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IT Certification Exam Success In 4 Steps

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.