Tips for successful technical certification testing

Key technical certifications can boost a VARs career. Here's how to best prepare for the required tests.

By Stephen J. Bigelow, Senior Technology Writer

Whether you're just starting an IT career or you're a seasoned professional preparing for growth, displaying some key certifications will help establish your credibility. But certifications aren't always easy to get, and the preparation can sometimes be an exercise in frustration.

Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your continuing education:

** Pick the right goal. It's just like any other project -- the first step is to decide where you want to be when you're done with the certification process. You will probably be required to take several different exams to get there, so consider the final certification that you want and determine any prerequisite exams that you need to take. For example, an entry-level security technician may need a CompTIA Security+ exam, but that might call for taking an A+ and Network+ exam first. Be sure to find out if anything transfers along the way. For example, you can always prepare for the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) exam with a few CompTIA exams and then apply those CompTIA exams as MCSA electives.

** Allow ample study time. Don't just jump into an exam. It's true that most computer-based exam questions are multiple choice, but the wording and implications of most questions can be indirect or obscure. Even if you know the exam objectives, it pays to invest in study materials and set time aside to review them.

** Consider the required classwork. While many entry-level exams can be tackled as self-study efforts, advanced certifications, such as VMware Certified Professional (VCP), require some instructor-led classroom training. Such instruction is often provided at a remote location requiring travel for up to a week. This dramatically increases the cost and difficulty of obtaining the certification.

** Choose study materials with care. Keep your eyes open when perusing local Borders or Barnes & Noble book stores. Exam sponsors have a knack for changing their exams periodically, and book publishers are sometimes painfully slow to update exam guide editions to reflect the new objectives. So, if you want to sit for the CompTIA Network+ 2009 exam (N10-004), make sure you're not buying study guides for the 2007 version (N10-003). The earliest N10-004 editions won't be appearing until mid-April 2009 at the earliest.

** Select multiple study materials. Remember that study materials, either instructor-led or self-paced, are delivered by people, each with knowledge levels that may not map perfectly to an exam's objectives. Considering the exam investment and study time involved, it's usually worth obtaining at least two study resources. Review them both and see how they map to each other. The effort up front can help you pass the first attempt and save considerable time and frustration -- not to mention an additional exam fee.

** Comb through the simulated exams. Most study materials include access to computer-based simulated exams, which are absolutely worth reviewing. A well-prepared exam simulation can prime you mentally for the tone and content that you will face in the actual test. Since the simulated exams will not cover the actual exam questions precisely, be sure to score consistently high (maybe over 90%) before scheduling the real exam.

** Know the refund/reschedule policies. Schedule the actual exam date just a few weeks out -- far enough where your schedule is light, but close enough where major schedule changes are unlikely. If you're on call or have other obligations on the exam date, remember to get adequate coverage. Exam sites generally provide some latitude in date/time changes, but you should familiarize yourself with any change policies. Fees (particularly for last-minute cancellations) are typically non-refundable.

** Give yourself time to recover if you fail. Everyone fails an exam occasionally, but you can usually improve the odds of a successful retest by focusing on the areas where you scored weakest. Exam sites won't tell you the exact questions that you answered wrong, but they should be able to report the exam objectives that you did not meet. If you can afford to, reschedule the exam a few weeks out and continue reviewing the study materials with added emphasis on the weaker areas.

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I'm in total agreement with simulated testing and studying the latest materials to make sure you score high for your certifications.