This feature first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Certifications have long been a way to quickly gain new technical skills, validate existing technical competencies, increase marketability with employers, and (of course) improve one's outlook when it comes to future earning power. The requirements to obtain certifications can vary widely and frequently involve training, experience, exams, or a combination of all three.
None of this happens in a vacuum and study materials, training courses, and exam fees can become costly, with fees that run from the nominal into the thousands of dollars. If you're like me, then you want to prep once and pass your certification exam the first time around. To that end, choosing the right study materials can be key.
We live in a wonderfully flexible time when it comes to training — boot camps, free courseware, online instructor-led courses, classrooms, self-paced courses — the choices abound. Even with all these great options available, reading is still frequently cited as being among the most preferred study approaches. Some of us, it would seem, still want (and need) a good old-fashioned study guide.
Personally, there is something absolutely satisfying about a physical study guide that you can hold in your hand, mark up, write in the margins, dog-ear favorite pages, and decorate with color-coded sticky notes! Ahh! Can you smell the paper and ink? (And yes, I know they're available in digital format!)
Of course, as with all training and exam prep materials, choosing the right study guide for you (whether in paper or digital format) is critical to success. I conducted a quick search on Amazon.com for CompTIA A+� and found more than 1,000 related books and study guides.
With so many options available, how do you pick the one that is going to give you the most bang for your buck and help you ace that certification exam the first time? Let's take a closer look at some tips to help narrow the playing field:
1) Look to the certification provider. Many certification providers produce their own study guides. Who better to prepare you to pass the exam than the same team that wrote it? The certification provider, after all, should be the de facto expert when it comes to exam topics.
While not all cert providers write their own in-house study guides, it's definitely worth checking to see whether the people who created the cert you have in your sights also created an accompanying study guide. Also, many certification providers make study guides available for free or at reduced rates, which can save you some money on your certification journey.
2) Who does the certification provider endorse or approve? As indicated above, not all certification providers develop their own study guides in-house. They do, however, often endorse materials from approved training providers, partners, or individuals. When in-house study guides aren't available from the provider, check out who they endorse and see what study guides those groups offer.
3) Check Amazon sales rankings. Unless you're buying directly from the certification provider, Amazon is still a great place to buy books. It's also a great place to quickly and easily find out how the study guide that you're interested in stacks up against the competition. A strong sales rank doesn't necessarily mean you've found the best study guide, but sales rank can often be a telling indication of quality.
Sales rank information can be found in the Product Details section on the study guide's product page. For example, when searching for CompTIA A+ study guides, you can easily see that Mike Meyers' CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, 10th Edition, is listed as a best seller with a four-star rating.
Look more closely and you can see that it's ranked No. 866 in all books, No. 1 in CompTIA Certification Guides, No. 1 in Linux Certification Guides, and No. 1 in LANS. That's definitely a worthy candidate! (Note: Amazon updates their rankings on a weekly basis so the information is fairly current.)
4) Read reviews. Remember that four-star rating mentioned above for the CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide? This rating comes directly from customer reviews. Read customer reviews. Here, you can learn how well the study guide worked for other certification candidates just like you.
5) Know your author's qualifications. When in doubt, or when choosing between two seemingly worthwhile study guides, take a few minutes to read the author's bio and check out their qualifications. If the author graduated from college three years ago, worked a year, spent their second year studying for a certification, and the third year writing the study guide, then run away!
Chances are that such wet-behind-the-ears opportunists lack the requisite experience to provide meaningful insight into the subject matter. On the other hand, if the author has 20 years of experience and has written 37 books (32 of which were best sellers), then you're almost certainly in good hands and can proceed with confidence.
6) Organization matters. Take a close look at how the study guide is organized. Many certifications test on various domains. Does the author group materials by general subject matter, or is the text organized by exam domains? Perhaps some combination of the two? For testing purposes, you will more effectively learn and retain needed information by using guides that are closely mapped to certification exam outlines.
7) Get in on the optional extras. Many publishers issue a code at the time of purchase that provides online access to additional learning aids such as flash cards, sample test questions, practice exams and more. This is a huge plus when it comes to preparing for the certification exam. In selecting your study guide, check out what extras, if any, are offered as a part of the purchase. (And remember to use them!)
Also, some publishers will make the study guide available in multiple formats (paper, eBook, audiobook). If offered, it can be useful to have the book in more than one format for ease of studying on the go.
How Much Time Do I Need to Study?
Remember, that study guides are of no help if you don't allow adequate time to prepare for the exam. Certification exams are intense and designed to dig deep and validate how well you know the material. Cramming the night before the big exam isn't likely to yield a successful outcome, so always allow plenty of time to study.
How much time do you need? That's a hard one to answer as it depends on how well you know the material and how difficult the exam is. A foundation or entry-level exam should take less time to prepare for than a more advanced, senior-level credential. Also, candidates who are very experienced and well-versed in the technology should require less study time than a person who is truly learning the materials for the first time.
First, always check with the certification provider and follow their guidelines, if available, regarding the amount of study time required. Absent guidance from them, allow one to three months of study for an entry-level cert exam, depending on your experience and familiarity with the subject matter. Double this time for intermediate-level exams and so forth.
Studying long-term for an exam can be daunting. To get the most out of your study guide, create a written study plan. Choose your target exam date and create a plan that includes when you need to start studying, how much time you will spend studying, and which modules you need to cover (and by when). Add in extra time for the little unexpected events that can (and will) interfere with your study time. Once you have your plan, stick to it!
Remember, not all study guides are created equal so look for ones that have good reviews and rankings and are written by established authors and publishers. Also, don't overlook those extra learning aids. They can be invaluable!