If you want to start or advance your career as an IT pro, I have some great news: there is a huge IT pro skill crisis, meaning that experienced professionals are quite scarce on the market.
A great way to boost your career, while expanding your knowledge and being able to independently demonstrate your level of proficiency, is earning a respected IT certification. But what is the best approach? What does it take to face even the most challenging exams and have success?
The short answer is quite simple: With adequate time, preparation and dedication, any challenge can be overcome. To help you get started, here are eight tips for IT certification exam success.
1. Get to Know Your Exam
This may sound overly simple, but your first step for success is knowing the challenge you are going to face. Every exam will have some sort of candidate guide or exam guide and an official site, so those are good places to start. The official website should help you find basic information on the certification and the exam; it will also provide links to a lot of useful information, such as official training providers, a few sample questions, how this certification fits into an overall certification path, official forums and the candidate/exam guide.
The candidate/exam guide should be your primary source of information, since it contains essential details such as an overview of the certification and the exam, including its target audience, prerequisites, how many and what type of questions you are about to face, time allotted for examination and the passing mark.
It also provides detailed information on the topics that will be covered in the examination; most of the time, it also includes some sort of weight for each topic. Even if you cannot be sure of the number of questions on each specific subject, you can make an educated guess. This helps a lot, especially in constructing your study plan.
2. Create Your Own Custom Study Plan
Without adequate planning, even for entry-level certifications, the chances of success on the examination will drop a lot. So, creating a study plan that fits your personal needs is essential; even a simple to-do type of list can help a lot. As mentioned before, the candidate/exam guide will provide a basic recommendation for study hours required, but that is quite generic. For your custom study plan, you should consider factors such as:
- How soon do you intend to take the examination? Some certifications have specific exam dates that only happen a few times over the year, others can be scheduled in a matter of days.
- How much time can you devote to your study efforts? If you are already working, or have other commitments, make sure you can dedicate sufficient time to the basics, such as covering all exam topics, taking practice tests and reviewing exam simulations.
- How much can you spend on preparation material and training courses? For most recognized certification exams, there will be several options, but you should consider looking for official, certified study materials and training, since they make sure you have a thorough view of each topic covered during the examination. A great option is getting the official pre-study book and reading it early on; this can definitively create a solid basis for further developing your skills/knowledge with whatever training methodology you chose.
- What training method best suits you? Some people prefer self-learning, or studying at their own pace, while others may think that there is no substitute for the classroom, where several people can share their experience. Some candidates will find having the training online can help them study on-the-go, at any time. Use your past learning experiences to help you pick the method that will help you prepare best.
- How well acquainted are you already with the exam subjects? Even very experienced professionals, with good knowledge about the certification subject, can have a hard time during the examination. Your personal experience can save you some studying time, but you should take into consideration factors such as the exam length and question logic. Relying too much on experience alone is a poor strategy that will most likely lead to bad results
3. Get Involved In an Exam Prep Course
Deciding to use a self-study-only approach to face an IT certification may seem like a bold decision, but it may not be the best strategy. Some certifications may include the official training as a basic requirement. However, even if it is not mandatory, it is important to understand achieving exam success requires in-depth knowledge of several different subjects, even for entry level certs. The definitions and understanding of some of these topics may vary, depending to the point of view of whatever certification body was responsible for developing the exam. In practice, this means even if you have firsthand knowledge, some of it may not apply since the certification body’s view may be quite different from the tasks professionals are used to doing in the field.
Going through a certification preparation course allows candidates to get the chance to spend some time with an experienced instructor, with actual knowledge on how to beat the exam. It is an excellent opportunity to get all your questions answered, share experiences and strategies, and even do some networking if it is in-person training. This results in a greater success rate on any certification exam.
4. Take Practice Exams
Whenever available, practice exams are a great way to test yourself. It is not only a question of having a good grasp of the subject on which you are being tested, but also getting to know how the questions are structured, and what the small nuances are that can completely change a sentence or even the whole question. Again, I am strongly in favor of using official training material and question databases, as it should be the best approach to emulate the real exam. One thing should be clear: The idea is not to memorize every question. This may seem an easy way to deal with a certification, but most exams have thousands of questions in their official banks. Instead, try to use practice exams as an opportunity to discover your strengths and weaknesses. If you consistently have a top score in a specific subject, you may divert study time to reinforce areas in which you did not do as well.
Also, a good question database will not only show the correct response, but also explain why it is correct and even have details on why the other options are incorrect; this is great for complementing whatever prep course you may have chosen.
Another excellent way to use practice exams is emulating a complete exam. It may sound nice to take a batch of 10 questions whenever you have some free time, but every candidate should take a complete mock exam at least a couple times. Some certifications can have over 200 questions and take up to six hours, so having a full practice exam will not only test your skills, but also improve your resilience, attention level and concentration.
