If you got into technology because you like to spend lots of money on really high-priced, thick, hard-to-read books, .NET certification will certainly make you happy and give your Visa or MasterCard a workout. Taking any Microsoft certification exam means not only knowing the technology itself, but also knowing on what part of that technology Microsoft plans to test you. And you can get a pretty good idea of what topics will be covered by reading a thorough sampling of the study guides.

Sharing my experience
Last year I completed both my MCSD and MCDBA, taking a total of six exams and passing all of them on the first try. I was lucky, if you can call it that, in that I was able to devote myself full-time to studying since I had been laid off from my previous job and received a grant that allowed me to go back to school and still collect my unemployment.

The list of books I read during that time numbered well over twenty and included:

  • All the relevant Coriolis Exam Cram books.
  • All the Microsoft Training Kits and Readiness Reviews for those exams.
  • Two Sams Teach Yourself in 21 Days books, one each for VB and SQL Server 2000. I read the VB game-programming book just for fun though.
  • O’Reilly’s MCSD in a Nutshell book.

In addition to all those, I went through four Transcender sample exams and TranscenderFlash quizzes. That said, I have a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t. I can even tell you what used exam guides sell the fastest on eBay right now.

Books for learning the technology
If you’re just starting out with .NET and you haven’t had much development experience, I’d recommend a SamsTeach Yourself in 21 Days book. These books run the gamut of topics including VB.NET, C#.NET, C++.NET, Visual Studio .NET, ASP.NET, databases, and object oriented programming, among others. They range in price from $28 to $40. The downside? None of them are exam-specific titles. They do, however, provide a good foundation and a good introduction to the technology.

For those with more background knowledge, Microsoft Press training kits are a good place to start to learn the topics that will be included on the exams. This time around, Microsoft Press has combined all the core exams, except the 70-300 Architectures exam, into one training guide. MCAD/MCSD Self-Paced Training Kit: Microsoft .NET Core Requirements, Exams 70-305, 70-315, 70-306, 70-316, 70-310, 70-320, and 70-300 is not only a hefty title but a hefty read as well, with 2,200 pages and a cover price of $169. If this is just too much book for you, there are smaller bundles available and even training kits for specific exams.

Gearing up with practice tests
If you’ve never taken a Microsoft exam before or if it’s been a while, it might be worth the investment to purchase a practice software exam from Transcender. While there are several package deals available, these are still not cheap when compared to the cover price of a book.

The Transcender MCAD Pak is currently priced at $339 and includes three exam simulations of your choice, one for each exam requirement. The deluxe version runs $369 and, in addition to the three exams, includes three corresponding TranscenderFlash quiz products. These are like electronic flash cards, and include basic definitions and other information you’ll need to know. Experienced programmers might not find the TranscenderFlash stuff to be that useful, but beginners likely will. After all, you can’t speak the language if you don’t know the vocabulary.

Transcender is not currently offering an MCSD .NET Pak; the holdup is the module for the 70-300 architectures exam, which is still in development with no release date. Further, it currently has no plans to provide products for the 70-230 BizTalk or 70-234 Commerce Server exams. If you’re anxious to get started, however, the MCAD tests are available for purchase separately at around $140 each, or you can simply buy the MCAD Pak, since the MCAD exams are also requirements for an MCSD.

A word about quality here: Transcender works hard to market itself as the premier source of training materials for Microsoft tests. If you need to study in a computer environment, Transcender provides a realistic setting with a good variety of questions and explanations of the answers.

However, I found that the Microsoft Readiness Review books I studied had more realistic sample questions than the Transcender practice tests, and they should since they come right from the source of the exam. While there are currently no Readiness Reviews available for the .NET exams, Microsoft says that these will be available once all the exams are live. That means they should be appearing shortly, so keep an eye out for them.

A second source of practice exams is the Exam Cram series books that were formerly published by Coriolis, but are now owned by Que. There are six titles in all—one covering each of the MCAD exams—currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com (VB.NET: 70-306, 70-310, 70-316; C#: 70-305, 70-315, 70-320) . My previous experience with these books has been good; they include a CD with PrepLogic practice tests and, like the Microsoft Press Training Kits, they have a series of practice or review questions at the end of each chapter. These questions aren’t easy and if you can’t answer them, go back and read the chapter again. These are not as good as the Readiness Reviews or the non-portable Transcenders, but they will do in a pinch.

Another possibility: MOC
If you’re lucky enough to work for a Microsoft partner, you have one more resource available to you: Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) student material is available for purchase by Microsoft partner companies. These are the materials on which training instructors base their classes and are usually priced at a steep discount when compared to a full training course. Of course, you won’t have access to an instructor, but at least you can read through the course that correlates to the exam for which you are preparing. See the Microsoft for Partners Web site for more details.

One final suggestion, if you’re on a tight budget: Buy used! Both eBay and Amazon offer used certification materials at a discount from the full price. However you get them, the training resources I’ve mentioned in this article should make it much easier to prepare for your big exam. Now go study!

Other certification resources

Do you have a favorite MCSD or MCAD resource that helped you prepare for an exam, but that wasn’t included in this article? Tell us about it in the discussion below.