Skills Measured: Improving your chances of passing certification exams

I have a friend who has been using Hyper-V since it was released with Windows Server 2008.  I know that because at the time I did some consulting for his company, and was given a tour of his environment.  That is why I was a bit surprised to hear that he recently failed his certification exam 70-659 TS: Windows Server 2008 R2, Server Virtualization.  I asked him why he felt he did not pass, and he told me that while he thought he know Hyper-V very well, the exam covered all sorts of aspects that surprised him… he didn’t use things like Remote Desktop Services, command-line utilities, and a few other components that were more heavily weighted on the exam than he had expected.

Certification exams are hard; they are meant to demonstrate the skills of the top professionals with the technology being measured.  I have worked on the design and creation of several certification exams for Microsoft Learning (including this one), and we intentionally try to come up with questions that will be challenging.  That is the only reason that our certifications have value.  However Microsoft Learning also take great steps to not surprise you. If you come out of an exam feeling they tested things that you did not expect then you went into the exam unprepared.  This article will cover a number of steps that should help you to avoid doing that.

Don’t Study for Exams

I have been saying this for years… the best way to pass an exam is not to study for it… know the material and you should pass.  The best way to know technology is to use it, and if you read the recommended pre-requisites for most exams they say that you should have a minimum of two years experience with the technology.  Someone once described one of the exams that I had helped to write as follows: ‘Some of those questions can’t be answered by studying a book… if you have deployed the software then you will know most of the answers off the top of your head, but if you haven’t… wow, it will be difficult to pass.’  Although I do not create exams anymore, I hope this is a bar that Microsoft Learning will set for their exam creation teams.  On the flipside of that comment, there is one exam that I wrote a couple of years ago that I passed without ever having implemented any of the technologies discussed.  Either I was channeling Liberty Munson, or it was simply a poorly written exam.

Study the Scope

For every exam that Microsoft Learning has there is a document called the Objective Domain.  On the website it is simply called ‘Skills Measured’ and in preparing for an exam there is probably no more crucial document than this.  It starts with the main categories – for example, for exam 70-642 TS: Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring there are five categories:

  • Configuring Addressing and Services
  • Configuring Name Resolution
  • Configuring Network Access
  • Configuring File and Print Services
  • Monitoring and Managing a Network Infrastructure
    Some exams may have four categories and some may have seven… but these are the main technologies or skills that are covered.  Under each of these categories there will ne a number of sub-points… so under Configuring Name Resolution you will have a point on Configure DNS zones and Configure a Domain Name System (DNS) server… all of the topics that the original Objective Domain Team decided were important enough to have specific questions written to.them.  Under those you will have more specific tips, so under Configure a Domain Name System (DNS) server you will find: “May include but is not limited to: conditional forwarding; external forwarders; root hints; cache-only; socket pooling; cache locking.”  These are not points that WILL have a question or two, but MIGHT have.
    Fill in the Blanks
    Of course, in the case of this exam (70-642) you have probably been using Windows Server 2008 for three or more years, so you think you are ready to write the exam.  However when you review the Skills Measured section for this exam you review this list, and notice the following section:

Configuring Network Access

  • Configure DirectAccess.

    • May include but is not limited to: IPv6; IPsec; server requirements; client requirements; perimeter network; name resolution policy table

Now, although you have a Server 2008 R2 infrastructure in your environment, you have not implemented Direct Access, and you have not even looked at IPv6.  You have already in your trusted Self Paced Study Guide from Microsoft Press, so rather than reading the whole book, you pull out your PostIt notes and start placing them strategically at the pages of the topics that you need to learn or review.  While you may now have 100 sticky notes all over the book, you have done a very good job of narrowing down what topics you need to study (or review).

Practice Lab

The abovementioned example is a bad choice for this, but most topics that you are going to study will be easier to learn by implementing them in your lab, which may be in your corporate datacentre, in your basement, or at school.  Make sure you can build all of the scenarios that the book discusses so that you do not only have a theoretical knowledge of them, but have actually given yourself hands-on experience with them.  Theories are great, but theoretical knowledge can be dangerous when the exam asks you a practical question such as ‘What do you do next?’

Practice Exams

There are several vendors selling good and legitimate practice exams, that will help you to gauge if you are truly ready for the exam.  This does not mean that you should buy question lists or Brain Dumps… all of which are tantamount to cheating.  However vendors such as Bosun offer legitimate practice tests that should tell you if you are ready or not.  They may cost as much as the exam, but they are worth it.  I used to use them for each exam, and was always frustrated when I would score 90% and still fail… however when I came out of the actual exam with an 875 I knew that running through them time after time paid off!

There’s always an angle…

Ok, that sounds dirty.  However Microsoft Learning and Prometric run all sorts of promotions throughout the year, ranging from exam discounts for pre-purchasing multiple exams, to Certification Packs for the Microsoft Partner Network, to Second Shot Free vouchers.  Also beta exams are a good route to get certified for free, but these are usually not offered to the public, and you do not have the benefit of practice exams, Skills Measured pages, and so on.  I save on exams because I am a Microsoft Certified Trainer, which entitles me to a 50% discount off the regular cost of $150 per exam – I have taken six exams this year, so I have saved $450, or $50 more than my yearly MCT dues cost.  However if you do not want to invest in becoming an MCT, keep an eye on the MPN Newsletter, as well as the Born To Learn blog for deals that pop up every so often.

Don’t be afraid to fail!

I know too many IT Pros who don’t schedule their exams because they are afraid that they will fail.  I have failed more exams than most people have taken, and although there is a cost to it, you also learn from failing.  If you are not sure if you are ready for the exam then you can keep waiting until the certification becomes irrelevant, or you can impose a deadline on yourself.  The worst thing that can happen is that you fail – nobody is going to stand and laugh at you (Nelson Munch style).  However the first thing you should do when you walk out of the exam room is jot down notes about what you were not sure of… and that with your Score Report (which will let you know according to the Top-Level buckets from the Skills Measured page how you did on each section) will give you a good guide to what you should be studying before retaking the exam.

Don’t Mess with Juju!

If you have a system and it works, don’t mess with it.  I have mine, you have yours, and you cannot learn from mine – you can learn my study habits, but my idiosyncrasies will not help you.  If you only pass exams on Thursdays then why would you possibly schedule one for Tuesday?  If you have a lucky pair of socks, make sure they are clean and ironed before you head to the exam centre.  In addition to the tips I have given you herein, real or imagined, these habits may help you to pass your exams – or at least calm you down in the room so you can pass.  Whatever it is that works for you, do it!

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8 thoughts on “Skills Measured: Improving your chances of passing certification exams

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