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Expert offers tips for taking certifications tests

Overcoming irrational fears is key, instructor says, to passing cert exams.

According to P.J. Connolly, senior analyst for InfoWorld Magazine, "Certificates provide employers a way to assess...

a person's technical ability, and let's face it, that's usually the most important qualification when you're hiring technical staff."

Connolly echoes the sentiment of many industry watchers. You want to maximize your marketability, so you've decided to take a certification exam.

Unfortunately, you're getting flashbacks of the all-night cramming sessions you endured in high school and college. You might be asking yourself: How much do I really have to study? Do I need to attend a special "boot camp" to get prepared? How are the tests administered? When will I get my test results? What happens if I don't pass the test?

This article discusses how to overcome your exam-taking fears. Included are best practices to help you better prepare for -- and ultimately pass -- a certification exam. I'm going to use security certifications as examples, but these tips are applicable to any certification exam.

Before we discuss the exam-taking specifics, let's talk about the obstacles, real or perceived, that prevent many people from taking and passing exams:

  • I don't have enough time to prepare.
  • I can't afford to attend training classes.
  • I don't think I have what it takes to pass the test.
  • I've heard horror stories about how hard the tests are.
  • Put your personal obstacle here.

Let's address how you can avoid some of these perceived obstacles. The following list details some common mistakes test-takers make. By avoiding them, you should feel more prepared.

Mistake #1: Lack of preparation

Here is a statement worth repeating: Being prepared is the key to passing the test. It is essential not only to know the material, but also to know that you know it. Even if you're an "expert" in the certification subject, it's always a good idea to review the material to make sure you have all the bases covered. Tests like the CISSP touch on many different areas. In all likelihood, you're not an expert in all 10 CISSP domains. Depending on your level of expertise and experience, a good review book may be all you need. Some, however, need a more structured learning process, perhaps one defined by seminars or specialized weeklong classes. The approach I prefer is to first concentrate on those areas I've identified as weak. Then I reinforce my knowledge in the areas where I feel stronger.

This approach applies only if you have enough time to prepare. If you wait until the last minute, then many recommend the inverse of the above approach. If your time is limited, you might want to make sure you really know your strong subjects. Time and again, I hear from people who wait until the last minute and concentrate on studying their weak areas. When they get their results, they're amazed at having done so poorly on the subjects they thought they knew the best.

According to Dan Petitt, CISSP, who teaches CISSP courses in San Diego, "The biggest problem students have with the CISSP test is the vast number of terms that need to be memorized." Some people might have a generic understanding of the topic but lack the in-depth knowledge of key concepts.

Mistake #2: Not understanding the scope of the test

If you're evaluating different certification tests on the same subject, it's important to understand the approach each test takes with respect to the subject. Some tests are general while others are more technical. For instance, the CISSP test covers many subjects and requires a general understanding of information security concepts. It's also a vendor-neutral test. The Cisco or Checkpoint security tests, on the other hand, are vendor-specific and require intimate knowledge of the hardware.

Mistake #3: Reading test questions too quickly

Truth be told, I'm a bad test-taker. My problem is that I try to read too much into the question. I also tend to read the question too quickly and not fully understand what the question is asking. The key here is that you should take your time and make sure you understand the question. Pay attention to key words such as "least," "most" and "not." Sometimes more than one answer looks correct. In the CISSP test, you're asked for the "best" answer. In order to get better at understanding the questions, you should answer as many practice questions as possible. Many Web sites and books provide sample tests. The key is to practice, practice and practice some more.

Mistake #4: Relying on just one study book
Mistake #5: Relying on too many study books

This is an interesting situation, open to extensive debate. I find that many people look for a one-book solution to prepare for a test. There's really no clear-cut answer to this problem. It's a matter of how much support you need. Some people might need only one good reference book; others need multiple books. The problem with having one book is that some areas might not be covered in the detail you need. The problem with having multiple study books is that they might have different definitions for the same topic. Then the dilemma becomes: which book is correct? I've found that getting involved with a study group -- either in person or online -- helps, as it allows you to ask questions. In the end, it's up to you to arrive at the best answer.

According to Petitt, "The best method [for learning] the material depends on the individual's learning style. Some people do well just reading the material and then applying the knowledge to the work environment. Others learn better though auditory methods, which makes classroom learning ideal."

Many people need a combination of different methods. That said, there is no single method for learning the material in preparation for the exam. "Learning is an individual course of action," says Petitt.

The requirements for each certification exam will be different, but here is a summary of the above tips that should help you prepare for any certification test:

  • Prepare well in advance of the test.
  • Join local study groups if available.
  • Subscribe to certification study group forums.
  • Concentrate first on your weakest subjects.
  • Carefully read each question, taking your time.
  • Do as many practice questions as possible.
  • In test questions, identify key words (such as "not," "most" and "least.")


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This was last published in October 2002

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