Dear CertMag: What’s the best way to save on certification?

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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 an IT position managing PC installation, networking and support for a rural school district. I’d like to improve my job prospects and I’ve been investigating certification. From what I can tell, it gets pricey pretty quick. My district doesn’t have funds available for that sort of thing. I’m hoping not to have to foot the entire bill myself, or at least not on my current salary. Are there other options I should be aware of?

Rob Rutherford, Cary, N.C.

Certification can be expensive, but there are ways to save money.CertMag responds:

Financing the means of one’s career improvement is a common challenge for us all. Apart from employer sponsored certification programs, finding the means to be able to pay for study materials, practice tests, and the certification exams themselves can be a significant investment for a family to undertake. Having gotten my first internships in K-12 grades in a very similar support role to what you describe, this problem is quite near to my heart.

The unfortunate truth is that there are not really a lot of grant-based or similar programs out there aside from in the realm of higher education. For example, there are universities whose curriculum includes completing certifications as part of finishing classes within the course of study for a degree. The computer science programs at Western Governors University offer a one such example that I am familiar with. Yet while there are different types of financial aid available in a degree program, the investment and effort required to complete the program itself are well in excess of the costs typically associated with a simple certification!

I would look at the potential that you have to pace yourself over time, and try to stay lean on your investment. What is your learning style? Are you the kind of person who can learn from books? Or do you need videos? Or do you learn best by simply working with something hand-on in a lab environment? One of the easiest transitions to make from an A+ type background is to move into desktop engineering or systems administration. Using Microsoft’s certification area as an example, each of these methods offers both formal and informal means of building up your experience in preparation for a certification.

Even though it sounds complicated, it’s really not: There is a fair amount of engineering that goes into formal training methods: Courses of study at a local tech school. Books that have been designed, reviewed, organized in some way. Review tests that have been put together by — presumably — experts in the field to try to mimic the exam itself. Some of these can be bypassed. Can you download evaluation versions of the products that interest you? Can you invest in a secondhand computer or two off of eBay (or your  own favorite secondhand site), to use as a testing sandbox? With a used system, you can install those evaluation versions and work through them that way.

By finding the right combination of formal purchased study material, supplemented by informal training from other people’s YouTube videos, technical blog posts, and your own hands-on experience, you can decide just how much investment is the right amount to help you feel comfortably prepared for an exam.

Sadly, there are few ways to avoid the exam fee itself, particularly if your employer’s not involved. If you feel that certification is the right path to help you be more competitive in a future position then you may need to save up over a few pay periods to be able to tackle that exam! My suggestion? Retakes cost money, too. Use that as motivation to be ready the first time!

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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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