How to Study Effectively for a Certification Exam

Solo study session with books and pencil

It would take more than a single article to go over every aspect of studying for a certification exam. This subject could fill a small book, and not a very exciting one at that. There are some key truisms and must-do's, however, which every candidate should be aware of when it comes to certification exam preparation.


In this article, we're talking about studying for a standardized certification exam. This traditional format features exams made up of multiple-choice, multiple-answer, and true-or-false questions. You may occasionally encounter a more dynamic question asking you to drag-and-drop answer blocks into a certain order, or to click the correct tab on a menu as if you were performing a certain task.


For the most part, however, standardized certification exams are in the same format as all of the other exams you have faced throughout your educational life. Also, this article is for candidates who have already gone through the learning phase, either by attending classes, self-study, or through practical experience (or any combination thereof).


Studying for an exam for which you haven't learned the material through education and/or practical experience, isn't studying: It's cramming. Cramming is an attempt to stuff your brain full of facts which you hope to retain for just long enough to pass an exam, after which the information will flee your brain like startled birds.


Don't do this.


Some candidates like to review material shortly before entering the exam room. This activity, however, takes place after the normal learning and studying phases. Anyone who spends classroom time looking at their phones, and then spends the night before and morning of their exam trying to blow information into their brains like insulation into an attic — well, good luck with that.


For the rest of us, here are some key study must-do's.


Download the exam objectives


Microsoft, CompTIA, and other certification program owners want you to pass their exams. They want IT pros to hold one or more of their certifications. Certification is a circle; earning a certification makes a candidate more relevant, and certified professionals make certifications more relevant.


To help their candidates out, most certification vendors provide a detailed list of the subjects you can expect to encounter on the exam. This list may even break down what percentage of the exam is dedicated to each subject. This list is commonly referred to as the exam objectives.


Always, always, always download the vendor's exam objectives, and tailor your study focus around them. Vendors don't create these lists for fun — they want you to be aware of the most relevant subjects on an exam.


Use More than One Study Sense


This must-do is related to the three classic learning modalities, or the ways in which we learn. These are:


● Visual (reading, pictures)
● Kinesthetic (physically doing something)
● Auditory (listening to lectures)


Most of us favor one learning modality over the others, but will statistically achieve better results if at least two modalities are engaged. While a few people can prepare for an exam just by grinding through a textbook, most of us need something more.


Video exam preparation material offers visual and auditory content, and is more engaging than printed material on its own. If video training is unavailable or too cost restrictive, there are audio-based exam preparation products you can listen to through your computer or a portable audio player.


If you are on a shoestring budget, make your own audio exam preparation content. Record yourself reading aloud key concepts from your training materials. If you are using a study guide that contains practice exam questions, record yourself reading aloud the questions and answers. Creating your own audio study content offers an additional benefit — reading information out loud helps most people to better retain and recall it.


Get a Study Buddy


Group study with laptop

Combine solo exam preparation with studying with another person, or look at joining a dedicated study group. This arrangement engages multiple learning modalities and reduces the monotony of solitary studying, resulting in longer and more productive sessions.


If you are more of an introvert, and find the thought of joining a study group intimidating, keep it to just a single study buddy. This could be a spouse, a roommate, a family member, or even an online friend who's able to ask you practice questions in game show fashion via a chat window.


Use Good Study Habits


Prepping for a standardized exam is something all of us have done before. The same good study habits that applied to high school and college apply to certification exam preparation. Here are some quick reminders:


● Study during your most alert hours, based on your body clock.
● Make a study schedule and do your best to keep it.
● Approach studying with a positive mindset.
● Keep hydrated and fed during study sessions.
● Turn off your phone.
● No seriously, turn off your phone.
● Moderate caffeine intake is good; caffeine jitters are not.
● Give yourself a small reward after study sessions.


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About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.