• 04/22/2014
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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.


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?

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.

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.

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? 

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.

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.

Re: sound advice


There are a series of posts by Anthony Sequeira that I found helpful. Here is the link:


Re: sound advice

Thanks for the link pgeorge2. I like the practical tips in the series, especially the one on tracking your certification study progress.

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.

Re: Know Thine Enemy

I agree you jgherbert, but with same awareness plays important role here. Today good number CCIE engineers are available it is because we realized that this certification provides growth path.

Re: Know Thine Enemy


"Today good number CCIE engineers are available it is because we realized that this certification provides growth path."

I think there are two things at play here:

1) Many employers want it, and pay more for it;

2) Cisco partners want it, and need it, and pay more for it.

There are certainly those who take certification tests for the pure knowledge gain, but I suspect many more do because they figure it makes them more valuable to employers both from a retention and salary standpoint. If that's the growth path you're referring to - i.e. career, or at least salary, growth, then I agree.

Re: Know Thine Enemy

I agree you jgherbert, till i was CCNA i did not relaized the fact but as soon as i completed my CCNP i got good number of calls from employers offering handsome salary package.

Re: Know Thine Enemy

You make some really great points!  It's always a rude awakening to have studied for an exam and find out the official materials left out a large chunk of data you needed to know.  I think training classes, community, and a variety of resources really help fill this gap.  The problem is often not knowing that gap exists before the first take...

Re: Know Thine Enemy

"The problem is often not knowing that gap exists before the first take..."


Or equally, that you spent way too much time digging into the depths of a topic only to discover that in actual fact the exam requires / expects only a cursory knowledge of it. It's exceptionally frustrating to kill yourself mastering a topic for an exam only to find out that 80% of what you learned was way beyond the level required. Don't misunderstand me, it's good to learn it anyway, but if you pushed something else out of the way in order to accomodate that, it's a painful lesson about prioritization...

Re: Know Thine Enemy


"It's exceptionally frustrating to kill yourself mastering a topic for an exam only to find out that 80% of what you learned was way beyond the level required."

Several of the exams that I have passed are for Microsoft certifications, and if I remember correctly, I think Microsoft is intentionally ambiguous about that sort of thing.  In a sense, this makes me question whether such an extreme level of content mastery is there for my benefit or Microsoft's.

One of the Microsoft exams that I passed was for Windows Server 2003.  I remember having to spend a lot of time mastering each aspect of the built-in backup program.  Meanwhile, in the real world, I've never worked at an IT department that used any version of Windows backup.  I've also never met anyone who used it either.  In my experience, the standard practice is typically to use a third-party backup solution.

Microsoft has access to statistics on how popular and how often certain features are used.  If the certification were truly preparing me for real-world scenarios, the emphasis on each topic would have been different.

Individuals get certified without learning material

I believe that IT certifications often get a bad reputation because a number of individuals are able to pass the exam without actually learning the material.  If you run a quick search on cheating options available for popular exams, you are likely to find many options. 

Unfortunately, those who pass the exam legitimately end up losing out as the reputation of the certification gets diminished by those who obtain the same certification without truly earning it.  As those invidivuals perform badly on interviews and work performance, the overall reputation of the credential is compromised.

Do IT Certifications Hurt IT Professionals?

In theory, IT certifications are good for the IT professional because the certified person will be more qualified than the non-certified person applying for the same job.  In some cases, being certified is required before one is considered for an interview.  Does this practice increase the quality of the applicant pool or decrease it?

It has been my experience that many hiring managers, with the exception of IT outsourcing companies, do not think highly of many certifications.  I suspect that two major contributing factors are boot camps and exam answer websites.  I worked very hard to pass several exams for a Microsoft certification but never completed all 7 of the required tests. 

Meanwhile, someone who I know but will remain anonymous, simply paid for the exam answers and is not only certified but his certification may have helped him further his career.  He justified his decision to cheat on the exams by explaining that he is already a competent and highly accomplished IT Professional.  Having the credential simply allows him the opportunity to prove this at interviews which he would otherwise not have.  In his opinion, if he cheated on the exam but did not have the reqiured technical proficiency for the job, this would be exposed during his interview.  Therefore, he was not lying about his skillset.

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