Trolling for Exam Information
Part of a well-structured and -conducted preparation process when studying for certification exams is to make sure you use all of the legitimate sources of information you can find. Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to separate the good from the bad when looking for sources. In this month’s column, I want to share some of my search strategies and explain how and where the best sources of exam information may be found.
First, let’s explore some types of exam-related information:
- Vendor or sponsor information: Any certification exam belongs to a vendor or sponsor organization. This is a critical source of information about exam objectives and requirements, sign-up, payment and so forth. I think of such sources as offering whatever the “official story” on a certification exam might be. They’re also usually the best place to start gathering information about a certification exam, but by no means are they either the best or the final source of such information.
- Certification portals: Numerous Web sites specialize in IT certification in general and offer information about all kinds of certification programs and exams (see Table 1). Such sites also offer a huge array of exam information and support, which usually includes general certification preparation and study strategies and lots of exam-related materials that range from study guides to practice exams to “question of the day” services to message boards or mailing lists and pointers to other information sources.
- Focused certification sites: On a per-certification basis, you’ll be amazed at the number of sites that offer information about the credential of interest. For bigger, more popular programs (like CCNA, MCSA or CNE, for example), such sites often number in the hundreds; for smaller programs (such as the PMP, CISSP or HTI+), such sites may still number between one and three or four dozen. A certain amount of selectivity is needed when deciding which sites are worth a second visit, but finding options is seldom a problem.
- Certification resource sites: On a per-certification basis, but even sometimes on a per-exam basis, you’ll find sites that are nothing more than somebody’s collection of other useful resources. Some of these sites are so idiosyncratic as to be useless to anybody other than their creator; others can be real gems—only experimentation can help you decide which is which.
- Practice test/question sites: For any exam or program, you’ll find lots of sites that offer practice tests for free or purchase and many sites that provide individual questions on demand or through some kind of e-mail-based “question of the day” service. While this is a hallmark of most certification portals, they’re not the only sites that offer such services. Table 2 includes a listing of top practice exam vendors that cover numerous programs and exams; careful search will turn up lots of other alternatives for specific exams.
- Peer support resources: These kinds of resources embrace all kinds of forums or information exchanges wherein fellow exam candidates can pool their knowledge, share their concerns, exchange exam intelligence and so forth. It’s wise to double-check information from such sources since it comes with no guarantees. Such resources include message forums, online study groups, topical mailing lists or newsgroups and so forth. Though they must be checked for veracity and accuracy, this does not mean they’re not useful or valuable.
- Mentoring and support services: As part of some other products (such as certain books or publications), individuals can access online technical support or mentoring services to get help with certification topics, tools and concepts. Such services, of course, are also usually available to anyone who wants to pay for them. For example, the Exam Cram 2 certification prep guides include 24×7 mentoring support online from KnowledgePool.
- Books, study guides, online libraries and other publications: Bigger, more popular certification programs will generally attract all kinds of published material on a per-exam basis. (Bundles of required or popular topics, like the core MCSE exams, are often available at substantial discounts.) For commercial publications, such as books, flash cards and so forth, most Web sites that offer such materials for sale also provide search engines that make it easy to find these things. For e-books, e-study guides, practice tests and so forth, a bit more searching will sometimes be required. The certification resource sites can come in handy—especially those that provide competitive ratings, reviews or recommendations.
- Virtual labs, simulators and other software: With so many certification exams now stressing hands-on interface driving and problem-solving skills, wise candidates often seek ways to interact with systems and software related to their exams. Numerous online labs offer time slots to candidates who want to interact with equipment, install and configure systems or services, operate software consoles and so forth. Likewise, many vendors offer CD- or DVD-based simulators that candidates can use to help them prepare for exams. Then, too, with PC costs at historical lows and evaluation software for many environments available for download or at low cost for media, many candidates elect to build practice labs in their own homes as they ready themselves for certification exams.
- Marvelous and mysterious miscellany: There are lots of interesting, informative and useful information items and resources for certification exams out there that really don’t fit into the categories already mentioned. For example, how would you categorize shareware or freeware software you can use to print sets of flash cards to help you study (and to create your own flash cards from questions and answers you enter yourself)? As you troll for certification information, you’ll come across things that may seem strange or out of the ordinary, but sometimes they offer real value or aid learning.
Given all this stuff available in great profusion, the question becomes: “How do I find the best of what’s out there?” This really boils down to two questions. First, “What’s out there?” and second, “What’s any good?” This helps to explain the three primary cornerstones of my trolling strategy:
- Start with the vendor or sponsor site. At a bare minimum, you will want to obtain exam objectives and whatever other kinds of information, pointers and exam particulars you can find there. Many sites are treasure troves of valuable information.
- Check what’s available on the certification portals. These sites are guaranteed to offer at least some useful information on exams, often including more detailed descriptions of the exams themselves and usually offering technical information about exam topics and strategic information on preparation and readiness assessment.
- Find a good certification resource site for your exam. You’ll find some pointers to such sites at the portals, but you should also visit your favorite search engine to look for more. Be specific when searching: It’s much more productive to search using “70-214 exam resources” than it is to search on “Microsoft security exam resources.”
By using these three elements to look for additional information (and, where possible, to get recommendations as to the best of what’s out there), you will be able to troll quickly and effectively. Since preparation time for any exam is better spent studying useful resources than looking for them, this approach will help you zero in on the good stuff, so you can crack the books and start learning.
Ed Tittel is president of LANwrights Inc. and is contributing editor for Certification Magazine. Ed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.