Neutral Versus Vendor-Specific Exams

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A question I field frequently in my capacity as a certification guy is, “Which is better: vendor-neutral or vendor-specific certification?” Because the short answer to that question is “Neither,” or “Both,” depending on your perspective, I want to talk about how differences between these exams can help guide your preparation strategy. That’s because both types of exams are likely to appear in a well-rounded certification portfolio. It pays to understand what’s alike and what’s different across these two common categories.

A Common Strategy Underlies All Certification Exams
Before I go into what’s different, let me first explain that certain strategies are best applied when preparing for any certification exam, vendor-neutral or vendor-specific.

Here’s the lowdown on these strategies, which you’ll find helpful no matter what kind of exam might you take:

  • Research Exam Objectives: The key to successful exam preparation lies in identifying what the exam covers, then learning what you need to know. Thus, obtaining exam objectives and working to expand them to a workable level of detail is essential when preparing for any certification exam, vendor-specific or vendor-neutral.


  • Search for Supporting Materials: Because not all exam objectives are terribly detailed, nor do they always touch on all the specifics you must learn, skills you must possess, techniques you must master and so on, supporting materials are essential to develop your understanding of any exam and its coverage. This means identifying and obtaining sources of information to help to shed light on the exam: related course materials, books, study guides, exam crams, exam reviews and reports, practice tests and more. As you work through such materials, use them not just to learn about topics and concepts or developing necessary skills and techniques, but also to add details to your exam objectives and to track what you must learn and know to do your best when you take the exam.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Sample exam questions and practice exams are invaluable for exam preparation. They not only help you identify key topics, concepts, tools, technologies, skills and techniques you’re likely to encounter on the exam, but they can also help you identify strengths and weaknesses. (See the tip on “exam readiness” later in this list for another application for practice exams.)
  • Build Knowledge, Skills and Experience: As you work through objectives, add detail and identify areas where you need to learn more or where your skills may be weak, your experience lacking or your technique deficient, use your supporting materials to learn what you must know or be able to do to bring yourself to the right level of knowledge or understanding. This is normally an ongoing process, where you learn, study and practice a little at a time to focus on specific areas where more work is needed.
  • Do Your Homework: It’s important to survey available exams, to keep up with vendor or sponsor exam information (exams change regularly, and you must be ready to deal with what you find in the testing center, not what somebody else saw months ago) and to stay on top of the subject matter. If you are forewarned, you’ll be ready to handle what you encounter when you take your exam. It’s also important to find out as much about the exam itself as possible—number of questions, time allotted, passing score (if available), types of questions and so forth so you’ll be ready to deal with the real thing.
  • Assess Exam Readiness: Practice tests are handy to assess exam readiness, especially if you’re not sure you’re ready to pass the real thing. Shoot for a score that’s at least 5 percent higher than a passing score (if available) to offset the inevitable effects of exam anxiety. If you can’t obtain the “cut score” (passing score) for an exam, shoot for scores of 80-plus percent, since that’s usually good enough to pass most exams.
  • If at First You Don’t Succeed: Very few people pass every exam on the first try. If you must retake an exam, learn from your initial failure. Identify topics about which you must learn more, skills or techniques you must sharpen and so forth. Use your own experience to focus and intensify your studies. You’ll do better next time. If not, consider taking a class so you can benefit from instructor contact.Zeroing in on Vendor-Neutral Exams

    By their nature, vendor-neutral exams are general and concept-oriented, and they focus on key issues, skills, techniques and knowledge important to practitioners. You can take advantage of this generality to increase the scope of your studies beyond materials that focus on a particular exam. In fact, the best of general textbooks, articles, white papers and so forth in the subject matter will help broaden your technical education while preparing you for a vendor-neutral exam.

    If an exam sponsor doesn’t offer its own bibliography or recommended reading, search the Web for bibliographies, reading lists or recommendations from those who’ve taken the exam (or who teach others about such exams). Online bookstores like offer reading lists from experts and others who share favorite picks. Colleges and universities (don’t forget community colleges) often post reading lists for related courses online, too. Use as much of this information as you can find. Analyze it to identify titles, papers and other resources that appear frequently. When buying books, stretch your dollars by buying used copies when available.

    Please note that some vendor platform or product specifics do appear in certain vendor-neutral exams (for example, the A+ exam covers common Microsoft operating systems because that reflects what’s in common use on PCs worldwide), so don’t think you can avoid specifics entirely when preparing for vendor-neutral exams. Do your best to identify which operating systems, platforms or products are covered, then follow the tips in the next section to ready yourself for these elements in your exam.

    Prepping for Vendor-Specific Exams

    This is where doing specific pre-exam homework pays big: You must identify those systems, platforms, products, tools, consoles and so forth on which you’ll be tested and identify what you must know how to do with them to pass the exam. Armed with that information, you must find a way to get the experience necessary to be comfortable in the exam situation. You’ll have to do those things under pressure with time limits ticking away.

    If this sounds a little scary, it’s meant to be—you can prepare yourself for this situation only by spending enough time and energy working with the systems, tools and so forth that you’ll encounter during the exam to analyze circumstances, find and solve problems and perform tasks necessary to answer the questions.

    Candidates can use numerous methods to prepare themselves for this situation:

    • Classroom Training: Classroom training is popular not just because it provides access to instructors, but also because it provides guided access to test systems, labs and equipment that students can use to learn, develop and practice the skills needed for an exam. It gives them the time and opportunity to perform tasks likely to appear in exams as well and to get comfortable with exam requirements. It’s expensive, but often worth it. Don’t be shy about investigating cheaper academic offerings, if commercial training overstrains your budget.


  • Virtual Labs: Virtual labs provide access to systems, equipment or simulators over the Internet for a fee (most such fees are relatively modest, seldom more than a few hundred dollars). Most virtual labs target specific exams and are designed to exercise just those skills and tasks that exam takers must possess.
  • Home Labs: More intrepid (and well-heeled) candidates often opt to build lab


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