CXO

Don't miss this smorgasbord of cert study tips

Studying for an IT certification exam can be a huge challenge, especially when you're also juggling a demanding job and a personal life. Before you take your next exam, consider some of these tried-and-true tricks of the trade.


Some of the best study tips and certification preparation ideas you'll ever pick up are those you receive from colleagues. Take the tips TechRepublic members provided back in August, for example. Fortunately, the great ideas keep coming. Here are more creative and resourceful certification study methods employed by TechRepublic members.

Make the most of the final days
Most anyone who's prepared for a certification can relate to the butterflies and general anxiety the exam often triggers as the testing day deadline approaches. Don't fall victim to intimidation. FMacMillan doesn't.

Instead, this MCP and TechRepublic member hits practice exams hard, reads the accompanying Exam Cram, and spends time working with a three-node test network to reinforce the topics and subjects the exam covers. He used the method successfully to pass one of the most rigorous and difficult exams (actually four-in-one) to come down the pike in a long time: Redmond's 70-240 Windows 2000 Accelerated Exam.

Trip list tactics
TechRepublic member Beatrice has found it helpful to keep a running list of the questions that trip her up. Employing such a trip list makes it easy to review the most troublesome topics. After three or four reviews, she finds that she usually remembers the information and the question format. This technique also helps her spot any twists. "[I start] to mentally chart trends so that I can anticipate trick questions as I read them."

Beatrice isn't the only reader who believes it's important to maximize mental powers.

Nutrition, braindumps, mind mapping, and reading
One writer, a system operations specialist from South Africa, suggests candidates eat plenty of fish and eggs. "Excellent brain food," said Collen. He recommends supplementing brain food with Lecithin and Choline "to enhance and regenerate existing brain memory."

Braindumps and mind mapping (in which you draw or write on paper other ideas and concepts around a topic or subject listed in the center) are two items that also work well for him. He said mind mapping allows him to "quickly brainmap situations," while he uses braindumps to bolster methodic reading.

Before you knock his methods, consider that he's earned MCP, MCP+I, MCSE, and database certifications and scored a 960 on his last test. Meanwhile, he's planning to use the techniques on his next three exams (including Windows XP and SMS 2.0), unless he decides to also slip in two additional certifications covering C++ and Visual Basic.

Studying at opportune moments
Some member tips I received were more traditional. Malcolm is one example. He finds studying in the morning for 90 minutes before going to work allows him to set a study schedule but proceed at a fairly leisure pace.

A few other TechRepublic readers have commented that recording study material on tape is helpful, and Malcolm agrees. He supplements his audiotapes by making 3x5 note cards (the kind you may have used to make outlines on for school projects). He listens to the tape when he drives and uses the 3x5 cards when time permits.

"If I'm in the waiting room at the doctor's office or waiting for the tires to be changed on my car, I whip out the 3x5s. So, on a typical day, I add at least an extra hour and a half to my studying, especially to the problem areas."

Use these tips for Cisco exams
While test networks simulating a Windows-powered LAN are fairly easy to set up, building a test network that emulates an enterprisewide infrastructure reliant upon multiple Cisco routers is another challenge altogether. TechRepublic member Ivory has found a few proven techniques for overcoming Cisco certification obstacles.

He starts by scheduling his exam to force him to really begin studying. He works with the typical practice exams and textbooks too. And instead of purchasing expensive equipment and building an elaborate network, he works with a routing simulator. He says it helps him "get the feel for theory without buying thousands of dollars worth of hardware or crashing a production network."

Ivory also found that establishing an informal support group is useful. "What helps me most is having other people pushing me to do it. We encourage each other and form a support group to keep each other going."

You don't have to find another IT professional studying the same material as you, either.

"Even if you cannot find a person who knows the material, anybody can be a coach/mentor by giving you encouragement and support." All it takes is someone to ask, "How are those certs coming along?" Ivory said.

Remember these five truths of certification
Dmitri, who's earned A+, Network+, i-Net+, CIW Associate, HDA, and MCP certifications, said he follows his five basic truths of certification:
  1. You can't study when you are tired.
  2. You should always plan studying time.
  3. You should separate your work and studying; never mix the two.
  4. You must set attainable (reasonable) goals.
  5. You have to have a long-term goal (what are the certifications leading you toward).

Like most IT pros, Dmitri hates wasting time.

"Sitting and rereading the same paragraph always drives me insane," he said. "I find it's critical to know exactly what you want out of each paragraph you are reading. It has to make sense to you after you read it; otherwise, you just have to go back to it."

How does he keep from having to reread passages? He doesn't study while watching TV or when someone is trying to talk with him. He's found discussing topics he's studying with his brother (who's also in IT) helps him retain information too.

While learning, he keeps focused on the ultimate goal.

"I always try to ensure that I fully understand the concept described and that I understand how I'd apply it myself in real life."

How to find time in a hectic schedule
The biggest sacrifice you must make when pursuing a certification is time. You can easily spend hundreds of hours a year preparing for exams. Finding time to study can be the most difficult challenge you face, especially if your job's demanding and you have hobbies and a family.

But don't think it can't be done. Roger is proof that it can, even with a challenging occupation and five children. He attends classes 12 hours a week and spends many additional hours outside work studying for class. How's he do it?

"The mainstay of my strategy is a small collection of current class work that I literally carry with me everywhere." He's found bits of time throughout the day, either when he's waiting on someone, at lunch, or commuting, when he can read study materials and notes or listen to audiobooks he has scrounged up.

Having study materials and audio recordings ready at all times allows him to "maintain a demanding lifestyle as well as provide the extra study time without having to cram or stay up all night."

Eckel's take
You can prepare for certification exams in a variety of ways. A method that works for one IT pro may not work for you. Your best bet is to experiment with different routines. When you find study techniques that work, stick with them but don't be afraid to try new ones. If you find that a new trick, such as listening to a recorded lecture or notes on an audiotape, doesn't work for you, you can always revert to your tried-and-true methods.

If you have used creative or resourceful study methods that haven't been discussed here, send them to me. I'm on the lookout for more study tips and tricks that might benefit other IT professionals.

Editor's Picks