Everyone wants the magic formula to successful IT test-taking experiences. As administrators and support personnel, you have tremendous demands placed upon your time and energy. Oh, and somewhere in your already-hectic schedule filled with intermittent crises you’re asked to not only earn certification, but maintain it.
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Just as the IT industry has progressively become more complex and dynamic, so too have vendors’ certification programs. However, one truth remains: Prepare properly for certification exams, and you’re likely to pass without a hitch.

There’s the rub. How do you know whether you’re preparing properly? If you take a class and try your luck with a few Transcenders, are you ready to sit for an exam? I think not.

Here are the five steps I’ve found effective. It’s important to remember it’s not two, three, or any other number of steps. It’s five, folks. I wish it were fewer, but it’s not. Skip one, and the odds that you’ll pass an exam drop significantly.

The only exception is IT veterans with 20 years of experience, but that’s another fly in the ointment. Even if you have 20 years of administrative and support experience, how many hours have you spent configuring Windows 2000’s Active Directory? Not many, and that’s why I recommend the following five steps for all IT professionals pursuing industry certification.

#1: Accumulate “seat time” like a pilot
In order to demonstrate expertise with an operating system or program, which is what most certification exams test, you must develop considerable experience with the product. Secure an evaluation copy, load it up, configure it, break it, fix it, then do it all again.

If creating your own test environment means you’ve got to go right out and buy two or three machines, a roll of category 5 cable, and a hub, do it. See your accountant, as you may even be able to write these purchases off your taxes.

There’s no substitute for the hands-on experience seat time provides. Just as pilots get better with each flight (hopefully), so too will you, as you learn the ins, outs, and idiosyncrasies of the product you’re studying.

But the time you spend with a software program shouldn’t be measured in minutes. You should spend a minimum of 70 to 80 dedicated hours with an operating system or program before you even consider preparing for an exam testing your proficiency.

#2: Read, read, read
Even if you spend 100 hours or more with an operating system, there will still be many administrative tools, utilities, and features you don’t cover or use. Implement an operating system and administer it personally, and in the course of your daily activities, the odds are you still won’t become familiar with all of its capabilities.

It’s for this reason you need to hit an online bookstore, or a brick-and-mortar outlet, and pick up at least one book, preferably more. How do you choose which ones? Look for those that would double well as boat anchors. You want all the information you can get. It’s also an excellent method of obtaining the evaluation software.

These books aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. Again, remember to talk with your accountant. These purchases may also be tax-deductible, so save the receipt. And don’t be afraid to run the bill by your manager, as many companies support training and certification expenditures.

Then, most importantly, read the books. Even if you have to turn down the volume of the Reds-Cubs game on WGN, kick back in a La-Z-Boy, grab a snack and read. Don’t skip the exercises, either, if the text you purchase includes lab projects or real-world scenarios.

#3: Take a class
Sorry to say it, because I know how busy your days are, but a critical successful exam path step involves formal training. The advantages are numerous. Scheduling a class commits you to uninterrupted study, which is often overlooked. Just like milk, the concentrated, focused approach always does a body good.

You’ve also got several options when it comes to formalized instruction. Online and Web-based training have come a long way, and many institutions offer weekend and evening classes. While studying after hours may not seem appealing, it’s become a necessary evil.

#4: Study your course materials
One of the most tempting mistakes is to schedule training, attend class, complete the labs, take a few notes, ask some questions, and then head back to the daily routine. Don’t forget that you just received a treasure-trove of information. The massive binders or other course materials you received shouldn’t just become office decorations.

Read them. Study them. Some of the best documentation and knowledge-base type content can be found in official course materials, so make the most of them.

#5: Take a test flight
Once you’ve completed your ground school training, you’re ready to take a test flight. Pick up a simulated exam pack from Transcender, Exam Cram, CiCPrep, Self Test Software, or another major publisher with a good track record, and have at it.

This is your chance to hammer home the knowledge required to pass an industry certification exam. Simulations serve as a wonderful tool for pinpointing your areas of weakness while also reinforcing key concepts.

In many cases, you may not need to purchase your own test exams. Check with your colleagues and consider trading software once you complete a module. Just read the licensing agreement to ensure that you’re in compliance with the publisher’s restrictions.

It’s your career
While the five steps can rack up some serious bills, your company may help reimburse the expense. And, as noted earlier, many of your bills may be tax-deductible. Uncle Sam, too, may be willing to cut a break for many IT pros. Why is that? Because it’s your career we’re talking about. Sure, training and certification tools may carry considerable expense, but the results are well worth the fees you pay.

As they say in the world of bicycle racing, if you’ve got a 10-dollar head, buy a 10-dollar helmet. In IT, if you’ve got a $50 career, buy a $50 book. But if you want to experience greater rewards in your career, you’ll need to up the ante appropriately.

Erik Eckel, MCP+I, MCSE, is Community Editor for AdminRepublic. When he’s not getting blown off the back of the peloton, he can be found configuring and troubleshooting Windows 2000 networks.

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