Talking Shop: Ensuring test day certification success

Test-day preparation

Trying to remember all you've learned and studied while preparing for a certification exam is tough enough, but as some candidates have discovered, that knowledge alone won't always get you through a test. Sometimes a testing center conspires against you.

I've read horror stories sent in by TechRepublic members and seen threads posted on other certification sites that sound like living nightmares: test facilities that are closed or that have no record of a test being scheduled, exam centers where employees and students engage in distracting and raucous activities, test centers where the computers are slower than the 386 your Aunt Sally still uses to play Solitaire, and worse.

Fortunately, you can take a few quick and easy steps to help ensure success on your testing day. While these are simple tips, certification candidates often overlook them. You won't want to pay the price they will. Avoid unnecessary headaches and maddening frustration by ensuring you cover these three bases prior to taking an exam.

#1: Familiarize yourself in advance with the testing facility
It sounds obvious, but you have to read some of the stories I've read to believe the conditions some IT professionals find when arriving at a testing facility to take an exam. I've read about sites where candidates taking a test are shown to a large room in which employees and others mill about and discuss sports, their weekend experiences, and other topics in loud voices, while others try to concentrate on passing exams 10 feet away. Although that's distracting enough, other candidates have found a training facility's testing center consists of nothing more than an old, outdated PC installed in a high-traffic public area, seemingly as an afterthought.

Certainly, even upstanding testing centers are prone to anomalies. I took several exams in a high-rise facility that had a solid professional reputation, and most of those exams went well. One time, though, a Windows NT 4.0 MCSE exam I was taking was interrupted by a false fire alarm. Those things happen.

What you want to do is weed out those facilities that are prone to introducing interruptions, distractions, or other disadvantages. Your best bet is to take a quick tour of a test center before you schedule your exam. Check out the testing room. Is it clean and quiet? Are the computers fairly new? If the answer to one of those questions is no, look for another test site. Often, your check need not require a separate trip. Most training centers include their own exam room, so if you're there for a training course, simply take a moment during a break to look it over.

Also, ask around. Check with other IT professionals or students in any training classes you might attend to learn their opinions of testing centers in your area.

Never underestimate the importance of a clean, quiet room devoted exclusively to certification exams. You're paying $125 or more to take an exam you've spent significant time preparing for, so you shouldn't compromise when it actually comes to taking the test.

#2: Schedule your test day carefully
Don't schedule your test on a day when you know you'll be overrun with typical work responsibilities. It's important that you relax during the exam. If you're worried about having to rush back to the office to complete Exchange Server backups on Friday, for example, choose a different day.

Avoid scheduling your exam on days when major weekly meetings or other notable events occur. The typical exam will have you out of the office for a few hours, at least. When you return, you'll have e-mail and voice-mail to return. Don't complicate your day further by leaving yourself no time to do so because you're covered in meetings.

Ultimately, you want to select a day that allows you to maximize your studying and preparation. If you won't have any time to perform a final review on a Wednesday evening because of a work or personal commitment, don't schedule your exam for Thursday. Always leave open the evening before an exam so you'll have time for a final review.

As I discussed in a previous article, I believe Tuesdays are your best bet. Of course, depending upon your unique tasks and responsibilities and your organization's schedule, Tuesdays may not work well. Just don't take any time or date the testing facility offers. Minimize your anxiety by eliminating stress from meetings, job tasks, and other responsibilities as best you can and be sure the evening before the exam is free for last-minute studying.

#3: Follow up to make sure that the test center knows you're coming
IT pros typically register for an IT exam by contacting Prometric or Virtual University Enterprises (VUE), either by telephone or on the Web. Both testing companies then check for approved facilities in your area and available exam slots. Your reservation is entered, and the respective exam slot is removed from the pool of seats available at the time you scheduled. At least, that's what happens if things work properly.

With numerous exam vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, Novell, and others; a wide range of approved testing centers in cities around the world; and an even larger number of individuals whose transcripts must be tracked; it's easy to understand how the databases that manage all this information quickly become large and complicated.

Get one setting wrong—just one errant field in one record, and guess what? You could show up for an exam only to find the testing facility has no idea who you are or why you're there. Worse, there'll be no exam for you to take. So, you're back to having to schedule an exam.

One reader wrote to tell me about his experience late last year. He had scheduled the Accelerated Windows 2000 exam on Dec. 31, the last day the exam could be taken. When he arrived at his testing center, he found the facility was closing for New Year's Eve, even though he had an exam scheduled. He didn't get to take his exam. Now, he has to take all four exams covered by the Accelerated test separately. Apparently the test center made plans to close early but didn't communicate that information properly to Prometric/VUE.

Minimize exam day confusion by calling the test center the day before you take your exam. Ask the center to confirm that its records show you're due to take an exam at the time and date you scheduled. Also check that the center's records show you'll be taking the actual exam you scheduled. Verify this fact using the exam code or test ID, as some test center employees aren't IT professionals and therefore might not know the difference between a "designing an infrastructure exam" vs. an "administering an infrastructure exam."

Eckel's take
You have enough to worry about on the day you take your test. Don't let extraneous factors derail your certification effort. Follow these three steps and save yourself some test day stress by ensuring that you'll be able to concentrate on the test you're taking and that you'll receive the actual exam you've scheduled.


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