CompTIA Study Strategies
As a survivor of countless exams and a contributor to several CompTIA titles—three and counting as I write this—I’ve learned by experience and observation of students in the classroom that several study ingredients are key to certification success. This applies to CompTIA’s credentials at all levels. But because there are 11 CompTIA certifications to choose from, I don’t describe a detailed plan of attack for any single exam. Rather, I provide a set of general guidelines and approaches that should help you prepare for just about any of them.
The general guidelines and approaches most worth your time are:
- Master basic terms and concepts: No matter what subject you go after, obtain and read a good general book on that topic and use it to teach yourself associated vocabulary, concepts, tools and techniques. Consider this a necessary orientation to and familiarization with the subject matter. (You can use reader reviews or other book ratings online to identify popular introductions or basic textbooks for at your favorite online bookstore, or by searching for “x recommended reading” where you substitute the name of a CompTIA exam for “x” as you start searching.)
- Drive backward from exam objectives: Use the objectives for your exam to establish what you must know and understand to pass, then work backward from there to bring yourself up to the right level. What does this mean? It means you must dig into those objectives and determine the subjects to which they relate, then find introductions, overviews and tutorials. If you do some digging online, you’ll find useful pointers in reading lists for related courses, at exam-specific sites and in discussions of good prep materials.
- Recognize, catalog and analyze exam objectives: I recommend driving backward from these first, because you may need additional background to understand what they’re about. But once you do understand, you can use your knowledge to help you identify key details you must understand, the kinds of things or events you must recognize, the kinds of skills or hands-on experience to cultivate and so on.
- Understand the workaday world that drives your cert: CompTIA’s exams spring from job-task analyses, which in turn derive from careful observation and analysis of the tasks, activities and problem-solving that busy professionals in that subject area must know. There’s no reason you can’t read about such jobs, look at case studies or success stories and learn more about the job behind the certification. Ultimately, workplace success depends on what you can do and what kinds of situations you can handle. Spending extra time to scope these things out will help you prepare for the CompTIA exam too.
If you lay the right groundwork while preparing, you’ll not only make the actual job of exam preparation easier by readying yourself for the work involved, you’ll also approach the exam with a better-informed outlook and understanding!
That said, because many CompTIA certifications represent early adventures for IT professionals—that is, if they’re not the first certification, they’re likely to be the first credentials in some particular subject—I don’t provide my usual two-pronged strategy here. Normally, I provide a set of guidelines for early adopters (those who must prepare for an exam before the marketplace catches up with supporting materials) and another set for those who can wait for exam-related study guides, exam crams, practice tests and so forth before getting down to work. Here, I recommend you wait for aftermarket materials and training courses to appear and make some or all of these elements key parts of your prep strategy. That’s because such materials perform three key parts of the exam-preparation process for you, thereby making your own job much easier:
- Review and analyze exam objectives: Exam objectives map out topics, technologies, tools, commands and troubleshooting skills. These help exam candidates identify subjects that they must learn, tools and commands they must explore and understand, and skills they must develop. It’s particularly important to carry the exam approach all the way to skills, because that’s what most certification exams test nowadays—including those from CompTIA.
- Map the exam topics to technical resources: For this and other following steps, access to some kind of training or study materials is essential (and of course, the best way to learn such information is to attend recommended, authorized training courses or e-learning offerings for those exams). The idea here is to identify manuals, white papers, training materials and background reading lists relevant to specific exam topics and to work from the best possible list of background and exam-specific study material.
- Identify hands-on activities relevant to exam topics: This requires a different slant on mapping exam topics (and recognizing what’s covered in the materials collected). Here, the task is to identify installation and configuration tasks to master, as well as tools, consoles, commands and utilities relevant to exam objectives with which candidates must be familiar. This is where the “skills training” part of learning really starts to occur.
By waiting for quality aftermarket materials or classes to become available, you can rely on trained professionals to do these essential jobs for you. The rest of the steps you must do yourself, as you prepare for your exam. You’ll also want to collect some materials to help you get ready:
- At least two practice exams, one for self-assessment, one or more for pre-exam tune-ups or retakes.
- At least one good study guide, if not also a more focused tool (like Exam Cram 2).
- One or more exam reviews, along with CompTIA exam objectives, to help you understand content details and requirements for your exam.
- A collection of training and supporting materials to complement and complete your technical resources. (This is optional.)
With those materials in hand, here’s what to do to implement this strategy:
Step 1: Review and Analyze Exam Objectives
This is the right place to start, no matter what. Here, you want to look for and identify items missing or not adequately covered in your books or other study materials.
Step 2: Take a Practice Test to Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Unless this is your first cert exam, chances are good you already know at least some of the material it covers. Taking a practice test early helps you determine what topics you can skip as you prepare. It also gives you a keen sense of how much reading and hands-on activity you must do to get ready.
Step 3: Work Through Study Materials
Skipping areas where you’re ready to go, chunk your way through a study guide and an exam cram. Use the list of “missing items” from step 1 to guide your reading in other training or supporting materials you can find. Be sure to do all hands-on activities and exercises and use end-of-chapter questions and review materials to focus your efforts.
Step 4: Assess Your Readiness
Better than real exams, most practice tests report on things you miss; use this input to guide further study. Return to your materials to shore up weak areas, and keep assessing readiness until you’re comfortable with the material (and pass regularly); then move to step 5.
Step 5: Take the Exam
If you pass, congrats! If not, follow the additional steps to get ready for a retake.
Step 6: Analyze and Determine Areas for Further Study
If you didn’t pass, it’s important to recognize topics, tools and technologies on the exam for which you weren’t ready. If you can, use the “return to question” marker during the exam to mark questions you aren’t sure about, then scan them again just before scoring your exa