Dear CertMag: Can brain dumps get me out of an exam jam?

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 Dear CertMag  is a weekly feature that addresses common questions about certification and related IT issues. Have a question? Send an e-mail to editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

Dear CertMag: I have a Cisco certification exam approaching at the end of May. I feel like I’m falling behind studying. A couple of friends have suggested using brain dump sites, or cram sessions, just to get past the exam. I’m a CCNA and I do a lot of this stuff every day for work anyway. For whatever reason, tests freak me out. I have a hard time with stuff that’s practically second nature when I’m not checking the clock every few seconds and trying to stay focused. Are brain dumps or cramming helpful for people like me who have test anxiety?

Nick Robinson, Atlanta, GA

Brain dumps are out there, but using one to prep for a certification test can mean big trouble.CertMag responds:

Certification exams can be difficult to prepare for, and sometimes tough to finish. To keep it simple, I strongly suggest avoiding so-called brain dump sites!

Aside from the ethical challenges that come along with using those kinds of materials, many of the major certification providers have test integrity programs that use varying methods — and take varying actions — to identify and address the use of test memorization. One vendor’s program I was familiar with a few years ago involved time metric analysis, together with pattern matching. Many of the brain dumps out there have some slight flaws, where just a couple of questions could be answered incorrectly in the study material.

If you take a test one time and your pattern of answers matches what the brain dump teaches you, that in itself says nothing. (Unless you answer so fast that psychometric experience in setting up the test tells them you didn’t take time to do the basic reading and thinking that is required to complete the exam!) Anyway, your test pattern may fall in the percentage of people who answer the same as what a known brain dump would answer. To use a number for purposes of illustration, let’s call it 2 percent.

After your second, third, or fourth exam, where each of those were 2 percent chances of pattern matching against what a brain dump studier would have answered, a statistical profile emerges that says you are likely using copyright-violating materials (the brain dumps) to prepare, breaching your test agreement. After all, by your fourth exam, the odds of you having naturally reached the exact same profile of answers as a brain dump is .02 x .02 x .02 x .02 in this example. One in 6,250,000 if my math is correct.

Difficulty with tests is a real thing. Some people do not test well and there are a million reasons why that can be. Unfortunately what this means is that you likely need to spend MORE time studying for the exam, not less. If your exam is already scheduled, I strongly suggest assessing your priorities. If completing the certification is a priority, see if you can work with friends, family or colleagues to free up the time to spend more time between now and the exam than you have been able to spend thus far.

“Cramming” with intense study seldom works for people beyond adding a couple of additional facts. If you are right now on the very edge of the line between passing or not, it may be just enough to put you over the edge with an extra answer correct, but it is seldom a strong strategy by itself. Use some practice tests to get experience with what to expect, and make sure you are looking at areas that you are not familiar with more than those that you are performing strongly in. Perhaps the answer here is to be efficient about where you invest your time, rather than using a “gray market” accelerator like a brain dump.

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Wayne Anderson


Wayne Anderson (@NoCo_Architect) is a Service Management Architect with Avanade, a company that helps customers realize results in a digital world through business technology solutions and managed services that combine insight, innovation and expertise focused on Microsoft® technologies. He holds the Certified IT Architect – Professional credential from IASA and has completed more than 30 Microsoft certifications in his career alongside credentials from CompTIA and other industry vendors.

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