Evaluating different methods of preparing for a certification exam, Part 1
Posted on
February 13, 2023

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Note: To read Part 2 In this series, click here.

What's the best way to prepare for a certification exam? We're glad you asked!

Discipline has always been a defining element of success. And discipline is critical to any individual effort to prepare for and pass an IT certification exam. Bear that in mind as we consider a handful of different study and training methods. No matter what works best for you, commitment and persistence are essential to success.

Each of the following of the following exam preparation methods can secure a passing score:

1) Self-study using books, guides, and other reading or listening material
2) Instructor-led classes, whether in-person or via streaming
3) Boot camps that focus on intense training over a short period
4) Product documentation for vendor-specific technologies
5) On-the-job training (where you prepare and get a paycheck, too)

Different approaches work well for different individuals. Let's look at each of these methods and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.


One of the most effective approaches for me is self-study using guides, books, flashcards — all reading material. If you are a visual learner or a time-box learner, then this may be your most effective form of learning.

It's important to note here (and this topic could be its own article) that you should figure out what kind of learner you are and what method of learning works best for you. I am a visual learner and book learning works best for me. Having learned this a long time ago, I use it to my advantage in setting myself up for success. That said, there are a few things that work best for self-study.

First is organization. You must have everything you want to study right in front of you and in a place where it is easily accessible. If the study material is organized into lesson plans, then only break out the plans you intend to cover.

Next, pay attention. How many things can distract you? Do you have things to do at work that will weigh on you, and that you should address? Free your mind, your desktop, your computer, and your working area from distractions and pay attention. For me, a study area is a place in my house I go to study. It has proven to be one of the most effective things I have ever done.

No noise, nothing that can cause my mind to drift. I cannot listen to music when I study, so no music. Even though your study material is not directly shareable, self-studying may still benefit from group activities. Have a friend, or spouse, or partner quiz you. Read aloud to your dog, or to a photo on the wall. Don’t be afraid to try new tactics to see what you like.

One of the biggest weaknesses or drawbacks to this type of studying is cost. A lot of study material is free and self-study guides are sometimes downloadable. You can still rack up some high costs buying books, quizzes, and other self-study materials. And books and the like may also add clutter once you're done with them.

Instructor-led classes

What's the best way to prepare for a certification exam? We're glad you asked!

If you are an individual who loves to interact with others, then instructor-led classes may suit your tastes. There are so many benefits to being taught by a real live human. The best and perhaps the most obvious benefit to instructor-led learning is the interaction — it provides an open dialogue with another human.

Sometimes you may have questions that are easier asked than looked up, or you may simply learn more effectively watching and listening to an expert. Discussing IT topics with an instructor and classmates will often prompt questions you might not otherwise think of, or enhance learning in a way that's difficult to replicate when studying solo.

Another obvious benefit is that classroom learning is flexible but rigid — meaning that you must have other things in your life deprioritized in order to go to class (or attend remotely). It’s also free from distractions since you aren’t going to be taking out the trash while you are in class. Multitasking during class is harder to do.

The main drawback here is the same described above for self-study, which is cost. For an instructor-led course, the cost can be considerably higher than for similar materials that are self-paced. Make sure you are serious when taking a paid course, and that you get a solid return on investment. In other words, get the cert.

Boot camps

If a certification is mission critical for your current job, or has proven a particularly tough nut to crack, then you might consider a boot camp. These are high-cost, total commitment courses that can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Boot camps used to frequently involve travel and lodging, and some still do. If you go this route, look into the possibility of cost-sharing with your employer.

I have never been a fan of this particular learning environment, but you can’t argue with the results. Boot camps are quite often offered on a pay-to-pass basis and from what I've seen and heard, people usually pass. I've even had a few people take these as company-sponsored initiatives.

Their experience was to take a PMP practice exam to gauge their skill level, then take an instructor-led course for two weeks, then take the real test at the end. If you didn’t pass, and a couple didn’t, they would let you take the course again, at cost, until you passed.

