering questions about them faster.  Don’t write down everything, LOL!  And finally, eliminate obvious wrong answers first.  There is only one 100% correct answer, so looking for what isn’t right can be very effective on questions where you aren’t completely sure what is right.
  14. If you pass – yay!  Celebrate and take a week before starting on the next exam study.  If you fail, don’t despair.  Consider it a learning experience and study the exam report.  Likely it will identify the areas where you have a knowledge weakness – schedule a retake (some vendors have free retakes) and focus your next round of study on these areas, making sure to go through the software and any labs or demos related to these.

One word of warning – do NOT use “cheat” or “cram” sites.  The answers are as likely to be wrong as right and in some cases use of these violates the terms of use for the exam.  Do not contribute to these sites as that definitely violates the terms of use.  Keep in mind that the goal is not only to gain the certification but also to gain the skills to be able to do the job.

Good luck!