How to Ace a Non-Test-Based Certification Exam

Until recently, virtually all IT certifications had been based on an individual’s recollection of a body of knowledge and ability to pass a computer-based test. Although examinations can be a good way to showcase a person’s knowledge set, they are not sufficient to establish whether individuals can successfully apply their knowledge in practice.

To achieve most certifications, applicants usually only have to attend a training course or read the appropriate self-study material before taking an exam. However, book knowledge isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of competence, and although written tests are practical and objective, they are also more susceptible to fraud.

In order to determine experience, a thorough examination of the individual’s competency is necessary; this can only be done via an in-depth review by others who have that capability.

The process of preparing for a non-test-based exam is similar to the process of a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation and presenting an oral defense. Instead of a dissertation, the candidate prepares a substantial package presenting a record of their skills and experience; instead of an oral defense, there is a formal interview to test the experience claimed; and rather than a group of adjudicators, there is a board comprising three individuals who are already certified.

In recent years, certification programs based entirely on skills and experience and assess an individual’s people skills as well as technical abilities have begun to increase in popularity.  For example, organizations such as BCS in the United Kingdom now have peer assessment reviews as part of its Chartered IT Professional (CITP) program, and The Open Group’s IT Architect Certification (ITAC) and IT Specialist (ITSC) certification programs use such an approach as well.

Applicants must complete a comprehensive written package and then be interviewed by three existing certified board members. Post-interview, the examining board holds a review meeting to determine the outcome; shortly afterward, the candidate is notified. If the certification is declined, the board explains why and offers suggestions for meeting the criteria for subsequent applications.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
The key to achieving a non-exam-based certification is to prepare the groundwork well in advance of the application. As applicants complete various projects throughout their career, they should try to keep a record of their experience using different technologies and methodologies to build up some “experience profiles,” and they should try to get references for their work as they complete each project.

Experience profiles should include things such as understanding and appreciating the solution life cycle from strategy, design, and implementation to production. Recording decisions made and methods used as part of a successful project will prove invaluable when completing future application submissions or recalling detailed information when asked at an interview.

Completing the relevant application package can take a significant amount of time, but one could use informal help from co-workers or friends who have been through the process, via social networking sites such as LinkedIn, through chapters within specific organizations or as part of special interest groups. Some commercial organizations also provide mentoring programs for certifications for individuals and organizations.

There are usually different levels of certification within a program. For example, at The Open Group, the IT Architect Certification has three different levels: Level 1 – Certified; Level 2 – Master; and Level 3 – Distinguished. The level candidates apply for is determined by the experience they’ve gained in carrying out architecture-based projects and to what extent they were involved in these projects (i.e. a lead role or a supporting role). Each level requires candidates to complete a certification package. This package contains a series of questions that make up the conformance requirements of the program. They need to answer each section and give a detailed account of how they dealt with each area of program expertise. They will also need to provide a minimum of two experience profiles for Level 1 — and three for Level 2 and 3 — that describes how they used their skills in practice.

Here are some dos and don’ts when preparing an application package:
•    Focus on quality of information, not quantity.
•    Keep answers clear and concise.
•    Make it as easy as possible for somebody to review your application by only answering what’s asked for.
•    Don’t reduce the font size just to cram in more information.
•    Don’t edit any of the standard words on the template.
•    Don’t get into too much technical detail.

The Interview
Some interviews are conducted via telephone, but most are face to face. To do well on an interview requires an entirely different skill set than to ace a written exam. Candidates should know the content as well as be articulate. They need to be able to think on their feet and present in a clear, confident and engaging way.

When preparing for the board review, they should practice their answers and make sure they know the content of the application well. Interviewers usually ask a series of open-ended questions and may work from the beginning of the package to the end or select questions at random. Knowing the package well will allow candidates to draw the board members’ attention to specific examples that will answer particular types of questions.

Here are some dos and don’ts for certification interviews:
•    Bring a copy of the certification package, making sure it’s the final version that was submitted.
•    Be specific with answers.
•    Ask questions if unsure about what information is being sought.
•    Tell it like it is. If a mistake was made on a project, admit it, analyze it and show what was learned.
•    Describe projects and achievements in clear and simple terms.
•    Don’t bring any additional material to the interview.
•    Don’t talk at great length; the interview normally lasts about an hour.
•    Don’t be upset or persist if the interviewer cuts short an answer; it just means he or she has enough information and needs to move on.
•    Don’t assume the interviewer understands all the technology, methods, jargon, acronyms and abbreviations used in specific projects.
•    Don’t treat this like a job interview; the interviewer is considering past achievements, not future potential.

After the Interview
Depending on the certification, candidates usually find out whether they have been successful or not within a few weeks. If candidates can achieve a level of certification based on their skills and experience rather than simply learning the answers to knowledge-based questions, they can differentiate themselves from their peers — an important consideration in the current economic climate.

Achieving a globally recognized IT certification often helps with career growth and can improve one’s salary. In addition, many organizations are beginning to use certification credentials in their recruitment process and to guarantee consistent and quality-assured service on project proposals, procurements and service-level agreements. So, although there is a great deal of planning and preparation involved in putting an application together, the benefits of achieving this type of IT certification can be rewarding in the long term.

Steve Philip is marketing director of the ITAC and ITSC programs at The Open Group. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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