Don’t Fear The Certification, Part I

July 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Posted in Certification Paths, Microsoft, Study hints | Leave a comment
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…or, How I learned to stop worrying about certification and break down the test.

Whether you have been a network administrator or a developer for many years, or you’re a newbie just recently turned to the dark side, certification is a vital addition to your professional portfolio. Whether you are currently employed or seeking new opportunities, being certified is better than not being certified. (After all, what developer would turn down an excuse to gloat over his fellow coders in the corporate trenches?)

You’ve heard this argument before, so I won’t go into all of the details here. Let’s assume, for a moment, that certification is your goal. In my next few posts, I’m going to go over how to get certified. Since I’m a Microsoft test prep developer, some of my examples are going to be more code-specific. However, these tips can apply to anyone who plans to take any Microsoft certification test.

There is certainly no single technique that works for everyone. Some developers I know prefer taking exams cold turkey, just to prove how much of a guru they are. Sure, they strain their eyes, trying to mentally compile each line of code and shift uncomfortably in their seats, making more contortions than a Cirque Du Soleil act, but for them, it works.

I know other developers who grab the exam objectives and study everything that vaguely relates to those topics. Sure, they run the risk of learning too much about something not covered by the exam (not to mention a possible cerebral hemorrhage) , but for them, it works.

Let me be clear: I am not one of these developers, and there is no reason for me to suggest either technique. To me, ultimately, studying for a certification exam is no different than deciphering someone else’s code. First, you need to get a bird’s eye view of what it does, understand how its inner components interact, and finally, drill down into the implementation details function by function. 

The mistake most test-takers make is to assume that an exam looms above them in some monolithic scale that cannot be understood by mortal men. Although the question content and grading mechanisms can be convoluted, the exam itself must conform to a specific format, and can only evaluate a certain level of skills.

Any good study plan should include the following steps:

  • Use Microsoft Learning’s Web site to plot your path. For example,
    http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/certification/cert-vstudio.aspx
  • View the exam’s Web page. For example, the exam Web page for the 70-536 exam is http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/exam.aspx?ID=70-536
  • Pay attention first to the Skills Measured tab. In this section, the objectives are broken down by topic and the percentages (how many questions relate to a given topic) are available for most exams.
  • Next, view the content of the Preparation Materials tab. Here you’ll find available training and other online resources.  If any topic feels unfamiliar to you here, you should definitely bulk up on it now before you see it on the exam.
  • Schedule the exam. I cannot emphasize this enough as part of your study procedure, and NOT the end result. If you don’t schedule an exam before you begin your studying, you may never take it. Having a fixed date in mind helps give your studying a timeline. You can always reschedule with Prometric the day before you take it if something comes up at the last minute. But having a set deadline will provide more motivation than not having one.
  • Create a practice test (or use an existing one). The only way to do something is to practice. You can read about riding a bike, but you will never know whether you can ride it until you try. That means you need to take the test multiple times, until you feel confident with both the content and style of the exam. Even if you have a Transcender practice test, you might find it helpful to try to create a few questions on your own. Try to think like the exam developer(s) and match their style. Not only will this help get your head around the exam content, but also determine which study areas you need to revisit.
  • Create flash cards (or use ours). Many concepts and code techniques just need to be in your head, so that you can reserve your thinking for advanced concepts, not trying to unearth some forgotten terminology. Flash cards are perfect for memorization. As far as code is concerned, remember although there is more than technique, usually there is one technique that is the most efficient. Focus on common practice, not nuance.

Now that the preparation is complete, you need to get that certification. In my next post, I’ll go over some techniques to use while taking the exam, so that you won’t just pass the exam, but enjoy it! Well, at least make it less painful than it usually is.

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