Expert Opinion: How to Succeed When Taking a Certification Exam

Q: What are key best practices to follow for passing an IT certification exam?

I get asked this all the time. Some of my answers apply to any test you might take, while others are focused on high-stakes proctored exams in the hi-tech or IT software space.

For a given IT certification exam, the best place to start is visiting the certification program website to see whether they have any study guides. The study guides should line up with the test objectives. When I put together a study guide, I will include the notes the test writers see in the exam blueprint. The blueprint dictates the direction of the test questions.

The next step is to check whether the software vendor or IT association (depending on who is providing the exam) offers any sort of exam prep sessions. These sessions should help fill any gaps in the study guide and give you a clearer picture of what to focus your studying on.

If a vendor or association has a conference and offers prep sessions and a testing center, jump on it. At the very least, if you fail, then you will have a great idea of where you need to improve your knowledge.

If an exam is designed well, then it will have scenario-based questions that reference real world scenarios. It is very difficult to create these questions, so there are typically very few of them left over from an exam bank to be offered as examples of test content. Any such sample questions that you can find should give your strong idea of the type of questions you will see on the exam itself.

Some exam candidates ask about practice tests, which are generally widely available. They often say that they do great on practice test and then fail the actual exam. The main reason for this is usually that the practice test questions were not representative of the actual exam. Certification providers use the good test items in the test and not for any practice tests. As for practice tests provided by companies who are not the certification provider, they may be helpful.

Getting an IT sandbox — essentially a non-production site — to play in is a great way to learn. Tackling hands-on lab exercise, along with the supporting training to an exam, will always be helpful. You can also shadow more experienced IT professionals on projects.

Be part of study group if possible. Find a mentor, someone willing to go over the test objectives with you and explain where to focus your studies. A mentor can also help make you better in your job —which will help you perform better on exams. What I have found is that the more experienced one is with the product (or knowledge area) that is the focus of the exam, the easier the questions are.

Tips for Success

Finally, here are some more general exam-taking tips. The first four apply to almost any exam, but are especially true when taking an IT certification exam:

1) Trust your instincts.
2) Avoid overthinking.
3) Mark long questions to answer last.
4) If you need to reread a question more than twice, mark it and return to it after answering all other questions.

If an answer seems like it is written better than the other answers, it is often the correct one. Test writers often take great care to write correct answers, while spending less time writing plausible distractors.

An indifferently crafted exam will also often have the longest answer as the answer. Generally speaking you can tell a poor exam by the overall quality of the writing.

If you have no idea what the answer is on a few questions, just pick the same letter response to those few question and it is likely you will pick up at least one correct response. Apply the same thinking if you have run out of time.

If you bomb an exam, then maybe see if the certification program offers a lower-level exam, such as an associate-level exam. Start there and work your way back up.

If you are at a conference and a testing center is available, and there is an exam offered that is on your list ... go for it. There is a good chance that the folks who created the exams are at the conference and could offer advice. And if you are unsuccessful, then you will know where to focus your learning.

Whatever happens, try not to get too worked up, either before the exam begins or after it ends.

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

Peter Manijak is a training and certification consultant and served as Certification Chair for CEdMA (Computer Education Management Association) for more than six years. He now sits on the CEdMA Europe Board of Directors. An innovator and pioneer of IT certification, Peter specializes in building and managing world-class certification programs and training organizations. Certification regimes he has led include those affiliated with EMC, Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), Hitachi Data Systems, Acquia, Magento and Ceridian. Peter has been awarded CEdMA Certification Chair - Emeritus status and is a regular contributor to Certification Magazine and GoCertify.