Certification: Should You Do It Fast or Slow?
If you are like me, then you love getting a certification. It almost doesn't matter which certification it is, you just like the process. You enjoy the sense of achievement so much that you are already looking to next one the moment you've achieved your goal.
Sometimes I even look for certifications that are outside of my field: Right now I am working on getting my real estate license and passing the Series 7 exam to become a credentialed General Securities Representative.
Getting one new certification after another is not for everyone. Even if you're just thinking about a single new credential, however, it's important to have a plan, and a key element of any plan is timing. Is there an optimum timetable for getting a certification? And does that vary from one certification (and/or one individual) to the next?
When setting out to get a certification, what are the phases involved and how much time should you allot for each stage of the process (and why)? Let's talk about what is the best approach for what you want to achieve, as well as discuss some tips I have learned on my journey toward 100 certifications.
I put certifications into four distinct buckets. Quick hits, your focus area, stretch goals, and out-of-area or extracurricular (something that's outside the realm of your normal workplace goals and functions). With respect to each of these areas, there is a different approach and a different time frame for achieving certification.
When I achieved my ITIL certification, I signed up on a Friday and took the test the next Tuesday, giving myself the weekend in between to study and prepare. I evenThat's what I call a quick hit.
A few items for a quick hit: First, you typically know the material already or have been practicing the knowledge area in your everyday life. Second, the test is on the cheaper side and can be scheduled very quickly. Lastly, you have nothing to do between the time you schedule the test and the time you take the test. This time is meant for studying.
Know the Process
Since the study process and the steps leading up to the test are the same, no matter what category, I will run through those now:
Step 1 — Book your test. You can't have anything without a goal. Set the goal in stone and you have a better chance of hitting it.
Step 2 — Study up. Even if you know the material, it helps to review and refresh. Block out time every day that you will devote to study.
Step 3 — Practice tests. Once you're confident that you know the material, give yourself a dry run. Block out some time to practice tests before you attempt the real thing.
Step 4 — Eat hearty. Marathon runners call this carbo-loading. Eat a monster meal the night before your exam, and then and do only coffee or a soda before sitting down at the testing center or (as has become increasingly more common) the laptop of desktop PC in your home or at the office.
The process really is that easy. The length of time involved in completing Step 2 and Step 3 is the only thing that changes. I usually (though not always; see above) set aside a month for a quick hit. Credentials like Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and ITIL Foundation fall into this category.
Side note: Even though I would consider the CEH exam a quick hit, given the ever-growing importance of cybersecurity, it's perhaps no surprise that CEH is rated as one of the hardest exams in the IT world.
A four-hour long affair that costs $950 or more, it's not something you want to do more than once. The ITIL exam was much easier but the subject matter was easy for me in particular because I had spent years "in it," so to speak, applying ITIL principles to everything I worked on.
Next up is the area of focus or focus area. This is a certification that falls within the scope of your job or career. At the time I achieved my PMP, I was in between jobs and it was the thing that motivated me the most. I got the credential and found the motivation to win my next job.
Your timetable for completing my four-step process is likely to stretch out here. I got my PfMP when I was doing project management in finance, and I allotted four months for prep, booked the test, and then set aside two hours per night for studying. I passed the test with no problem.
Focus area certifications take up most of the time that I have for certification. I tend to focus all of my attention on my job, and that generally doesn't leave a lot of bandwidth for outside certifications (we'll talk more about those in a moment).
Taking Your Test
A quick digression on best practices for passing a certification. A lot of the common advice about passing this or that test doesn't apply here. Don't put off the test until you are "ready." Don't cram — ever. Take your time. Most certification tests have a time limit, but there's no need to rush through.
When preparing, don't over study. Plan your study time effectively. Figure out what you will accomplish each day or night and make sure you hit that benchmark. Figure out what kind of learner you are and take advantage of that.
You can also benefit from enlisting a mentor. Who better to help you pass a test someone who already has? There is no substitute for a person who can tell you exactly what types of questions to expect and how to tackle them as they come.
When testing, eliminate distractions beforehand. Also, watch for clues. Are there things you can glean about answers from the way that a question is written? Are there answer options you can quickly rule out?
My third bucket holds stretch goal certifications. These are technology certifications that pique my interest, but don't necessarily line up with my day-to-day job responsibilities and may even lie outside of my career path. For instance, I received my SQL certification and AWS certification even though I was mostly using M at the time.
For stretch goal certs, I give myself between five and six months and try to dedicate between an hour and 90 minutes to studying each night, with no work on weekends.
Lastly, there is the out-of-area or extracurricular class of certs. This has to do with a certification or a field that isn't in my wheelhouse all. I am trying to get my Series 7 certification and have given myself a year to accomplish this. I expect to need the extra time since I am a technologist and the Series 7 exam licenses the holder to sell all types of securities products except commodities and futures.
Known formally as the General Securities Representative Qualification Examination, the Series 7 exam and its licensing is administered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Stockbrokers in the United States need to pass the Series 7 exam to obtain a license to trade.
The Series 7 exam focuses on investment risk, taxation, equity, and debt instruments; packaged securities, options, retirement plans, and interactions with clients for prospective securities industry professionals. This introductory-level exam assesses a candidate's knowledge of basic securities industry information, including concepts fundamental to working in the industry.
Now you get the idea. You take the tools and the process, and apply them to a disciplined time frame and you will be successful every time, without fail. Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the best, and happy certifying!