This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
There are many different ways to prepare for a certification exam. Different people prefer different methods. Let's consider a handful of the most common approaches. Most people will focus on at least one of these techniques, and many will combine two or more:
- Books and study guides
- Instructor-led training classes
- Self-directed web-based courseware
- Workplace training
- Learn by doing (the sink-or-swim approach)
- Product documentation (the read-the-manual approach)
- Peer study groups
- MOOCs or online university courses
- Take the test and plan for a retake
In the world of IT certification, in most cases, the test taker must pass a high-stakes exam, meaning the test is either proctored or observed. There are also performance-based exams where students submit their work, which is then reviewed by a panel with a set of criteria to judge by. We'll go in-depth on the former and touch upon the latter towards the end of this article.
Associate- or entry-level exams
At the heart of the matter is passing the exam, and it is important to understand the nature and composition of the exam being attempted. If there is an entry-level exam where no experience is necessary, then taking the recommended training or studying a supporting book should be quite enough to pass. In fact, most associate-level exams are designed in this way and offer a great starting point for a new career path.
Passing this type of exam shows an ability to comprehend and learn, which is something most employers look for: potential for growth is always enticing. For the sponsoring company or association that is offering the certification, associate-level exams can be a great indication of the pipeline or talent pool available, an indicator of the health of the technology, software, or product the exam is tied to.
In this case, an instructor-led course tied to an associate-level exam — meaning all the test objectives are covered — generally offers the quickest route to certification, albeit also the most expensive. Live instructor training has many advantages over self-guided learning, but cost is certainly a factor.
Let's now shift our focus to exams that recommend candidates have a minimum of 1-to-2 years' experience in order to pass. This applies to many meaningful exams in the IT space.
Once you have identified the credential you wish to pursue, the first thing to do is to look at the exam objectives. These objectives clearly spell out what is covered in the exam and should present a strong picture of what you will need to know in order to pass.
After reviewing the objectives, you will know what your knowledge gaps are. Now the question becomes how best to fill them in. If hands-on experience is what it takes to ramp up knowledge and skills, then a course that incorporates live exercises with hands-on equipment is the best way fill that gap. Learning this way should also enhance your skills.
Scenario-based questions typically require practical experience to process and answer the question. Those exams will end up having the most value in the marketplace and for you. By performing the exercises, what were once confusing questions now become quite clear.
Peer study groups are also an outstanding way to learn, and hopefully you are in a workplace that has such offerings. If you are lucky enough to know of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who helped create the exam, and can give insight to the exam, seek them out. It's even better if they lead your study group.
Do bear in mind that SMEs have signed a non-disclosure agreement and cannot tell you what the questions are. What they can do is explain the test objectives and give advice about the best way to learn and prepare.
Learn by doing
If reading and studying a book is all you need to do to pass an exam, then the exam is most likely for an entry-level certification. For all other exams, hands-on learning that let you work directly with the technologies or products the exam addresses will always ensure best results. There is simply no substitute for direct hands-on experience.
If you work in IT or a related industry, then you can often prepare for a certification exam simply by carrying out your required job duties. Learning on the job is a great way to go, though you should bear in mind that it may keep you focused on just one area of technology expertise. That could result in your not having the wider scope of knowledge needed to excel in your role.
If you want an example of what one company did to get more than 50 people certified, including steps taken and methods employed, there is a great write-up available here.
Before we tackle the pros and cons of each of the study or preparation methods listed above, remember that it is always important to know the level of experience recommended or required by the company or organization that offers the exam. That should always inform the manner and intensity of your preparation.
Pros and cons
Books and Study Guides: If you are an experienced professional in the technology or product for which you are seeking certification, then your best bet is to go review the exam objective to see where you might have knowledge gaps.
A good scenario-based quiz or test, one with 2-to-5 sentences giving information to be parsed, will identify any weaknesses in your skill and knowledge set. Exam objectives can almost always be found in study guides prepared by the organization or company that sponsors your desired certification.
Books are a solid source for learning in certain IT disciplines, such as core programming languages. Understanding what works and does not work in terms of coding is a key to any programmer's success. If a book will help you in your job, then buy it. At the very least it will serve as a reference volume for questions you encounter while preparing for certification.
If you are new to the discipline in which you hope to certify, or if you want to branch out into another technical area, then exam study guides are essential. They will let you know what information you need to master and walk you through the learning process.
