Preparing for IT certification tests

Jorge DiazSE
IT certification tests are an integral part of an IT technical career. Whether you are an experienced professional or someone entering the field you are aware of the importance and relevance they play. With most certifications expiring around every three years we invest a lot of time and money staying industry-relevant. Whether you decide to keep the certifications active or decide to follow different ones, the IT professional  is constantly reading a product manual, books, or preparing for a test. But what happens when there’s extra pressure associated with the normal test taking activity -- anxiety or inability to concentrate when taking a test? That certainly adds unnecessary weight to the exam taking process. 

As an experienced IT professional and technical instructor I have seen first hand many people struggling while preparing for certification tests. Some experienced anxiety, self-doubt, irritability, and frustration at the thought of taking a test; the reasons behind such behaviors go beyond the scope of this paper and even beyond my expertise, but after interacting with hundreds of test takers I have come to notice that there are few things people can do to alleviate the pressure and have a much better chance of successfully passing a test.

My goal here is twofold, 1. To help those who struggle with the studying process, 2.  To assist those who just need a little push to take the exam.

For those who struggle with exams: You may need to change your perspective about tests; a shift needs to occur for you to come to grips with the process. The truth is that for some people taking tests is hard, perhaps because you failed tests during your early school years or didn’t’ have good supportive teachers. whatever the reason is you are uncomfortable taking tests. Before you embark on a new study program have this suggestions in mind:
  • Test are not designed to trick you or for you to fail them. They are designed to test your knowledge on a specific subject matter. In other words, don’t just think that you have to pass the exam but rather that you are going test your knowledge to find out how much you know about it and whatever the result is, you will use it as a benchmark to improve on, thus removing the pass\fail pressure.
  • Adjust your thinking to comprehend the test language. This is a very important point. You may be an experienced professional on a specific technology and still fail the certification exam because you have to be able to understand the language used for questions. You can improve on this by talking to people who have previously taken the exam, talked to the technical instructor in a class, or taken the vendor’s practice tests.
  • It’s okay if you are not sure of answers during the exam. Don’t know the answer to one question? It’s okay, depending on the test. You may be allowed to mark the question for later review. Sometimes another question might provide the answer you were looking for before.
  • Don’t get caught up in a question. If you are not careful your progress may be paralyzed by reasoning. This is common during adaptive tests, when you are presented with a page long scenario question that will not allow you to advance until the question is answered.  Break it into parts and analyze each individually; you might be able to figure out the answer by working in sections.
  • Either you know it or you don’t.  This follows the previous point: don’t burn precious time by spending time guessing. When I have been presented with a question I don’t know anything about I simply used my best guess and moved on. If allowed and time permitting I would revisit the question but I definitely wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of time.
  • Have a positive attitude. It will definitely help you, I’ve heard that it is scientifically proven that if you smile and lift your hands as a sign of victory your whole demeanor will improve. I wouldn’t suggest raising your hands during the exam but certainly you can do some prep work before it. Don’t know much about the science but it works.
I hope you by applying some or all of this points you may find relief at the when taking tests.
The following are general test taking preparation points that apply to the confident and fearful test takers:
  • Think in the technical context. Find meaning in what you are studying; memorizing technical information is certainly not fun to do. 
  • Practice in a lab environment. Practice, practice, and practice. If possible apply the material in real life environment.
  • Give yourself enough time to study. Only you know your study habits and time you can dedicate to it. The key is not rushing the exam.
  • Set an exam date. As long as you don’t drag it out forever, most exams allow you to reschedule the test with enough notice. Many times I forced myself to take the exam but booking it three months ahead keeps me focused on a goal.
  • Take the test. I mean take it! I’ve seen people prolonging their study until they feel they are 110% sure they know (or have memorized) the material. The truth is that there will always be topics you won’t feel too confident about no matter how long you study but the beauty is that if you understand the subject you’ll be able to deduce the answer by analytical process.
  • Find or create a study group. it is proven that studying any material with other people will keep you focused and motivated.
  • Teach the subject to someone else. You learn more when you teach than when you are a passive listener. I tell you that from experience. Whether you are teaching it to a colleague or someone in the study group, they’ll shine new light and insight that you never thought of.
  • Take different practice tests. It would be useful if you can get your hands on practice tests from different vendors. Practice tests may or may not be similar to the real test but the aim is to be able to interpret questions from different vendors' points of view so you don’t get used to thinking in one way.
  • Learn from your mistakes. I know no one wants to take a test to fail it, even if your company is paying for it. It doesn’t feel good to burn $250, $600 or whatever the cost is. The truth is that I’ve never met a technical professional who’s never not-failed a test.
  • Don’t let too much time go before the retake. Let’s say you came out short on one of the exams. Make sure you review the topics you feel you didn’t do well in and retake the exam as soon as you can.
  • Use the momentum. If your goal is to certify in something that requires multiple tests such as MCSE, CCIE or the like consider taking exams shortly after you pass the previous one. Having all that knowledge fresh will certainly help in your next exam.
  • Celebrate your progress. Going back to the previous point, studying for such certifications may take months or years in some cases. Treat yourself every time you pass a test, have a toast, or do something to celebrate, really. You’ll be surprised how that positive attitude will help you keep going.
Good luck in all your tests, and again, the most important advice I can give you is to keep on. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish with enough time, resources, and dedication.
Jorge DiazSE

Comments (1)



thanks for the comment ericpete, i'll follow the link to get a better understanding of paradigm.

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