Prepare for certification exams using these zero-cost resources

When you're strapped for cash, you have to go back to the basics to obtain the certification study resources you need. Here are some tips for finding free study aids.

Many IT pros contend that in tough economic times, certification is more important than ever because it allows you to stand out from the rest of the admin crowd. Unfortunately, that's also when money to pursue certification becomes scarce. When the economy was healthier, your employer may have readily paid for vendor-approved classes at an authorized training center, but the budget no longer offers that opportunity.

Fret not. Losing the money to sit through a training class eliminates only one method of study. There are plenty of other tools you can use to effectively prepare for certification exams. In this article, we’ll look at the zero-cost methods and resources available for certification study.

Start at the beginning
When preparing for any certification exam, or series of exams, you should always start at the vendor’s Web site. This may sound like common sense, but you would be surprised at how little vendor sites are truly utilized. Doing your research at the vendor’s site can make the difference between spending no money on your studies and having to dig into your wallet.

The first order of business is to obtain the most complete list of exam objectives you can find. Every vendor differs in how it posts objectives. For instance, the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) not only posts the objectives and subobjectives, but it also lists the topics beneath each and the weight each topic has on the exam. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Novell merely offers a list of topics that the questions may cover. Every vendor’s objectives list, sometimes called a domain list, falls somewhere along this spectrum.

Armed with the list of objectives and topics, you should comb the vendor’s site to find all the support documents it offers for each of the subjects. Don’t waste your time looking in the certification section; you’ll just find the objective listed repeatedly in various forms. Instead, go to the deployment/support section of the Web site and search for keywords that appear in the objective’s phrasing. With a lot of patience and a bit of luck, you’ll be surprised by what you can find.

At Sun’s site, for example, you can find 95 percent of everything you need to know for the Solaris certification exams posted in support documents. The same is true for the Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco sites. Bear in mind that the individuals who wrote the questions for the exam had to get their information from somewhere, and they relied on some of the same documentation you can find on vendor sites. That makes this approach not only one of the most cost efficient but also one of the most effective.

Turn to Google
Combing through a vendor’s support documents works when an exam is specific to that vendor's products. But, of course, this method fails when it is not. Some certification exams are vendor-neutral, meaning that they're offered by third parties that don't endorse any one product. CompTIA is the best example of this, with its slew of “plus” exams, such as A+, Network+, Server+, i-Net+, and Security+. Other examples of those providing vendor-neutral certification are LPI and SAIR.

Since these organizations exist for purposes other than promoting a product, they do not have support or documentation features on their sites, so you need to look elsewhere for the information you need. Although any search engine can help you, I’ve had the best success with Google. Using a list of the exam topics, I parse out key phrases and enter them in the search engine using quotation marks.

For example, here's one of the objectives on the Network+ exam:

1.6 Identify the purpose, features, and functions of the following network components:
  • Hubs
  • Switches
  • Bridges
  • Routers
  • Gateways
  • Network Interface Cards/ISDN adapters/system area network cards
  • Wireless access points
  • Modems

Typing hubs switches bridges routers gateways in Google brings up a number of links, the second of which is a 22-page PDF chapter that details the pertinent points of “Traffic regulators: Network interfaces, hubs, switches, bridges, routers, and firewalls.” You can repeat the search process for every objective to find what you need to know.

This study method, a complement to using the vendor’s support information, doesn't require you to spend any money. But it does require you to spend a significant amount of time weeding through a large quantity of material to find the best resources to use. If you have plenty of time and the ability to filter good information from bad, you’ll be pleased with this method. If not, you’ll want to consider the next option.

Other Web options
Instead of focusing on individual exam topics to find the best reference source for each, you can turn to exam-specific sites instead. In so doing, you are no longer looking for the best information on each topic but shortening the search process to find information written specifically for that exam. A plethora of certification exam study sites exists, and experience is the only way to know which are good and which are not.

Many sites focus on only one type of certification exam, such as Microsoft-oriented sites, Cisco-oriented sites, and so on. Others offer a broad range of topics. Within the latter category, some sites, such as, offer news, and some, including, offer study resources.

Although and similar news sites focus primarily on developments in the certification world, they also offer articles on specific exams. CertCities recently started a series of articles known as Mega-Guides, which dissect an exam into two or three lengthy articles and focus on what you need to know to pass it on an objective-by-objective basis. is one of the oldest sites offering study guides. These are 20- to 40-page documents that walk you through the key points of the exam and explain what you must know to pass. The material is available as an ad-free PDF, which you must pay for, and as a free, ad-based online HTML file. I recommend viewing the HTML pages first to make sure that the study guide offers what you need before deciding whether to make a purchase.

Save your money
These are lean times, and you may not have the luxury of formal, company-subsidized training. But you shouldn't let that stop you from pursuing certifications that may advance your career. Whether you round up resources on vendor sites, via targeted searches, or from exam-specific sites, you can effectively prepare for cert exams without spending a dime.

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