Microsoft Exam Study Strategies

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Given that Microsoft Windows Server 2003 exams are going to be “bleeding edge” until the end of 2003, I’m going to explain how to prepare for such exams before the vast majority of third-party preparation materials, courseware, practice tests and so forth become available.

Before I sketch out this approach and explain its various elements, I’d still like to stress the value of waiting as long as is possible or reasonable to take any certification exam. I know some people have to take exams sooner to meet job requirements, to learn the subject matter ASAP or to prepare to teach others or write about the subject matter. That said, the benefits of waiting include:

 

 

  • It takes time for a collective body of knowledge and experience to coalesce around an exam. Reputable, reliable exam reports from sources like Cramsession.com (which is scrupulous in honoring Microsoft’s NDA requirements) usually take anywhere from two to four months after exam release to appear. (Though Cramsession does report on beta exams, its coverage at that level is sketchy and not entirely suitable for rigorous exam preparation.) These reports are informative, helpful and valuable.
  • Trade books on exams, be they full-length study guides to help you learn the material and prep for the exam or more focused tools like the Exam Cram 2 series, don’t typically become available until two or more months after an exam goes public. Even Microsoft Press titles seldom hit the shelves sooner than a month after an exam goes live, and they have the inside track!
  • It’s rare to see practice tests for exams appear sooner than a month after an exam’s public release, and it’s not atypical for them to take as long as three months after an exam’s release date to arrive.

 

All of this helps to explain why I offer one prep strategy for early test-takers (those seeking to tackle Windows Server 2003 exams before October 2003, for example), and another for those who can wait for such materials to guide their exam preparation.

Early-Taker’s Strategy
The quick take on this strategy is that it relies entirely on Microsoft materials. This approach works only when objectives for an exam appear in the Microsoft Training and Certification pages, and it uses those objectives and other Microsoft materials to guide study and practice. Today, of the seven known Windows Server 2003 exams (all of which are numbered #70-29x), six have objectives published, so ambitious readers can start right away. Following this strategy, it’s not uncommon to take an exam twice, where the first try is primarily to scope out an exam’s topics, level of detail and coverage, and the second try represents a real go at passing.

Step 1: Review and Analyze Exam Objectives
Exam objectives map out topics, technologies, tools, commands and troubleshooting skills at a high level. These help you identify topics that you need to learn, tools and commands you must explore and understand and skills you must develop. It’s particularly important to carry your approach all the way to skills, because that’s what Microsoft exams seek to test most directly.

Step 2: Map Objectives to Technical Resources
For this and other following steps, access to Microsoft TechNet is essential. (If you don’t have access to the CDs, most of what you need is online at www.microsoft.com/technet.) Access to the Microsoft Official Curriculum for related courses (identified on Microsoft exam Web pages) is also helpful. But those with limited budgets may have to seek other ways to read such materials if they can’t afford to take courses. The idea here is to identify resource kits, manuals, white papers and training materials (all of which appear in TechNet) relevant to specific exam topics and compile a list of reading and study material. Those with access to MS Press Self-Study Kits or to Microsoft Official Curriculum will also benefit from access to limited-use versions of software that these items can provide. In fact MS Press is working hard to get such materials out quickly after exams go public and often delivers the first printed materials about such exams.

Step 3: Identify Hands-On Activities Relevant to Exam Topics
This proceeds in parallel with Step 2, but requires a different slant on mapping objectives (and recognizing what’s covered in materials you collate). Here, you should identify installation and configuration tasks to master, as well as tools, consoles, commands and utilities relevant to exam objectives with which you must get familiar. This is where the “skills training” part of learning starts to emerge.

Step 4: Work Through Reading and Activities
This is where your analysis in steps 1 to 3 goes to work, as you read about topics related to exam objectives and master relevant hands-on activities and skills. This may not sound like much, but it’s the most labor-intensive step here. It also requires access to tools, software, systems and networks for experimentation and to garner experience.

Step 5: Absorb Ancillary Material
Over the years I’ve seen lots of exam questions based on materials in the Knowledge Base or from white papers and reports related to exam objective topics. You should at least skim this material, looking for nuggets of useful information. Alas, this explains why two takes are often necessary for this strategy—because a first take tells you what nuggets to learn more about, and that information isn’t easily available any other way.

Step 6: Take the Exam
We assume you can do this without guidance; steps 7 and later apply only if you don’t pass on your first try. Good luck!

Step 7: Analyze Areas for Further Study
If you didn’t pass, it’s important to recognize topics, tools and technologies on the exam for which you weren’t adequately prepared. If possible, use the “return to question” marker during the exam to mark questions you aren’t sure about, then scan them again just before scoring your exam (time permitting, of course). Strain your memory banks to retain that material and record it after the exam so you can use it to drive further study.

Step 8: Absorb Necessary Material, Perform Hands-On Tasks
Use the list of topics you take away from the exam to re-apply steps 2 through 4 to topics where further study or hands-on experience and experimentation is needed. Keep at it until you’re comfortable with those topics. Then, move on to step 9.

Step 9: Retake the Exam
Repeat steps 7 through 9 until you pass! If practice tests, exam reviews or books appear while you’re in this process, consider switching to the strategy outlined next.

Later-Taker’s Strategy
In this case, life is easier, and the odds of passing on the first try are increased. That’s because materials cover steps 1 through 3 from the preceding strategy, and you benefit by working from other people’s experience with the exam. In a nutshell, this explains why I recommend this strategy unless dire necessity determines otherwise.

A later-taker’s strategy depends on obtaining four types of material to help you prepare:

 

 

  • At least two practice exams, one to use for self-assessment, one or more for pre-exam tuneups or retakes.
  • At least one good study guide for the exam, if not also a more focused tool (like an Exam Cram 2).
  • One or more exam reviews, along with the Microsoft objectives, to help you understand content details for any particular exam.
  • The collection of Microsoft materials described in detail in Step 2 of the preceding strategy.

 

Some people might call this a “belt and suspenders” strategy because books, reviews and objectives overlap. But because not all books do complete justice to the exams they cover, added coverage is good insurance. In other words, if you see something in the objectives or an exam review that

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