This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
When I was coaching my daughter’s soccer team, one of the tips I shared with them was on how to get good at soccer and have fun. I told them the secret was to “touch the ball every day.” If they picked the ball up and practiced in any way, even if they only had a few minutes, they would be good at soccer.
The same advice works for taking and passing an information technology (IT) certification exam, whether you’re getting ready for an expert-level exam or about to make your first-ever attempt at certification: “Prepare for the exam every day.” Even if you only have a few minutes.
During my career in information systems and technology I have obtained dozens of related certifications, many at the master and instructor level. Certification exams are designed to measure your knowledge and skills and provide you with a credential that validates your knowledge and skills in a particular occupational area.
With the process I use to prepare, I rarely fail an exam. But don’t be so afraid to fail an exam that you put it off or never attempt it. The following is my simple formula for how to prepare and pass an IT certification exam, drawn from my years of experience.
Dig in on the details: domains, objectives, and question types
One of the first things to do is understand as many details about the exam as possible and become familiar with the types of questions that may be used on the exam. Most exam providers maintain a publicly available list of domains and objectives that are covered in the exam. A domain is a high-level grouping of objectives. An objective will describe the knowledge or skill necessary to show competency for a specific topic.
Look for the answer to these questions on the certification provider’s website:
- How many questions will be on the exam?
- What is the time limit to complete the exam?
- What domains and objectives does the exam cover?
- What types of questions will be on the exam?
In general, most certification exams include different types of questions. The most common types of questions are multiple choice questions and performance-based questions.
Study, review, and prepare for exam day
There are three distinct timeframes to prepare to take an exam. Let’s take a look at each of them in more detail:
First, you need to spend time studying and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to pass a certification exam. Going back to my advice to my soccer team at the beginning of this article, make a study plan and schedule time each day to study — even if it is only for a few minutes. Use these questions to guide your study plan:
- When will you start?
- How long will you study each day?
- What is the date that you will be ready (set a specific goal) to take the exam?
- What day will you take the exam?
Knowing all of this helps to schedule time on your calendar each day and set up automatic reminders. You would be surprised how quickly time can slip by if you don’t have a plan for success in place.
Studying effectively during this timeframe is critical. The importance of being prepared cannot be understated: When you’re staring at the exam, you simply cannot recall what you haven’t learned. Start your study by focusing on the domains that have the largest weight or percentage. The greater the weight, the more exam questions you may encounter from that domain.
Don’t underestimate or overestimate the difficulty of an exam. If the title of the exam includes the word “fundamental,” don’t mistake that for “easy”. On the flip side, don’t worry about an exam that has the reputation of being difficult to pass. In both cases, sufficient study and preparation is the key to getting a passing score.
Second, is the review timeframe. During this period of your preparation, you will focus on recalling what you have studied. Practice, practice, practice is key to cementing and improving your ability to recall what you have studied. One of the best ways to review is to take practice exams.
Some questions require simple knowledge recall, such as a question that asks, “Which of the followin is the default FTP port?” With most certification exams, you will only encounter a few simple recall questions, if any. Practice exams should and will include knowledge recall questions, however, to help you verify your core understanding of concepts and processes.
Each core piece of knowledge, such as memorizing which port belongs to which network service, can be considered a building block. A question on the certification exam will likely ask you to take several pieces of core knowledge and analyze them to determine the correct answer. When considering review questions, work on identifying each building block, determining which ones are relevant, and fitting them together to arrive at the correct answer.
For example, if you get a question like, “A network technician set up a new e-mail server for a branch office. The e-mail clients have been configured to use the IMAP protocol to access the server. Which of the following describes the firewall configuration that will enable branch office clients to access the new e-mail server?”
What are the core building blocks of knowledge that you need to understand?
E-mail server: You will need a basic understanding of how an e-mail server works.
Branch office: This information helps you establish that clients are remote from the server network and therefore will connect through an edge firewall.
E-mail client: You will need to understand how an e-mail client is configured.
IMAP protocol: You will need to be familiar with the IMAP protocol and what port is used.
