Master your next certification in just 15 minutes a day
Posted on
March 24, 2016

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Can you study effectively for certification in just 15 minutes per day?

There are just some journeys we have to walk alone. Ask any woman who is expecting a child, and she will tell you that she is not looking forward to the next nine months of body changes and the ultimate pain of childbirth. Once the child is in there, of course, it has to come out — and the mother knows it's up to her alone to get through the experience. But the rewards are so amazing at the end of all that labor. A new life!

Wait a minute. Is this Certification Magazine or Mother & Baby? What's going on here? Having had both experiences, I can tell you that they are actually quite similar. They both take a great deal of preparation, but at the end of the journey the rewards are life-changing.

Preparing for a certification exam may not be the most pleasant way to spend your off-hours, but putting in the time increases the probability of passing. Having passed more than 30 cert exams myself, I can tell you that the pain of studying can ultimately be as rewarding as childbirth — if you do it right.

Consider your return on investment (ROI), the amount that you contribute in time, money and sanity. What is motivating you to get this certification? (And please don't say money.) Dig deep to discover that answer, and you will probably list your career, your self-esteem, and your desire to be considered a SME (Subject Matter Expert) in that area. If your ROI is not particularly high, choose another cert.

Plot your strategy

Start preparing today to pass your exam. Yes, today! I would actually suggest yesterday, but let's not dwell on regret.

Each person's reason for pursuing certification is unique. Your employer may be offering a promotion and will pay for all of your cert fees while encouraging on-the-job study time. But what of the person who must foot the bill for study materials, exam fees, and study time to land a job? In both scenarios, a certification strategy is vital.

There are hundreds of certifications, so what is your plan? Do you desire a Cisco track? Are you planning to knock out some CompTIA certs first? Are you into networking or programming or hardware or IT project management? What vendor will provide the highest ROI for your goals? Microsoft? Citrix? HP? Oracle? Decide now what track you'll pursue and set goals for yourself to complete that track.

A realistic target is to earn two certifications per calendar year. You can do more depending upon your time and financial resources. If you are working full time, your opportunities for meaningful study time are limited. If you're a full-time student, consider your current course load. If you're a parent, respect the demands of family.

Make a study strategy

I was quite the musician when I was in high school, earning awards for my skills on the bassoon, flute, piano and guitar. One of the lessons my smart mother taught me was to limit my practice sessions to 15 minutes. Before school each day, she'd require that I practice piano for 15 minutes — no more.

Even if I wanted to practice longer, I wasn't permitted. She'd set a timer and then make sure I was emitting mistakes and repeating passages over and over. I couldn't play pieces I'd already mastered. The 15 minutes flew by, but here's the strange part: I got better throughout the day when I was nowhere near a piano.

While I was earning my master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction, I learned what my educated mother already knew about learning. Our brains continue to "practice" while we're away from the material. Those 15 minutes were enough to keep my brain practicing all day, so that when I practiced the next morning, I was even better than when I had ended my session the day before. The mind is an incredible thing!

The same goes for your certification studies. Don't block out hours and hours of study time, or tell yourself you're going to study this weekend and take the exam on Monday. Do a little each day. Your brain will process the information while you sip your morning latte, have lunch with a coworker, and exercise after work at the gym.

Know the exam objectives I have some questions for you, and you must get them correct to get a prize. What are the questions about? Oh, I'm not going to tell you that! You just have to be smart at everything to make sure you answer them correctly. This sounds absurd, doesn't it? Yet countless test candidates study for an exam without knowing what the exam vendor expects them to know.

Having a firm grasp of the exam objectives will actually help you answer an exam question. For instance, a CompTIA Network+ objective states that test candidates need to know wireless speeds of 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz. So when I see a question on the exam that asks me about wireless speeds, I will not be distracted by references to speeds other than 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz.

If you find yourself struggling with a test question, ask yourself what objective the question is satisfying. Throw out any wording that attempts to distract from that objective, and the answer will reveal itself like magic.

