People take Microsoft certification tests for a host of different reasons. Some are hoping certification will lead to a better-paying, more enjoyable career. For others, it’s a job requirement or a fast track to advancement.

Regardless of your motivation to obtain an MCSE certification, one question remains constant: Can you pass the test by studying on your own, or should you seek professional training? Countless IT professionals have wrestled with this question while preparing for Microsoft’s MCSE exams. Unfortunately there is no single, easy answer.

What works for you?
Learning styles are as diverse as the individuals who strive to become MCSEs. Some people can read through a study guide once and pass their tests with flying colors. Others need more time, reading and rereading study guides, consulting online brain dumps, and using practice tests. Then there are those who learn better through professional training and classroom instruction. Ultimately, everyone must base their decision on personal preference and their own learning style. If you are not sure which preparation technique works best for you, consider the following questions.

1. What has worked best in the past?
Try to remember what worked best the last time you were in school. Whether you’ve just finished high school or college, whether you haven’t entered a classroom in 20 years or just received that Ph.D. in astrophysics, what study technique worked the best for you? Did you get more from classroom interaction and working with an instructor or was self-study more beneficial? Odds are if it worked for you then, it will work for you now.

2. What worked best on your last test?
What helped you the most the last time you had to take a test? Whether you were getting A+ certification, taking a pre-employment exam, or trying to get a pilot’s license, what study technique helped the most? Did you have to study alone or with a group? Did you use study guides, textbooks, or practice questions? Was a training class beneficial? No matter what you’re studying for, a test is a test is a test. Some are more difficult than others and require more study time, but your study habits should remain constant.

3. How much time do you have?
This decision should be based on two factors; when will you take the test and how much time can you devote to studying? If it’s Monday and you’re taking the test on Friday, you may not have time to schedule a training class and should probably think about rescheduling your test. Also, consider how much quality time you will realistically devote to studying. If you have little free time, self-study may be a bad choice. MCSE tests require several hours of study and if you don’t have the time, a training class can be invaluable. Most classes run for 3 to 4 days, 8 hours a day. This 24 to 32 hours of study can be extremely helpful for those with a busy schedule.

4. How much money can you spend?
Let’s face it, money is always an object. Each MCSE test costs $100. Study guides can run anywhere from $20 to well over $100. Practice tests can be $100 to $2,000 for a full suite of tests, and training classes usually range from $1,000 to $2,000 per class. If you can’t come up with the money for training, self-study is your only option.

Planning your attack
I recently passed my first MCSE test (Networking Essentials), but not after asking myself these four questions and failing the test once. When it was all over I had spent:

  • $40 on study guides (MCSE Networking Essentials Exam Cram from The Coriolis Group).
  • $1,000 on a four-day training class from A Technological Advantage, Inc. (ATA): Louisville, KY (my employer covered the cost of the class).
  • Countless hours reading study guides, downloading brain dumps (from, poring over sample questions at Coriolis, and taking practice tests at

In all, I spent about two months on preparation and took the test twice. While I’ve known people to study for only two weeks and pass with 900s, that just didn’t work for me. And, finding what works for you is the trick to successful studying and getting the scores you need on the tests.

MCSE, as simple as do-re-mi?

If you’d like to share your tips for getting ready for the MCSE exams, please post a comment below, or follow this link to write to Bill.