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How to Prepare for Your Certification Exam

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Do your palms start to sweat at the thought of taking a technical certification test? If that’s the case, don’t fear: you’re in good company. Prepping for a test (especially your first one) is intimidating for everyone. Here are some tips to help you get ready for the big day.

1. Take every practice test you can get your hands on.

I’ve taken many certification tests over the years, and in my opinion, this is the No. 1 thing you can do to help your chances of passing.

Not only does working through practice tests reinforce your knowledge of the subject, it puts you in an environment similar to what you’ll face on test day. You will start to understand how the test-writers think, and see the way in which questions are asked.

Practice tests can be found in books, on CDs, and all over the Internet. Find them. Take them.

2. Time your tests.

You may not want to time your tests at first, but eventually, make it a habit. If you spend four hours taking a practice test that you will only have two hours to do in the testing center, you’ll be in for a big shock when you run out of time halfway through your exam.

Use a watch, kitchen timer, or your cell phone’s stopwatch function. Just make sure you do it. Taking a test under time pressure is completely different than strolling through the test, making sure you analyze each question for 10 minutes before deciding on an answer.

3. Use multiple prep methods.

Don’t rely on just one certification book. Go to forums on websites like certcities.com, mcpmag.com and brainbuzz.com and talk to others who have taken the test recently. Find out what their experience was like. Try out computer-based training from companies like CBT Nuggets. Having multiple sources of information gives you a much better idea of what to expect.

4. Get plenty of sleep the night before the test.

Does this sound obvious? Well, you’d be surprised at how many people spend the night before a certification test cramming, and show up at the test center bleary-eyed with their minds in a fog.

Studies have shown that being well-rested is a key factor in doing well on a test. Your mind is clear and refreshed, and you can focus and concentrate better, and for longer. Cramming is good; just do it in the days preceding the test, not the night before. That’s the time to recharge your internal batteries to go out and ace the exam.

5. Find a study group.

Remember how well study groups worked in college? They work just as well when studying for a certification exam. Find a group of fellow techies at work who might be working on the same test and study during lunch, or on social sites like Craigslist. Also check out the forums on sites from certification vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, Red Hat, CompTIA and others.

6. Don’t take the test until you’re ready.

What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t consider taking a certification exam until you have real-world experience with the technology being tested. Are you trying for a certification like CISSP? Make sure you have several years of daily security experience.

Potential employers can usually sniff out “paper” certification holders a mile away. Those are certified individuals with no real-world experience; they passed the exam by studying books or videos, or taking a class. Paper certification holders are not only unlikely to get hired -- if they do somehow get a job, they’ll be completely unprepared to perform their job duties, because they’ve never done it in a live environment.

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