Certification and the Real World

October 9, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Study hints | 1 Comment
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Editor’s note: Josh addresses the (somewhat frustrated) perception that the solutions you use in the daily world might never show up on certification exam scenarios, while somewhat obscure concepts…often do.

“You would never do that in the real world!”

Having been employed in the IT world for over fifteen years, I know the frustration of taking time out of your job (or your job search) to get certified for the “real world,” only to find out the exam expects you to run an operating system or application in the mystical land of Oz. You’ve heard it many times before, but it’s especially true when it comes to certification: you’re not in Kansas anymore.

In the past few years, certification has definitely embraced new technologies to emulate the workplace environment and evaluate job competency, like case studies or emulation environments. But a certification will never become your workplace. (Otherwise, the test writers of the world would take your jobs.) Exams have to test you on every function of an application or system, even if you could perform your current job using one-tenth of the available commands. But you’re getting certified to prove you’re more than a button-pusher or mouse-mover; you’re here to prove that you’re a tech wiz.

So, to help you get over the Oz culture shock, I have gathered a few tips about the way certification exams are structured, and some tips for navigating them:

  • Follow the yellow brick road – In an effort to connect questions to the “real world,” many vendors will add long, fluffy scenarios to seemingly straightforward questions. This “mood music” begins nice and easy (“You are an administrator…”), but as the lights dim, the scenario ends abruptly with a heart-thumping chord. Before getting carried away by the fluff nuance, skip down to those last couple of sentences to find out what they’re really asking. Once you have a good handle where the question is leading, go back and re-read the scenario with that core concept in mind. In some cases, the scenario isn’t even required to answer the question. In other cases, it provides the one key detail that separates the right answer from a similar alternative.
  • Avoid the poppies– Most certification exams do not have the luxury of being subtle. Certain objectives must be covered with a minimum amount of interpretation. This will require some exams to rely heavily on vendor documentation and/or customer feedback. So, remember Occam’s Razor and don’t be afraid to pick the simple or obvious answer, because often that answer is the correct one. If you’re not sure, then mark that item (if possible) and go back to it, but avoid second-guessing your first impulse. Unless you have a reason to reconsider your answer, you will be better leaving it alone.
  • If you only had a brain…. Look for “knee-jerk” phrases in the question. These phrases are vendor-specific clues meant to conjure up a specific technology. For example, if you see the phrase “human-readable hierarchical data standard,” your knee-jerk response should be “XML.” If a scenario requires you to read a file, chances are you will need a class named FileReader (which just might have a Read method!). On the flipside, don’t get too cocky, because vendors also provide clues for older technologies that are no longer relevant.
  • Watch out for flying monkeys – In most multiple choice questions, one or two options are entirely wrong, and if you have a passing knowledge of the subject, they are easy to pick out. Once you have an idea of what the question is, look closely at the answers and notice their differences. In code exams, the difference may be only a few lines of code. Even in emulation and simulation exams, the process of elimination will help. For example, if you need to modify a GPO, you may need to do something in the Group Policy Management Console and probably not need access to the Display Settings window. Context menus are also helpful when narrowing down possible paths.
  • There’s no place like home – No workplace is the same as another. No matter how much research or how many clients with which a vendor consults, certification scenarios will never replicate a workplace entirely. Although many workplaces are moving more towards common standards, every workplace is unique. Remember, just because you would never do something, it doesn’t mean another person wouldn’t. Some businesses plan and then perform test pilots, while others fly by the seat of their pants. So before you groan, “That would NEVER happen in the real world,” remember that a scenario that looks unrealistic to you might be standard operating procedure for another candidate.
  • Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain – There will always be a few tricky or misleading questions in a certification exam. That’s where practice tests like Transcender come into play. We use all of these vendor techniques for our practice tests – fluff, old technologies, pertinent details buried in the irrelevant – to really prepare you for Oz. We also break down their tricky questions into smaller pieces, so that you have the right tools to dissect the actual questions when taking the live exam.

Ultimately, once you’re done in Oz, you’ll have something that is extremely valuable in the real world: a new certification. So the more you get used to traveling over the rainbow, the greater your pot of gold!

1 Comment »

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  1. Great article! I learned alot. Keep up the good work on the blog!


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