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Amy Arnold
Amy Arnold
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IT Certification Exam Success In 4 Steps

There are no shortcuts to obtaining passing scores, but focusing on key fundamentals of proper study and preparation will help you master the art of certification.

As a veteran of many IT certification exams, I know there are few key steps to achieving that passing score we all desire. There is no magic study program or instant path to success, but with hard work and well placed focus, certification exam passes become second nature. Here are four fundamental steps I recommend for IT certification success, especially for those embarking on their first technical certifications:

1. Find the map of objectives. The map of objectives for your exam, sometimes called a blueprint, lists all of the topics the vendor considers within in the scope of the exam. This should be the cornerstone of your study efforts. Despite how akin this sounds to “reading the directions,” I am constantly surprised at the number engineers who skip this important step.

The true value of knowing the exam blueprint shines through during test time, when you can ask yourself, “What objective are they testing with this question?”  Often this sheds just enough light on the problem at hand to make one of several very similar looking answer choices stand out like a sore thumb.

2. Use multiple study resources. As a certification candidate, you should not only invest in the “official” exam book (if there is one), but you should also seek out as many unofficial -- but, I stress, legitimate --  resources as well. Skip questionable sites and brain dumps that claim to post real exam questions and answers. Obtaining and publishing actual certification questions violates vendors’ NDA testing policies, and brain dumps won’t help you in the long run of your career anyway. Going to your exam vendor’s website and searching through documentation on your subject matter is a much better way to spend your study time and efforts.

Also, get involved in an online or local study group. For Cisco certifications such as the CCNA and CCNP, there is the Cisco Learning Network, an entire site dedicated to exam preparation and a learning community, and other vendors have similar offerings. Get involved, and never assume a single book covers all the ins and outs of the technology you are being tested on. Always be on the lookout for materials such as articles, blogs, and books that reinforce the material at hand.

3. Get lab practice. When studying for an exam, get as much hands-on practice as possible. As a longtime test taker, I know how hard it can be to get your hands on gear for lab practice, but configuration experience goes a long way toward getting that passing score. These days there are emulators, simulation tools, eBay, and rack rentals for much of what vendors are testing, so you should be well practiced before sitting down to take the exam.

During your lab time, hone your skills so that you are performing the tasks as quickly as the exam requires, but also be sure to try new ways of breaking things and be sure to create and test various scenarios. You never know whether your favorite way of configuring a task will be available during an exam simulation -- in fact, you should count on it not being an option.

4. Prepare for failure. A last piece of advice, and one that is often uncomfortable for IT certification candidates to hear: Be prepared to fail. That may sound counter to the point of this article, but as a longtime sufferer of severe test anxiety, I can confidently say that failure is not only an option, but a natural part of the certification experience. No matter how much you study and plan, there always remains a chance that you won’t quite get over the passing mark.

What you do with these situations determines how quickly you do reach that passing score. As soon as you leave an unsuccessful exam, get out a sheet of paper or pull out your smartphone and start recording everything you can remember about the exam. This will give you a place to focus your revamped studies. Capitalize on your testing momentum, and put a retake date on the calendar. There’s absolutely no shame in failing a certification exam, and while there is a cost, don’t let that expense go to waste by not learning from the experience.

IT certifications themselves won’t make you a better engineer, nor will they guarantee you a career. Learning how to learn is what will accomplish these things, and mastering the art of the technical exam gives you essential practice in this skill. You will be a better engineer, not because you can pass the test, but because you have honed your knowledge-gaining skills. 

No matter how technology changes, these are the skills that you will use every single day in IT, not necessarily the specific exam tasks. Adopting this mindset about certification exams will not only change the way you prepare for tests, but will advance your engineer skills in the long run. Therein lies the true value of certifications in the industry.

Amy Arnold, CCNP/DP/Voice, currently works as an engineer in the public sector with a focus on all things networking. You can follow her on Twitter at @amyengineer View Full Bio
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aditshar1
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aditshar1,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 6:06:08 AM
Re: sound advice
I guess maximum of us here meet training rooms when some new technology or product is introduced in system. It is because company offers training at that point.
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
4/24/2014 | 1:49:54 PM
Know Thine Enemy
Another good post from Amy :)

I think the biggest challenge with any new exam (i.e. that you haven't taken before) is knowing just how deep you need to know the subject areas in question. If  CCNP exam covers "BGP", that would be a little vague, as it's a huge subject potentially. The CCIE has always been a benchmark for the impossible-looking blueprint where there are just so many areas that are covered on the exam, it's hard to even possibly study every single one to exhaustion.

This is where the vendor's own books can be useful. If they cover a topic, it's a fair bet that they cover it to a depth appropriate to the exam. If there are sample questions, hopefully they're at a similar kind of level to the real test. I honestly thing sometimes that when people use brain dumps, sometimes it's just to pass, and other times it's to get a better feel for the exams. My own approach to practice questions is that if I get one wrong - or if I think the BOOK is wrong, I'll go research that topic until I'm comfortable with WHY I'm wrong, or - as happens occasionally - prove that the book itself has an error.

For things like CCIE Lab, I've recommended in the past doing a lab course. It takes something that's totally unknown (the lab) and gives you some level of confidence that you've learned the right kind of things, you work at the right kind of speef, and that you can handle what you're about to be hit with.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
4/24/2014 | 11:25:11 AM
Re: sound advice
It's about the same for me -- when I deal with a new subject area that I think will be important for my role, I seek out training resources. I usually find them online or I buy a book.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
4/24/2014 | 10:17:00 AM
Re: sound advice
Aditshar1, that could be a big issue -- identifying our own shortcoming is not that easy sometimes. I usually seek extra training when I encounter something new that I think is going to be important in the future, and often this is offered by my workplace. I've also taken a class when I felt that a certain area of my work takes me much longer than it should, so I need more help. How do others decide they need training? 
aditshar1
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aditshar1,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/24/2014 | 3:20:35 AM
Re: sound advice
Certification is good way to present your skill and competancy, but before that we need to judge which topic areas are comfortable and which ones require brush up.
IvySchmerken
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IvySchmerken,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/23/2014 | 4:57:24 PM
Re: sound advice
I agree this is an extemely helpful roadmap for passing IT certiication tests, and I am not an engineer. I especially like the advice about not fearing failure and acknowledging that outcome could happen and rescheduliling the IT certification test immediately.  Using one's smartphone to record everything one remembers about the test is a great strategy.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
4/23/2014 | 11:17:41 AM
sound advice
Thanks for these tips Amy. What you say about "learning how to learn" as key for an engineer's career is a really important point. Do readers have any other certification exam tips to share?
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