You, too, can become a test-taking professional

Does your heart race and do your palms sweat when you take certification exams? Become a test-taking pro by following some simple tips Erik Eckel has found useful on visits to the ol' testing center.

Your real-world experience doesn’t matter. Neither does all the time spent studying, reviewing material in classrooms, and taking simulations. Unless you can sit in a testing center, grab that mouse, and navigate a certification exam, all your preparation is for naught.
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Certification tests are all about your ability to answer hypothetical, and in some cases deliberately confusing, questions quickly and accurately. Some are easier than others.

You might receive a two- or three-sentence question with five answers to choose from. Sometimes you are expected to select all the answers that apply. Other times, you’ll find yourself presented with an IT case study that seemingly consumes 10 of your precious exam minutes just to read. And to keep you on your toes, test engines now feature simulated desktop screens, network diagrams, and drag-and-drop scenarios.

It’s easy to become unnerved. After all, who wants to go home and study the subject matter again or pony up another hundred bucks?

So how do you keep your cool and stay on track? Try some of the test-taking tips I’ve found useful in building a seven-for-seven track record.

Write it down
Almost every vendor provides candidates with a standard-size sheet of paper or plastic sheet and marker. Use it. Jot down subnetting tables, cable length limits, share permissions structure, trust relationship diagrams, or whatever subject runs the risk of becoming jumbled in your memory once the exam begins.

As you’re reading case study and scenario questions, jot down notes and diagrams that help you keep the situation straight. Don’t spend time making it look pretty. It’s all about functionality at this point. Just make notes that you can read to help you solve the question.

Manage the clock
There aren’t many feelings worse than realizing you have 10 minutes left to complete 10 more questions. One of the most critical exam factors is your ability to manage the clock. Just as in the NFL and the NBA, the ability to control the clock is essential: It could determine whether you pass or fail an exam.

Whether you’re taking an adaptive- or standard-format exam, quickly calculate how much time you think you’ll receive for each question. Then, make sure that you don’t exceed that time frame more than once or twice—and not at length.

When taking standard-format exams, get in the habit of spending approximately the same amount of time on each question. Why waste 15 minutes on a single case study question when you could have dedicated that time to seven other questions?

Obviously, adaptive tests are another story. Sometimes, you receive only 15 questions. It’s likely that some are weighted much more heavily than others, based on their level of difficulty.

Never click “end test” when you have time left on the clock and the test permits reviewing answers. Make use of that time by double-checking your responses. Having an extra 10 minutes or more can be a wonderful luxury that you should use well. You’re cheating yourself if you don’t.

Learn from the past
The folks who create the tests you take are just like you and me. They have their own Outlook calendars full of tasks and meetings. They don’t always have an opportunity to cross every “t” and dot every “i.”

As a result, on standard tests that permit previewing upcoming items and returning to old questions, you can sometimes find the answer to one question in the body text of another. However, don’t spend time tracking issue after issue.

Instead, complete your test first. Then, with any remaining time you have, backtrack. Use your paper to note which questions you’re shaky on and other questions that might provide helpful information.

Guess smart
I once met an engineer that answered “B” to every question he just didn’t know. He figured that over time, his odds of getting an answer right increased by staying with the same answer. Also, he’d read some study that indicated the most often used answer in tests is “B.”

While that might or might not work, you can definitely improve your odds of answering a question correctly by eliminating at least a few factors. Consider all the knowledge you’ve gained when taking a test. If a couple of answers just don’t seem right, follow your hunch. If another doesn’t make sense for one reason or another, consider eliminating it.

Be sure to toss aside all the peripheral information in a question. Test architects intentionally slide unrelated matter into questions in a deliberate attempt to confuse you. Here’s an example of “test-speak:”

Tom Smith is a systems engineer with several years of experience administering Windows NT networks in a mid-size enterprise that specializes in selling insurance products and services.

What the test is really saying is:

This is a Windows NT question.

Cut to the chase. Focus on the technology questions at hand, not the other drivel.

Ultimately, you’ll have to guess at those questions you haven’t a clue about—or when you don’t understand what the test designers are getting at. But your odds of answering a question correctly improve greatly with every potential answer you can eliminate. If that fails, you might want to try “B.” What do you have to lose?

Relax, life goes on
I’ve been tempted to wear a heart rate monitor to a testing session. As a (not very) competitive cyclist in a former life, I’ve got a watch and belt-like device that displays my current heart rate. I’m sure it has hit well over 120 in the middle of an exam, but without the monitor I can’t be certain.

That’s when it’s time to take a deep breath and realize that these exams aren’t a matter of life and death. Just ask yourself this question: “Twenty years from now, will it really matter if I passed this test?”

Put it in perspective. Take that breath and trudge onward. It’s not unusual to be in the middle of a test and be thinking, “That’s it, I’ve failed.” Those thoughts alone are sufficient to throw you off balance. For this reason, it’s important to slow down, regroup, and continue in a relaxed manner.

Many IT professionals I’ve met have had that dismal feeling, convinced that they’ve failed, only to be greeted by the long green line at the end of a Microsoft exam. Have some faith, okay?
Post a comment below or e-mail your exam tips to TechRepublic. We’ll share your tips with others, and you just might gain a few pointers that’ll help you earn your next certificate.

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