So now that you’ve actually made some progress studying for your MCSE/MCSA exams by burning the candle at both ends, you’re probably itching to try your hand at the Real Thing—an actual MCSE test. However, if you’re a little nervous at the prospect of spending well over 100 bucks on an official exam that you might fail, you’re going to need a tune-up test. This is where a mock exam that emulates the look, feel, and testing conditions of the Microsoft tests comes in handy.

These test simulations let you knock yourself out practicing for the tests that you’ll ultimately face. In this Drill Down, I’ll review two of the best exam simulator products that I’ve found in the MCSE/MCSA exam-preparation market: ExamSimulators and Transcender. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to compare like-for-like and look at both vendors’ Windows 2000 Server simulator product, Exam 70-215.

A heads-up

There are many practice tests available on the Internet, including full exam simulators. But a word of caution: for those of you thinking about trying the numerous MCSE quizzes available for free online, you do so at your own peril. The 20-question format, which many MCSE-related Web sites favor, often contains irrelevant questions and inaccurate, ill-explained answers. I completed many of these so-called tests as part of my research, and one of the tests on Windows 2000 Server (exam 70-215) had a question about NT 3.51 in it—and it wasn’t about upgrade paths. You’ve been warned!

All tests are not created equal
OK, so what is a true exam simulator? It’s usually a piece of software that you must purchase, download, and install on your machine. The software typically includes various exam types and, most importantly, full sets of questions similar to what you’re likely to see when you take the real exam.

Why bother spending money on practice tests at all? Quite simply:

  • You can fail as many times as you want.
  • Taken seriously, practice tests expose you to exam conditions.
  • Good exam simulators offer in-depth technical analysis of your answers and explain why some of them are wrong. They even explain why answers are right.
  • You pay only once.

Now I’ll look at actual simulations from and Transcender.’s installation is straightforward and allows you to select where the software will reside on your machine. The only annoyance is a minor one: you must reboot your machine.

When you fire up the software on the first run, you’ll be asked to enter some information, including a serial key specific to the Computer ID key generated by your machine when the software is installed. Without this, you can’t use the software. Once you’ve entered the information, you’ll see the screen shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The main menu for ExamSimulators.

Let’s take a look at the toolbar across the top. The About link presents information on, the test version, and license details for the product. Options allows you to set usage parameters for your testing sessions, as shown in Figure B. One option I found useful is the Grade Button. If enabled, you can get an answer and an explanation to any question immediately, rather than waiting until the end of the test.

Figure B
You can specify options for ExamSimulators.

The Power Session link from the main screen allows you to concentrate on test sections; for instance, Installing Windows 2000 Server. In a Power Session, questions are presented, but the answers are also given onscreen. This can be useful if you need to do some last-minute swotting before you take the real exam. You can also select the number of questions you want to be asked and set the time for the session.

Update allows you to connect to the vendor’s Web site and download any updates available for this exam, much as you would with something like antivirus software. Updates can include different question formats or updated answers and explanations, so they’re worth checking for.

Lastly, you’ve got the actual session options, which determine what kind of exam you’re going to take. The options are:

  • Customizable—This is exactly like a Power Session but without the answers.
  • Computer Adaptive Format CAT—This type of test presents anywhere from 15 to 25 questions on various aspects of Windows 2000 Server. Grading depends on the complexity of the question; if it’s easy, then you get more questions to further test your understanding in a different way, but if it’s a tough question, then you get extra credit and probably won’t have to answer as many questions in total. As CAT suggests, the question sequence you’ll see depends in part on the answers you’ve already given. You don’t get to go back over questions once you’ve hit the Next button.
  • Standard Format—You get to answer 50 questions over two hours.
  • Shortened Standard Format—The same as Standard Format, but half the questions and half the time.
  • Scrambled Standard Format—This is really cool because the answer choices are scrambled. If you repeat the test many times as practice, you’ll start remembering answers without thinking about them. When the choices are scrambled, this becomes more difficult, so it makes you work everything out. You get 50 questions and two hours for this one.
  • Scrambled Shortened Standard Format—The same as Scrambled Standard format, but with half the questions and half the time.
  • Load A Saved Exam—If you save an exam after finishing it, you can reload it to take a look at your strengths and weaknesses. Very useful.

Clicking a question takes you straight to it. Once you’ve answered all of the questions, you get to click the End Review And Grade Exam button, which will do exactly that. The next thing you’ll see is your results, as shown in Figure C. As my results show, I need to do a little more studying.

Figure C
You can get a complete grade for your test.

In the bottom right corner of Figure C are further options. Exam Analysis breaks the questions into sections and measures your skill on various types of question. Selecting this option gives you the screen shown in Figure D. This is pretty useful because it tells you where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Figure D
ExamSimulators can help show you where you went wrong.

If you click View Answers on the Options menu on Figure C, ExamSimulators takes you back to the review screen. If you click Print Score Report, you’ll get a printout of your score, as you can probably guess. End Exam takes you out of this session but prompts you to save the exam first. You can later reload the whole thing if you wish.

Let’s move on to Transcender’s product. Installation of the software is also straightforward, and you can choose where the files will reside. No reboot is required.

The first time you start the simulator, you’ll be prompted for your e-mail address and Transcender Club password. You should be online when you do this because after you enter your password, you must press a button to retrieve a system key from Transcender. The system key unlocks the software on your machine. The Transcender Club password and your e-mail address are the ones you used when you bought and downloaded the software. If you bought the software elsewhere, you’ll need to register manually; there’s an option screen for this.

