Failing a certification exam needn't be catastrophic

How to approach failing an IT exam

I know of no click more disconcerting than the Butterfly Click. You know the one. It’s the last moment, the final mouse click, before learning whether you’ve passed or failed an IT exam.

There’s such trepidation. There’s so much anticipation. And, if you’re like me, there’s anxiety. My eyes always search the screen looking for that most beautiful sentence that begins, “Congratulations, you’ve passed….”

But you needn’t place the weight of the world on your shoulders. So what if you see a message stating you failed? IT exams aren’t CPA tests, where you have to wait six months to a year before you can take them again. In many cases, you can retake the test the following day.

The next time you take an exam, relax a little. Life goes on, even if you fail.

Should you come up a little short, here are three tips to help plan your counterattack.

Conduct reconnaissance, measure preparedness
The first thing to do, should you fail an exam, is not wail uncontrollably from the depths of your soul, releasing your professional angst, pain, and disbelief. Others taking tests may find that disturbing.

Instead, even before you crash with a steamy latte to revisit your defeat, you should write down all the problematic topics you encountered. Do this in your car. The sooner you write down topics that stumped you, the more you’ll remember.

Make notes about any exhibits, diagrams, or screenshots you found particularly confusing. If specific exam topics, such as performance monitoring and optimization, printer issues, or even port assignments, left you scratching your head, write those down.

The notes you record following a failed test will be the most valuable reconnaissance information you have in preparing your counterattack. Only after you’ve duly noted the topics that overpowered should you prepare a new assault.

If your list is long and you didn’t fail by just a nose, it’s time to hit the books. If your list includes three objectives or more that troubled you, it’s probably best to pick up the respective Exam Cram or another related text to help you review the exam material. Then, make yourself sit down and read it.

Don’t fret if you need to take an additional two or three weeks to meet your certification goal. The important thing is to earn the certification, not to earn the certification by (pick one) the next week, the next month, the end of next month, or by the time you leave for vacation.

Practice test drills
The next step in your recovery strategy should involve live fire. Since exam centers won’t let you practice using real-world exams, pick up some simulation tests. Many companies produce preparatory software. Transcender and Self-Test Software are two of the biggest and most trusted.

If cost is a significant factor, you might try Prep Technologies. However, the company is slow to introduce Windows 2000 simulations. At the time of this writing, Prep Technologies still didn’t have Win2K software available, although it does have Cisco, CompTIA, and a few Microsoft exams available.

I doubt that anyone dislikes sitting down with practice tests more than I do. Often, I’d rather be forced to eat a fiery Mexican green pepper marinated in Melinda’s Original Habanero XXXX Reserve hot sauce miles from water before sequestering myself in a room with a few hundred test questions. And, I quit eating hot and spicy foods long ago. (I have a tale about a hot green sauce whose label read simply “Fabricado en Ciudad de M�xico,” but that’s another story for another day.)

Spending time with quality simulation exams is good for you. Forcing yourself to sit with practice tests not only acquaints you with the material you’ll be retested on, but it familiarizes you with the testing process. If you purchase high-end practice exams, you’ll also be acquainted with the actual test format. The time you spend honing in on the material at hand and testing will only make you stronger. And more comfortable.

Shore up your defenses
If your reconnaissance list of troubling test topics is short and you failed by just a question or two, take the next week to study up on areas in which you’re weakest. You shouldn’t take the exam the next day, even if you can. Give yourself a short breather.

You can read the relevant book sections while parked in an overstuffed chair at the local Barnes & Noble. Or surf a few Web sites and study up on the fundamentals that escaped you. Most important, be sure that you memorize the important details related to the problematic topics. Doing so will help your confidence when you return to take the test.

In cases where just a single topic or subject tripped you up, it’s important to get back into the testing room quickly. The sooner you return to conquer the exam, the more your previous training efforts will help.

Wait too long and you may have to reread an entire certification study guide. No one wants that, so don’t procrastinate by more than two or three weeks.

If you walked into a field of landmines, start over at the beginning. There’s no shame there. Get a book and some sample tests. Spend some time working with the software or hardware your test references. Your follow-up attack will be much more likely to succeed, and your confidence will be reinforced knowing you’ve prepared as best you can.

Eckel’s take
IT professionals, as a group, tend to set pretty high standards for themselves. At least, that’s been the case with the ones I’ve corresponded with and met.

Regardless of your expectations, don’t overlook a simple fact. One key to certification success is to avoid getting carried away if you fail an exam.

I remember one successful IT pro who recounted a test he failed. You could tell from his demeanor that he found it no more disturbing than if a vending machine had kept 50 cents and failed to produce the soft drink he was trying to buy. The last time I talked to him, he had passed 15 or 16 Microsoft exams.

Certainly, it’s no fun to fail an exam. But it doesn’t have to be a catastrophic experience. You won’t lose your job. Friends and colleagues won’t think less of you. Your family will still respect you.

How do you prepare to retake failed certification exams?
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.

Should you fail, pick yourself back up. Brush yourself off, and then declare revenge. That’s sure to be as sweet as the congratulatory message following the feared Butterfly Click.

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