This feature first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
There are good reasons why the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) approach to preparing for IT certification is popular. It costs much less, offers more flexibility, and allows you to set your own pace. Add to that the freedom to devise the right mix of learning styles and material. In short, self-study has helped many achieve certification. With application, discipline, and knowledge, you too can make it work to your advantage.
With instructor-led training (ILT) generally being the most expensive mode of preparation, self-study is the preferred option for those who want to keep costs down, as well as manage their own training. This of course requires a high degree of self-motivation and discipline.
Choosing the right combination of study aids, however, is also important. To make the right choice, you need to discern which tools and methods help you learn best. People understand new concepts and retain knowledge in different ways.
Devising the right self-study strategy is crucial to success in certification exams. No matter which mode of preparation you opt for, be sure to get some hands-on training. All IT professionals must learn through practical experience gained by working on real-world problems.
Cost — This is a key advantage of the DIY approach, and the reason why many candidates choose to self-manage their certification training. As noted by certification guru Ed Tittel, “Self-study usually costs about 20 percent less than (instructor-led training).”
You don’t have to limit your view to a 20 percent savings margin, of course. Well-informed and proactive candidates who devote time to finding the best resources available, at affordable prices, can put together an effective study kit for considerably less.
Flexibility — Another major positive is the freedom to study at your own pace, as well as dictate the focus and emphasis of your training. This ensures that your work schedule doesn’t suffer, and that you don’t “fall behind.” Unlike ILT, self-study doesn’t require you to attend classes according to a set schedule, or follow an instructor’s program.
Variety and Adaptability — If you’re in charge of your own training, you can choose the most suitable resources from a range of study tools. There are plenty of options available, and you have the freedom to select study guides, labs, practice tests, and other media according to your needs and preferences.
The self-study approach also allows for customization. You can choose study guides in electronic or print format, for example, or turn to other media to suit your learning style and learn at your own pace.
Control — When you opt for self-study, you are in control of your study strategy, choice of tools and materials, and schedule. When you opt for an ILT approach, the entire program is managed by the provider and instructor.
Structure — Self-study is not suitable for those who need direction and some degree of accountability. The DIY mode favors self-motivated and disciplined candidates. This is not the best option for people who struggle to summon the determination and discipline to self-manage their certification preparation.
Guidance — DIY candidates can also miss out on the invaluable guidance and knowledge that well-regarded instructors have to offer. While all instructors are not equally knowledgeable and dedicated, those who are well-trained and focused can be a true boon to their students.
Choose the right self-study materials
Certification aspirants have a wide range of self-study materials to choose from. Most prefer a combination of two or more tools. Your emphasis should be on selecting materials that best help you learn what you need to know, understand concepts, and retain knowledge. In order to select the right media, you need to discern which learning style suits you best.
You must also factor in your budget and the extent of subject-specific knowledge and experience you have when selecting study materials. Consider what you already know, what you need to learn, and the best way to learn.
Spend some time researching various DIY media, as well as the plethora of printed materials available. You also need to search online for ratings and reviews, and weigh past user experience to arrive at a comparison.
Professionals who have earned the certifications you intend pursuing are one of the best sources to tap in your search for the right learning aids and resources. Membership in a good online certification study group that has been around for some time can open up a wealth of information and advice. You will gain access to genuine reviews and ratings of study materials, tips on how to study, and exam-related advice.
Get as much information as you can before making your decision on study materials. As Tittel observed a few years ago, “In most cases, self-study revolves around purchase of a Study Guide, an Exam Cram, and a set of practice tests.”
Rating self-study media
Study Guides — These are comprehensive books designed to enable the reader to develop a deep understanding of the subject. A reliable study guide doesn’t just list the particulars of exam topics and focus on memorization.
You should also look for in-depth explanation of concepts and guidance about operating procedures, policies, and processes. A good guide also includes coverage of related concepts, as well as examples of real-world workplace challenges. You aren’t just preparing for a test; this is also job training.
For most aspiring exam candidates, a study kit is incomplete without at least one good study guide. Study guides are available as eBooks and in print. You can take your pick depending on whether you like the feel of turning pages, making notes, and marking specific passages that you want to revisit, or would prefer the convenience of accessing content on a range of devices.
Pros — Study guides cover the subject of the exam in exhaustive detail and are indispensable for those who are new to the topic.
Cons — Guides are typically dense and often highly technical. The bigger guides range in length from 800 to 1,500 pages. You will be committing yourself to doing a great deal of reading, and must be able to visualize and understand complex concepts.
Exam Crams — As the term suggests, exam crams are designed to help candidates pass exams. Available in print and eBook formats, these volumes contain exam-focused content and outline strategies for preparation.
