Getting certified – my experience getting my MCSA

I lurk on Reddit. A lot. I mainly sit in the /r/sysadmin subreddit, because there are quite a number of interesting articles and discussions that come out of it.

One discussion that appears to come up far more often than most is certifications. What are the good ones to get, how to get them, good study materials, how to ensure you pass, what’s worth more in the industry, what looks good on paper, what’s easier to cram for. It’s amazing the number of questions that get asked regarding this.

I can only speak from the experience of having done my MCSA. I did it because:

a) I wanted to prove I could; and
b) Getting my MCSA gave me the final 12 credit points to graduate from my degree (B.IT)!

With that in mind (and being mindful of the NDA regarding the exams I sat) I thought it might be helpful for others to put down my experiences with my studying preparations and at least some information regarding the sitting of the exams.

Choosing the right exams

If you’re planning on sitting any exam, you need to choose the right exams for you and your situation – as well as keeping in mind the current market trends and current technologies. While my current workplace is predominantly (or was at the time) Server 2008, I chose to sat for a 2012 R2 exam because it would be more relevant moving forward and it would stay relevant for longer.

Take a look at what you’re currently doing in your current role – or if you’re not in a job, what you’d like to be doing. Work out from there what’s the best way to proceed with your certifications. Don’t just do it because your workplace wants you to – that will make it ten times harder to do the study required.

Studying for the exam

This section is specific for MS exams. Will probably be vastly different for other exams e.g. REdHat and Cisco.

My main rule for studying for Microsoft exams – practice makes perfect.

To expand – the Microsoft exams state, quite clearly, that the exam study guides that are available are not written by the same people who write the exams. Sure, they’ll give you a good grounding knowledge in the information you should need to know – but they won’t cover absolutely everything you’ll need if to pass the exams. For that, you need hands on lab time. There really is no other way.

The way I personally studied was as follows:

  • I went the Microsoft Exam page for the exam I was studying. In this example, we’ll use 70-410 Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012
  • On the page, I expanded all the sections under ‘Skills Measured’, then printed out this page
  • I highlighted every skill I thought I’d need practice on – these were the things that I couldn’t do in my sleep, that I didn’t know all the ins-and-outs of because these are definitely the things that will trip you up in the exam
  • I used Virtual Labs to practice the skills I didn’t have a full grasp on – I didn’t always follow the labs that were there, but used the VM’s to test out other skills (such as Hyper V networking)
  • I will admit to using the Exam Guide books for all three exams that I undertook (410, 411 & 412) to assist. I was lucky that colleagues of mine had these books for me to use
  • I also used a number of websites, particularly PluralSight, for extra information and practice exams. I was also lucky enough to have access to SkillSoft (through my work place) for other practice exams

Preparing for the exam (week before)

Don’t cram – no matter how much you want to, no matter how much your brain SCREAMS at you, don’t cram. Relax. By all means, if there are things that still trip you up, take the time to go through the motions again. But don’t try and force all the information in. It won’t work and it’ll make you forget information you actually need!

Preparing for the exam (night before & day of)

Sleep well. Go to bed early. If you have to, take something to help you sleep (antihistamines are your friend!). Stressing about the exam won’t help and not getting a good nights sleep will mean that you’re not alert for the exam.

Eat well – make sure you have breakfast the day of the exam (or lunch, depending on when you’re taking it). By all means, have your normal coffee, but don’t over-indulge in caffeine. Being twitchy won’t help.

Arrive early to the exam, but not too early. Getting there 10-15 minutes before you’re due to sit the exam gives you time to get comfortable, speak with the people who’ll be administering and supervising and feel a bit more at ease about the whole thing – at least, it did for me.

Sitting the exam

Take your time. I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t just rush through the questions. If you rush, chances are you’ll miss things. Read every question thoroughly, at least twice. Look at the answers. Discount the ones you know couldn’t possibly be right.

Use your writing paper and pen if you need to visualise the answer (I used up at least 6 A4 pages while I was in there!). There is nothing wrong with scribbling down info to try and get your brain to wrap itself around the information if it helps you!

Don’t panic if you don’t know something. Use the information you have available to make your most educated guess, though I’d advise against doing this for every question!

Give yourself time to go back and review your answers, but stick with your gut – chances are, the choice you made the first time is the right one. Changing your answer at the last minute review is not a good idea, unless you’ve spent time working out why you chose the wrong answer to start with.

Other tips

From sitting for my MCSA, I can give you a few extra tips:

Don’t use exam dumps – if you get caught (and you will) you’ll be barred from sitting another MS exam for life. Very not cool. Many legit websites still try and push these, and most forums you visit asking about this stuff will mention them (e.g. Reddit). Avoid them. All it does is give you the answers, not the knowledge, and this defeats the entire purpose of doing these exams!

If you’re doing an MCSA or MCSE, don’t sit the exams back to back – as someone who has done this (I sat 70-410, 70-411 & 70-412 back to back in less than 48 hours) I would highly recommend spacing your exams. It makes it far more stressful if you pile them up together.

Don’t stop learning – just because you’ve obtained a cert, doesn’t mean that things don’t change, that there aren’t more things to learn. It’s a piece of paper that says you know a specific amount on a specific topic. There are many other exams, certifications and technologies to learn about and become an SME in.

Have fun – learning should always be fun. If you’re not having fun while studying for the exams (well…maybe not the *entire* time) or you don’t enjoy it, then perhaps it isn’t for you.

