This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Preparing to challenge (and hopefully pass) a certification exam can be a daunting task. Thankfully, there is a multitude of certification training materials and exam preparation options available for candidates to choose from. It’s just a matter of selecting the training and exam preparation products that are right for you.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, especially if you haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since high school or college, or if your last exam was a decade or so ago. Newcomers looking to transition to the IT industry may also find navigating the certification training waters to be an overwhelming experience.
So how should you select the certification training that’s right for you? It’s actually a multi-step process where several questions need to be answered before you can make an informed decision. Let’s take a look at this process in detail, starting with the core question: What is your most effective learning method?
How do you like to learn?
Most adults are aware of how they best learn new skills and knowledge. Generally, there are four identifiable types of learners. They are:
- Visual learners
- Auditory learners
- Tactile learners
- Text-based learners
Visual learners absorb information through images, models, and diagrams. For example, a visual learner may not fully comprehend a network topology when it’s described to them, but show them a picture of a network map and they will better understand it.
Auditory learners are lecture aficionados who learn best from oral communication. These students will often record their instructors during lectures and then listen to these recordings as part of their exam preparation. They also prefer audiobooks to their printed counterparts when it comes to learning new information.
Tactile learners are better known as hands-on learners. They can learn new material by listening to an instructor and/or reading through study materials, but they really shine when they get to roll up their sleeves and tinker with components and software. Tactile learners absorb more by doing than just observing.
Text-based learners are classic readers and writers who prefer to learn from printed materials. They are often bored or frustrated when attending lectures, and they don’t excel at retaining information from audiobooks. Text-based learners do their best when reading textbooks and writing down notes for later reference.
Here’s an example illustrating the four types of learning:
When asked to hook up a new stereo system, visual learners will study the included diagrams or watch an online video showing someone connecting the equipment. Auditory learners will listen to the online video playing in the background while they work with the components.
Tactile learners will jump right in and start plugging in cables, only consulting the user manual when necessary. Finally, text-based learners will read the entire manual and visit discussion boards to read posts about the equipment, possibly taking down notes as they read.
The good news is you can find IT certification training for every learner type. There are audio-only products, textbooks with end-of-chapter review questions, online simulations that put you behind the virtual control panel, and so on.
Knowing what type of learner you are should influence your choice of certification training. While many training options offer a mix of learning type content — a class taken in a training center typically offers content geared to all four learning types, for example — you should put greater emphasis on certification training that compliments your optimal learning style.
Your learning style is also relevant to determining how long your training will take. We’ll look at this component a little bit later on in the article.
Should you get vendor or third-party training?
This type of question comes up for most types of consumer purchase. Here’s a classic tech-related example: Should you buy branded replacement cartridges built by your printer’s manufacturer, or opt for third-party cartridges which offer a price savings?
Vendor-based certification training is created and sold by the certifying body itself, or by an authorized partner which has been vetted by the vendor. Third-party training is created and sold by companies that haven’t been officially sanctioned by the certifying body.
This doesn’t mean that third-party training is necessarily worse than vendor-based, although there have been instances of integrity issues with third-party products. There are companies that sell pirated content captured directly from IT certification exams. These products, known as “brain dumps” in the IT industry, are ethically wrong and potentially damaging to the value of IT certifications in general.
It’s important to note, however, there are legitimate, high-quality, third-party training and exam preparation products available for most popular certification programs. You just need to be willing to do a little due diligence when selecting among third-party training products.
For higher-cost training options like instructor-led courses, consider choosing from vendor-based offerings. Vendors and industry associations recognize that some of the reputation of their certification programs relies on the quality of their training and exam prep materials. If you are going to pay a premium for more robust and interactive training, choosing a vendor-based option offers a greater level of consumer security.
Also, the curriculum used in instructor-led courses is often developed by — or in consultation with — the same people who produced the related certification exam. This can offer students a closer relationship between the training content and the exam.
When looking at relatively less-expensive training materials, such as self-paced videos, books, and practice exams, consider using a mix of vendor and third-party training. This approach can give you a better-rounded perspective on the subject matter.
A cautionary note: If you find a third-party training option that offers wildly lower pricing than the vendor equivalent, approach it with the same circumspection you would apply to any other “too good to be true” deal.
It’s important to do some online research when attempting to determine the validity and quality of any third-party certification training option. In fact, consider contacting the company directly to ask why they aren’t an authorized partner of the certifying body.