Pros — Exam crams are suitable for professionals with substantial topic-specific experience and knowledge. You are likely to be best served if you just need a quick and clear-cut exam refresher.
Cons — Unlike their beefier cousin, study guides, exam crams do not explain concepts, nor do they teach you how to solve problems in real-world situations. Candidates who are not already familiar with the topic should not rely on exam crams alone.
Online Training Tools — Web- or media-based training platforms usually provide a mix of text-based lessons, virtual labs, and training videos, with quizzes and practice tests included for review. You can generally access everything online via a laptop or desktop PC.
Pros — Web-based training is perhaps most suitable for those who prefer the self-study model but don’t have the time to research and assemble a suitable self-study kit. The all-inone packaging can simplify your exam preparation efforts considerably.
Cons — Beyond having the freedom to pick and choose what you study (and review), online training generally doesn’t allow for customization, and may not be suitable for those who want to mix lesson material with true hands-on preparation. You’re also dependent on the provider for adequate coverage of topics.
Flash Cards — Available both in physical and electronic form, flashcards are a quick review tool comprising questions and answers. You can either get a set of physical cards with the question on one side and the answer on the reverse, or find them online. It is handy to have these on your smartphone so that you can use them anytime.
Pros — Flash cards are popular because they are very convenient for a quick review of what you’ve learned and can help identify areas that need deeper study. They are also inexpensive. For some exams, free flashcards are available online.
Cons — You aren’t going to get a lot of depth of study and learning from flash cards. They are best used in combination with other exam preparation materials.
Physical Labs — For certain fields of study, including cybersecurity, programming, Linux, networking, and hardware repair, it can be highly instructive to allocate time and money to hands-on study with actual computer equipment.
You can learn a lot from shopping around for new or used PCs and laptops, servers, routers, switches, and other hardware, and then putting it all together so that you see exactly how everything works. It’s also often easier to understand and internalize concepts and procedures while working through steps using actual software and/or websites.
While full lab kits are available, these can be relatively expensive. If you know what you want, however, and are willing to look around, it’s possible to assemble a good lab for much less. You can sometimes also gain access to labs at colleges and universities, either through independent learning programs or for a nominal fee. You can also build skills using live equipment by volunteering at various organizations.
Pros — In the aforementioned study areas, a good physical lab is often the best means of acquiring and retaining a sound working knowledge of exam subject matter.
Cons — While a good homemade lab can serve many study and learning needs over time, the cost of equipment and the time involved in gathering and assembling components can be prohibitive for many.
Virtual Labs — Online or simulation-based labs are suitable for candidates who need lab experience but cannot afford physical labs. You can either access a virtual lab online for a fee, or buy a decent simulator program, for far less than a physical lab.
High-end online training platforms (discussed above) often incorporate many elements of a good virtual lab. Indeed, a training tool that does not include at least some level of simulation of live equipment may not be worth your time.
Pros — Virtual labs can save both time and money.
Cons – While virtual labs are a viable alternative to physical labs for some exams with a practical component, many would agree that a physical lab is the best option for advanced credentials.
Online Certification Community — Joining the right online community is a great move and is quite likely to work to your advantage. You will not only learn about a wide range of study tools available (along with useful ratings and reviews), but also participate in discussions of real-world challenges.
Friends can help you work through solutions to problems and labs, thereby deepening your understanding of the subject. An active and fairly large community also helps you to stay focused and on schedule. And it’s nice to be part of a community and engage with your peers, rather than working solo all the time.
Pros — A strong study group of people either pursuing, or who have already pursued, the credentials you aspire to is a definite asset. It can help you select the right materials for your study kit, sharpen your grasp of concepts, and provide valuable input and tips from those who have taken the same exams.
An active community of professionals with similar interests is an invaluable source of knowledge, support, and mentoring.
Cons — This can be among the most self-directed of the many self-directed options presented here. You won’t get any of the benefits if you don’t actively engage with other people.
Practice Tests — This study tool is an essential part of almost every certification candidate’s self-study kit. A standard practice test normally consists of a minimum of two or three full certification exams, enabling you to answer a complete set of questions just as you would at a testing center.
Working through two or three sets of questions and answers within the stipulated time aggressively prepares you for the real test.
Pros — Practice tests are perhaps the most effective means of gauging a candidate’s exam-taking ability and knowledge of exam content. Apart from the tests for the more expensive exams, most practice tests are reasonably priced.
Cons — You should never rely on practice tests alone for exam preparation, as you aren’t likely to develop a well-rounded understanding of concepts and subject matter.
Everyone is doing IT
For certifications that don’t require ILT courses, self-study is widely preferred. You can adapt your training to suit your schedule and focus on your efforts on the learning methods you personally find most effective.
If you are ready to manage your own training, work hard, and have enough time and money, then you should be able to achieve your certification goals.