Note: This article is also available as a download.

Right now is an interesting time to seek the MCSE and MCSA certifications because some new twists have
arisen since Windows Server 2003 was released. The MCSE for Windows Server 2003
still requires seven exams that test you on server topics, a client platform, system
design, and an elective. However, the scope of the tests has evolved over the
past couple of years. I’m going to look at how that the focus has shifted and
then share some strategies for ramping up for the exams.

Updated focus topics

The following topics have caused a change in direction of the tests for
the MCSA/MCSE paths:

Windows XP Service
Pack 2
— Many IT professionals have shunned this update, citing too much
change or adverse effects on required functionality. But several of the tests,
including 70-290, 70-270, and 70-291, may have questions related to the Windows
Firewall features, which became a default component with Windows XP Service
Pack 2. For information, see the Windows Firewall intro

Windows Server 2003
Service Pack 1
— I recently took exam 70-290, and there was no mention of
Service Pack 1 on the test for Windows Server 2003. However, my 70-291
preparation material references WS2K3 SP1 online, mainly to check out what has
changed. Although there’s nothing earth-shattering, Microsoft put together a
nice list of the changes in
functionality for WS2K3
. In particular, Service Pack 1 brings in a
great number of modifications to Internet Explorer, and you may need to be
aware of behavior for certain zones, controls, and popup blocking.

Windows Server 2003
— As of March 2006, there has been no official mention or restating of
the core exams to reflect this “release.” The product is still
technically Windows Server 2003. From what I can determine, it seems to
slipstream improvements to WS2K3 rather than being a revolutionary release.
Check out the What’s new for R2
for more information. Various book publishers have also released updates to
their materials to reflect the release of R2.

SQL Server 2005
The newest release of the SQL Server engine has not been added yet as an option
for the MCSE on Windows Server 2003, but a number of exams are available for
SQL Server 2005. One of these could be a candidate for the elective for Windows
Server 2003 MCSE certification, but it hasn’t been added as of this writing.
Here are most of the current tests:

  • Implementing a Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Database
  • Designing Database Solutions by Using Microsoft SQL Server
  • Designing and Optimizing Data Access by Using Microsoft SQL
    Server 2005
  • Designing a Database Server Infrastructure by Using
    Microsoft SQL Server 2005
  • Optimizing and Maintaining a Database Administration
    Solution by Using Microsoft SQL Server 2005
  • MCDBA Skills to MCITP Database Administrator by Using
    Microsoft SQL Server 2005

You might want to hold off and
take the appropriate SQL 2005 test for MCSE on Windows Server 2003 only when
the option is clearly defined.

Preparation strategies

You can choose from many approaches
as you work toward certification, although the success of each method varies
from person to person. My own approach, which has led me to success so far in
my certification path, is to blend the strategies as much as possible. Here are
some typical preparation methods.

Experience talks

Having worked with the technology in question day in and day
out for a long period of time seems to be the best teacher. Issues that arise
when troubleshooting and supporting the product lead to knowledge of the
product. However, the MCSE certification path brings up questions on elements
of the Windows Server 2003 platform that you may or may not use every day. And
on top of that, you need to know the “Microsoft answer.”


Surely you have received e-mail or catalogs that outline
camp opportunities, where you go in for two weeks and come out with three
certifications. Such programs are expensive, but some people find them a
convenient way to immerse and enrich.

Web-based training

Depending on the provider, Web-based training can offer a
good overview of the technology, used in conjunction with other certification
strategies. Many of these offerings have been improved (and corrected) since
the initial release of the Windows Server 2003 platform. Check with the
provider to determine the release of the material and make sure it has been
reissued since 2003 and that it incorporates current topics, like Windows XP
Service Pack 2.

Instructor-led courses

Instructor-led courses provide a nice way to dialog and go
through scenarios of the product(s) in focus. This allows you to work through
specific questions related to the product updates as well.

Test simulators

Test simulators are valuable because they help get you in
the mode of taking the tests. They also help you refine the mechanics of
test-taking. For example, when I see a question, I first determine if it is a
single answer, multiple answer, simulation, or matching. Next, I check to see
whether there’s an applicable graphic. Only then do I read the question.
Questions are often missed because candidates haven’t learned to assess the
test structure. For instance, they might select only one correct answer when
there are several.

MS Press books

I have found the Microsoft Press books useful when used with
other strategies. The books are a little light on the updated content for the
products, but they have links to get the updates. You can also take the entire
book with you as a PDF and read it whenever you get a spare moment.

Choosing the order of testing

Depending on your current skill level, you may want to take
your tests in a way that lets you first earn the MCP, then the MCSA, and then the
MCSE. Further, you may want to take the more difficult tests first. Many
candidates have said that 70-290 (Managing and Maintaining a WSK3 server) is
rather difficult, but that it helps you with the other tests. For example, exam
70-290 has a lot in common with 70-291 (Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining
a WS2K3 Network Infrastructure). So putting the extra effort into 70-290 will
help you immediately on 70-291. Then maybe take a lighter test like 70-270 (Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows XP Professional). These three tests are also likely to be where most of the changes for the products will appear.