Passing Written Tests

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As certification programs get more sophisticated, more of them are adopting testing methods that go beyond the multiple-choice exam. One increasingly common approach is to include a written portion, in which candidates compose essays that delve into the details of the subject matter covered by a credential.


With this new technique of examination (new for IT certification, anyway) comes a need to prepare differently. While the rote memorization associated with short-answer tests still will be required, just recollecting information will not be enough to pass an essay exam — candidates must be able to organize their thoughts into a detailed, coherent and polished written argument, one that takes a position supported by credible evidence, to successfully complete this kind of test.


Fortunately, certification providers will never “pop” a surprise essay exam on participants. Rather, individuals who pursue IT credentials with written tests will know about these exams well before they take them. Thus, they should prepare appropriately. When they finally arrive at that precarious moment of truth, they ought to keep the following points in mind:


Don’t Start Writing Immediately


So, you’re sitting in the testing center on the day of the exam, and you finally get the question (or questions). Chances are, the proctor has given all of you an allotment of time in which to complete your essay. Problem is, it’s not that much, and you’re feeling the pressure from the get-go. The temptation is there to scramble to pull together all your thoughts and write them down very quickly to say as much as possible.


Wrong, wrong, wrong. First of all, you’ve got to start out very composed. Embrace calm thinking. Read the questions a few times but don’t write anything for the essay right away. If thoughts begin to come to you, record them on scrap paper in short phrases.


Look for the “Direction Word”


Once you’ve really thought about the topic of the question for at least a couple of minutes, look for its “direction word.” Simply put, this is a word — almost always a verb — that tells you how you should answer. Instructional terms such as “explain,” “define” or “evaluate” are commonly used as directional, as each refers to a specific line of reasoning.


Systematically Arrange Your Thoughts


OK, you’ve considered how you’ll answer the question. Now it’s time to determine how you’ll arrange your ideas. You can’t simply start writing a stream-of-consciousness essay a la Jack Kerouac — this is a certification exam, not a beatnik chronicle. Figure out how to position your thoughts so that they’ll have greater effect and have an overall logic.


Build (and Use) Vocabulary


By now, you should actually be writing. As you do, though, bear in mind the words and phrases you’re using. Avoid egregious repetition whenever possible. Obviously, you might have to use specialized terms such as “firewall” or “router” over and over, but that doesn’t mean you have to do that with common nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Remember, verbal variety makes a piece read better and its author seem smarter.


Use Your “Voice” But Don’t Emote


Finally, take care to write naturally, as the artificiality of affected language has a way of making itself clear to the reader. You should want to feel some sense of ownership over what you’ve written. At the same time, though, you don’t want to interject any kind of sensationalistic emotion into the essay. Your arguments should be persuasive but dispassionate. To be sure, that kind of writing has its place, but it’s not in a credential’s essay exam.

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