How to find the right study guide for your next certification exam
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Preparing for an information technology (IT) certification exam while working or attending school full-time can be fairly demanding. It’s also part and parcel of a tech career for many current or aspiring IT professionals. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of continual learning to success in IT — technology changes constantly, and those in the industry must keep pace.
Some learn informally, on the job as well as studying on their own, while others work to achieve IT certifications. The certification process helps them develop and validate new skills that are sought after by employers.
Training for a certification exam takes time and preparation. It’s important to schedule a date for the exam so that you will be committed to preparing, and so that you know in advance how much time there will be to prepare.
Many IT certification candidates prepare for challenging certification exams using traditional or formal learning methods. There are, broadly speaking, two modes of conventional or formal training for IT exams: instructor-led training (ILT) and self-study.
Candidates who prefer supervised and guided learning — and who can accommodate a fixed schedule — normally opt for instructor-led study, provided they can afford it. ILT costs substantially more than self-study.
On the other hand, certification candidates who have strong self-discipline and direction, who are organized, and who like a flexible learning schedule often opt for self-study. Learning at one’s own pace is more convenient for those who have busy work or school schedules.
It’s also possible to use a combination of learning tools from both methods, as some candidates do. You should choose the learning mode and options/tools that suit you best. Factors to consider while selecting a training mode include time available, learning style, relevant professional experience, habits and traits, and your budget.
For those who do take the self-study route, a written guidebook, ink-and-paper or electronic, is an essential learning tool. In fact, many candidates who opt for ILT supplement their training with guidebooks. A good study guide facilitates in-depth learning and can enhance knowledge retention.
Benefits of using guidebooks
Taking charge of your exam preparation can work to your advantage if you have strong motivation, discipline, and a systematic approach. Opting for the self-study route offers a number of benefits. E-books or printed study guides and other self-study tools, such as video and e-learning tools enable certification candidates to manage their own training schedule.
Learners also have the freedom to allot time to different topics according to their specific learning needs. Web-based study and training tools like the CertMaster platform operated by tech industry association CompTIA are designed for candidates who want an exam-prep curriculum but prefer to learn at their own pace.
A printed or electronic guidebook is a crucial part of a certification candidate’s self-study kit. A reliable study guide is an invaluable exam-prep tool for a number of reasons:
Coverage: A good guidebook offers thorough and in-depth coverage of all exam topics. Students who read the entire book will not miss out on a single exam objective.
Depth: The level of detail in a study guide enables candidates to study and understand complex topics in depth. This is why many students who opt for classroom training also use study guides, to augment the knowledge they develop through instructor-led training.
Retention: Answering review questions at the end of each chapter helps students to assess their level of knowledge of each topic and promotes knowledge retention.
Flexibility: Study guides are a boon for certification aspirants who can’t keep to a set schedule due to work, family, and other commitments. Self-study tools such as guidebooks give you the freedom to learn at your convenience.
Review: Books also enable you to flip back to sections as often as needed to understand concepts that may pose a bit of a challenge.
If you opt for an electronic guidebook, then you’ll have the added benefit of accessing it on any one of your devices at any point in time. An e-book also keeps your study material at your fingertips, which means you can squeeze in some study time while waiting at a restaurant or riding a bus or train. Studying in bits like this is known as microlearning and is said to enhance knowledge retention.
E-books also offer the convenience of search functionality. If you want to look up something specific, all you have to do is type one or more words into the search bar and you can immediately find what you’re looking for.
Things to look for before you complete your purchase
Selecting a comprehensive and up-to-date study guide is crucial for your exam preparation. A sketchy and outdated guidebook will not give you all the information needed for your certification exam. Also, exam formats are periodically updated by certification providers. So, it’s important that you practice the current format.
A reliable study guide should include the following elements:
● Discussion of each exam objective — Be sure to examine the contents to verify whether or not each exam topic has been covered.
● Detailed explanations — Studying topics in detail promotes deeper understanding. Detailed explanations are particularly valuable in the case of topics that the student is not familiar with.