As with the software, you can configure options for your testing sessions. To get to the options, choose Exam | Options from the top menu bar. When you do, you’ll see the screen shown in Figure E.

Figure E
Transcender also allows you to set options.

The General tab is self-explanatory. The Aesthetics, Transcender Live Update, and Admin tabs in the Options box deal with font appearance, live updates to the simulator product, and user environment, respectively. The latter allows an administrator to establish a controlled testing environment for examinees if more than one person is using a machine for test practice.

You can find the available exams by clicking Exam | Start, as shown in Figure F. They are much the same as in the product, except that there’s no possibility of scrambling the order of answers, only the order of questions. You can do so by choosing the Random Exam option. As you’ll see in Figure F, there are three full-length exams of 51 questions each. The Random Exam option takes questions from all three.

Figure F
You can select the test you want to take.

When you finish a Transcender exam, you’re told that any unanswered questions will be marked as incorrect. The next thing you see is a screen like Figure G. As you can see, I need some more practice on this one as well.

Figure G
Transcender graphs your results.

At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see several buttons. The View Answers button shows your score and allows you to view your answers. Print produces a per-section score report. You can also view your score history by clicking Score History. Finally, you can end the exam by clicking End Custom Exam. If you choose the latter, you’ll be prompted to save your session for future reference. Being able to view your score history without having to reload the exams is a nice touch. The scoring screen for the CAT tests is slightly different to allow for the different criteria.

Transcender’s simulator also allows you to customize an exam format by selecting the appropriate exam type from the menu. When you do, you’ll see a box, as shown in Figure H. This screen allows you to set the number of questions from different sections and the time allowed.

Figure H
You can customize your exam.

Are they worth the money?
The next thing you’ll want to know is whether the question and answer contents are worth the money you spend on the simulator in the first place. In short, yes. I scored 900 on the actual 70-215 exam I took. I can unequivocally state that practice tests helped me achieve that score, and for several reasons.

First, they presented the type of questions you get in the Real Thing (that is, Select And Place-type questions).

Second, these simulators help put your mind in exam mode. The simulators tell you not only what’s being asked, but also the way in which questions are asked. It’s no secret that this information can be misleading and not strictly necessary to the question itself. However, exam candidates must remember that Microsoft is not only testing your ability to get a question right, but also to see whether you can separate the wheat from the chaff by discerning which bits of information are actually needed to help you select a correct answer. If you can do this successfully, you’ll pass the exam and be a better field worker too.

Third, these products are good at explaining answers, both right and wrong. This can be valuable when you misunderstand a concept. The information and justification for the correct answer(s) are right in front of you, so you don’t need to refer to books all the time.

Product shortfalls
My main grievance with the product was a lack of attention to detail in the actual phrasing of the questions and answers. On more than one occasion I spent time trying to figure out what the question actually was because the English was so poor—including such simple things as spelling. When you’re paying good money, I think it’s inexcusable for a product such as this to fall short of the mark in things like spelling and sentence construction. I even found some answers that were clearly incorrect when put against the question, but then if you changed the grammar in the question, you could see why the answer was correct! I found this frustrating, and it’s something that definitely needs to improve as soon as possible.

The Transcender product is a well-rounded package. The software works well, but again, there are a few items that show a lack of attention to detail and/or testing. Chief among these is the actual screen you see when you take a test. The section below the question windows ends up being hidden. This is annoying because it gives you information about questions remaining, time left, and so on. You can see an example of this in Figure I.

Figure I
Transcender has a few annoying display problems.

I experienced this problem while using a normal 15-inch CRT monitor. I tried changing resolution, but it didn’t change what I saw. Transcender should take a look at this. Similarly, the simulator interface itself was, in general, a little less user-friendly that the other product. I also spotted a couple of spelling mistakes, but generally, the grammar was fine.

Lastly, and not really related to the products themselves, I found the Transcender Web site a lot clumsier to navigate through than the one. This fact may turn customers away if they can’t find what they’re looking for quickly and efficiently.

A word about the grading systems. Some time ago, Microsoft said that it would grade exams on a pass or fail basis, with no percentages. The fact that both these simulators do give you percentages and help to identify your strengths and weaknesses is a good thing because it helps you to learn faster and helps you to achieve the highest score possible.

What are they going to cost me?
At the time of writing, both individual products are very similar in cost. Transcender offers the 70-215 package at $99 for a CD-ROM and $89 for a download. offers the 70-215 package as a $99 download. This download is just shy of 4 MB.

ExamSimulators offer a 100% money-back guarantee if you don’t pass the exam the first time. This is quite a claim, and they’re obviously very confident of their product. I’m not sure whether Transcender offers the same thing; but then, I’ll have to take their word when it comes to refunds! Having posted a large graphic to this effect on their home page, I can only assume that they are. Please check with both companies for up-to-date prices and special deals.

Either way, you can’t go wrong
If I had to choose which product presented questions most similar to the real 70-215 test, I’d have to say that has the edge on this particular exam. But—and this is important—every exam is different for every person because the questions change! You shouldn’t think that these simulators provide you with carbon copies of real exam questions, because they certainly don’t. Rather, they focus on types of questions—an important distinction.

In the end, these are two great simulator products, separated by very little in pricing terms. Both packages offer excellent content, and you could do worse than to buy either of these two products. The decision is yours, but when you know what’s involved in the various simulators, that choice will be little easier to make.