With proper preparation, anyone can pass a certification exam

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This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Preparation should be the key element in the quest to pass your next certification exam.In the 20-plus years since I entered the information technology (IT) industry, I have taken and passed more than 200 IT certification exams. Over the same period, I have helped tens of thousands of students to become certified. I say this not to brag, but to qualify my experience and state with authority that my certification preparation strategy works. It can work for you, too.

The Certification Study Pyramid

My IT certification preparation model uses a two-dimensional tetrahedron as its metaphor. All three sides are equal and interdependent. Let me show you a picture (Figure 1), and I’ll summarize each component.

Theory Practice Review Triangle Tim WarnerTheory: This refers to mastering the subject matter covered by your chosen certification.

Practice: This is attaining hands-on applied expertise with the relevant technologies.

Review: This is working through realistic computer-based exam simulations.

By integrating each of the three pyramid “sides” into a cohesive study plan, you not only maximize your chance of passing your exam(s), but you also set yourself up to learn at a much deeper level than you otherwise might. Now let’s look at each side of the study pyramid individually.

Theoretical Knowledge

The IT certification vendor’s exam blueprint page needs to be your principal source of authority for your cert prep. For example, let’s suppose that you plan to take Microsoft exam AZ-100: Microsoft Azure Infrastructure and Deployment. Their AZ-100 web page (www.microsoft.com/en-us/ learning/exam-az-100.aspx) not only enables you to register for the test, but most importantly includes a full content breakdown.

The exam designers at Microsoft — like those at most other IT certification vendors, actually — divide their content into functional groups (the top-level headings), objective domains (the second-level headings) and individual objectives.

I recommend you create a formal outline that includes every single line item in your target exam’s blueprint. For instance, I might structure the first two AZ-100 objective domains like this:

Manage Azure Subscriptions
● Assign administrator permissions
● Configure cost center quotas and tagging
● Configure Azure subscription policies at the subscription level Analyze Resource Utilization and Consumption
● Configure diagnostic settings on resources
● Create baselines for resources
● Create and test alerts
● Analyze metrics and alerts across subscriptions
● Create action groups
● Monitor for unused resources
● Monitor and report on spend
● Utilize Log Search query functions
● View alerts in Azure Log Analytics

Preparation should be the key element in the quest to pass your next certification exam.The bottom line is that your cert prep needs to cover every single objective, because every item on your exam arises from one of these bullet points. How you, specifically, attain your theoretical subject matter knowledge depends both upon your individual learning style and the vendor itself. Some certification vendors (VMware springs to mind) require you to take a vendor-authorized live or prerecorded training course, either in a classroom or online.

Some learners can gain their subject matter knowledge through reading. Ideas for this include studying:

● Certification-focused print or eBooks
● Vendor’s technical documentation
● Third-party blog articles, white papers, etc.

To that end, it’s crucial that you spend time “getting your hands dirty” with the subject matter under your consideration. I strongly suggest that you avoid using your business’ IT production environment as a playground.

Instead, build a certification practice lab where you can sandbox your experimentation. Using our AZ-100 Azure example, I would start a free Azure trial subscription, check out the live labs at Microsoft Learn, and investigate other vendors who may make lab simulation software.

Of course, the best hands-on experience is actual product experience. This is more easily attainable if you already work in IT.

If you’re a newbie, then you have to get creative. I recommend my students invest in a single home computer with decent specifications and use it as a virtualization host.

Other learners require interaction with a live instructor, or at least conversation with other learners. Training options include:

● Live in-person classroom training
● Live distance learning (webcast format)

Still other learners have a more experiential/experimental learning style. Some ideas:

● Prerecorded computer-based training courses
● Virtual lab/simulation products

If you are new to the material, then I suggest you run Google searches on key phrases from the objective list. For instance, searching for “azure log search query functions” brought me to a number of Azure documentation articles and even step-by-step tutorials.

