Grace Under Pressure: Strategies to Pass the Test
When it comes to getting certified, sooner or later you must put your skills and knowledge to the test—literally. This means signing up for an exam, making the pilgrimage to a testing center and sitting down in front of a computer to work your way through scenarios, case studies and on-screen exhibits before tackling those fiendishly clever multiple-choice questions that stand between you and your next credential.
Increasingly, individuals also must do some “interface driving” during exams, which means learning and knowing how to operate various kinds of program interfaces to demonstrate your knowledge of hands-on installation, configuration, maintenance and troubleshooting with such tools and utilities.
In fact, there’s an awful lot of time, effort and energy involved in preparing for a modern certification exam these days. With a set of prescriptions, tips and strategies you can use to get ready for your exam, you’ll be in tip-top shape when you walk into the testing center and sit down to tackle the test.
Understanding Exam Requirements
Before you can start preparing for your exam, you must know what it is you’re preparing for. This means digging up the exam sponsor’s list of objectives and any other information you can find to help map what the exam covers, what kinds of concepts and terminology you’re expected to know, and what kinds of skills and knowledge you’re supposed to possess. It’s a good idea to look for sample exam questions and to scour the Web for reports and information for those who’ve already taken and passed this exam (but don’t go out looking for or pay much attention to brain dumps because they are subject to legal, moral and technical issues and problems).
Finally, some exam sponsors and most good exam preparation Web sites will put together reading lists that map books, articles, white papers and course materials to exam contents. You can use this information and detailed topical summaries to get an idea of what is covered.
Assembling the Necessary Ingredients
Once you’ve mapped out what you must cover, you’ll want to find information to help you review what you already know to some extent and to learn things with which you’re not too familiar. Some of the following items will be useful when preparing for a certification exam:
- Study Guide: You can recognize most study guides by their heft. These are big books that take readers from basic or no familiarity with subject matter all the way through what they must learn and be able to do to pass a certification exam.
- Exam Crams: These are smaller, more focused books that deal with exam topics and question-related matters rather than trying to teach everything someone might need to know to pass a specific exam. They’re great tools for those who already know the subject matter reasonably well and just want to get ready for the exam, but they also make great supplements to most study guides and can help with exam readiness assessment and pre-exam tune-ups as well.
- Practice tests: These are usually CD or DVD-based software offerings that provide their buyers with several exams’ worth of questions designed to resemble the real exam. They cover the same topics and skills and exercise their takers’ skills and knowledge as they prepare for exams. You can use them early in your study process to help pinpoint areas where further study and learning are needed (skills and knowledge assessment), and you can (and should) use them later in the process to help you decide when you’re ready to take the real exam (readiness assessment). You might need to buy two sets of practice exams if you want to do more than one or two skills and knowledge assessments early on, followed by more than one readiness assessment as you get ready to sign up and take your exam.
- Flash cards: These may be soft-copy files you can print and turn into physical flashcards, or they might come pre-printed and ready to use. You’ll find questions on one side, answers on the other, and you can use them to drill for the exam as you move from the knowledge- and skills-acquisition phases into the readiness-assessment phases of exam preparation.
- Courses and courseware: Whether online or in the classroom, many certification candidates and successful certified professionals attribute their credentials to taking high-quality courses, especially those with hands-on labs where people can practice what they’ve been learning and cement their conceptual growth with intense hands-on experience. Most IT certifications require at least two or three days in the classroom (or its equivalent), and some topics can involve five or more days of intense learning.
- User groups or cert communities: You often can find local chapters of user groups for well-known vendor-sponsored programs such as those from Cisco or Microsoft, but you also can hook up with professional society chapters, such as the International Security Systems Association (ISSA), where study groups for related certifications are usually ongoing. You can also find lots of active user communities on Web sites that coalesce around specific certifications or sponsor programs as well. These can offer opportunities to raise questions, get good answers and interact with other concerned professionals studying for exams.
Investigating Exam Content and Coverage
Once you acquire your study materials or decide to sign up for a course, you’ll want to dig into the exam coverage just to make sure you’ve got everything you need to prepare. Compare the exam objectives and official topics-covered lists with the information that’s included in the ingredients you assemble to help you prepare. This is where visiting Web sites, message boards or user forums that concentrate on exam preparation can be helpful. Those who take exams will often report on items that appear that weren’t covered explicitly in the objectives or that were omitted in available study materials, exam crams and practice tests. This is key information that lets you supplement your preparation library with pointed, focused materials to fill any gaps or oversights they might contain.
Developing Necessary Knowledge and Skills
Once you acquire your ingredients and finish your investigation of exam content and coverage, you’ll want to make an initial knowledge and skills assessment to figure out which areas you must concentrate on during the preparation process. You can use the information you gain from this process to focus your studies and activities. You’ll also want to set up a test computer or network to help you practice hands-on skill. Many people also find it useful to take a second skills assessment after they’re 30 to 60 days into the preparation process to help them focus in further on areas where additional learning and practice might be needed.
Assessing Exam Readiness
Once you start getting comfortable with the topics, tools, technologies, skills, tasks and activities involved in a certain exam, you’ll start wondering if you’re ready for the real exam or not. The best way to make sure is to take some practice exams to check readiness. If you can beat the minimum passing score for an exam by 5 to 10 percent, you might be ready to take the real thing, though you should probably check to see if there are some topics or activities where your scores still show room for improvement. If you can’t beat that minimum passing score, you can usually review your results by topic to help you determine where you need to put in some more time and effort.
You’ll want to repeat this process until you can beat the minimum passing score by this comfortable margin before signing up for the exam. Most assessment professionals recognize that the stress of taking an actual exam rather than its practice equivalent often means a s