Rating Certifications

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Most experts and IT professionals consider numerous criteria when rating IT certifications. Here, I introduce and explain some of those I consider to be most important. As each criterion is introduced, it is also defined and explained. Each criterion falls into some range of values, which I also explore and explain. Finally, I explain how to map each criterion into some kind of ranking value. For example, given that certifications can take from one month to two years to complete, we could use the number of months as a ranking value, or we could divide the number of months by 2.4 (to map 24 months into a 10-point scale).

At the end of the ranking exercise, you can simply add ranking values for all criteria to calculate a total score for the certification as a whole. Then you can compare these scores to decide how certifications compare to one another. We provide a table that gives this type of ranking for the certifications covered in my forthcoming book “IT Certification Essentials.” Though it’s not an exhaustive survey, it should show you how to apply this recipe to other certifications not mentioned.

There is some room for adjustment or interpretation here, however. Mapping all ranges into the same scale for each criterion weights all criteria equally. Mapping some ranges into bigger scales gives them greater weight because I add values to calculate a certification’s overall ranking. That’s why I explain the weighting that my formula gives to various criteria so that you’ll understand how to change the ranking characteristics if you like. If you decide you don’t like my approach, you can customize your own!

Choosing Certification Ranking Criteria

Throughout the book “IT Certification Success,” I explain some of the most important criteria related to the various certifications covered therein. However, other factors are also noteworthy. That’s why I include criteria you won’t find elsewhere in that book in this analysis.

I use these criteria to rank certifications in Table 1:

  • Career Level: This criterion assigns one of four values to a certification, based on how it’s positioned for candidates. Entry-level or beginner gets a value of 2; intermediate or novice gets a value of 4, advanced or senior-level gets a value of 6, and expert or specialist-level gets a value of 8. Thus, A+ certification would be worth 2 on this scale, and the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification would be worth 8. This approach increases the scores for more senior certifications.
  • Average Time to Completion: This criterion lists the average of the fastest known time to completion and the longest reasonable time to completion for the certification, unless the certification itself includes a time requirement. For example, the fastest Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) completion that I’ve come across was one month; a long but not unreasonable completion time is 24 months. Thus, I set the average at 12 months. This squares up nicely against an analysis of average completion times in the ‘real world.’
  • Number of Exams: This criterion involves the number of exams that candidates must pass to obtain certification. It does not take into account the average number of tries to pass an exam.
  • Cost of Exams: This criterion adds up the costs for all exams that candidates must pass to obtain certification. As with the preceding criterion, it does not take into account the average number of tries to pass any exam.
  • Experience Requirement: Some certifications are entirely amenable to book or classroom learning, whereas others are unapproachable without real-world, hands-on experience with the tools and technologies that such certifications cover. Here, I rank such requirements as low (2 points), medium (4 points), high (6 points) or extremely high (8 points). For this criterion, for example, I rate the Windows 2000 MCSE as high and the CCIE as extremely high.
  • Income Potential: Some certifications are pretty common or don’t add much additional income potential to their holders. I rank a certification’s income potential as low (2 points), medium (4 points), high (6 points) or extremely high (8 points). For this criterion, for example, I rate the Windows 2000 MCSE as medium and the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) as extremely high. Some values are higher than 8 for ‘special cases,’ such as the CCIE (14 points).

Although there are undoubtedly more criteria that I could use to rank certifications, these six produce values that are useful enough to make our comparisons interesting. For example, I could easily define another cost metric that uses the average cost for Web-based training because many certification programs offer such education today. As it turns out, though, that particular ranking adds little value to the existing data because it stays in line with the values for self-study cost and classroom cost.

Table 1 ranks a total of 59 certifications that appear in “IT Certification Success” according to the six criteria discussed earlier. To save space, I’ve shortened longer certification monikers (they should still be pretty clear).

This is what the column headings mean:

  • Name: Provides a moniker for a certification. Where helpful, I also include notes to expand on this information at the end of the table.
  • Level: Defines a job ranking for a certification as entry-level (2), intermediate (4), advanced (6) or expert (8).
  • Time: Defines the average time to completion of the certification, in months.
  • # Exams: The total number of exams required to complete the certification.
  • Cost: Totals the cost for the exams that must be taken to complete the certification. We divide this number by 100 to scale it to other ranking values.
  • Experience: Defines how much hands-on experience is required to attain this cert. Valid values are low (2), medium (4), high (6) and extremely high (8).
  • $$$: Defines the income potential for cert holders. Valid values are low (2), medium (4), high (6) and extremely high (8). Some values are higher than that, like the CCIE. (It’s a 14 to reflect six-figure pay.)
  • Rank: Sums the total of all ranking values for the certification.

To facilitate easy lookup, all certification monikers are listed in alphabetical order.


Hopefully, you’ll find this approach useful to compare and contrast the certifications specifically mentioned in Table 1. Even better, I hope it gives you some insight into how to weigh and rank other certifications not mentioned there. By providing a collection of criteria and documenting my value assignments and weighting mechanisms, I hope you not only find some value in the rankings that do appear, but also that you use similar evaluations and ratings to rank other certifications that may interest you, but that don’t appear in that table.

Ed Tittel is a principal at iLearning.com, where he heads that company’s content development operations. He writes, teaches and consults in the areas of IT certification, general networking and Web markup languages.


Editor’s Note:
The material in this article is adapted from Chapter 12 of Ed Tittel’s forthcoming book, “IT Certification Essentials,” published by Que Certification (ISBN: 0-7897-2923-7), where this certification rating information appears, along with additional explanation and analysis.


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