One tip I have is to recognize that, at base, most certification programs represent an income stream for the vendor. As such, you will sometimes have practical experience with the technology that differs from what you see in the vendor’s own marketing materials and even technical documentation.

All else being equal, if you see certification items in which you need to choose between the “vendor approved” answer and one from your experience, go with the former. That’s just a fact of life with IT certifications, sad to say.

Practical Application

In IT, theoretical knowledge can take you only so far. You may be granted a technical interview, but unless you can actually perform the work, you won’t succeed in your job role. Similarly, many IT certification exams include interactive, simulation, and even live virtual lab items that verify you know how to do the work.

To that end, it’s crucial that you spend time “getting your hands dirty” with the subject matter under your consideration. I strongly suggest that you avoid using your business’ IT production environment as a playground.

Instead, build a certification practice lab where you can sandbox your experimentation. Using our AZ-100 Azure example, I would start a free Azure trial subscription, check out the live labs at Microsoft Learn, and investigate other vendors who may make lab simulation software.

Of course, the best hands-on experience is actual product experience. This is more easily attainable if you already work in IT. If you’re a newbie, then you have to get creative. I recommend my students invest in a single home computer with decent specifications and use it as a virtualization host.

One advantage working IT professionals have in this regard is that you can feasibly implement some of your new product knowledge in production, given you have sign-off and agreement with the rest of your team. That kind of thing makes me super happy as an instructor, because to me the best kind of knowledge is applied knowledge!

For example, I can take a laptop running Windows 10 Professional with 32 GB RAM, install Hyper-V, and build a fully functional, multi-forest Active Directory infrastructure for free. How? Microsoft offers free 180- day trials of Windows Server and their other enterprise server products, that’s how! Never underestimate the power of free trial software licenses.

Test-Taking Skills

Over the course of my career, I am sorry to say I’ve seen dozens of IT certification exam candidates walk into the exam room full of confidence, and walk out nearly crying. Why is this? Well, in most cases the candidate had a blind spot — namely, they failed to use exam simulation software to practice taking computer-based tests.

You may have an abundance of theoretical knowledge and practical experience, but unless you understand test-taking mechanics — and know how the vendor will assess your knowledge — then you are at a strong disadvantage.

Nothing short of repeated drilling with quality exam simulation software can get you into the mind frame necessary to pass live certification tests. Please note that I’m not speaking of brain dumps: illegally obtained word-for-word transcriptions of exam content. If the vendor learns that you prepared with brain dumps, it will likely decertify you for life. I’m not joking; I have seen that happen.

Legitimate practice exam software asks you questions that are similar to, but not exact copies of, the items on the actual tests. Practice exams should mirror the real exams in their content and item types, which may include simulations and other non-traditional formats.

Some leading IT certification practice exam providers include:

● GoCertify
● MeasureUp
● Kaplan IT Training (formerly Transcender)
● Boson
● TestOut

Loose ends

Preparation should be the key element in the quest to pass your next certification exam.In closing, I encourage you to pay attention to IT vendor certification offers and promotions. For instance, Microsoft Learning regularly offers discounts on their exams when you purchase an exam registration voucher along with a MeasureUp practice test.

To recap what we’ve covered, passing your next IT certification exam should consist of three interrelated phases, which may indeed be executed simultaneously:

Determine your best learning method and seek training to “skill up” on the subject matter as efficiently as possible.

Discover opportunities to gain practical, hands-on experience with the relevant products and technologies.

Devote lots of time taking and re-taking practice exams until you are fully comfortable with the various item types and way in which the vendor assesses your skills.

Best of luck to everyone who’s planning to take a certification exam in 2019. I look forward to hearing lots of IT certification success stories!

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Timothy Warner

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Timothy L. Warner is an IT professional and technical trainer based in Nashville, Tenn. A computer enthusiast who authored his first BASIC program in 1981 on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, Tim has worked in nearly every facet of IT, from systems administration and software architecture to technical writing and training. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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