While we're still in the realm of printed study materials, flash cards are a great tool for exam preparation, especially regarding multiple-choice exams, which are quite common in IT certification and typically require extensive memorization. Flash cards can be created from any number of sources. Both writing out flash cards and drilling with them will help you remember key points of emphasis.
Peer Study Groups and Forums: If a peer study group or forum is focusing on just exam questions, then it may get you through a memorization-based test — one that the marketplace will likely determine has little value. What you need from a peer group is understanding. Test your knowledge by creating a sandbox and see what happens when you create a solution.
If your peers are sharing what they did with their sandboxes, and explaining how things worked, then you have found a great forum. It may be a great place for continued learning, too. GitHub, to cite just one example, is a great place to both contribute and learn from. GitHub is mostly used to host and share code, but it can also be a great learning resource.
With respect to programming-related certifications in the open source space, it would also be good to study the product code base. This nicely complements with learning from code on GitHub.
Please do keep in mind that sharing of test questions, should you encounter groups where this is offered, is considered cheating by certification providers.
Instructor-Led Training: This is one of the best methods to prepare oneself for actual IT work. If the course you are taking supports an exam, so much the better — you can only enhance your chances of passing. Some exams recommend (or occasionally require) taking more than one instructor-led class in addition to having a certain level of experience.
There are some classes that lead directly to a performance-based test or lab exam, or to a take-home exam that requires hands-on efforts to create solutions. These courses, and the exams they support, usually will also require that you first pass a high-stakes written exam.
In most cases, however, attending a class will not lead directly to certification, though you may receive a certificate of completion. Such certificates can be helpful when looking for an entry-level position, but your main objective in taking any instructor-led class should be to learn and prepare for a certification exam.
Price is always a concern here, and if your employer offers to pay for you to attend an instructor-led course, jump on it. Even if the class is taught online, interacting with an instructor can be invaluable. Remember also that instructor-led courses should always emphasize completing exercises, as opposed to simply listening while someone lectures.
Study Group Test Prep Course: Group-based courses are also something to look for. They are usually spread out over several weeks, with the instructor introducing and explaining the exam objectives. The instructor will also cover some core content related to the exam objectives and then assign an exercise to be completed during the week.
Each student turns in his or her solutions to the instructor, who reviews their work during class. Other students also get to see what work was done and hear comments from the instructor. Only students who attempt a solution, however, are given the recommended solution put together for the course. In this way, students are forced to do hands-on learning, the single best was to study for an exam.
On-the-Job Training: This is by far the easiest way to learn, provided that you are seeking to become certified in technologies and products required for your job. Exams are tied to real world scenarios, so you should be able to quickly determine where the gaps in your knowledge are. Bouncing your problems and solutions off of a peer study group can also be a big help here.
Self-Directed Web-Based Courseware: Depending on how you learn, this can be a great way to study, especially if the courseware has exercises that challenge you. If the course depends on a lab environment, that may be a challenge to put in place. Virtual or simulated environments can be particularly helpful in this case, but they do limit exploration and finding different ways to come up with solutions.
The key to web-based courseware is whether or not it is engaging. Look for reviews. Do you fall asleep during this kind of learning? Carve out time in the morning if you do. Great self-paced learning can be hard to find. If there are instructor hours tied to a self-directed web-based course, that is a good offer to take advantage of.
Product Documentation: This is always a great source for information and a supplement to real-world experience. In some cases, it might also be the only study material you can easily get your hands on. Some exams are based entirely on real-world scenarios, but those must have a reference, and the reference is usually production documentation.
If an area of an exam is important and there is no product documentation, a white paper would need to be produced to support the exam. These white papers would then become your best resource for exam preparation.
MOOCs or Online University Courses: These types of courses are designed for large audiences and generally serve to facilitate base-level learning. If they are sponsored by a major certification program who can afford to put them together, do take advantage.
MOOCs and online university courses also provide certificates of course completion. These are not generally regarded as being the equal of a certification, but they can certainly help to open some doors for you in your career.
Take the Test, Then Retake If Needed: If you think you are ready to take the exam after reading the exam objectives, then sometimes the best option is to just schedule an exam slot and go for it. If you don't pass, then your exam results should clearly identify where to focus your learning for the retake.
Certification providers who participate in large events such as conferences or conventions often offer a certification testing room at the event. Where such rooms are available, there is almost always a significant exam discount to encourage people considering the exam to attend to conference or convention. Take advantage.
In the end, no matter how you study for it, passing a well-constructed high-stakes certification exam is an achievement to be proud of. It can also be a difference maker that launches or enhances your IT career. Good luck!