Failure is not an Option: Ensuring Certified Success

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If you are like me, the thought of taking a certification exam conjures up all kinds of thoughts—most of them not extremely pleasurable. In fact, as I sit here and write this, I’m wondering if I’d rather be covered in a vat of spiders and forced to eat crickets or if I should tackle my next certification exam, and the choice is not abundantly clear to me. Taking a certification exam can be downright stressful, and failing an exam can feel devastating, but there is some solace in knowing that although there may not be an art to passing exams, there is a vast body of collective experience and some pretty sound advice that can make your next test-taking experience a positive one.


The Real Costs of Failure


Failing an exam can lead to many thoughts—to me it’s similar to the feeling I had when I first had a car accident. There’s the initial fear of “I can’t believe I’m going to crash!” Then the harsh reality hits, and you immediately begin to think, “I hope my insurance pays for this.” Failing a certification exam isn’t much different. You may suffer some trauma when you realize that you are failing or will fail something. Many of us aren’t the type of people who fail at anything on a regular basis. Then, in addition to a bruised ego, comes what I call “insult to injury.” Undoubtedly, someone paid for that test you just failed. Maybe it was you, or maybe it was your company. And although the average test price, ranging between $100 and $200, might seem like a small sum in the big scheme of things, it’s never easy to dig out your wallet to pay again or to go to your boss to ask for a retest.


In addition to the hard costs of failing a test, there may be some costs that aren’t so concrete but are nonetheless hard to stomach. Maybe you chose to go the “cheaper or easier” route of preparing for your exams, figuring that you knew the content or that you would just take a chance. Now the fact that you took that route and passed on buying that test-prep tool, self-studied or barely studied at all could cost you a delay in that new job you were seeking, that merit increase that you might have gotten or that promotion you were counting on. Add to the mix the fact that some certification programs stipulate the testing time that must pass between the time you fail an exam and the time you can retake it, and you really begin to realize that failing costs more than the price of the exam itself. Time is money. If you are earning a salary of $50,000 and that promotion you seek rides on you having your Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification, two failures on the same exam mean that you need to wait to reschedule it. Those failures alone cost $250, and the fact that you have to wait another 30 days to reschedule it means that you just put off that raise or merit increase. At 5 percent, that means that you just put off your $2,500 annual increase for one more month—at least. That’s a hard lesson to learn and one not worth repeating.


Knowledge Is Power


Enough talk about failure! Even if you’ve never failed a test before or are embarking on taking your first certification exam, we all know what failure feels like in some sense. The real power comes in knowing what you can and should do once you fail a test to make sure that it does not happen again. And although you might feel “down in the dumps,” you’ve got to muster everything you can to turn this negative experience into a positive one the next time around. How do you do that? Here are some tips based on input from people who run certification programs, people who have taken (and failed) tests and people who make their business out of teaching people how to pass certification exams.


Stay Calm


These very words may seem a bit obvious and somewhat patronizing, but they are very important. Whether you like it or not, you have just benefited from failing your exam. You have actually experienced the test and now are infinitely more knowledgeable on what the testing experience is like. “Most people don’t realize that the IT industry is based upon failure,” said Gene Salois, vice president of certification for CompTIA. “Whether we’re talking about software, hardware or processes, real learning tends to occur from failing and incorporating what we learn from that failure back into our next attempt or revision.” In keeping with this, it is critical that you take away as much as you can from your negative test experience and act rationally.


Memorialize the Testing Event


Once you fail a testing event, the most important thing that you can do is write down as much information as possible about the test and what it was that really tripped you up. This information is now fresh in your mind, and you must harness it. Consider writing down your thoughts in the following areas:



  • The testing environment: Were you comfortable in the testing environment? Were there noises or other distractions that contributed to your failure? Anyone who has ever stayed in hotel and had a fan or other random noise prevent them from getting a good night’s sleep knows that environment is not to be underestimated. Write down your thoughts of what you liked and, most importantly, what you did not like about the test center. If your testing environment did not enhance or at least neutralize your testing experience, you should look for another testing location. Also, consider that what makes a great testing location today might not be a testing location the next time. For example, I used to manage a testing center in the Empire State Building. Everyone knew where we were located and wanted to train and test at one of the nation’s top landmarks. Then notices came from management that our landmark building would undergo renovations that would lead to “noise.” I still pity the poor individuals who took their exams to the tune of jackhammers. Lesson learned? You may want to call your testing location to make sure that the environment isn’t going to be experiencing any “unique” phenomena.
  • The test itself: What was it that surprised you about the test itself? Were there specific questions that stumped you? “The number one thing that a person should do after they fail a test is to write down the questions that they failed,” said Kevin Brice, president of MeasureUp, a test-prep vendor. It’s not only important to write down the essence of the question, but it is also highly recommended that you write down the question as it was phrased so you can get some insight into how other questions might be architected. Chances are you won’t receive the same form of the exam or the same questions on your next attempt, but understanding how the questions are architected could prevent you from missing a similar question. You might even feel that the question itself was poorly written or misleading, and by writing it down you can contact the test vendor and go through the process of “challenging” the exam item.


Maybe the format of the test also caught you off guard. For example, years ago, I had the privilege of managing some of the top Master Certified Novell Engineers (Master CNEs) in the country. One by one I watched them fail their Microsoft tests because they were used to the format of Novell tests. At the time, Novell exams were architected quite differently from the Microsoft exams. (Novell had structured its tests so that the material on them was drawn directly from the official content, while Microsoft exams required that test-takers gather material from curriculum, product guides and other sources.) By sitting down and writing down the “missed questions,” those “now MCSEs” were able to cross-reference that what they missed was never actually covered in official curriculum and seek out other learning tools that did cover those topics.


Save Your Exam Score Report


Seems obvious, right? But many people are so upset by failing a test that al

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