Although there are plenty of degrees and college courses related to IT topics, such as networking, programming and website design, the constant changes in technology mean that studying for vendor-specific exams are the only way to keep up to date. And once you're in full-time employment, there are limits to how much time you can commit to more IT in your day, especially when the benefits of acquiring the most recent qualifications are so short-lived.
So with that in mind, here are five tips to help get you motivated and studying, long after the working day has finished.
1. Choose a relevant exam
You can normally break IT exam takers into three categories: Those taking an exam that relates to a product they use every day at work, those looking to get into an alternate IT field and those that are filling out their resumes with as many IT exams as possible. The first category may also come with the added benefit of being funded by work. When you are gaining hands on experience of a product it can make learning the topic for an exam that bit easier. The second category is arguably the toughest of all as there is no guarantee that passing IT exams will get you that IT job in a different IT field, as you still lack experience, but it's a start. The third category may sound farfetched but there are times when I have found myself studying for an exam which was, quite frankly, past its use by date, but rounded off an overall qualification that I knew would look good to employers. At the end of the day everyone has their own motivations for studying certain IT exams, but it is important to keep in mind why you are pursuing these exams and what you are going to benefit from them once you have passed.
2. Have a study timetable
Without planning out when you can study and what you will cover then you find yourself sat in front of an open book, reading the same pages again and again in the hope something is subconsciously going in. The first step to organising your study is to draw out a calendar which you can populate with all of your work and social commitments. You should keep it realistic, if you know that you are not going to be able to study one day then mark it down. Use different colours to indicate the different activities in your day, that way you can pin it to your wall and see exactly what you have planned that day at a glance. Once you have a schedule you can add your study topics and then break down those topics for each study day, mark in your review sessions and even enter a likely exam date. Once you draw it out like this the exam never seems that far way. It is important not to be too hard on yourself, if you end up missing a week as you have other commitments then mark it down, it might be the week after you are free to study every day. This allows you to set real expectations. Sometimes you may have to move things around, which is also fine but don't do it if the reason is because you're not feeling motivated or your favourite TV show is on, so you will just put it off till tomorrow - tomorrow never comes!
3. Set realistic goals
Once you have the timetable in place as outlined above, you can begin to set those goals. Without any structure you can become disillusioned and the exam you're aiming for seems a million miles away. If you set yourself short-term goals to reach on a weekly or even daily basis, then your long-term goal soon becomes achievable.
4. Access the right study resources
Once you have your study timetable in check and your goals set, then it eventually comes down to actually studying your chosen topic. Vendor produced materials can often be very dry and the thought of picking up a doorstep-sized manual and trying to make snappy memorable notes from it can seem like an impossible task. However it's important you have the vendor materials for reference, but you can often find study manuals and books from other authors that make the product more palatable. It's also worth looking into computer-based training videos that cover your chosen topics; the best ones are often delivered in a fun and interesting way and combine tutorials of the actual products and real-world tips and tricks. In short, ensure that you have a variety of study resources on hand as having different angles on a topic makes understanding it a lot easier
5. Get in touch with like-minded individuals
It can be a lonely world at the end of a long day. You're hunched over your study manuals trying to come to grips with a technology, and you don't have any "classmates" to bounce questions off. The best way to combat this is to find someone else doing the same exams and start talking. It might be that someone at work is doing the same topic, or it might just be a case of getting online and finding someone who is. Lots of the big IT forums are full of techies answering technical questions, but who are also studying for exams. These forums often have lounge areas that allow you to start off casual conversations about exam study tips or shared experiences. Even though it's not always a face-to-face chat, interacting with people in the same boat and even giving each other a bit of encouragement can make the whole study process feel a little less lonely.