ICYMI: Improving Certification Certainty, part 2

(“In Case You Missed It Monday” is my chance to showcase something that I wrote and published in another venue, but is still relevant. This week’s post originally appeared on DataCenterJournal.com)

Last time I explored which certifications are right for you and, more specifically, how you can prepare for such an undertaking. This month, we’ll go even further down the certification rabbit hole to discuss how you know when you’re ready, the mechanics of actually taking the test and, finally, course-correcting if you hit a speed bump in testing.

Not too much to cover, right? Let’s dive in.

Am I Ready?

Knowing whether you’re ready can be difficult. You may have read all the books, watched all the videos and answered every question in the practice exam and still feel uncertain. Some of that uncertainty, as I mentioned in my last post, goes back to the emotions we attached to testing when we were young. But some of it is simply a lack of an impartial way to measure readiness.

One technique that has worked for me is to take that practice exam and go slowly through each question, asking yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the broader topic being discussed? Just reading the question, are we talking about DHCP? Routing protocols? Video cable hardware standards? Identifying the overall “point” of the question will help you later in understanding which answers are right, which are wrong and why.
  • Why is the right answer (versus the others) right? Once you’ve determined the correct answer, spend a moment explaining (talk out loud if you need to) why it’s correct. Offer all the supporting information you know.
  • How are the other answers wrong for this situation? Now, go through each of the other answers. Some are just dumb throwaway statements meant to be cute (“Because reasons!”). But in many cases, the answers are wrong owing to specific details in their structure. Identify them.
  • Where might those other answers be correct? Finally, look at those wrong answers and invent a question where that answer would be correct.

Going through a practice exam in this way exercises your subject knowledge from multiple viewpoints. It helps you think holistically about the topics and identify gaps in your understanding.

Doing the Deed

Finally, the big day arrives: the day when you’ll drive to some obscure office building, hand over all your worldly possessions (most test centers will ask for your wallet, phone and even water bottle before allowing you to enter the exam area), then sit in front of an unfamiliar computer to stare death in the eye and shout, “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day!”[1]

You see what I mean about getting way too anxious about tests?

That’s my first piece of advice. As much as you can, relax. The absolute worst thing that can happen is you don’t pass this test. And you know what happens then? You schedule a time to take it again. Period. You don’t lose your job. You don’t “fail.” When you don’t pass a test, the only thing that happens is that you don’t pass a test.

So, besides having the right outlook, what else can you do? For some folks, timing is an important consideration. Are you a morning person, or will you feel better if you have the bulk of the day to cram, build up mental momentum and hit the test while you’re on a roll? Know that about yourself and use it.

Understand the test design. Is it a one-way exam, or can you go back and review answers? If it’s the latter, you may find that questions later on answer ambiguities earlier on. Use that fact to your advantage.

Know the statistics about the test. For example, one popular exam presents you with 77 questions in 90 minutes. Although it sounds like a lot of questions, you actually have over a minute to answer each question; 60 seconds is a long time. Many of the questions will be no-brainers where you click and move on. Let that knowledge be a source of comfort as you walk into the exam. You have plenty of time.

Meanwhile, what’s a passing score? On that popular exam I mentioned, you need 75 percent to pass. Assuming all questions have equal weight, that means you only need to get 58 questions right to walk out with your shiny new certification.

Brain dump before you start. In many cases, there are streams of facts that you’d like to have in front of you to help you answer questions faster (IP subnetting comes to mind). Test centers accommodate this approach by giving you a piece of paper (or a whiteboard) and pen for impromptu calculations, lists and so on. But how are you supposed to write down your tables, lookups and lists in the middle of the test?

The answer is to take all the time you’re given—even the time that doesn’t count toward the exam.

When you sit down and the proctor clicks “start,” the test hasn’t started. You are faced with a screen that tells you about the test. You have anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes to click “next.” And once you do, you’ll have to read (or not) a test agreement. You have 15 minutes to scroll to the bottom and click “next.” Once you do, you must answer whether you’re over 18; you have five minutes to perform this complex calculation. Next, a screen will ask whether you’re ready to begin and will give you three more minutes to sweat out the answer.

My point is that you could get up to 40 minutes of non-test time before you get to question #1. Use that time for your brain dump, to adjust your chair, to center yourself and to really get ready before you dive in.

Once you’re faced with the actual questions, you can use three more strategies:

  • Look at the answers first. Often, they’ll give you a better idea of what kind of question you’re answering than simply reading the question. Reading the answers “frames” your thought process so you’re reading the question with your brain on the right track.
  • If the correct answer eludes you, eliminate the stupid answers—the ones that are there just to be funny or are clearly off topic.
  • If one answer is significantly longer than the others, it’s often the correct one.
  • If it’s a vendor-sponsored exam, keep that fact in mind. The odds of “Cisco PIX” being the correct answer in a Microsoft exam are fairly slim, especially if a Microsoft product appears in another one of the answers.
  • If you can mark for review, do so! Use the review.

Note that some of the questions actually don’t count. Yes, you read that correctly. Test makers routinely put in questions that don’t apply to this exam, just to test them out, gather statistics on who can answer them cold and so on. If you find a question that makes little sense, don’t let it throw you off your game.

My last piece of advice is to never give up. Although it may sound funny as you read it from the comfort of your office chair, I’ve reached a moment in every test I’ve taken where the urge to just get up and walk out is strong. I’m certain I’ve blown it, and the prospect of seeing that “FAIL” message is more than I can handle.

Don’t. I’ve seen it, and the results are always scream inducing. In one case, another person in the test center who was clearly having a bad day knocked the keyboard off the desk and stormed out.

The proctor had to complete the test (just to reset the machine), so she left each of the remaining 20 questions blank and hit “next” to the end. The guy who ran out failed by 15 points; he could have guessed at the questions he had left and still passed.

Never, ever, ever give up.

The Only Thing to Fear

Remember when I talked about the worst thing that can happen? It happens to all of us. It’s fine. But what should you do next?

Take a minute to mentally regroup. Not passing a test stings a little, and there’s no point pretending it doesn’t. But when I say, “a minute,” I mean it. Sit in the car for a couple of minutes and get things into perspective. Then reschedule the exam—right then. Don’t give yourself a chance to fall into the trap of self-doubt. You thought you were ready for the test and you probably were. Book your retake so you can keep your momentum.

Document the questions that threw you. Was it a topic you felt unprepared for? Was it a simulator that was harder than you expected? Whatever it was, write it down immediately after the exam while it’s fresh in your mind. Often, exams help you in this regard by providing a topic-by-topic breakdown with how you did. Afterwards, it’s just a matter of polishing up a few areas and getting that exam under your belt.

What Are You Waiting For?

For many IT professionals, certification is a necessary step on the career journey—helping to get the next project or promotion, or just helping quantify the knowledge carefully cultivated over years of hands-on experience. But for those who haven’t taken a test since their school days, it can feel like a step backward to a time when less was certain and, conversely, more was on the line.

Hopefully this post has helped to ease those concerns and clear the path. Happy test taking!

[1] Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2003

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