Choosing the Right Certification Study Strategy
Professional certification exams are designed to test advanced knowledge of a technology, product or computing discipline and the ability to put that knowledge to work in real-world work scenarios. There's no specific course that aspirants must follow. There are different ways of learning, however, and you're free to choose the method that best enables you to understand concepts, and to practice applying them in the real world.
The following tips are based on guidance from a number of certification exam veterans.
First, you need to decide whether to opt for self-paced study or instructor-led training. Instructor-led training is more expensive than self-paced study. Self-paced study can be either computer-based, book-based or a combination of both. Book-based preparation is the least expensive option, and most people who aren't sponsored by their employer opt for self-managed study.
How you approach a certification exam will significantly determine your performance on the exam. Because certification exams are constantly updated, you need to take care to select the most authoritative, up-to-date and comprehensive study materials, as well as determine precisely what to study and how to divide up and manage your study efforts.
It's important to understand the underlying concepts, deepen your knowledge and gain hands-on experience. Simply memorizing material isn't recommended — you might pass an exam, in the unlikely event that you encounter the same or similar questions as those you studies.
You won't be effective in the workplace, however, if you lack conceptual ability. For example, instead of just memorizing various configurations or modifications, the right approach is to understand why a router is configured in a particular way, and why an operating system may need a specific modification.
How early you begin preparing for the exam depends on whether you're familiar with the subject or not. Unless you have substantial experience with the topics, you want to start preparing several weeks, or months, before the exam. Ideally, start by devoting a few hours per day and gradually increase your duration and intensity of your study sessions.
Pros and Cons
Books and manuals — Most certification candidates, particularly those who study on their own, use at least one book. An authoritative and comprehensive book contains all the information that you need to gain a thorough understanding of the subject. A reliable book will explain concepts and processes in detail and cover all of the specifics, including policies.
It's important to purchase the latest editions, because you need to be familiar with recent updates. Again, certifications and exams constantly update. Don't risk skimming over topics because you have related work experience. Your knowledge could be incomplete or out of date. You need to have broad knowledge and be familiar with the latest changes.
Some materials, like those in Pearson's Exam Cram series, are condensed study guides for experienced professionals who have a certain breadth of exposure to the subject. They are designed for quick reviews and learning on various certification topics. Many such "CliffsNotes" guides come with a cram sheet listing all the important points, which you can tear out and review just before you enter the exam room.
Training videos — Web-based videos explain how to administer a particular product or technology. These learning aids might suit auditory or visual learners who are more inclined to understand and recall audio or visuals rather than text. Access to training videos is not always convenient, particularly for those without ready available internet service, and most in-depth video come with a price tag.
Simulations and labs — Many certification exams, such as those for Cisco's top-level CCIE credentials, involve hands-one labs. An exam candidate will need hands-on experience with all the components of a network, so that they understand the entire switching and routing process and know how to build reliable networks and troubleshoot when required.
Ready-made labs are expensive. If you're on a budget, you can shop for components at bargain prices online and create your own lab. This will cost much less than an off-the-rack kit.
In the wider IT certification realm, online labs or simulator-based labs offer an excellent virtual learning experience, which can be helpful when preparing for an exam that has a practical component. You can either pay a fee and gain access to an online lab, or you can buy software and install it on your computer. Virtual labs are much cheaper than physical labs.
Attending classes in person — Attending classes where a teacher guides you step by step is a very good option if preparing for hardware or networking certifications that require you to demonstrate hands-on expertise. Instructor-led onsite classes can be quite expensive, however, and are typically inflexible in terms of both timing and location.
Online classes are a less expensive option that can work well for those who don't need much hands-on experience. One caveat: With online classes, there maybe not be as much access to the instructor or other students as some would like.
Practice tests — The importance of practicing until you understand the subject matter thoroughly can't be overstressed. Practice tests are a compilation of questions and answers from two or more certification exams, so it's almost like taking a real exam. Answering each question (no matter how difficult) and taking these tests again and again until you really understand the solutions will likely improve your chances of not just passing an actual exam, but also performing well at job interviews.
Take care to select practice tests that comprehensively cover all topics of the exam. Many certification candidates consider a complete set of practice tests an essential component of exam preparation materials.
Webinars and MOOCs — Webinars are web-based interactive education sessions conducted by industry experts. They cover subject matter specifics, best practices and self-study guidance. Many IT certification entities provide free webinars for certification candidates. Webinars are usually up-to-date on changes for the exams.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are (often) free online courses that can be a reliable source of knowledge. MOOCs also include assignments, tests, quizzes and team work. The Linux Foundation, Microsoft and other vendors provide MOOCs, which can be helpful to certification aspirants.
As with online classes, webinars and MOOCs may not give you as much access to the instructor or other students as you might like.
Joining peer study and review groups — Joining a high-quality online certification peer group that has regular member participation will give you access to people who have taken the exam or are preparing for it. Often times these individuals are in a position to offer useful advice and even mentor you on difficult concepts. As IT certification guru Ed Tittel advises, "Look for a strong, active certification community for your subject."
One hugely beneficial aspect of being part of a good group is that you have access to plenty of genuine reviews of study materials, which should help you make an informed selection of books, practice tests, online and software-based labs, and other methods.
Know the source
Whatever method, or combination of methods, you decide to follow, it's essential to select authoritative and accessible study materials developed by reputable vendors that have original reviews and good ratings. Be sure to read unedited reviews before you buy anything.
There is a lot of inaccurate and incomplete information floating around on the internet. Many veterans advise studying from more than one source and including a set of practice tests in your exam prep kit. Good luck in your preparations, and on your exams!