My Certification Journal No. 4: Using Practice Exams

Books stacked beneath computer

This is my fourth and next-to-last entry in a series of personal journals about my experience using training and exam preparation products from ExamForce to ready myself for Microsoft's MCSA: Windows 7 certification exams. I am sharing my observations to give people who are new to IT certification some insight into this process.


In the introduction to this series, I talked about how long it had been since I last studied for an IT certification exam, and that I needed to arrange for some assistance. That's why I contacted the good people at ExamForce and asked if they could set me up with some of their Windows 7 training and exam preparation tools.


To earn the MCSA: Windows 7 certification, candidates must pass these two Microsoft exams: 


Exam 70-680: Windows 7, Configuring
Exam 70-685: Windows 7, Enterprise Desktop Support Technician


I chose the Windows 7 certification over the Windows 8 version because Windows 7 continues to be the primary operating system of the enterprise. Windows 8 adoption has essentially stalled out, so Windows 7 will continue to dominate the enterprise until Windows 10 is released and achieves widespread adoption. Honestly, I expect Windows 7 to be a viable enterprise OS far into 2016 and possibly beyond.


In this series of journal posts, I have previously written about using ExamForce's audio courseware and practice labs, as well as their video courseware. In this post, I'm going to talk about using the ExamForce practice exam software, CramMaster Online.


Using CramMaster Online


In my career as a technical writer and technology journalist, I have used and reviewed a lot of different practice exam software programs over the years — dating back to the days of Windows NT 4.0 Server and Workstation. (Yes, when dinosaurs walked the earth, rivers of lava flowed through the future site of Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, and so on. I probably played Dragon Warrior and Strider on my NES during study breaks.)


I have to say, using the CramMaster Online software was a great experience. As the name would suggest, the software is accessed via the Internet so there's nothing to install on your PC. I was able to access CramMaster Online on both a PC (via Internet Explorer) and a Mac (via Safari) without any technical issues. After logging into my CramMaster Online user account, I was taken directly to the main menu page.


CramMaster Online offers three different exam modes:


Pretest — Used at the start of your exam preparation, in order to establish a benchmark of your current knowledge.

Adaptive Drill — A highly configurable mode that lets you focus on one or more exam objectives through a series of short exams.

Simulated Exam — This exam mode is for when you're ready to tackle a full length simulation of the target exam.


My first crack at the Pretest exam mode for Exam 70-680 (Windows 7, Configuring) was sobering to say the least. I discovered that while I was fairly well-versed with some aspects of Windows 7 configuration, my knowledge of the installation and deployment topics was, well, lacking. It was a good process to go through, as it identified my weak areas.


By far, my favorite CramMaster Online mode was the Adaptive Drill. I used Adaptive Drill to select specific exam objectives and create mini-exams that tracked my progress through the selected topics. It was a great way to work on my sketchy installation and deployment knowledge.


The Adaptive Drill mode was also very suitable for how I like to use practice exams — in shorter sessions that don't overwhelm with "drink from the firehose" levels of information. Using the Adaptive Drill mode quickly became my go-to, particularly because I could use it to fit 30- to 60-minute study sessions into my hectic work and home schedule.


Dude studying with laptop and book

Finally, there were the Simulated Exams. The CramMaster Online for Exam 70-680 offered three different simulated exams. Each simulated exam was 50 questions long, and had a time limit of 2.5 hours. Using the Simulated Exam mode allowed me to judge how much time I could spend on each question, and was a good way to develop confidence while working through a full-length exam.


All of the exam modes offer the ability to mark questions for later review, and to take user notes which can be referred to later on. Users can also click the Explanation button to open a window with a short description of the answer; this was something I found extremely helpful when reviewing exam results or while doing Adaptive Drills.


But, here's the real killer feature of the Explanation window: it offers links to the exam question's related chapter in the appropriate online Sybex study guide and/or the ExamForce study guide.


This was a very welcome surprise when I first discovered it. Sybex is one of the best publishers of technology training manuals in the industry. Having one-click access to the related Sybex content was a feature that went well beyond my expectations. I was happy to have access to the ExamForce study guide as well, which gave me an alternate take on certain difficult subjects.




It has taken me longer than anticipated to train and prepare for the MCSA: Windows 7 exams; this is primarily due to my work schedule, and the various bumps and obstacles that come with being a husband and homeowner. That said, I want to take both exams during Microsoft's current Second Shot promotion, where candidates can get a free retake (of certain specified exams) if they don't pass on their first attempt. That means I need to take both exams before the end of May 2015, so the heat is on.


I do know that I will be much better prepared for my exams having used some dedicated Windows 7 training and exam preparation tools. Left to my own devices, I would not have customized my studying to bolster my weaker subjects. And, my study process would have been much less efficient if I hadn't used the ExamForce tools.


Well, wish me luck. I'll have one more journal entry for you about my exam taking experience. For anyone out there preparing to take an IT certification exam: good studying and good luck!


(Full disclosure: I have had a working relationship with ExamForce for several years, and contribute IT industry articles to their website.)


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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.