How to Study for a Certification Exam

The most common question I get when talking about certification is what should I study? Well, before you crack open a book, take the time to make sure you are taking the right exam, and figure out what you don’t know so your study time will be spent as effectively as possible. If you want get certified, there is a simple plan you can follow:

  1. Choose your certification goal/exam
  2. Figure out what you don’t know
  3. Fill in the gaps
  4. Take the exam

In the last blog, “How to Prepare for a Certification Exam” I talked about how to figure out what you don’t know. That blog explained how to determine what topics are on the exam, and how to prioritize the topics to study. Now it’s time to look at Step Three: Filling in the Gaps.

You’ve completed step two “Figure out what you don’t know”, so you should now have a list of the topics you need to study. But where will you find suitable study materials? There are many, many resources out there to help you prepare for exams. Let’s review a few key resources.

Preparation Materials tab in the Exam Guide

Every exam guide has a section called Preparation Materials that lists all the MsPress books, e-learning, and courses you can access that include content covered in the exam. Now it’s important to note that just because a course or book is listed here that taking that course or reading that book guarantees you will pass the exam. You know what topics you need to study. These are suggested resources. You need to go look at the course outlines to see if they cover the areas you need to study, you need to see the table of contents for that book to see if it has sections on the areas YOU need to study. The courses and books are a great overall review, but unless you take a boot camp course which is designed to help you prepare for a specific exam, you should assume the course only covers some of the exam content. So you still need to find your gaps and fill those gaps. Some exams, like this SharePoint 2010 exam, also have Exam Coaching Sessions with tips on that specific exam you can watch.


Training Kits

The more popular exams have books called Self-Paced Training Kits that are specifically designed to help you prepare for an exam. They include exercises and practice tests to help you study and check your knowledge at the same time. If you are going to invest in a book to help you prepare, and there is a training kit for your exam, these are often a worthwhile investment. If you already have deep knowledge of the product and just need to learn a few specific topics, the training kit is probably more than you need.

Practice Exams

Practice Exams are also a great study tool. Both MeasureUp and SelfTest give you the option of completing practice test in a learning or study mode. These are a great study tool because after you answer each question you can check your answer and then read an explanation of why each answer was wrong or right. For the maximum value from a practice test, I recommend customizing your test. Both Self Test and MeasureUp give you the option of specifying which topics you want on your test. If there is a specific content area you know you need to study, customize your test to ask you all the questions on that topic.

Training Catalog

The Microsoft Learning Training Catalog is another great place to search for exam preparation materials. You can search this catalog to get a list of learning materials related to your technology. You can even create a My Learning account to help you remember which resources you want to review and help you keep track of which white papers or articles you have read. You can search by technology or by exam number, and you can customize the search to change what types of resources are returned in the search results.


Learning Plans

One of the resources you may see displayed in your training catalog search results is a Learning Plan. Many exams have Learning Plans associated with them. Learning plans are designed to identify resources to help you achieve a goal like passing an exam, or learning a new version of a tool. Learning plans are an often overlooked resource, and can point you to articles or whitepapers that you might otherwise have missed. In order to follow the links on a learning plan, sign in with a Windows Live ID and save the training plan to My Learning, then you can go to the articles and keep track of which content you have already read.


Try features out for yourself

Reading is great, but actually trying out a feature is always the best way to learn if you have time. Many product teams provide virtual machines you can download, and TechDays Canada will be hosting a number of Hands On Labs on developer and infrastructure tools throughout the year you can complete online.

Today’s My 5 covers a situation that occasionally comes up with new exams:

When a certification exam is first released, sometimes you go to the Preparation Materials tab and there are no books, no courses, and no practice tests. So now what? Well first of all you have earned my respect because you are probably going to pass this exam before most of your peers. But what can you study?

5 Places to look for study materials when there are no preparation materials listed for the exam

  1. MSDN & TechNet, sometimes reading one or two pages on the topic in MSDN or TechNet is enough to grasp the basic concept and commands
  2. Try it for yourself, there is nothing quite like trying out the technology to master it, if you don’t have the software, search the team blogs to see if there are any Virtual Machines you can download or labs you can try
  3. Visit the team blogs (e.g. Windows, SharePoint, Exchange, Azure) they often have blogs explaining the latest features
  4. Bing  – try searching for the specific topics you need to study, you may find someone out there has written a great blog post or article that explains the very feature you are trying to understand.
  5. Visit the Microsoft Learning Training Catalog, search by product, there may be whitepapers or articles you can read

Next blog we will wrap up our certification discussion and talk about what to expect on the day of the exam and a few tips to increase your chances of walking out with a passing score.

This blog is also posted on the Canadian Developer Connection

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