Find the Best Certification Prep Materials
Though revenues are down, the certification market remains a big business. This means you can find many different kinds of materials available to help you prepare for your certification. Within the categories I describe here, your goal should be to choose the best option(s). The following list represents what I consider to be the most essential (and most frequently chosen) elements in a typical collection of certification preparation materials:
- All-in-one training packages: An extension of the publication bundle idea, these packages often include access to online or computer-based training, audiotapes, flash cards and various kinds of books. More expensive offerings sometimes come with money-back guarantees for certification exams or the cost of the materials themselves, but you should investigate these deals carefully.
- Audiotapes: Those who travel regularly or spend lots of time behind the wheel report that audio-based training and review materials can be helpful. For those whose learning styles mean that hearing information helps them absorb it, this can be useful, as long as they spend sufficient time to listen and learn. Options are limited in this category, while costs are similar to study guides.
- Computer-based training: Computer-based training requires downloading materials from the Internet or running them from CD-ROM. Interactivity levels for such training–and corresponding costs–vary widely. These materials are a hybrid between online training and conventional printed materials. Some offerings include e-mail or telephone access to an instructor, but you’ll pay more for this privilege. Here too, options vary from top-of-the-line offerings with lots of animation, graphics and sizzle to mostly repackaged printed materials.
- Exam crams: A short, focused book that sticks closely to exam topics and sample questions is a good prep tool. Here again, you’ll find lots of options to pick from, but a well-paired study guide and exam cram make a great combination. Don’t forget that online study guides or exam briefs also work well to cover this category.
- Flash cards: You can buy them from a publisher or test vendor, or you can make your own: questions on one side, answers on the other. No matter where they come from, many people find flipping through flash cards to be a great prep tool. Since they’re usually inexpensive, team them up with an exam cram and study guide for better coverage.
- Instructor-led training: Classroom training is a personal experience and a great source of knowledge and materials. Certainly the value of exposure to a talented and knowledgeable instructor is hard to beat. There are tons of options here, ranging from pricier commercial training or boot camps to classes at local community colleges or other education programs.
- Marvelous miscellany: From user groups with study cells to online communities in chat rooms or mailing lists, you can hook up with others who are studying for the same exams you are. Only you can decide if this kind of thing helps you get ready for your exams, but many certified professionals swear by it. Such groups or communities involve little or no additional cost, so they’re worth a try. Another great source of preparation comes from Web sites such as www.cramsession.com, which offers “question of the day” e-mails, along with online forums, study plans, exam reviews and more.
- Online training: Online training combines the features and benefits of the classroom with self-paced reading assignments, labs and practice exams. Cheaper than classroom training, it doesn’t provide as many benefits. Options available range from expensive training outlets or educational conferences to low-cost (or free) video-based training providers. Generally, the more interaction you get with a live instructor, the more you’ll pay.
- Practice exams: An essential weapon in any serious certification candidate’s arsenal, practice tests offer the best form of readiness assessment available. As long as a practice test is a reasonable facsimile of the real thing, passing in practice should mean passing the real thing. Because the stress of taking a real exam drops test scores by as much as 10 percent, I keep practicing until I beat the passing grade by that amount.
- Publication bundles: For popular, multi-exam certifications such as MCSE, CCNP, A+ and so on, book bundles that cover core or common topics are often available. Buying prep materials in bulk can save money, but bundles cost more than single titles.
- Study guides: A key element in any set of prep materials, such books are usually lengthy, designed to deliver background information, to cover general concepts and technologies, and to teach general subject matter, as well as topics related to a specific exam. For popular programs, you will often have to choose among dozens of titles.
Choosing the Best of the Best
If only there were one reliable, consistent guide to “best of breed” certification prep materials. But unfortunately no single source (or author, for that matter) is uniformly great for all categories. Instead, I recommend a strategy to ensure good picks:
- Ask the community: Joining an online certification community gives you access to lots of people, many of whom may have knowledge or experience you can use. It’s especially useful to talk to people who’ve just finished the certification you’re chasing, so contact through virtual or real communities, friends, family, colleagues or co-workers can be a big help. In particular, study communities can be helpful as you seek out the best exam prep materials.
- Read reviews: One fabulous value-add at Amazon.com and other online venues is reader reviews. Often, they are merciless, particularly on the certification stuff. Read the reviews and steer clear of anything that doesn’t rate at least three-and-a-half stars or better. (It’s helpful when ratings are based on 10 or more reviews, since that’s likely to reflect a meaningful consensus.)
- Look for editor’s picks, reading lists, expert recommendations: If you can find recommendations from known experts in your certification area, that’s a great source of input. These folks often know the best books and materials, and most are objective enough to recommend the best stuff, instead of only their own work.
- Ask an expert: One of the great benefits of instructor-led training is also easy to get from online forums, chats or book signings. If you make the effort to ask an expert’s opinion, you’ll be able to benefit directly from his or her knowledge and experience.
- Look things over: If you read through student manuals or go to the bookstore and spend some time with preparation materials before you buy them, you can decide what works with a little time and effort. Read a page or two, take some sample questions and interact with the materials. Are they clear? Interesting? Well-written? Informative? Read the index or table of contents to see if they cover what you need to know.
Likewise, I encourage you to ask about refund policies and to buy only those items that you can return for a refund. (This normally doesn’t apply to software or practice tests, but does apply to most other purchases.) If you save receipts and wind up with a turkey on your hands, you can get your money back and try again. On the other hand, if you buy on a credit card and keep materials in good shape, you can instruct your credit card company to refuse the charge, return the merchandise (provided that’s allowed in the terms of purchase—be sure to check) and walk away unscathed.
Building Sets of Prep Materials
Given the many categories of materials just covered, only those with big budgets and lots o