Firewall: You will need to understand how a firewall works and how it is configured for remote clients to be able access a server.
You have to take each building block of knowledge into consideration and see how it fits together. Through analysis, each piece of knowledge fits together to form a conclusion and arrive at the correct answer. Keep in mind there may be some building blocks in any question that are not relevant.
If you have a building block that seems vague or incomplete — in the example above, there are no details regarding how the network is connected — then you won’t need to know that information to proceed. Try to avoid overthinking or analyzing. Assume that any practice question provides all relevant information that you need to answer that question.
Sometimes, having a greater depth of understanding can lead us down a rabbit hole when analyzing the question. Stay focused on the information you’ve been given and on the problem that the question is asking you to solve.
Many certification exams will begin with a few skill- or performance-based questions. This type of question may ask you to complete several tasks, through a simulation. Performance-based questions assess your skill, instead of just testing core knowledge.
Typically, you will need experience to complete these questions successfully. The best way to practice for these questions is to get experience actually using the product or technology that may be on the exam. For example, if the exam is for Linux, you will need to test your recall by practicing commands either through a simulator or a Linux server.
A common mistake when taking practice exams is to memorize practice question answers to get a good score. You need to understand why a given answer is correct. If an explanation is provided, take the time to read it. You will not see practice questions on the actual exam and so memorizing them will only lead you to a false sense of your knowledge.
Instead of falling into the trap of rote memorization, you should approach practice questions as a way to test your knowledge of the topics you studied. The point of using practice exams and questions is to help you determine areas where you may need to study or review further before attempting the exam.
Prepare for exam day
The final step in any certification journey is to actually take the exam. Many IT certification exams are expensive, so you want to do your very best to pass the exam on your first attempt. When you schedule the exam, be sure to choose a date and time that will give you enough breathing room to perform a final review so that everything is fresh in your mind, and your recall will be tuned to its highest level.
Ensure that you will be fully rested before the exam: This has been shown to improve recall. Have a nutritious meal and avoid eating anything that will spike or crash your energy level during the exam. Arrive early to the testing facility or, if the exam is remotely proctored, prepare your testing area early. Remote proctored exams have many additional requirements that you must follow, so don’t leave those to the last minute.
Once you start the exam, you will need to carefully manage your time. You should know beforehand how many questions to expect, and how much time you will have to complete them. For example, if there are a maximum of 90 questions and a time limit of 90 minutes, then you will know that you can spend an average of one minute on each question in order to answer all questions.
Answer questions that you know right away. If you find that you are spending too much time on a question, flag or mark the question for review — provided that the exam allows this, which most do — and come back to it later.
If you cannot go back to review questions or if you are reviewing questions that you skipped earlier but do not know the answer, try the following: 1) Rule out any incorrect answers using the process of elimination. 2) Take your best guess if you still don’t know the answer.
If you can narrow the possible correct answers down to two and make your best educated guess, then you have a 50 percent chance of answering correctly. That’s better than a guaranteed score of zero on a question that you did not attempt to answer. The key, again, is to answer all the questions you know up front, and then spend the remaining time on the questions you don’t know the answer to.
Many certification exams still consist primarily of multiple-choice questions. Think about it this way: A multiple-choice question comes with the correct answer provided. You just need to determine which one it is.
Also, be sure to read the entire question before answering. It’s easy to start reading a question, think you know what’s being asked, and skip ahead. Always read the entire question before answering so that you know all of its details. Reading questions twice to make sure you didn’t skip over something is another simple practice that will help avoid answering questions incorrectly.
You did it!
An IT certification exam is a great way to help advance your IT career or stand out in your field. Passing an exam means that you have proven your knowledge and skills. Potential employers will be impressed by your knowledge and skills, but also by the notable accomplishment of preparing for the exam and passing it.
Don’t be intimidated the next time that you’re considering an IT certification exam. You don’t have to be ready to pass an exam as soon as you decide to take it, and you can pass any exam if you’re willing to commit to enough study and review to master the material. Just like with my soccer players, regular and consistent preparation will lead to success.