● Real-world case studies — Case studies enable students to understand the application of technologies in real-world settings.
● Practical exercises — Exercises give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and practice what they have learned.
● Scripting and configuration examples
● Difficult review questions at the end of every chapter, with answers and explanations
● Pre-assessment tests
● Links to online resources and tools for interactive learning
● Glossary — A full and in-depth listing of key terms and definitions is an invaluable resource.
Some study guides also come with practice tests (accessible online if not included in the book itself) and flashcards. This is valuable additional content if available, but shouldn’t deter you from making a purchase by its absence.
How to choose among multiple options
An exhaustive and up-to-date study guide is a vital exam prep tool. It can make all the difference to a candidate’s state of preparedness for a certification exam. Quite often, however, more than one guide is available. There are official study guides from some certification providers, as well as third-party guides created by education and training providers.
A search on Google for study guides for your certification exam will almost invariably bring up a long list of books, making it somewhat challenging to choose the right one. Here are a few tips that might help you identify the guide that would work best for you:
Peruse the topics covered in each study guide and see whether they map to exam objectives. If you plan to buy just one guide, be sure that it covers all the exam topics. It’s possible that books available from third parties for some certifications don’t cover all topics. In that case, you might want to consider official study guides from the relevant certification provider or purchase more than one third-party guide.
Generally speaking, study and training guidebooks created by the certification provider are more reliable, comprehensive, and detailed than competing options. To illustrate, consider the following discussion of study guides offered by computer networking titan Cisco to support exam candidates considering one of its numerous certifications.
Networking professionals who support and administer Cisco network infrastructure solutions can begin with Cisco’s Foundation Learning Guides if they need to develop a foundation for understanding a new subject area, and then move on to the relevant Cisco Certification Guides.
Cisco Foundation Learning Guides contain valuable content, such as case studies, configuration instances, and review questions.
Cisco’s officially developed certification guides are available for the CCNA, CCDA, CCENT, CCNP, and CCIE exams. These certification guides are designed for experienced students who have conceptual, real-world knowledge and skills in the topics covered in the exam and are looking to review relevant content prior to the exam. They offer the opportunity for focused study and test-taking practice before the exam.
Cisco certification guides include quizzes at the beginning of each chapter, which help aspirants assess what they know about the topic and determine how much time to devote to sub-topics/sections. Each chapter ends with review questions that emphasize important concepts and enable students to evaluate their expertise.
When weighing guidebook options, be sure to find out what is offered by the certification provider. The support system for exam candidates may not always be as robust as what we’ve discussed above, but the sponsoring program is likely to know the content of its exams better than anyone else. That said, there are excellent third-party training providers across the IT certification spectrum. You will almost always find more than one source of high-caliber and reliable training available.
You should also always consider the availability of practice tests. Completing practice test questions is an important part of exam preparation. Some guidebooks come with practice tests included. If not, you can get them separately and often quite cheaply. CompTIA, for example, offers a set of free practice test questions for their certification exams, which can be ordered on their website.
Check out sales rankings and reviews (particularly on Amazon) to find the bestselling study guides. For third-party guides, it can be particularly helpful to read through available reviews. You’re likely to come across comments that point out inadequate coverage of exam objectives, lack of detail, outdated content, including questions, grammatical and spelling errors, and poor readability.
A comprehensive, accurate, and well-designed study guide is an invaluable piece of the exam preparation puzzle. Such guidebooks are an excellent resource to help you prepare for all of the exam objectives; add to your knowledge of topics, tools, and processes; and review and retain new information.
Pay special attention to any study guide recommendation concerning hands-on practice and/or direct experience. Whether earned on the job or acquired through virtual labs, software simulations, or local runtime environments, practical experience is invaluable in preparing for any certification exam. Always complete practice test questions as well: You will benefit from knowing the type of questions to expect on the exam, and also by becoming familiar with the current exam format.
Don’t be intimidated as you embark on your certification learning journey, whether you are sailing into strange waters for the first time or embarking on new explorations of previously charted territory. With patience, persistence, and preparation, you can conquer even advanced IT certification exams.