CXO

Conquer IT certification with these invaluable tips

TechRepublic members rely on a cornucopia of strategies for certification exam success. This week's IT Certification Corner highlights the best tips members have provided for certification studying.


TechRepublic members are a creative lot. Back in June, I described The Isabella Factor and asked TechRepublic members to share the study approaches they’ve found helpful. As you may remember, The Isabella Factor refers to the inevitable crises that interrupt certification studying, as well as the manner in which you overcome those crises.

The floodgates opened. Members sent tips ranging from study in the restroom to head for Vegas and lock yourself in a hotel room, rewarding yourself with trips to the casino only after you’ve studied for extended periods of time without interruption.

Congratulations to Western Michigan University’s J. Fee and IT professional M. Mackessy, whose “*CLUNK* reduction” plans were chosen as the two best responses received. Each will receive a copy of O’Reilly’s Windows 2000 Active Directory.

Wondering what certification strategies they, and others, recommended? Read on for all the highlights.

Set the date
Many TechRepublic members said that they must set their exam date before they can force themselves to sit down and begin studying. Pbirch was the first to pass along that suggestion, saying, “Once I’ve made the commitment on the date, and it’s, at most, a month ahead, then I’ll sit down and crack the books.”

Interestingly, he doesn’t cram.

“Every weeknight, I will study from 8:00 to 10:00. The night before the test, I do anything but study. I either know it or I don’t by then.”

I wish I had such confidence. I can usually be found reviewing an Exam Cram and simulation tests the evening before my dates with destiny.

Take breaks!
It’s fairly unanimous that sitting down and studying without a break for hours on end is a counterproductive practice. While you might feel guilty interrupting your training session to watch a show or grab a bite to eat, you shouldn’t.

“I learned back in high school never to study more than 60 minutes without a break,” said IT director Dfairbanks.

“Numerous studies have confirmed that retention and concentration fade sharply after 60 minutes of continuous studying.”

He advised breaks of anywhere between two or three minutes to 15 to 30 minutes. That’s just long enough to take in a favorite sitcom or grab a high-energy snack. Perfect!

Listen up
Several TechRepublic members said they listen to audiotapes while commuting. They either record their notes on audiotapes, read relevant book sections onto tapes, or buy commercial exam preparation audiotapes or CDs.

While I view listening to MCSE study tapes in my car as cruel and unusual punishment, it apparently works very well for others. Take Fataugie, for example. He said, “They were a great test-day refresher on the way to the testing site.”

Study on the bus, Gus
“My answer is to bring a good old school bag with me everywhere I go,” Benoit said. An IT professional supporting 72 users, he studies during his daily 80-minute, round-trip bus commute. He also studies in other places where he’s kept waiting, such as at doctors’ and dentists’ offices.

Certainly, his attitude helps quite a bit too. While he’s fortunate to be able to concentrate easily, he admits that success in IT requires passion, dedication, and a true desire to learn.

“This is only possible when you see your job not as a job but the greatest daycare you’ve ever been [in]!” he said. "Your workplace is full of ‘toys.’”

Study at work
You think there’s no time to study at work? Normally, that’s what I’d think too. But a few TechRepublic readers suggested otherwise.

Network engineer Cain said that certification studying opportunities might be closer than you think. Study at work. Build it into your job description, if you can.

“Some companies, if not most,” he said, “allow for some kind of training period. Ask the boss if you can hunker down with a book a few times a week. After all, the cert helps them as well [since] they gain a more valuable employee.”

And the winners are…
It’s human nature to want a problem’s solution to be simple, straightforward, and concise. Unfortunately, anyone who’s studied DNA code can tell you that’s not the way the world works. J. Fee’s solution to IT certification, while complex, mirrors my overall annual plan. Maybe that’s why I liked it.

He recommended developing a “multichannel mind.” He’s learned to divide his life into categories: job, finance, home improvements, certification, etc. He then builds lists, or goals, for each category. Those lists enumerate everything he wants to accomplish into three subcategories, one each for short-, mid-, and long-range planning. He reviews his lists regularly, thereby keeping goals fresh in his memory.

Dividing each of his categories into lists with smaller, manageable tasks spread over a specific timeline means that no single task requires an inordinate amount of time to complete.

“Since a project has been dissected into its simplest parts, the tasks are most often completely understood and the methods of its solutions are clear and straightforward,” he said.

His strategy’s biggest benefit lies in the fact that his recreational activities and home improvement chores are planned to help ensure that his life remains balanced. He even has time to “watch TV, play in the lake [where he has a lake house], socialize with neighbors and friends, etc.”

My annual plan is similar. At the end of every year, I write down quantifiable goals I want to meet over the next year. For example, my list might look like this:
  • Earn Windows 2000 Professional and Windows 2000 Server MCP certifications.
  • Read 20 books.
  • Rebuild my dilapidated deck.
  • Bicycle 3,500 miles.
  • Take 15 work- and study-free weekends with the family.

Then, when you take time to browse Barnes & Noble’s shelves for a new novel, or exercise, you don’t have to feel guilty that you’re not actually studying.

When you head to Home Depot on a Saturday morning for a load of lumber, you don’t have to worry that you should really be spending time studying. Should you and the family decide to hit the local amusement park one weekend, you can relax. It’s part of the plan.

Ultimately, IT certification can be an important annual objective. By planning accordingly, certification needn’t become an annual obsession that consumes your life.

If you’re tight on time, as most of us are, you can always use M. Mackessy’s brown-bag approach. Long a fan of eating lunch at my desk so I can leave the office while the sun’s still shining, I related to his strategy as well.

“I put a sign up in front of the cube that says ‘In for lunch, please do not disturb.’ In addition, I let the phone ring (unless it is from the executive vice president level or above) and turn off the e-mail alerts for the hour,” he said. “The advantages are that I have a real network to look at and work from and my boss gets to see my efforts at certification.”

What better way is there to gain five hours of uninterrupted study time a week? Think of all the things you can do with the hours you’ve freed.

What’s your favorite certification study tip?
We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.


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