As for practice exam test results, do not be discouraged about your first results. Unless you are an experienced test taker, it is quite common for things to go sour during the first round of questions, especially if you are not done with your reading and cert prep course. Take your time to study and use every resource available to clarify any doubts. By the end of your study plan, you will see consistent results in practice exams.
5. Join the Online Community
There is no lack of online material and communities for most IT certification exams. Taking part in online forums helps you learn and share exam strategies, helping you learn from other’s success and failure stories. As for finding the proper online community, aside from the obvious official forums of the certification body, a simple Google search on “certification name + forum” can land some nice results. Most IT certs will have a dedicated Reddit page bursting with people from around the world willing to share experiences.
A word of advice though: Unless you have time to help others, stay away from toxic people and posts. Many unfortunate exam takers go online to vent their frustration and this can be discouraging.
6. Have an Exam-Day Preparation Plan
Finally the big day is about to happen. Are you anxious? Not to worry, it is quite common! Your primary focus should be on not exhausting yourself and being at your best during the exam.
A few things to remember:
- Is your exam kit ready? Depending on what IT cert you are taking, you may need to have an admission ticket, identity card, pencils and erasers. This may sound silly, but some candidates fail to even attend the test for not having these items. Make sure you check the exam/candidate guide to see what is required. You may also want to give a call to your test center to verify you understand the requirements.
- Are you calm and well rested? Believe me, this tip may be as important as any regarding your study plan. Many candidates fail because of physical and mental exhaustion. Staying up late doing a final round of study may sound tempting, but last-minute reading is usually not a good thing, and may even leave you anxious. If you think it is important to do a final review, do a selective reading instead. Also, do not focus solely on weaknesses. If you have not mastered a specific topic until now, you may prefer to focus on enhancing the areas where you’re good. A great tool for selective reading is using summaries or glossaries, which have lots of important information, some of which you may have missed or lost contact with during your study sessions. As for the physical side, ingesting (even small amounts) of alcoholic beverages is a really bad idea. Instead try having a light balanced meal. If your exam is during the morning, having a balanced breakfast and drinking plenty is a very helpful way to make sure you are at your best. If it is during the afternoon, eat a light lunch.
- Did you make the necessary arrangements to be on time at the test site? Many certifications have a strict time table. Candidates who are late may not be admitted to the site if they are late. If you are using public transportation, double check the best routes; if you are driving to the exam site, make sure to know where to park beforehand.
7. Clear Your Mind
That’s it, your time to shine has arrived! Take a deep breath and remember that you put in the time and are prepared to succeed.
Here are some last-minute tips:
- Be aware of time. During the exam, you may reach a high level of concentration I like to call “the zone.” This means a greater focus, which is great for question solving, but you must not lose your notion of time. What may seem like seconds can be precious minutes; hours tend to pass at a very fast rate, so make sure you have time to go through every question on the exam and fill answer key forms if required.
- Take your time reading the questions. Even with a limited exam time length, it is important not to rush over every question. Take your time and pay attention to each question and option, make sure to understand what is being asked, and you will have a greater chance of solving it correctly. If you are taking a multiple-choice exam, it will likely include distractors (options that are obviously false) that can be quickly eliminated. It is also important to pay close attention to terms such as MOST, LEAST, NOT, ALL, NEVER and ALWAYS, since they can entirely change a sentence. Also, if the exam you are taking uses the “best answer” model, it means there may be more than one correct option. You must be able to understand and choose the most suitable for the given situation. This is yet another reason why I emphasize so much on using the official question database of practice exams whenever possible.
- Try to relax. For some IT certs, you may be required to stand still for several hours and that can be quite uncomfortable. Any physical stress can decrease your capacity to concentrate and think straight. At least once every hour, stretch and relax your muscles and yourself. If you can, find a way to clear your mind from the exam. This may sound contradictory, but a relaxed mind can help you beat that hard question you already spent several precious minutes trying to solve without progress.
- Remember, there is no reason to panic. Remaining calm will improve your concentration. Yes, the IT cert you are taking is a challenge, so try having some fun while facing it. Believing in yourself is essential. If you followed your study plan correctly, your results will likely be great; if not, you will have a lot more experience during the next try!
8. Confirm Next Steps & Secure Your Certification
Now for the anticlimactic part. The examination is already over and, depending on the certification body, the results can either be instantaneous or take several weeks. In the latter case, you will have to be patient. In the end, it is important to understand that even if you were not successful on your first try, you have now learned from your efforts and your skills and knowledge have advanced to a higher level. That is quite an accomplishment in itself. You can use this as motivation for trying again with a greater chance of success.
If you were successful, congratulations! Now it is time to check if you need to complete any other tasks before receiving your certification. Some certification bodies may require candidates to send application forms or be endorsed, usually by another certified professional. Both situations may have a specific deadline that, if missed, will nullify the certification.
Also, if you are willing, this would be a good time to share your success story with your peers to give something back to the community. Your own story can help other candidates understand no matter the challenge, it can be overcome.