Point/Counterpoint: Studying to the Test

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(Author’s Note: In the next two installments of Study Guide, we’ll discuss preparation strategies for certification candidates. Specifically, this two-part series will focus on whether they should concentrate most of their time and effort on the exam required for the credential or the broader skill set it tests. Part 1 will examine the former position.)

A common dilemma faced by aspirants to certifications is where they need to direct their energies: the tests or the knowledge they ostensibly measure. In a perfect world, the two wouldn’t warrant any distinction – the exam would align perfectly to the skill in question and would cover all of the areas necessary for full comprehension. We don’t live in that world, however, and the certification programs in which you participate will sometimes go over subject matter that is outdated, marginal or even irrelevant to the discipline (or at least the most important facets of it within your own unique career path). Or it might offer accurate and applicable content, just not enough of it.

To be sure, though, there are times when certification candidates need to focus mainly on the exam. For instance, credentialing programs run by IT hardware, software and solutions vendors usually will cover most, if not all, of what an individual has to know to work effectively with a particular product. In these situations, tests do align to the requisite skills, so participants can mostly concentrate on the exam objectives without concern for missing out on vital information.

But what about when they’re undertaking vendor-neutral exams that deal more with a process or skill that isn’t exclusive to a single product? Here again, it might profit them to aim at the exam rather than the overall domain of knowledge. There’s something to be said for having a laserlike mental focus in pursuit of a single goal: the certification. Scattering your mental energies in a short amount of time across a broad range of concepts – far beyond the scope of the credential you’re attempting – can certainly be counterproductive, in terms of both your short-term objective of passing a test and your long-range career ends. As Prussian monarch Frederick the Great might have put it, “The person who tries to learn everything learns nothing.”

Also, you have to realize the limitations of certification. It’s designed to be a sort of point of reference in the job market that demonstrates a certain level of competency with regards to a specific sphere. One credential can’t cover it all. That’s why most certification programs are set up in tiers that correspond to varying levels of expertise. And even taken as a whole, the overall curricula can seldom address every aspect of a given field within IT. Most tech professionals realize this and as a result, many prepare single-mindedly for the exams, then they supplement what they’ve learned with additional training, academic coursework and on-the-job experience.

So, if you’re focusing on the exam, what are the best ways to prepare for it? First, you need to figure out what the test objectives are. This shouldn’t be too difficult; almost every certification program out there makes that information available and accessible on its Web site or will provide it upon request to interested candidates. It certainly isn’t in their interest to keep that a secret – they do want people to be able to pass, after all, and participants have to know what the test covers to do so.

Additionally, many of these programs offer training around their exams or have learning vendors who partner with them to deliver preparation materials. Usually, these will constitute the greater part of a candidate’s certification expenses, but they’re well worth it if you pass. While the training you select will vary based on the time and funds available and the way you prefer to learn, one of the top methods of exam prep for anyone are practice questions, much like the ones that run with this newsletter. These not only address the topics covered on the test, but they also give users a feel for the design, tone and difficulty of the questions they’ll face on exam day.

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