Choose the Right Study Materials for Your Next Certification

Bald guy searching online

You're determined to be successful in the IT industry, and you want to do so through an official certification. Superb choice! Unfortunately, a simple online search for the study materials you need to prepare for the certification results in a plethora of books, guides, quizzes, practice tests, videos and webinars — leaving you dumbfounded. How should you sift through this information to find that one perfect resource for your study?


In this post I'll provide some general guidelines to help you select the best materials to study and prepare for your next certification exam. Before we begin, keep in mind that Everyone has a different "best method" of learning. Some are visual learners, some aural, some kinesthetic (hands-on approach), and at times all three combined work best. Don't worry if you end up with more books, videos, podcasts and whatnot than another person. You must collect and curate your own "box" of the content that best helps you prepare for the exam.  


Let's start:


Step 1: Know and understand your certification


Make sure you know which vendor certification you are taking: Microsoft, Oracle, Java, CompTIA, Cisco, and so forth. Once you know for certain, locate the official course outline so that you know what topics you'll need to master in order to pass the exam. Fortunately, this information is usually available on the vendor's website.


You must know and understand what you will be learning from the certification, what the end result is, and what you will gain from it. Once you have this basic information it's time to search for the study materials.


Be careful when searching online for the best study guide to get you through the course – this isn't always enough. For example, a google-search for the Cisco CCNA Cloud certification will bring up a first page of results entirely from Cisco. There are other useful sources of information pertaining to the certification exam. You might find great tips and suggestions on blogs or discussion boards from other IT professionals who have actually prepared for and passed the exam. A little extra research and talking to others can be very helpful.


Step 2: Find the free stuff


The nice thing about free-stuff is that it's free! Another nice thing is that there is a lot of it online. "Free" no longer has the connotation of bad or incomplete. This is the "Age of Youtility" — giving away information and resources for free. Marketers and professionals alike create and share comprehensive guides and content-pieces as a way to establish authority in their niche, build trust, and gather a following from their fans/target-audience.


This means that that $300 you were thinking of spending on official study guides might be invested somewhere better. Here are three ways of finding and collecting these freely-available resources:


Quora has become a great website for different companies and professionals to build their brand and authority and trust. Many regularly visit and post insightful information and detailed answers to help customers.


It's as simple as asking a question. You type your question on Quora and you'll be swamped with relevant answers. For example, type a query on Quora for CCNA courses and you'll get something like this:


Paul Cook PNG 1


The detail you can find on the site is stunning. More brands and professionals are being advised by marketers to use Quora to research their target audience and build authority by sharing genuinely helpful answers.




You can make contact with lots of different people in online IT forums. Best of all, some of them will be subject matter experts (SME) who are more than willing to share up-to-date information on exams and study guides. SMEs are a good source of knowledge. They can direct you to required information, saving you lots of time and effort.  


Every vendor has their own forums ready such as Cisco's Learning Network, Microsoft's TechNet, Oracle's Community, etc. In general forums, CertForums offers information about various certifications.


However, as with any established gathering of professionals, your question is unlikely to be new to the community members. It may already have been answered, and so you will have to sift through the threads to gain the required information. Don't be afraid to dive in, look around, read threads and ask questions.




Let the BIG G see to your needs. Google can unearth some things quickly and with surprising ease. Searching on Quora and forums can find you gems — ready-made lists of resources used by a recent candidate. The downside is that these resource lists can eat up your time as you sort through them. 


Take the example of CCNA. The certification has various sub-specializations (Routing and Switching, Cloud, Video, Voice, etc.). But not all of them are readily available online – a search on Amazon for "Cisco CCNA Cloud" fails to bring up any relevant study guides.


This is where Google is most valuable in helping find the right results. Just type in the vendor and the title of the exam: Cisco CCNA Cloud 210-451 CLDFND, and voila!


Paul Cook PNG 2


Well look at that! A whole course, from a certified instructor to say the least. And it's free.


One caveat: When searching with Google, always use relevant keywords. Never search for "a complete guide for XYZ certification." ALWAYS do a topical search. This allows Google to find the webpages dedicated to those topics, and hence lands you on the web resources. OTHERWISE, Google presents websites according to their ranking.


Many resource sites (complete websites) do not rank that well on the first search engine results page, and so you'll easily lose them when conducting broad searches. For instance, a simple "IT certification practice quizzes" search will allow you to land on webpages that are only offering this, and hence rank for this keyword. While a broader "study guide" search will not open up this particular resource.  




Amazon is the most popular online store and one of the ten most popular websites on the Internet. It's also the biggest repository of guides and handbooks for all your IT certification needs. Master searching on Amazon and you will have a far less costly mode of getting your hands on the material you need. A wise use of your time would be to take the Amazon tutorial and familiarize yourself with search procedures.  


Always start with a basic, general search of the certification. For instance, the Cisco CCNA certification has various sub-specializations (Routing and Switching, Cloud, Video, Voice, etc.). But not all of them are available online. You'll have to search deeper and, longer to locate those.


Currently books on Amazon are sorted by relevance to the keywords you've put in. You can sort in other ways as well: Most Reviews, Average Customer Reviews, and so forth. There is also an "Advanced search option" to help you sort through in some instances, hundreds of search results for certification books.  




Finding the perfect study materials is a journey in sampling different content and saving the ones that help you the best. The methods outlined above will allow you to find the best ones as rated by others, but it will still be up to you to go through them one topic, short section, etc. at a time to know if it's meant for you and your style of learning. 


Search, collect, curate. All the best!


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
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