9 thoughts on “Getting certified – my experience getting my MCSA

  1. Rick Glorie

    Could you share a link to those “Exam Guide books” I have sat through Skillsoft and failed, looked at CBT but don’t think it will help me, and now have a Training Guide that says it’s for Job Role training NOT for the EXAM. And the EXAM ref that says it won’t explaine or cover anything. I have the feeling I am expected to pay dearly for passing this exam while it used to not be such a bother.

    1. girlgerms Post author

      This is the book for 70-410 – shouldn’t be too hard from that to find the other two.

      Please be aware – there is no book that will give you all the information to pass the exam. I don’t know how much clearer I could’ve made that. You *NEED* to have hands on experience, you need to be able to tick off all of those “Skills Measured”, you cannot rely on the books alone. They will not give you everything you need.

  2. anthaurian

    My company sent me to study for MCSA 2012. Trying the same thing for the first time. Preparing myself to do it, to be exact.
    I bought “mastering windows server 2012 r2” from Mark Minassi since official Microsoft books on Skillpipe are mostly good for nothing (there are some questions in measureups that are not even covered in those books), installed the OS on my home computer and also setup a work computer to act as a test server. And now i’m trying to study for the first time in last 10 years. No having fun for next few months while i study. If nothing else, it will certainly test my discipline. Just needed to share this for some reason 🙂

  3. Jose

    Trust me I know how you feel. I have failed 2 already. I plan on taking the exam this month, and seeing how i do. I had to take a break from it after the last one. I was upset that I failed. i’m back into it but man so much material to learn and remember. I have at least 4 different books but it’s hard to remember everything because of how the writer express there material. Wish it was much easier and stuff. I just need to find a good site that has pre-test practice questions i look over.

  4. Rick

    Microsoft has really dropped the ball here. I passed the 2008 version of 70-410 in college, by studying on the side with 2 other subjects ánd passing. Had a lot of trouble actually finding the books specific to the course(not ending up with 2012 versions) navigating tons of old/dead pages on the Microsoft site. My employer really pushes on certification, and they gave me both the Training Guide ánd th Exam Prep, they don’t get either it seems. Then the books are full of editor mistakes (216 instead of 2^16, answers mixed up so you don’t know if you are correct or wrong, 16 bits are 4 bytes(what!?)), really unbalancing and yet another fight with the material(riddled with links you have to actually type over, relevant? who knows!). Having my hopes up for 2016 study material. MCSA passings must have nose dived.

    1. girlgerms Post author

      As I said in my tips – going for your MCSA is more than just studying a book. You actually have to have hands on experience with the tools. Sure, the passings might have nose-dived, but at least the people who *are* passing have some experience with the software – not just a passing acquaintance with the training material.

  5. Yuujin


    After passing CCNA, I am thinking of taking MCSA to complement it but I’m afraid I might not be able to pass it the first time and would just waste 160$. FYI, I don’t have any clue about Windows Server of any version. I’m learning from scratch. Any tips for a newbie? Thanks a lot.

    1. girlgerms Post author

      Hi, I’m a tad confused by this comment – this whole post is on how you can go about studying for an MCSA. Read the post, follow my advice – it worked for me, it might work for you. My only concern is that you’ve said you have absolutely no clue about Windows Server – if that’s the case, why go for an MCSA? It’s going to take a lot of study and a lot of practicals to get up to speed to be able to pass and MCSA.

  6. Scoot Kay

    I’ll jump in. Thank you first off for the recommendations on Pluralsite. It seems to really be a good resource.You are 100% correct that book learning will simply not suffice! I passed 70-410 for 2012R2 with hardly any studying, but I have now failed 70-411 3 times and my scores are just getting worse which makes no sense as I am felt I was going to ace it this most recent time because I have been taking practice tests and everything I got wrong I would look up and work hands on in my VMWare 2 DC test domain. But this is not enough! You must know from memory syntax of command line tools like ntdsutil and wbadmin and powershell modules. I am horrible at this because when I work with anything command line I test it out, use the man/help pages and record the proper syntax so I don’t need to learn it from scratch again. The biggest problem for me with the 70-411 (and soon to be 70-412) is that I don’t use these tools and features often enough to be that knowledgeable to know from memory the proper syntax to make auditpol audit failures for user “mikedan”. Here is an example from a test today which I failed:

    1) Auditpol /set /user:mikedan /category:”Detailed Tracking” /include /failure:enable
    2) Auditpol /user:mikedan /category:”Detailed Tracking” /failure:enable
    3) Auditpol /sd /user:mikedan /exclude /category:* /failure:enable
    4) Auditpol /user:mikedan /option FullPrivilegeAuditing /failure:enable

    Did you get that 1 is the correct answer? Don’t worry, I didn’t either.

    I work as “System and Network Admin” for a managed service provider for small to medium businesses. I cut my teeth on help desk, and have been supporting users with 2012 R2 for years now. I work readily knowing that options exist, not how to execute each one without from memory without manuals or other outside resources. Every week I do something new, like building out a WDS solution for one customer, creating GPOs to deploy scripts and software across sites with slow links, to tracking down RADIUS and VPN issues, etc. I feel I am lucky to have such a multifaceted job because in previous roles I was specialized and would own WSUS, but other people in Europe would be the ones actually doing schema updates when updating domain functional roles, etc.

    Going back to the example, sure I have setup auditing policies, even once to make a honeypot folder that whenever accessed by certain suspect people alerted IT to catch snooping employees. But I don’t do this daily.

    I promise you, give me one Server 2012 R2 VM that lacks network with the test, even take 30 minutes off the test time, I will pass.

    Congrats to all who pass. And to all who don’t, good luck and keep working your VMs!


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