Some boot camps do not have a certification at the end — they are intended to help learners kickstart a new career or pick up a new skill set. I have had a lot of teammates take coding boot camps to learn a new coding language, sometimes to use as leverage to get a higher-paying position.

The drawbacks to the boot camp method of getting a certification are commitment, length of study, and cost. Boot camps often involve setting aside a large chunk of time and spending it at the boot camp. Some boot camps run as long as 12 weeks.

Boot camps are also viewed by many as not being conducive to long-term learning. You may be immersed in the subject, but critics argue that there isn’t enough time to fully comprehend what you are learning, and that anyone can pass a test simply by regurgitating a set of heavily drilled answers. Finally, boot camps tend to carry a hefty price tag.

Product documentation

What's the best way to prepare for a certification exam? We're glad you asked!

This method of studying for certification has actually gotten better in recent years. Not too long ago, most product documentation wasn’t robust enough to really learn the ins and outs (and nuts and bolts) of a given software or hardware. You could only learn how to use the product to accomplish particular tasks.

Once upon a time, this method frequently produced exam candidates who would know how to do things, but who couldn’t practically apply any of that knowledge in everyday situations. If they took a certification exam, they could sometimes pass, but would only truly be “paper certified” — they tended not to excel in practical, real-world scenarios.

Times have changed, and so has product documentation and product certifications. The documentation has evolved into online resources like Snowflake University (operated by cloud computing and data management provider Snowflake) where companies have created tests and real-world scenarios built into their software.

This methodology builds real-world experience and comes packaged with the product itself. Many companies that offer product certification have started to focus their exams on real-world scenarios, rather than just questions. For some vendors and some products, this is fast becoming the best way to prepare for a certification exam.

The only real drawback here is that new-style product documentation typically only trains learners on the way a particular tool was intended to be used. I believe that applying creative thinking to everyday problems is an invaluable IT skill. In that sense, you might not get the most holistic results from product documentation training alone.

On-the-job training

This one is an all-time favorite approach for me and certainly one that I have utilized extensively. There have been many instances where I went and took a certification exam after being on the job for a year. If you can get the job, and you can do the job, then it’s a no-brainer. Honestly, I don’t see any downsides to this type of certification preparation.

Indeed, some advanced IT certifications have built-in work experience requirements. You can kill two birds with one stone, deepening and enriching your skill set while gaining the required experience and collecting a paycheck to boot. (Did we just kill three birds with that stone?) You can take as much time as you need to prepare, and employers often won't hesitate to pay for an exam that they know from firsthand experience you are capable of passing.

Stick IT out

What's the best way to prepare for a certification exam? We're glad you asked!

No matter what your approach, remember to use discipline in pursuing it. If you want to pass a certification exam, you will need to research the exam objectives, as well as the exam format, to have a clear sense of the target you want to hit. Knowing what to expect will give focus to your preparation and give you peace of mind when taking the actual exam.

Be sure to optimize your daily schedule so that you have time to study every day. I am a time-box studier, so every day I study at the same time, in the same place. Don't hesitate to mix and match: A combination of formal training and studying from multiple resources will ensure your preparation is well-rounded and effective.

Always practice — take practice tests often. On the day of your exam, eat a good breakfast and get plenty of sleep. Arrive at the testing center (when there is one) at least half an hour early. Have the right identification with you. Before taking the exam, be sure to clear your mind and relax.

Performance anxiety is mostly a mental hurdle. Just remind yourself that your beating heart is a sign that you are ready to tackle the challenge. It’s OK to miss a question, or guess when you need to. Many certifications don’t penalize incorrect answers. If you don’t know an answer, try to rule out some of the options. Skip difficult questions and go back to them at the end of the test.

If you are disciplined in your approach, then it doesn’t matter what study and training approach you use — you will be successful. As always, I wish you the best of luck. Happy certifying!

About the Author
Nathan Kimpel

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills includes finance, as well as ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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