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.
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.