Nine pitfalls to avoid on your path to certification
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Over the past two decades, I’ve helped thousands of people earn cybersecurity certifications through my books, video courses, and online study groups. During that time, I’ve watched many people succeed, but I’ve also seen people who start with good intentions get tripped up by some pitfalls that await on the path to certification.
Let’s take a look at nine of the most common pitfalls that sidetrack certification candidates and talk about ways that you can plan your own certification journey to avoid repeating those common mistakes.
1) Getting off to a slow (or no!) start
The first significant step on a certification journey is often the hardest. I’ve watched countless students launch into a certification effort with enthusiasm, driven by the desire to land a promotion, a New Year’s resolution, or a plan to change careers.
Their first stop is often Amazon, where they load up on certification books and practice exams. It’s easy to put $100 on your credit card and purchase some resources, and you will indeed need to make a few such purchases — but this often gives candidates a false sense of progress.
You won’t learn by osmosis. Having a certification book on your bookshelf isn’t going to get you a certification. You need to pull a study plan together and start reading, watch some videos, or take a class. Whatever your ultimate goal, be sure to actually get started.
2) Veering off course during your preparation
Preparing for a certification, especially in a field that’s new to you, is a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s likely going to take you weeks or months to successfully master the content you’ll need to succeed on the certification exam. Once again, we see the importance of developing a study plan to help guide your work.
Before you get started, pull together a plan that will guide your studies over the coming weeks. Be sure to design a reasonable plan that is sustainable throughout your journey. You might start off thinking that you can study for four hours a night every evening after work, but how will you feel about that a few weeks from now? Build some slack into your plan for the inevitable surprises that pop into your daily schedule.
Ideally, you should use a study plan designed by someone who’s been there and done that. For example, I offer free study plans on my website, CertMike.com, for a variety of cybersecurity certification programs. Other authors offer similar resources to readers pursuing other IT certification niches.
3) Starting with the wrong certification for your skills and experience
Set realistic expectations for yourself. It’s easy to set your eyes on the juicy target of whatever certification is the gold standard for your field, but ask yourself whether that is reasonably achievable.
For example, if you’re a new network technician, you might look at the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) credential as the top credential in your field. After reviewing the website for that certification, you’d learn that it has no formal prerequisites and is open to anyone willing to sit for the qualifying exam. After all, “Go big or go home,” right?
The stark reality is that overshooting your initial certification is a good way to go home from the exam empty-handed. If you’re an entry-level networking technician, then it might be a better idea to start with the CCNA certification and work your way up to CCIE.
4) Relying too much on practice exam questions
Practice exam questions are a valuable tool to help identify focus areas for your study efforts and assess your readiness for the exam. There’s no better way to build your confidence heading into exam day than doing well on a practice test.
That said, practice questions can also be fraught with peril. First, make sure that you’re using high quality practice tests, not just sample questions from websites that you found on the Internet. You want to make sure that you’re practicing with questions that are similar to the real thing.
Second, make sure that you’re not studying practice test questions repeatedly. This won’t get you ready for the exam; it will simply ensure that you memorize the answers to that particular set of practice test questions.
Instead, save a few practice exams for the end of your test preparation and use them once each to assess your knowledge. Study up on the areas where you missed a couple of questions and you’ll be ready for exam day.
5) Using a preparation format that doesn’t fit with your learning style
There are many different ways to prepare for a certification exam. You can take an expensive “boot camp”-style in-person course where a live instructor walks you through the exam’s body of knowledge. Online video-based courses present material in an engaging multimedia format. Study guide books walk you through the nuances of the material in written form.
You should select a set of resources that best matches your own personal learning style. If you prefer an in-person class, go for it. If you’d rather read on your own time, that’s fine as well. My best recommendation here is to use at least two different methods to prepare for the exam. That way, if you miss a concept the first time, you have another opportunity to catch it the second time around.
6) Going it alone
Thousands of IT professionals earn professional certifications every year. If you choose not to take a course with other students, then preparing for your exam can be an isolating experience. I’ve found that students almost always learn better when they can prepare in a group with others in similar situations.
Members of the group benefit from each other’s knowledge and serve as a motivating force to keep moving forward. I strongly recommend that you find friends or colleagues who would like to prepare for a certification with you, or join an online study group that prepares together.
7) Not understanding the test parameters
Every certification exam is different. Some feature a series of straight multiple-choice questions where you need to select the one correct answer from four possible answers. Others include questions with more options, or where more than one answer might be correct. Interactive questions may ask you to sort a series of steps in order, or categorize different items based upon your knowledge.
You might be asked to place resources on a network diagram or analyze an organizational chart. Some exams even include technology simulators where you interact with the operating system, application, or device that is the subject of the exam.
Be sure that you understand the types of question that you’ll face on the exam so that you’re not surprised on test day.
8) Failing to pull the trigger on the exam
Certification exams often cover voluminous bodies of knowledge. You might be asked questions from a wide variety of subject areas and the harsh reality is that you probably won’t be able to master them all before you sit for the exam. Don’t let this paralyze you.
It’s easy to get stuck on a difficult concept and decide that you’re not quite ready to take the exam. Remember, you’re not being asked to get a 100 percent score on the exam. You’re just being asked to pass. There’s no such thing as earning an “A” on your certification test. Everyone who passes gets the same credential.
One great way to hold yourself accountable is to register for the exam when you begin your study plan. Set an exam date that falls a couple of weeks after you plan to finish studying. This will give you a little wiggle room, in case something comes up. In the best case, it will provide you with some extra time to review before taking the exam.
Either way, prepaying your exam fee gives you some skin in the game and can motivate you to stick to your schedule.
9) Losing sight of your big picture purpose
Don’t forget why you decided to earn your certification and keep your eye on that end goal. I’ve seen many students get stuck in a certification mindset and begin to accumulate new certifications just for the sake of earning them.
Will earning a fifth cybersecurity certification really give you much more of an advantage on the job than the fourth one did? Lifelong learning is wonderful, but make sure that you’re only pursuing new certifications when you have a clear purpose for your investment of time and money.
Make IT work
As you embark on your certification journey, please keep this advice in mind. I’ve drawn it from the experiences of thousands of students like you — including both those who have succeeded in earning their certifications, and those who have been temporarily or permanently sidetracked along the way. I hope that we’ll soon be able to welcome you to the ranks of certified technologists!