Self-directed certification exam preparation can pay big dividends if done well
Posted on
November 13, 2023

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

Many IT certification candidates choose to prepare for exams at their own pace and under their own direction. While some opt for self-study because they prefer it that way, others are unable to fund classroom training or find time to attend classes because they work full-time. A major advantage of this approach is flexibility.

Self-study is a good choice for self-motivated and disciplined learners who can work independently. With energy and commitment, a customized study plan, the right reading materials, and self-study tools, preparing on your own and passing a certification exam by a comfortable margin is well within your grasp.

Self-study options

There are a range of self-study materials available from major certification providers, authorized training partners, and other third-party training content creators. It is prudent to research the different options available before you select study materials.

People learn in different ways. Educational resources are available for all types of learning styles — auditory, kinetic, and visual. Identify study tools that suit your preferred mode of learning. A comprehensive and customized self-study kit comprising a variety of learning resources, including suitable self-study tools, is an invaluable exam prep aid.

Types of self-study resources include official study guides, eLearning solutions such as interactive flash cards and instructional videos, multiple-choice questions, digital self-assessment tools, virtual labs, official practice exams, podcasts, supplementary textbooks, eBooks, and other online content.

Free vs. paid

All leading certification providers offer both free and paid materials. These include traditional study guides and texts as well as the latest tools. You may have to register for your exam or become a member of a professional association or other group, to take advantage of free learning materials. Exam discounts are also available from some providers.

Let's look at a sampling of study and training materials available from leading global IT certification providers. CompTIA, a leading tech industry association, provides free practice test questions and book samples of study guides for all CompTIA certification exams. Exam objectives are also available. Paid learning resources from CompTIA include CertMaster Learn, CompTIA Labs, CertMaster Practice, and Official CompTIA Study Guides.

Networking hardware and software titan Cisco offers paid on-demand eLearning courses, labs, assessments, practice exams, and study bundles. Free podcasts, tutorials, videos, and other resources are available on Cisco U.

Cybersecurity professional association ISC2 offers Official ISC2 CISSP Online Self-Paced Training, a comprehensive self-paced study kit for the CISSP certification. This is a paid resource. ISC2 also offers free self-study tools, such as interactive flash cards and a basic plan for the Official CISSP Study App. You need to pay for the comprehensive plan.

Software giant Microsoft offers free practice assessments, which enable candidates to test their knowledge, revise and enhance understanding of weak areas, and become conversant with the format and difficulty level of Microsoft certification exams.

Cloud computing colossus Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers free materials, such as official practice question sets and exam prep courses. You need a subscription to obtain access to AWS Certification Official Practice Exams, labs, and additional practice questions. The self-study tool AWS Skill Builder is available for subscription.

Leading professional association Project Management Institute (PMI) offers members of PMI free access to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide and the Agile Practice Guide, both of which PMP certification aspirants need to read. PMI members can download these guides. PMI’s PMP Prepcast is a paid self-study podcast that includes an exam simulator.

Multinational tech titan IBM offers a wide range of IT certifications and provides numerous free and paid courses to help exam candidates prepare to get certified.

Choose the right resources

With self-paced learning, you are in charge, so it is important to ensure you have everything you need to optimize exam preparation. It is a good idea to research different options available and take a good look at all the self-study training resources offered by the certification provider. Consult those who have taken the self-study route and done well on the exam. This should help you select what will work best for you.

Here are some general guidelines:

When selecting self-study resources, it’s imperative to prioritize completeness and quality of content. Read through the exam objectives and make sure your study materials and practice exams cover all the topics of the current version of the exam.

If you are considering purchasing resources from third parties, verify whether they are authorized and check out their reputation.

You also want to make sure you have the latest study materials. It is your responsibility to check whether versions are up to date before downloading them. There is no point in using outdated resources.

Remember that technical certification exams usually have a hands-on component. Labs should be a part of your self-study kit because you need to get plenty of practice completing tasks in real-world scenarios. CompTIA offers virtual labs for a subscription. Red Hat’s self-paced learning bundle includes several hours of cloud-based labs. You can also spin up your own virtual lab if that suits you.

While some students can read the official study guide, complete the exercises, practice the skills explained in the guide, and develop functional knowledge for the exam, others need additional resources. Official study guides are not necessarily enough for everyone. Many who take the self-study approach use supporting materials to supplement their learning. Look at all the reading materials and self-study tools offered by your certification provider.

Knowledge assessment is a critical part of exam prep. It is advisable to include practice exams in your study kit. A complete set of official practice exams from the certification provider will enable you are able to answer questions in the same format as the exam, time yourself, obtain scores, and identify weak areas.

How to keep your nose to the self-study grindstone

The first step is to choose the right self-study materials. Check out the latest reading materials and self-paced learning tools offered by your certification provider. You need material that covers all the exam objectives and study tools that suit your learning style.

Schedule your exam. This is an effective step particularly for procrastinators. You have a fixed date before which you must complete your studying and take at least two full practice exams. Once you have a self-study kit and an exam date, draw up a study schedule that fits in with your work and personal commitments. Make sure you keep to your study schedule.

It is important to understand the requirements and rules of the certification program. You need to know what is expected of you. Read the exam objectives. This will help you identify areas of focus.

It is possible that candidates who work full-time in the same field don’t apply all the skills and best practices included in the exam objectives in their day-to-day work. You will need to read and practice to fill gaps in your knowledge for the test.

Explore different ways to read and retain information and find what works best for you. It is very effective to review a topic or subtopic the day you learn it. This helps reinforce what you learned, increase knowledge retention, and proceed to the next topic with clear understanding.

Practice time management. You will have to complete the exam within the stipulated time. You need to take several practice tests in order to improve your time management skills.

For hands-on exams, you need to spin up your own virtual lab or practice in an online lab. On the exam, you will be required to complete tasks within the stipulated time, so you need plenty of practice. First, practice the skills required to execute the tasks specified in the exam objectives. Do this as many times as it takes to be able to confidently perform each function. Then practice with a timer to see how much time it takes.

Official practice exams offer candidates the opportunity to practice answering questions of the same pattern and standard as the certification exam and obtain scores that indicate whether they have passed or failed. This is an effective way of assessing how prepared you are for the exam.

Review the feedback and explanations for each answer, whether correct or wrong, and read the recommended references. This will help your reinforce your knowledge, understand where you went wrong, and deepen your level of understanding.

Prepare in accordance with testing guidelines. For example, some certification programs permit candidates to refer to authorized documentation during the exam. If this is the case, then it is important to learn how to navigate documentation so that you don’t waste time searching for information you need.

How to address problem areas

One can’t stress enough how important it is to assess your knowledge of the subject matter as you proceed with exam prep. Don’t wait until you have read the entire guide to attempt the questions.

Work on the hands-on exercises in each section. This will help reinforce skills as well as identify weak areas. Attempt the review questions at the end of each section of a chapter and check your answers.

Review each wrong answer. Study the topic again and read the explanations and references provided. You may have to do this several times until you attain a deep understanding of the topic. Keeping notes of what you have learned while answering each question will help strengthen knowhow and retain knowledge.

Take the free questions and tests offered by the certification provider and review all answers, including the ones you got right. In addition, it is advisable to purchase official practice exams or an official self-study tool with an exam simulator. Take at least two full exams and research your answers.

About the Author

Reena Ghosh is an independent ghostwriter who writes promotional, developmental and explanatory content for individuals and businesses. She came to professional writing with work experience in financial services operations and corporate communication. Reena speaks three languages and hopes to learn Sanskrit. She is a wanderer who spends time in West Bengal, Goa and any place that pulls.

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