I wish I could say it gets better with time. But it doesn’t, and don’t believe anyone who says it does.

Certification exams raise your blood pressure. This is true whether you’re taking your 10th test or your first. Hopefully, knowing what you’ll be facing may make the experience at least slightly less discomforting. Here’s what you can expect.
Receive Paperchase Digest in your e-mail box every Friday. Be sure you catch every column, as well as timely tips and reviews not found on the site! It’s easy, and it’s free. Just go to the TechMails page and sign up for Erik Eckel’s Paperchase Digest to ensure you keep up-to-date on the latest certification tips, shortcuts, news, and more!
Who are you?
Unfortunately, some of your IT colleagues (certainly not you) would be inclined to pay someone else to take their exams. Thus, you’ll be asked to provide two IDs when signing in. I always find I’m asked for two forms of picture ID, so you may want to keep that in mind. Of course, requesting such identification helps a center, and the vendor, ensure that you are who you say you are.

No cell phones, pagers, umbrellas, glass containers …
Sometimes, the items you can and can’t take into a facility don’t make sense. For example, you can’t take an umbrella into Churchill Downs’ infield. (It could be used as a weapon.) That doesn’t compute.

At the testing center, you’ll be asked to leave your pager, cell phone, and PDAs with the attendant. Certainly, that makes perfect sense. It’d be easy to download a cheat sheet to a PDA or pager.

Thus, don’t expect to be in touch with the office or family while taking a test. Why is that an issue? As certified Microsoft professionals will find when sitting for the 70-240 exam, some testing sessions can run as long as four hours. However, you should expect most tests to last no longer than 90 minutes. Check the vendor’s Web site for the details of the exam you plan to take.

Paper or plastic?
Most vendor exams provide you with paper and pencil or a plastic sheet and dry-erase marker. Refuse the plastic paper and dry-erase marker.

A few training center employees have told me their centers receive no portion of the testing fees candidates pay. Instead, they said the centers offer certification testing only as a convenience for their students who want to try the certification exam following class completion.

As a result, centers aren’t likely to invest in such critical tools as dry-erase markers. I’ve been given markers with tips that were broken, pens that didn’t write, and dry-erase sheets that wouldn’t erase.

The time to discover such errors isn’t when you’re frantically trying to recall which command you need at a NetWare prompt or whether you still need to commit changes when using Windows 2000’s Disk Administrator. Ask for some old technology in paper, and request two pencils (or markers if those are what the center uses).

You can also request a tissue. That’s what I use to wipe the dry-erase sheet when a center doesn’t have paper.

Like stalls in a barn
Once you’ve signed in and received your paper or plastic sheet and writing instruments, you’ll be led back to the testing room. Usually, it’s a row or two of PCs arranged with dividers like stalls in a barn. Almost all the testing centers I’ve been in have had no more than four PCs in a room.

You’ll be seated at your own stall by the proctor, who’ll usually wish you good luck and exit the room. Don’t be freaked if there’s a video camera or one-way mirror. Ignore the fact you’re being watched and push all distractions out of your head.

Get to it
Almost always, you’ll be seated at an old PC, dirty monitor, and well-traveled mouse. The mouse’s speed will be different than you’re accustomed to. The monitor resolution might appear as if it is set for the visually impaired. (I believe some of the tests I’ve taken have used a 640 x 480 resolution.)

If you’re a creature of habit, such deviances can be disturbing. Get over them quickly, because there’s nothing you can do to change the settings.

The screen will probably be displaying instructions for completing a quick survey. The time you take to complete the survey doesn’t count against your allotted exam time. Also, the results you provide have no impact on the level of difficulty you receive in your exam.

Once any surveys are completed, you’ll proceed directly into some version of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Here, you usually provide your consent by agreeing not to disseminate in any shape or form the material you see on the exam. The time you take to read the NDA and answer it does not count against your allotted exam time, either.

Once that’s completed, you’ll enter the exam. Depending upon the test, you’ll find drag-and-drop scenarios, many multiple choice questions, case studies and corresponding questions, and network maps requiring you to fill blanks with appropriate items (such as IP addresses, server icons, routers, and hubs).

You may also have the opportunity to move forward and backward within an exam. And you’ll see a clock counting down the amount of time left in your testing session.

No break for you
Need to go to the restroom or stretch your legs? Don’t plan on it. Most vendors and centers prohibit you from leaving an active test.

If Internet rumors are any indication, Microsoft is working with testing centers to help accommodate candidates for its longer Windows 2000 exams. Someone last week posted a Microsoft e-mail in a Usenet newsgroup that was supposedly sent to authorized testing centers. It encourages facilities to try working with “customers” but warns that the exam clock keeps ticking while candidates run to the restroom or to get a drink of water. I recommend you not leave until you’ve completed your test.

Let it burn
Don’t let distractions bother you. You’ll hear people chatting in the hall. Computer fans will whine annoyingly. Telephones will ring incessantly somewhere on the other side of the wall.

You may even experience a false fire alarm. When I took my NT Server 4.0 exam, I was halfway through when fire alert Klaxons began blasting. Let the building burn, I thought. If it’s a real alarm, somebody will tell me. It was a false alarm, and I passed. Had I left the testing room, I’d probably have had to come back another day to take a new exam. I was preparing to take a second in a week (NT Workstation 4.0), so the thought of returning a third time in five days wasn’t real appealing.

Did I pass?
Once an exam is completed, you’ll often see a screen offering an opportunity to respond to the questions you received. I’ve always blown past them, as I can’t wait to see how I scored. In the case of Microsoft exams, you’ll be greeted next by bar graphs comparing your score to the required passing score.

A printout of your performance will be waiting for you at the attendant’s desk. Make sure you get it before you leave. Hopefully, you’ll be proud to hang it on a wall.

Erik Eckel, MCP+I, MCSE, is editor in chief of TechRepublic’s IT communities. He’s previously held positions as a high-speed IP access product manager and a communications representative for nationwide long-distance, data networking, and Internet services providers.

If you’d like to share your opinion, please post a comment below or send the editor an e-mail.