How to Remain Calm, Cool and Collected While Taking a Certification Exam

Test anxiety laptop guy

How do you take a certification exam?

"Successfully," you might say, and I would agree with you. In a perfect world, we would all pass our exams on the first attempt every time. Just as some of us get panicky when called upon to speak in front of an audience, however, or seize up when the pace of our day gets too frenetic, many smart and talented people experience extreme anxiety when taking a certification exam.

Part of this anxiety is attributable to the disconnect between working on a problem in the real world, and confronting that same challenge in an exam. Taking a certification exam is a totally artificial process. You are isolated from peers and colleagues; your reference tools (like your internet-connected smartphone) are taken away from you; and you are given hyper-accelerated time lines in which to complete your assignment.

In this article, I'm going to highlight some strategies to help control exam anxiety, and give some pointers to help better manage the exam-taking experience.


Before the Exam


Whether you are taking your first or 21st certification exam, the pre-exam procedure can be stress inducing. The best way to deal with this anxiety is to establish in your mind what is going to happen before it happens. Run through the series of events in your head before entering the test center.


At most test centers, you will check in at the registration desk, where you are asked to show one or more pieces of ID. You will have to surrender your jacket to the test center staff, as well as your phone, watch, headphones, wallet or purse, and any notebooks or pieces of paper you have with you.


You can reduce some of the check-in stress by preparing a checklist the day before your exam. Review this checklist before leaving home; it should prompt you to only bring the essentials with you, like the required identification. If possible, take your credit cards out of your wallet. If you must bring a phone and/or tablet with you, make sure it is powered off (or at least locked with a passcode) before surrendering it to test center staff.


If you have a lockable briefcase, bring it along to the test center. You can put the restricted items into the case and secure it before giving it to a staff member. You'll feel less stressed knowing that your personal items are safe and sound.


The exam rooms in test centers differ by location, but they tend to be small, poorly ventilated and overly warm. Dress in comfortable clothing that will help you to stay cool and focused. Some test centers do not let you bring any food or drink into the exam room. Make sure you are well fed (but not full) and well hydrated (but not sloshing) before you enter the test center.


During the Exam


With most computer-based testing, you are not on the clock until you click beyond a certain screen. Most exams will inform you when you are about to start the exam timer. Don't rush through this process. Sit back, take a deep breath or two, and try to set your mind in a state of calm anticipation. Remember, this is not the Hunger Games; it is just a test, one that can be taken again if necessary.


Before you start in on the first question, tell yourself a version of the following:


This is just a test. It is a limited tool that measures some aspects of what I know. It is a game that I am going to play, to try to earn a prize. If I don't win the game today, then I will come back and play again. But I'm pretty sure I am going to win today.


Many exams give you the ability to mark questions without answering them, and return to them later on. Don't be afraid to use this option if you are struggling with a question. Most standardized certification exams give the same weighting to each question. Don't kill yourself (and the exam timer) wrestling with a question that stops you cold. It's better to stay in the flow of reading questions and answering them, and then take a second pass at any tough nuts.


This is particularly true of exams that have performance-based simulation questions. These questions can eat up a lot of time, and are often worth the same as a simple multiple-choice question. Again, don't let one obstacle bog you down — mark the question for later and move on.


After the Exam


Finally, it's okay to feel disappointment if you don't pass an exam � but never use the word "fail." The only failure is if you don't try again. Certification exams aren't meant to be "one and done" verdicts on your abilities. An exam retake is a mark of persistence and desire to succeed.


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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.