Taking the new A+ exams? Here's what to expect

Faithe Wempen just passed her A+ exams—for the second time. In this Daily Feature, she tells you what to expect when you take the new CompTIA exams.

Even though I already had my A+ certification from back in 1998, I just took the brand-new 2001 A+ exams because I was curious about them. After all the hype about the revisions, would the exams really be that different? Would the testing software be any better? Would I find them easier or harder than the old versions? In this Daily Feature, I’ll tell you what to expect.

Registering and arriving for the exams
I registered for these exams online at Prometric and was pleased with how easy it was. I just typed in my contact information and credit card number, selected a testing center near my house, and chose my test dates and times. When I arrived at the testing center, everything was ready to go.

Compared to the MOUS exams I had taken a few days earlier, the security for this exam seemed very high. When you arrive to take the exam, you must show two pieces of ID that include your signature, including one with a recent photograph. You are not allowed to take any purses, briefcases, or notes in with you; the facility where I tested had safes in the lobby in which you could lock your valuables, but yours might not. In addition, at the facility where I tested there was a camera trained on each testing station. The receptionist monitored the cameras to make sure nobody was talking or cheating.
Here are more features where you can read about the A+ exams:
In addition, our PC Troubleshooting and Windows Client tracks are stuffed with information you need to study in preparation for exam day.
Exam structure
There are 70 questions per exam. The Core Hardware exam claims to have 71 questions, but the 71st question is just an agreement to abide by the nondisclosure rule. (I am trying hard to comply with it in this Daily Feature, which is why I’m intentionally vague about specific questions.)

The possible scoring ranges from 100 (all wrong) to 900 (all right). A passing score on the Core Hardware exam is 683; a passing score on the OS Technologies exam is 614. These scores were determined as a result of beta testing in late 2000 that helped determine what questions to ask, how many questions to include, and what a passing score should be, among other things. (How did I score? I’m proud to say I kicked some CompTIA butt on the Operating Systems Technologies exam with a score of 824, but I fell down somewhat on the Core Hardware with a score of 766.)

As I reported earlier, the new exams are not adaptive in format, so you are free to skip around and come back to questions later. This is a multiple-choice exam, for the most part. You generally have four answers to choose from. (Watch the wording on these, though, because sometimes the question directs you to pick the answer that’s false, rather than true.)

Some questions (perhaps 10 percent) are multianswer. For those, you must pick the two or three correct answers from a list. In each case, the question tells you how many items you should pick, which makes the questions easier than if you had to weigh the merits of each possible answer individually.

A few questions on the hardware exam are based on pictures. You are shown a drawing of a particular piece of hardware, and you must click on the part asked for. While it sounds easy, the longer I stared at a couple of those drawings, the more unsure of my answer I became. It’s a little like staring at a word so long that it starts to look misspelled. Just go with your gut on these questions.

You can take up to 90 minutes for each exam, but I found this to be way too much time; I finished each exam in about 45 minutes. There are only 70 questions, after all, and on most of them you either know the answer or you don’t—pondering one for five minutes is not going to improve the situation.

Tips and traps
CompTIA has learned a few things about testing since the last update to the A+ examinations, and the 2001 versions show it. These are good, clean exams, with clearly worded, fair questions, for the most part. The testing software is a little awkward to get used to, but built-in safeguards in the program can help save you from errors like skipped questions.

The testing software runs smoothly and quickly, but there are a couple of quirks. For example, the Next button (to move to the next question) is on the left, rather than on the right, and the Previous button is in the middle. This positioning is opposite to nearly every other program you’ve probably used, and it takes a little adjustment. Another more serious issue is that (at least on the machine I used) the Next button has a dismaying tendency to “bounce” and skip ahead two or more questions instead of one each time you click on it. You need to check the question number (at the top-left corner of the screen) to make sure that you’ve moved only one question ahead each time you click Next.

There’s a built-in safeguard at the end of the test to prevent you from missing questions you accidentally skipped. When you complete the last question, a Review screen appears with a red “I” next to any incomplete answers. That includes not only questions for which you have entered no answer but also multianswer questions for which you have not selected enough correct answers. For example, if the question instructed you to “Pick three of the following,” and you picked two, the software will alert you.

At the top-left corner of each question is a Mark check box. You can mark a question if you are not sure of the answer and come back to it later. Marked questions appear with yellow highlighting on the Review screen, and you can double-click them to return to the question. There is also a Review Marked feature at the end of the test that enables you to page through all your marked questions one by one.

Core Hardware content
In a previous Daily Drill Down (see list above), I discussed the test changes that CompTIA promised us on their Web site, so I won’t rehash all that here. But based on my recent testing experience, let me reiterate a few important points. Make sure that you know:
  • Default IRQs and I/O addresses for all common devices.
  • PC start-up process. (Make sure you know terms like BIOS, CMOS, POST, ROM, and so on.)
  • The latest processor types and the slots they fit into.
  • The latest types of memory.
  • The newest hard drive technologies.
  • The number of pins/holes and the shapes of each type of connector.
  • How a laser printer works.
  • How an inkjet printer works.
  • How portable computers interact with PCMCIA, docking stations, and infrared devices.

For a complete listing of the objectives to study for this exam, see CompTIA’s Web site. (You’ll need a PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

Operating System Technologies content
As with the new Core Hardware exam, I didn’t find any major differences between what CompTIA promised and what was delivered. One thing that did strike me, however, was that I had expected a heavier focus on Windows 2000 to the virtual exclusion of Windows NT 4, based on Microsoft’s marketing push toward upgrading to Windows 2000, but this was not the case. That was unfortunate for me, since I am not—and never have been—a Windows NT 4 expert.

Some of the most important topics to study for this exam include the following:
  • Windows NT and Windows 2000 boot processes
  • Windows 95 and 98 boot processes
  • System utilities under each operating system
  • Ways to edit the Registry, .ini files, and other start-up files
  • Basic command-line utilities and commands
  • The function of common lines found in Autoexec.bat and Config.sys
  • How to troubleshoot device conflicts in each operating system
  • How to configure networking and troubleshoot network problems

For the complete OS Technologies objectives, see CompTIA’s Web site. (Again, you’ll need a PDF reader.)

Based on my experience, the questions are more clearly worded in the 2001 versions of these exams than in previous exams. Fewer questions made me want to argue with the test authors than when I took the A+ exam in 1998. Some of the wrong answers even coaxed a smile out of me because they were cleverly concocted to trip up test takers who were trying to guess their way through.

As long as you prepare adequately, there’s nothing too scary about the new A+ exams. Just pay attention to the wording of the questions, watch out for the little quirks in the testing software, and relax—you’ll do fine.

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