How much money should you spend on training?
The glib answer is, “As much as you can afford.” Like most simple answers, there is a nugget of good advice to take here. Certification training is like any other education choice — you should weigh the benefits of a particular training option against the dent it’s going to put in your wallet.
That said, the question of what type of learner you are (which we discussed earlier) is going to be a factor in the cost of your training. A text-based learner may be able to gain all the knowledge they need to successfully challenge an exam by purchasing a number of tech books and study guides. This is a relatively inexpensive training option.
A more expensive option may be self-paced online courses which come with both visual and auditory components, which will appeal to those types of learners. And then there are “full meal” deals which combine instructor-led classes, hands-on labs, textbooks and printed handouts, and practice exam simulations. These premium training experiences have something to offer every type of learner, but they usually come with a premium price tag attached.
Besides consideration of what learner type you are, here are some other factors that can impact the cost of your certification training:
Difficulty: What is the experience level — beginner, advanced, expert — of the certification you want to take? Generally, the more advanced the certification, the greater the need for advanced training. Does it involve taking a single exam or multiple exams? Multiple-exam certifications are going to require more training.
Complexity: Is it more of a generalist certification or a highly-specialized credential? The more specialized a certification is, the fewer people there are creating training content for it, which limits the availability of training selections.
Intern to Learn: Some certification candidates may be able to take advantage of a unique low-cost source of training: taking an internship with a business or non-profit organization. While most such internships are unpaid, they can be an excellent source of on-the-job training that would normally cost money.
Volunteer: The same benefits can be found by performing volunteer work for charities, or perhaps volunteering to work at tech company trade shows in your area. These settings provide valuable training opportunities, as well as an oft-overlooked bonus: They look great on a résumé.
One last consideration: What is the potential value of the IT certification you want to earn? Certification training is an investment in your personal skills and knowledge, which should translate to greater value in the workplace. One yardstick that measures the comparative and relative value of various IT certifications, is industry surveys such as Certification Magazine‘s own annual Salary Survey.
How much time will it take to prepare?
Earlier, we talked about your optimal learning approach, and mentioned that how you best learn will impact how long it will take to prepare for your exam. Broadly speaking, the certification process can be broken down into three phases:
1) Train to learn the new knowledge and skills.
2) Prepare to master the certification exam.
3) Take the exam and pass it.
The training component timeframe will be largely determined by your optimal learning method and its related speed of processing. Reading textbooks and taking down notes may take longer than watching a series of training videos, or performing a number of hands-on lab exercises.
Your training schedule may also be influenced by the expectations of your current employer — or the urgency of a potential new employer. If your manager or a hiring agent gives you a hard deadline for achieving a given certification, then you will need to take this into account when choosing from your training and exam prep options.
Like certification training, exam preparation also comes with a time commitment — that is, it should come with a time commitment. Taking a certification exam requires a far different skill set from being a capable IT professional. How to challenge a certification exam is beyond the scope of this article, but you will want to spend some time working on your exam-taking skills, as well as being sure that you know what sort of items (or questions) you will encounter on the exam.
Once you have set a duration for your certification training and exam preparation, it’s time to call or go online and book your certification exam. This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but there’s a good reason to do so. Too many certification candidates have trained and prepared until they are at their peak readiness, only to discover there is a weeks- (or even months-) long wait for to book your exam.
Don’t assume you can book a certification exam at a date and time of your choosing. Exam availability varies based on where you live, the company that delivers the exam, whether you can take the exam at home or must travel to a licensed test center, the popularity of the exam, and other unseen considerations. Some exams are only offered during specific windows in the calendar year.
The best way to handle this is to book your exam well in advance. Doing so will not only establish the overall duration of your training and preparation plan, it also provides a motivational point of reference. Having a set-in-stone exam date will reinforce your commitment to the final goal.
Ultimately, your training schedule is a series of steps meant to build momentum towards a final objective: a successful pass and a new certification under your belt. The amount of time you need will depend on your existing level of skill, the complexity of the certification’s knowledge base, the type of training you select, and how quickly you learn new knowledge and skills.
Conclusion: The more you know
How you best learn new information and skills should form the basis of choosing the certification training and exam preparation materials which are right for you. You can further use this information to help you set a budget, decide between vendor-based and third-party training materials, and determine an estimate of how much time you will need to fully prepare for your big day at the exam center.