Self-Taught or School-Taught: Best Study Options

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Individuals interested in prepping for certification have lots of options nowadays. And although the economy has improved in general and for IT in particular since the dot-com bust of 2001 and the post-9/11 economy that followed in its wake, it’s still a buyer’s market for IT training. That’s because the IT training industry has yet to rebound to levels that match the glory days from 1998 until mid-2001, when demand outstripped supply by a hefty margin. This is good news for certification candidates because it means they can hunt for bargains or make their own deals when they opt for classroom or online training.

Riddle Out Your Options
Those who need to prepare for certification have plenty of options, including the following:



  • Self-study: This approach relies on materials that candidates acquire and use on their own—books mostly, but also practice exams. This is by far the cheapest approach and explains why half or more of all certification candidates depend on self-study to prepare for certification exams.
  • Online training: This approach includes a powerful online component, which can range from reading, exercises and labs inside a Web-based interface all the way to scheduled, video-based lectures. Some kind of mentor or instructor interaction also is featured often in such training and makes a powerful value-add. This approach involves moderate costs, somewhere between self-study and classroom training.
  • Classroom training: This is the Cadillac of cert-prep options, with prices to match. But for those who can afford it or who can muster funding from other sources, it also produces the best learning experiences and usually boosts the odds of passing a certification exam. Instructor interaction is one key to the classroom experience as well as hands-on access to a well-stocked, and usually well-staffed, lab environment where students can practice what they learn and gain experience with products, platforms and technologies along the way. This approach incurs the highest costs, particularly for so-called “boot camps” where candidates live, breathe, eat and sleep cert training and practice, sometimes in stints of up to 16 days. On the other end of this spectrum, more affordable options are often available from local technical schools or community colleges.


All three options also should include use of practice exams from reputable vendors whenever possible. Commercial classroom training offerings often throw in one or more sets of practice exams as well as trade books on exam topics as part of the materials they provide to students. Online training providers (and even many cert-prep books) also include practice tests as part of their offerings. Reputable practice test vendors routinely sell or offer these tests to third parties for bundling purposes.

Investigating the Self-Study Option
Simply put, the self-study option comes with one huge prerequisite, or caveat, if you prefer. Certification candidates must have access to self-study materials to enable them to study on their own time, at their own pace and generally, at the lowest overall cost. For popular certifications, including the vast majority of entry-level credentials, this is no problem: Self-study materials for such exams abound. But this remains an important hurdle to get past for anyone who’s interested in or inclined to take this route. This approach also becomes of increasing concern as the difficulty or experience level associated with the credentials goes up. (There are notable exceptions to this phenomenon, such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE, which not only enjoys a continuing cachet as a leading, if extremely demanding, high-level certification, but for which a complete range of self-study materials is also available.)

To determine whether or not self-study is a viable certification prep option for an exam or credential, visit Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other large, well-stocked technical online bookstores. Use the site search engine and enter the name, number or abbreviation for the exam for which you’d like to research self-study materials. The more specific you can be when making your search, the more usable your search results will be.

For popular, entry-level exams such as the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) or the Microsoft Windows XP #70-270 core exam, you’ll find at least 20 and as many as 50 books available. For more esoteric, vendor-specific exams or credentials—the storage credentials from Brocade Communications Systems, for example—there might be no self-study materials available. Their absence virtually mandates some kind of formal training and knocks out self-study as a low-cost alternative. When picking among multiple alternatives, don’t forget to use reader ratings and rankings to help you pick best-of-breed offerings.

When books and other materials are available, they generally fall into three broad categories:



  • Study guides: These are lengthy (often, 1,000 pages or longer), complete and cover all the background, detail, concepts and material that candidates need to learn and master. Often, these books are based on official vendor or sponsor course materials, or they might be based on unofficial courses or materials from experienced authors. Expect to pay $45 to $80 for such books.
  • Exam crams: These are shorter (seldom more than 350 pages, never more than 500), focus entirely on exam questions and related topics and teach no background. What these kinds of books do very well is drill readers on exam questions, logic, structure and topical coverage. Think of them as a pre-exam readiness assessment tool or tune-up, as your needs might dictate. Expect to pay $25 to $30 for such books, but occasionally more.
  • Lab manuals: These are also shorter books (seldom more than 300 pages, never more than 500 pages) that focus entirely on common tasks, activities and problem-solving scenarios that candidates are likely to encounter when taking exams. Lab manuals tend to focus on the tools, utilities, commands and so forth that candidates must learn and know to deal with hands-on or experience-based exam situations.


Other ancillary materials might be available for some exam topics. These include flash cards for question drills, reference books or focused study guides on key exam topics. You’ll seldom need to pay more than $40 for any single item in this category.

Certification candidates need at least one set of practice exams to prepare for most exams and might decide to buy more if their pre-exam assessments indicate a need for additional drilling or learning. Each set typically includes a question bank large enough to make up two to three complete exams’ worth of coverage, so they can be used for an initial pre-study self-assessment and then later on for one or two pre-exam self-assessments. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $100, or sometimes more, for good-quality practice exam products.

A typical budget for a self-study exam can be calculated as follows: Add the cost of a typical study guide ($50), exam cram ($30) and practice exam set ($75), or $155 total, to the cost of the exam. This makes the typical self-study cost figure for a Microsoft exam about $280. As additional materials or practice exam sets are needed, costs will climb apace. But as you’ll see, these costs establish the floor for certification costs and help explain why they remain a preferred option, especially for those paying out of their own pockets.

Investigating Online Study Options
Because there are usually hundreds of options from which to choose, word of mouth (or Web forum postings), referrals and reputation are the keys to selecting online training offerings. You can use the same search engine techniques described for books in the preceding section with equal success to find onl

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