Study materials

There is a plethora of study materials available for almost every certification. The hard part is finding what study method works for you. I love to take practice exams, but I take them in a rather unorthodox manner. Let me explain.

First, I purchase a good set of practice exams, such as those from Transcender. Transcender will hammer me with questions from just one objective, and that's where the fun starts. Let's take the CompTIA Network+ certification exam, for example. This certification exam has the following weighted percentages associated with its five domain objectives:

  • 22 percent network architecture
  • 20 percent network operations
  • 18 percent network security
  • 24 percent troubleshooting
  • 16 percent industry standards, practices, and network theory

Step 1: When I launch Transcender, I see options to take all kinds of practice tests, but the tests in which I'm interested are centered on the exam objectives. I will configure Transcender to give me all of the questions in the first domain objective, network architecture.

Step 2: Let's say there are 100 questions in this domain alone. I start the test, but then I immediately end it. Transcender warns me that there are 100 questions that I have not yet answered. I click OK to end the test anyway. I then open that latest test attempt and get to work.

Step 3: I read the first question. Transcender tells me that the correct answer is A. I ask myself, "Would I have chosen A?" (Being honest with yourself can be tough.) If I answer yes, then I move on to the next question. If I answer no, I read the wealth of material that Transcender has provided at the bottom of my screen. This material not only explains why Answer A is correct but why B, C, D and E are not correct. I am learning.

Step 4: I repeat this process until I complete all 100 questions. It may take me days to finish those 100 questions since I'm only spending 15-30 minutes before my morning latte, but I am relentless. I am learning.

Step 5: After I have completed all 100 questions, I close that exam attempt. I now ask Transcender to give me the same 100 questions from the network architecture domain, but this time I actually take the exam. How much did I remember from my reading and studying? If I don't get every one of the 100 questions correct, I go back and study those topics in which I'm weak. If the Transcender content cannot penetrate my thick skull, I will find outside sources that will help me understand why the answer is A. I am learning.

Step 6: The first domain is done. I'm ready to move on to the network operations domain, and I start the process over. However, because of the nature of overlapping content in almost all IT subjects, I find I'm smarter now than when I started the first domain. I am able to complete all of the questions in each subsequent domain much more quickly. I am learning.

Can you study effectively for certification in just 15 minutes per day?

Step 7: After I have laboriously gone through every domain exam, I ask Transcender to give me a practice exam that jumbles all of the questions from all of the domains. If necessary, I work on my weak areas a bit more.

Step 8: Once I have taken roughly 10 Transcender exams from all of the domains, scoring 98 percent or higher on each, I feel I am ready to take the actual CompTIA Network+ exam.

Read questions backward

Whether you're taking a practice exam or sitting for the actual certification, read the questions backward. That is, quickly read the possible answers first, then read the stem (the actual question), then read the possible answers again.

Consider these possible answers for a question from the CompTIA Network+ exam:

a) ipconfig
b) ifconfig
c) nslookup
d) ARP

Because I know the exam objectives, I can safely deduce that the stem will be asking me about the best troubleshooting tool to use. As I read the stem, I am not distracted by superfluous information that does not relate to the possible answers I know are coming up.

What works for you?

Not everyone will agree with my particular study strategy. If you don't like the whole approach, pick and choose the parts that work for you. The important thing is to beg, borrow, and steal until you find the overall strategy that works for you. If you only take one thing away from my approach, however, learn to pace yourself. Whittle away at the content a bit each day. Slow and steady wins this race. Good luck!

About the Author

April Miller Cripliver holds a doctorate in Management Information Systems and has earned more than 25 computer certifications in networking, security, hardware and operating systems. She is a Subject Matter Expert for CompTIA and owns USER FRIENDLY CONNECTIONS, a computer consulting firm in northwest Indiana. Contact Dr. Cripliver at Info (at) UserFriendlyConnections (dot) com.

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