IT certification is like flying. You can go first class and pay the increased cost associated with early boarding privileges, reserved seats, and crystal dinnerware. Or you can fly with a low budget airline and save significant sums if you don’t mind forgoing the perks. Either way, you end up at the same destination.

With IT certification, you can spend thousands of dollars on weeklong instructor-led classes, boot camps, video libraries, and other brand-name training aids. Or you can pursue IT’s equivalent to the airline cattle call and slide by on the cheap. Again, either way, the destination’s the same: an IT certification.

Here’s my five-step method for earning IT certification as cheaply as is reasonably possible. While it may not get you where you’re going in style, it can help you achieve the certifications that you desire.

Step one: Work with the technology first hand
The first step is to actually work with the software or hardware the IT certification covers. As you’re probably well aware, there is no substitute for hands-on experience in IT. Before taking a test, be sure that you’ve spent considerable time installing, administering, and configuring the software and hardware you’re studying. Book smarts alone do you no good.

Sure, this step costs money. You’ll need access to a test network with a minimum of two systems and maybe a router, if you’re chasing a Cisco cert. You’ll also likely need evaluation versions of software, at the  bare minimum.

If you haven’t built a test lab at home, build one. A networking professional without a server, desktop, and some type of router at home is in danger of falling behind in the skills race. After all, this is your career. You should be prepared to make that investment.

The pace of change in this industry is simply too swift. While you might be able to get by working exclusively with a test lab at the office, you’ll find the convenience of experimenting and studying at home quickly pays dividends. In addition to improving your motivation level, even a small home lab will help keep you familiar with new patches, products, platforms, and procedures.

Administering a small test network is to an IT pro what keeping up with advances in medical tools is to a doctor, I’m not going to associate the costs of a test lab with earning an IT certification. It’s a cost of being an IT professional.

Step two: Learn about the test
There’s nothing wrong with learning all there is to know about the exam you’ll be taking. That said, notice that the name of the second step isn’t “Go read all the braindumps you can find.”

Instead, what I’m talking about here is comparing notes with your colleagues. Learn what topics and objectives others are studying as they prepare for the same exam. Learn how others are studying. Learn which self-study guides your colleagues find helpful.

The Web offers several excellent forums and resources for sharing such information. is one example. is another. Certification hosts, such as Microsoft, even have their own newsgroups. These are excellent resources that all IT professionals should use, particularly those working on a shoestring budget.

All of these resources are available at no cost. Thus, step two is a freebie; it costs you nothing except a little time conducting research on the Web.

Step three: Seek the power of self-study
Hands-on training will get you only so far. While first-hand knowledge gained from working with software and hardware is possibly the best experience and teaching you’ll receive, you’re bound to come across issues that stump you. That’s where a well-written self-study guide proves most valuable. A self-paced training book (such as one from Cisco Press, Microsoft Press, Que, or Sybex), is perfect for describing best practices, explaining new and different procedures, and providing instruction for proper deployment and configuration of new technology.

In short, a certification study guide that maps to your exam is invaluable. That is, as long as you read it. Don’t just read those sections you think you’re weak on. Take the time to read the text in its entirety. Doing so helps order your studying and provides a structure that will ensure that you cover all of the exam’s objectives at least once.

Well-respected study guides can be purchased for around 50 bucks. That’s a small price to pay for a reference book that should serve you well for years.

Step four: Read free study guides at your leisure
Guides are out there for the taking. Several Internet sites have collected exam objectives, notes, and tips into study guides and made them available as free downloads. Three sites you can visit for free study guides are,, and

No one said studying for an IT exam has to be a killer grind, either. Nowhere is it written that you can’t print these guides (some of them are as long as 50 pages), take them to the beach, pool, or other off-site location of your choosing, and read them at a leisurely pace.

Remember, how you study isn’t as important as whether you retain what you learn. Study guides also offer an opportunity to break up the monotony many IT pros associate with certification preparation.

While lounging in a hammock on the weekend, I enjoy reading everything from mountain bike magazines to certification texts. There’s no reason you can’t make your studying enjoyable, too. If you’re comfortable when you read, you’re likely to remember more of the content you review, anyway.

Since these study guides are free, this step adds no financial cost to your certification efforts.

Step five: Put free practice exams to the test
Just like free study guides, many Web sites offer free practice exams. CertCities and BrainBuzz are two examples. Countless other vendors, including Cert21, offer free trial versions of their exams. While one free trial exam won’t be sufficient to help prepare you for the real-world test, trying your hand at five to 10 free trial exams will at least get you in the right mindset.

Many self-paced training guides include trial versions of simulation exams, too. Be sure to crack open the seal on those and put them to good use. While it’s not likely that free exams or trial versions will be as complete or thorough as those you’d purchase from Transcender or Self Test Software, you have to keep in mind that this five-step plan is focused on reducing your certification costs. Just as you receive only peanuts when you fly with Southwest Airlines, so too must you expect sacrifices when pursuing certification as cheaply as possible.

Again, using these readily available online study guides adds no financial burden to your certification efforts.

Eckel’s take
There are benefits to flying in the first-class cabin. You’re pampered. You receive better food. You have more room. Ultimately, you arrive at your destination more refreshed. But you have to pay for the privilege.

With IT budgets and training dollars cut or reduced at many organizations, you may have to take a simplified approach to earning IT certification, as well. While instructor-led classes are comprehensive and brand-name training aids are proven certification tools, the dollars they require aren’t necessarily in everyone’s budget right now. That doesn’t mean you have to forgo certification. It also doesn’t mean you have to fly blind. Adopt these five steps, and you should find that you can earn a certification for as little as 50 bucks, plus the cost of the examination fee.