Certification Study Strategy

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I often get asked what the best way to study for an Information Technology certification is and what it entails. Throughout my career I have taken a number of certification and have developed a strategy that has been working for me with relatively good success for quite some time. While I understand that everyone has a diferrent learning style, and learns at a different pace, I believe many of the concepts can be adjusted to the individual. In fact, my process relies upon creating a timeline based on your own learning goals. In this article I am going to outline my certification preparation techniques and some of the tools I use to accomplish my training. Most of the tools I use are no-cost freeware and readily available on the internet. A quick google search should suffice in obtaining most of them.

DISCLAIMER: By sharing my process in certification preparation and promoting if for your utilization I am in no way guaranteeing or to be held liable for any actions or costs incurred by you. While I recommend you apply these concepts as you see fit in your own preparation, I urge you to modify them to fit your learning style. Remember, this is just what has worked for me, and is not a guarantee. Good luck on all of certifications!

WARNING: When searching for certification training and study materials be careful to stay clear of materials that do not qualify with the exam policies. While every vendors exams contain different policies, one thing is common. They have zero tolerance for cheating. One of the best resources for invalid study materials is on the CompTIA website at http://certification.comptia.org/Training/testingcenters/policies/unauthorized.aspx. Please use this link as a general guide (it does not contain all unauthorized materials for all vendors) to make sure you are using approved materials.

I’m going to start by listing the steps I use. Following this list will be a detailed description of each step.

  1. Research and Select best book (please purchase legitimately, they need your funding to support further publications for your own reference)
  2. Upon receiving your book look at the Sectioning and Chapters to build a time table for your training
  3. Read book in its entirety skipping end of chapter questions and labs (according to your time table)
  4. After completing the book go back and do labs (book labs or your own home brewed, hands on is key)
  5. After you have finished the labs do the end of chapter questions
  6. Take any chapter you have gotten less than 80% on (for end of chapter questions) and review the material
  7. Once the material has been reviewed take practice tests (these often come with the book on optical disks)
  8. Schedule your test according to your timeline
  9. Take the study suggestions from the practice test and review your weak areas and retake your practice tests. (repeat until test day)
  10. Take your test and stop by the store to buy a document frame!!!

Now for the detailed descriptions

Step 1: Researching the best book for your training is key. Everyone has a different learning style, reading preference, and technical background on the subject matter at hand. Some people can read and understand rather dry material with no problems, others might need a more light humored approach to the topic. A great example is the A+ certification. There have been many different authors and publishers writing books for this test. Jean Andrews is a classic, but tends to have a more to the point, here is the information as it is attach. On the other hand Mike Meyers is well known for his light humored more “fun” approach to the same material. Continuing with this concept is the technical background. Someone that already has a firm understanding on a subject matter and is simply looking to brush up on the facts. As previously stated, I would recommend purchasing it as you often time gets discounts on exams, practice tests, or enhanced ebook versions of the book. Also, the publishers are having these books written to help you out, its nice to return the favor. Plus, a bookshelf full of technical books not only looks good, but is an essential reference library for on the job.

Step 2: In this step I mentioned to look at the books table of contents to build yourself an outline. I use the sections and chapter to plan out how long my studying should take and when I want to achieve the test by. Having a firm to-do list in regards to studying helps me stay motivated and on task. One of my favorite tools for this has been a self hosted project management server using a software called Collabtive. By setting Milestones and task lists associated with these milestones I can provide myself with deadlines to abide by. Every item checked of the task list makes your percentage completed value go up which is always a good tool to help build initiative. I will link to Collabtive at the end of this article. My recommended timeline is to read a chapter a day, followed by a week to do the labs, followed by a week to do all of the end of chapter quizzes, a week to review this weak areas, and then 1-2 weeks before the test for taking full practice tests.

