Obtaining a tech certification can sometimes be a daunting task. Some of the exams out there are incredibly difficult to pass. There are multiple choice only exams, live lab exams where it’s all hands on, and exams that require an oral defense of your design or architecture. I can tell you from experience that some certification exams are seemingly unattainable. I’ve been chasing the Cisco CCNA certification for years without successfully obtaining it. Now, there are some of you out there that would scoff at that, however, not everyone has the requisite experience or the time that it takes to study and pass the exam. I took the CCNA exam twice; once immediately after a bootcamp class (fail) and the second time after spending a month or so preparing (still failed).
Everyone is different. Some people require a lot of preparation and studying while others have been working in the field for so long the exam is a breeze and they simply need a refresher. Regardless of where you consider yourself, I’m going to lay out a solid method to prepare you for taking and passing a certification exam.
Evaluate Your Experience
Knowing where you stand as it relates to your experience with the technology is the best place to start. Most certification exams state 6 months of experience with the technology as a prerequisite to taking the exam. I’ve never understood why 6 months is the golden standard for the amount of experience you need. You might have only had 3 months experience but sat for a bootcamp course and feel confident you are ready. This is where you really have to take an honest look at how comfortable you feel sitting for the exam. Depending on the level of certification, it might require years of experience and professional preparation, especially if you have a certification board like the CCIE you are taking.
Read, Read and Read Some More
I can’t tell you there is one specific tried and true guidebook or book series that you must read before sitting for an exam. There are so many out there, you just have to decide which one suits your needs. Some study guides are for complete beginners, while others focus an entire book on one portion of the technology in a more “deep dive” type of read. Books are great! Find a good one and read it. The method I’ve used in the past is to read the book once cover to cover like you would a novel. On the second read, take notes as you read… not lengthy notes, just notes that will help you remember key points. Lastly, go back through the book and re-read any section that might be giving you trouble. Reading a good book, like anything in the “Mastering” series by Sybex, can really give you a solid foundation for taking the exam. Remember, “…the more you read, the more you know.” Ok, you might be too young for that reference.
Training can make a big difference in how you perform in an exam setting, especially if you have hardly any hands on experience. Professional training companies provide on-site training for individuals looking to prepare for a certification exam. That being said, there are good companies and there are terrible companies. There isn’t much in between the two. It is crucial to make sure you do research on the company offering training and ensure they are authorized to give the training. For example, VMware requires that you take their Install, Configure and Manage (ICM) courses through a VMware Approved Training Center, or VATC. Being that VMware requires you to take an ICM course if you are new to their certifications, if you take an ICM course from an unapproved training center, you cannot obtain the certification. That can be a costly mistake, with most VMware courses costing around $3500-$5000. Research the instructor, ensure they have the requisite experience to give the class so you can rest assured you are being taught by an expert. Most training centers offer on-site in class training as well as live online training, so there are plenty of options to suit your training needs.
Practice exams can be very helpful in getting you ready to take an actual exam, but they can also be very misleading. Don’t rely on practice exams only. This will set you up for failure, 100% guaranteed. Companies like Kaplan IT Training (formerly Transcender) and Pluralsight offer great practice exams based on the certification you are going for. There are some practice exams out there that you can purchase for upwards of $100 or more, and they guarantee you will pass… buyer beware, these are usually test dumps which are not authorized and could cost you your certification. Test dumps could also leave you high and dry on exam day when you realize the questions they’ve presented are way off from the actual exam content. There are good practice exams out there, just be careful which ones you decide to put your time and money into.
Day of the Exam
At last, it’s exam day. If you aren’t prepared on exam day, you will fail. At this point, you are simply going to prove you know your stuff and collect a piece of paper and title. On exam day, you shouldn’t cram, fret over flashcards or go into the test center nervous… at this point you should already be fully prepared. Get 8 hours of sleep the night prior, eat a banana before your exam, avoid large greasy meals that will put you to sleep. As a general rule, I’ve never taken a certification exam past 9:30 a.m. Your brain is at its best first thing in the morning after a good breakfast. Drink water, but not too much — you don’t want to have to get up and use the restroom during the exam. Be confident, and if by chance you fail, look at it as a learning experience and work on areas that you were weak on the exam.