Ready, Set–Ace That Certification Exam

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Effective preparation for a certification exam can help improve the likelihood of a passing score. Based on my years of experience, here are some tips for success when preparing for a certification exam.

Passing a certification exam requires knowing both what is right as well as what is wrong in a given technical situation. Typical study preparation can leave the learner with a narrow understanding of what is generally right in a particular circumstance and too little knowledge about how extenuating circumstances may affect situations and solutions.

If the candidate had faced a problem similar to the one posted on the exam in the workplace, “contextual” knowledge—information from the actual experience that helps identify the best course of action to solve the problem—would be readily available. Gaining a strong understanding of the context of situations is often the missing link in the exam preparation process.

For example, an exam question may ask about a process that potentially can be accomplished in three different ways. The question will likely contain a seemingly insignificant word or statement that might be overlooked unless the certification candidate has sufficient contextual knowledge about the process. Contextual knowledge helps the candidate identify the clue that restricts or reduces the question to a single, correct, best-practice answer.

Understanding what is right and wrong can be achieved in two ways—through experience or by using an exam preparation strategy of balanced study. It is vitally important to prepare for a certification exam from several different perspectives. In other words, look for opportunities to put a balanced and varied mix of labs, books, instruction, peer interaction and practice tests into your study mix. Each of these reveals different key points of contextual knowledge. As you study, keep top-of-mind the importance of context to the correct solution to most problems.

Not only does the candidate gain improved contextual knowledge by using a balanced variety of study sources, he is also better able to deal with the many different ways questions can be asked. A learner using only a few study sources is exposed to a limited number of question types and phrasing. This is a problem because the certification exam was likely developed through the input of a group of subject-matter experts. A single, precise style of question phrasing will not exist throughout the exam, and a learner who is unprepared for this lack of uniformity can be thrown off.

Another issue to be aware of is that a single exam question can probe for competence in several areas. Typically, practice test questions are written with only one subject as the focus for each question. Over-reliance on any one or two sources cannot arm the learner with enough real-world understanding to answer these multi-pronged questions.

Make it a point to closely review and become familiar with the exam objectives. Most certification programs provide objectives or list them publicly. Objectives give the learner a study map, identifying the most important points to visit along the study journey.

Identify your own learning preferences and select a balanced range of study methods and sources that emphasize those preferences. Some people prefer to learn from an instructor rather than just reading, while others do better with hands-on activities instead of lectures. You will learn the bulk of a subject faster and remember more when you follow your learning preferences. Match your learning preferences to as many difference sources of information as practical.

In the latter stage of study, ascertain your contextual comprehension by reviewing exam topics with fresh information. For example, do an online search of a key topic identified in the exam objectives. As you go through the material, do you find yourself gaining new insights? Could you have described this subject in as much detail as you are finding in this source? Can you discover ways that this topic connects to other major subjects and issues? Repeat this process with materials from a bookstore, library or a friend’s bookshelf.

This method of review not only broadens your understanding, but it can also indicate areas where you are strong and where you could be stronger.

Jonathan Thatcher is director of business integration for certification for CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association. Jonathan holds numerous certifications, including A+, Network+, IT Project+, i-Net+, e-Biz+, Server+, Certified Novell Associate (CNA), Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), Master CNE and Certified Novell Instructor (CNI). Jonathan can be reached at


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