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IT certification in five (plus) steps

Signing up for IT certification exams is easy. Preparing and taking them is another story. Here are five easy steps (and more) to ensure certification success.

If you're a networking professional working in a small or midsized business and looking to protect or boost your career, you're in luck: There are plenty of certifications to choose from. Once you've chosen a certification to pursue, you'll find these steps useful for getting that certification.

  1. Understand certification requirements: Visit the Web site of the vendor or sponsor that offers the certification, and track down all relevant details. Usually, this means preparing for and passing a sequence of one or more exams. Any or all of the following may also be among your deliverables: application forms, references, work history, written submissions and videotape (individual requirements vary).

  • Find third-party commentary and advice: General certification resources -- including TechTarget Web sites, Certification Magazine, CertCities, and GoCertify, as well as more focused publications and Web sites such as MCP Magazine (for Microsofties), TCP Magazine (for Cisco folks) and all kinds of exam preparation Web sites -- will not only tell you what exams you must take; they'll also recommend exam sequences, provide insight and information about exam content, offer study plans, and review related exam prep books, courses and online materials.

  • Establish exam sequence: Programs such as MCP, CCNA, CNA and many CompTIA credentials only required one exam. Otherwise, you'll want to figure out the proper order in which to take exams for credentials where multiple exams are involved (these include most senior-level Microsoft, Cisco, Novell, Oracle and other big-name certification programs).

  • Consider the following tips for each exam:
      • Find and print exam objectives. You'll usually find links on the exam objectives on vendor or sponsor Web sites.

  • Purchase one or more study guides. Study guides are full-length books that teach everything you need to know to pass a cert exam. Publishers such as Que, Syngress, Sybex, Osborne/McGraw-Hill and Wiley offer a good variety. (As a "best purchasing practice," use comparative reviews to find those that get the best ratings from former exam candidates.)
  • Purchase one or more Exam Crams. Exam Crams are shorter, more focused books that concentrate on covering exam content and questions rather than teaching everything about underlying subjects. They make great supplements to full-length treatments for those learning a subject for the first time, but can stand alone for those who already know the material and just want to bone up for an exam.
  • Analyze related training. Some certifications require candidates to take official courses, others don't. If your chosen credential imposes such requirements, you'll want to find out how much they cost and where they're offered, and decide when you can sign up for same.
  • Purchase one or more practice exams. Vendors like Boson, PrepLogic, Self-Test Software and MeasureUp all offer well-built practice exams for most IT cert exams. Here again, it's wise to consult peer reviews, or reports from successful test-takers, to help you pick best-of-breed offerings.
  • Review the exam objectives and develop a plan of study. As you read through objectives, you'll know where you need to put your effort in learning and practicing tasks and skills to prepare.
  • Test as you go. As you finish an objective, use the Exam Cram and study guide(s) to assess your understanding and evaluate your skills and abilities.
  • Test for assessment, then for readiness. As you begin studying, take a practice test to supplement your study plan. You can relate incorrect answers to exam objectives and cover unfamiliar material as you prepare further. Later, take another practice test to check your scoring. When you can consistently beat the minimum passing score by 5% to 10% (more is better), you're ready to tackle the real thing. (Extra points are good because the stress of taking the actual exam usually depresses scores by 5% to 10%.)
  • Sign up for and take the exam. It's usually a good idea to show up at least 15 minutes early at the testing center to allow for minor delays. Once you take an exam, you'll usually find out whether you passed immediately upon completion. For that reason, always try to remember questions and topics where you had difficulty, so you can return to them to prepare for another try, if necessary.
  • Congratulations if you pass. If you don't pass, revise your plan of study to compensate for where you struggled on the exam. Repeat until you pass!

  • Monitor your progress: Typically you'll find pass/fail notification information on the sponsor or vendor Web site, so keep an eye on the status to ensure it's progressing as expected. If their records don't match your accomplishments, the onus is on you to work with sponsors to set things straight. That's why you should keep the printed score you'll get at the testing center whenever you take an exam, just in case something goes awry with reporting or recording those results.

IT certifications usually include a paper certificate, but they may also offer access to restricted Web sites, magazine subscriptions, evaluation software or other perks, depending on the certification sponsor. Keep track of your tests and follow up with the exam sponsor to ensure you get the proper documentation and results.

Good luck. With this checklist in hand, you'll find yourself adding all kinds of certification titles on your business card and .sig file in no time!

About the author:
Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer, trainer and consultant who specializes in matters related to information security, markup languages and networking technologies. He's a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites and technology editor for Certification Magazine. Ed has also written many text and trade books, including Guide to TCP/IP, third edition, with protocol maven Laura Chappell (ISBN: 1418837555).

Reader feedback
I disagree with taking the tests (full tests like transender, Boston, etc.) while you are studying the material. I think you should use the end of chapter quizzes and section tests in guide books during your studies to ensure you understand the material but reserve the full tests until you have completed studying the full content at least once. If you take the practice tests too early or too often you risk learning the test. This will lead to a very high score on the practice tests but potential failure on the real thing.

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