If your budget has been hit half as hard as mine, there’s no money for you to sit in weeklong classes to learn what you need to pass certification exams. But rather than forego new certifications altogether, you can take advantage of a number of less expensive study tools. Of course, if you have limited funds, you want to make sure that you choose the most useful resources. I’m going to share some suggestions on how to identify the best ones.

To simplify this discussion, I’ll use the A+ certification exams in my examples. But you can apply the same selection criteria to any exam you’re studying for. When selecting study tools, keep in mind that not everyone learns the same way. Books may be the best solution for a coworker, but you may find that test engines—or some other solution—works best for you.

Selecting the best books
Whether they’re Exam Crams, Exam Guides, Study Guides, or Training Guides, these references are all hard-copy manuals designed to walk you through what you need to know to pass a test. Books generally fall into two categories:

  • Books written and structured specifically to match exam objectives. The good thing about these books is that you know you are getting coverage of each objective, because the headings within the text correspond to them. The bad thing is that most exam objectives do not flow in an unswerving order, and there is often overlap between them. When this happens, the book follows suit.
  • Reference books that just happen to cover the exam objectives. The strength of these books is that they focus on the intricacies of a product or operating system and provide a fuller picture than an exam tutorial. The weakness is that they include much more information than will be on the exam, and you may not have the time to study things that aren’t necessary for passing the exam.

I find value in both formats, and often buy one book of each type when studying for an exam to be able to compare and contrast their coverage. I also have found that every book needs to be judged on its own merits. Just because you found one really good book in a series doesn’t mean that another book in the series will be equally good; it may be written by another author and edited by another development team.

When shopping for books, my strategy is to pick a few exam objectives before going to the store and then to select books that cover those objectives best. For example, many books are available to help you study for the A+ Core Hardware Services Technician and A+ Operating Systems Technologies exams, so picking the following objectives makes it easy to compare them:

  • From Hardware: 1.3—“Identify available IRQs, DMAs, and I/O addresses and procedures for devices installation and configuration.”
  • From OS: 3.2—“Recognize common problems and determine how to resolve them.”

Looking at the seven books on the local Borders bookshelf delivers the results shown in Table A.
Table A

Book ISBN Number of Pages on Core Topic Number of Pages on OS Topic
A+ Certification Study Guide, Third Edition (Syngress)
0072126345 1 1
A+ Certification Training Guide, Third Edition (New Riders)
0735710880 1 1
A+ Complete Exam Notes (Sybex)
0782128033 8 3
A+ Complete Study Guide, Deluxe Edition (Sybex)
0782140521 7 1
All In One A+ Certification Exam Guide, Third Edition (Osborne)
0072126795 Difficult to gauge due to being scattered throughout
Mike Meyer’s A+ Certification Passport (Osborne)
0072196017 16 4
Test Yourself A+ Certification, Third Edition (Syngress/Osborne)
007212637X 1 (with four practice questions following)
Could not find any

Comparing the books this way makes it easy to pick two to purchase. With list prices ranging between $20 and $60, I’ll be able to find all the content I need to pass the two exams and become A+ certified for around $100.

Selecting the most useful test engines
Although books begin with the assumption that you don’t know anything and then proceed to cover all topics, test engines typically assume that you do know something about the topic and then fill in the knowledge gaps. Generally, test engines are best for people who believe they are almost ready to take an exam.

Test engines can be graded upon two criteria: quantity and quality. Many vendors claim their test engines have “more than 1,000 questions!” and thus fall into the quantity category. But are they good questions? I could quickly write one million questions for a test engine by following this format:

What class of IP address does fall into?

  • Class A
  • Class B
  • Class C
  • Class D

What class of IP address does fall into?

  • Class A
  • Class B
  • Class C
  • Class D

Although quantity and quality are not always mutually exclusive characteristics, those vendors who offer the best test questions (which often means the best explanations) are typically the most expensive. Within the A+ realm, I have found the vendors listed in Table B to have the best test engine questions for a single user studying for the Hardware exam.
Table B

Vendor Questions in Engine Price
Boson (www.boson.com) ~200 questions per test; three tests are available
$39.95 per test
Cert21 (www.cert21.com) 400 $39.95 for 30 days access to online questions
IT Pass Zone (www.itpasszone.net)
350 $49
Marcraft (www.mic-inc.com) Only one product is available and it offers 900 questions for both Hardware and Operating System exams
$50 for CD-ROM
MeasureUp (www.measureup.com)
226 $89 for download;
$67 for CD-ROM

PrepLogic (www.preplogic.com)
280 $49
Transcender (www.transcender.com)
280 $89 for download;
$99 for CD-ROM

Other options
In addition to books and test engines, a number of other study aids—some less traditional than others—are available. Table C lists vendors and their products for A+ study.
Table C

Vendor Product Price
AudioWhiz (www.audiowhiz.com)
7 1/2 hours of audio study $48.95 for cassettes; $57.95 for CD-ROMs
CBT Nuggets (www.cbtnuggets.com)
26 videos on 2 CDs (13 hours on material for both exams)
ElementK (www.elementk.com)
E-learning one-year subscription for A+ Certification
Redmond Exams (www.redmondexams.com)
“Boot Camp” of CDs, Video Tapes, Study Guides, and Exam Simulator for both exams
$489 for CD or video version; $329 for 1 year of online version