Step 3: I believe this step requires the most explanation. I mention to read your book in its entirety, following your timeline, before doing any interactive pieces. Why is this? Its for retention purposes. Reading a 30 page chapter and immediately taking a 20 questions quiz at the end of it is easy. It isn’t to hard to recall facts you just read and thats just what you will be doing, recalling the facts. If you wait until you have finished reading the book to do the quizzes it allows the quizzes to be a stronger testament to the knowledge you have retained and can replay in logical thoughts. By doing the labs after reading the chapters you prevent the fragmented approach of doing only partial steps of a deployment, and then reading more information, and completing another step of a deployment. By doing all of the labs at the end it will help you solidify the reasons for each of the labs and how they correlate as a whole to the subject matter. To make sense of this look at the Microsoft 70-640 exam. The exam is on all the pieces that make up an Active Directory domain infrastructure. You learn about Active Directory, Group Policy, DNS, etc. By reading about Active Directory and doing a lab, and then reading about DNS and doing a lab, there is a period of time in between which can cause you to lose focus on how AD DS and DNS correlate and work together as a single entity, which is the real point of the exam as it applies to the real world.

Step 4: As mentioned in the previous steps I recommend doing the labs after reading the book in its entirety. I put this before doing the practice quizzes at the end of the chapter because again, the labs will help you solidify the concepts in your head before quizzing. This is especially true for hands on learners that need to see and do the tasks as opposed to strictly reading about them. With that being said, lets talk about lab equipment. For many of the software and operating system bases certifications setting up a home lab isn’t too difficult. Most every operating system has 30 day or better trials that can easily be installed into a virtualized system on your current computer. In fact I used VMware Player to build an entire VMware Vsphere lab environment consisting of a Windows 2008 R2 Domain Controller, Windows 2008 R2 Vcenter server, and 3 VMware ESXi Hypervisors all on my Windows 7 laptop. In regards to that I would recommend using VMWare Player (free), Oracle VirtualBox (free), VMWare Workstation (Cost Involved), as it relates to Windows. For Mac virtualization software you can use Oracle VirtualBox (free), VMWare Fusion (Cost Involved), Parallels Desktop for Mac (Cost Involved). When it comes to hardware such as Cisco equipment nothing beats hands on, but if the cost is too much you can simply use emulators, or rent rack equipment from online sources. I will link to these samples at the end of the article.

Step 5: Now that we have read the entire book, and got our hands dirty doing some labs, I would suggest doing the end of chapter practice quizzes. This is pretty self explanatory as it is going to tell you which chapters you need to brush up on as a whole. This doesn’t correlate directly with concepts within the chapter but instead the overall concept.

Step 6: At this point I take any of the chapters I achieve 80% or less on and review the material. Tune this number to a number that suits you, for me 80% has been my golden number. Reread the chapters, take notes!

Step 7: Now that we have reviewed the materials from our end of chapter quiz scores, Install the practice tests that came with the book (most always the case) or find some alternative practice tests. Take these in exam mode and see how you do. Often these tests will give you a detailed description of all topics you need to brush up on. Microsoft even links you to TechNet articles to help you out. Nows when crunch time happens.

Step 8: There isn’t much detail to this step. Sign up for your test. You might ask “Why am I signing up before I’m achieving a passing score on my practice tests?” This is a valid question but the answer is simple. At this point we have been studying for this exam for 3+ weeks, dedicating time to it everyday. With this long period of commitment, and possible low practice scores, it is easy to get burnt out, discouraged, and just throw in the towel. By scheduling the test, and putting down the money up front, it forces you to push through and focus. A fire all of us need lit underneath from time to time. With most tests being 150$ and up, its hard to just give up after you’ve already spent the money!

Step 9: As I mentioned above the practice tests will give you detailed results including specific topics you need to brush up on. Take these results and use them as a new guideline. Focus on those weak areas, and when you feel comfortable retake your practice tests. Repeat these steps a few times up until test day but be careful not to start remembering the answers. I would recommend you only take the full practice tests no more than 5-7 time total to alleviate this memorization of answers and opposed to knowledge of the material.

Step 10: This one is easy. By this time you are well versed in the material. You could even argue that you are already certified and just need to prove it to the vendor. Its a good outlook to have. On test day just relax, you know the material, and it is not different then what you have been doing with practice tests. The only difference is the questions themselves. When you walk out and get handed the score report with a passing score, stop by the store and get yourself a nice document frame. You’ll soon be receiving your certificate and it always feels good to hang an accomplishment on your office wall.

Links from the article:

Collabtive – Project Management Server (Linux, PHP, MySQL, Apache)
VMware Player – Windows
VMware Workstation – Windows
VMware Fusion – Mac
Parallels Desktop for Mac – Mac
Oracle VirtualBox – Windows | Mac

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