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Six Certification Exam Mistakes to Avoid

By Bill Ferguson

So you've decided to take one of the latest certification exams. Passing this one may just add to the alphabet soup of certifications that are already attached to your signature or maybe it's the first certification that you've ever acquired. In either case, you'll want to use every advantage available and you'll want to avoid any pitfalls. Although each exam is content specific, there are some overall guidelines that will help you pass any certification exam. I'll list six mistakes commonly made when approaching a new exam and how to avoid them. My hope is that some of these tips may give you the slight edge you need to convert a potential failure into a success.


Mistake No. 1: Not building confidence first

If you approach anything without a confident feeling, it becomes infinitely harder to accomplish. Think about the first time that you asked someone out on a date. You were nervous, but you had to find the courage. In the same way, build your confidence before you take the test. Take the test with the intention of passing it, not just to find out whether you can.
Depending on the vendor and type of certification, you can build confidence by attending a class, reading a book or reviewing practice tests. You can also read over the exam's objectives or blueprint and compare your current knowledge with what is required. If you make a plan and execute it, you will gradually build confidence that you can pass the test.


Mistake No. 2: Studying without scheduling first

I've taught hundreds of classes and had thousands of students, but I've never had a student pass a certification exam for which he or she was not previously scheduled. You will study much better once you get the test on your calendar. Until you do, it's a "someday I'll get around to it" thought; but as soon as you schedule the test it becomes a looming deadline, which is just what you want for effective study. Do yourself a favor and find the website that applies to the certification you desire, schedule the test within a couple of weeks, and then study. Once you commit to the test with your time and your credit card, your study habits will change and you will find a way to work it into your current schedule.


Mistake No. 3: Rote memorization without any real-world experience

There is a difference between knowing something and understanding it. A 16-year-old knows how to drive - just push the pedal and try to avoid obstacles. Once we've been driving for a while though, we realize that there is a whole lot more to driving than first meets the eye, like car malfunctions, careless drivers, speed zones and weather. In the same way, you can read about how to configure a software program and still not truly understand the differences in those configurations until you actually tackle that software yourself.
Whenever you are studying for an IT certification exam, you should have the appropriate lab environment to complete your studies. For example, if you are studying for a VMware vSphere certification exam, then you should build a vSphere environment. If you are studying for a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam, get a good simulator to assist you in understanding what you are really doing. The ability to immediately refer to the software while you are studying the text will not only help you understand the concepts deeper, but it will also help you retain the new information.


Mistake No. 4: Not using all available tools

Regardless of the type of certification exam for which you are studying, there will be a tremendous amount of resources at your disposal. You should make it your goal to find all of them and use them for your studies. For example, VMware, Cisco and Microsoft all have extensive information about their software available for free on the Web in the form of white papers, PDFs, videos and forums. Sometimes hearing the same thing over and over from different sources makes the information "click" in my mind, believe it and then understand it. How about you?
Also, keeping up with the latest information may alert you to an easier or less expensive path, such as a recertification exam or a discount for the test that you plan to take. Sometimes vendors will offer a path to upgrade a certification that you already have. These offers allow you a potential short cut, but they are generally available for a limited time. For this reason, you should stay up to date with the certifications that you hold and the upgrade offers that are available from the vendor's website. It never hurts to have more information.


Mistake No. 5: Rushing through the test

A certification exam is generally allotted the amount of time that it should take a person who understands the content to carefully read each question and all of the possible answers. If you are prepared, then you should not have to hurry during the test. I recommend that you take your hand off the mouse while you are reading a question and possible answers. Read the whole question, then all of the possible answers and then eliminate them one at a time until you arrive at your response. Only after these steps should you put your hand back on the mouse and record your answer. Repeat this process with every question, and you will find that you are focusing more on understanding the questions and less on finishing the test.
On exams that contain simulations, relax and read everything first because the test makers allot more time for those types of questions. Generally, when I've taught boot camps and discussed the exam with a student right after they finished it, their comments have indicated that they knew how to do what the exam required, but they didn't understand the question or the scenario. Sometimes that's because they were trying to finish the scenario question just as fast as a simple multiple-choice question. That additional pressure caused them to miss the point of the scenario and therefore miss the question even though they had the required knowledge. The main takeaway here is that if a question is actually a task or scenario, then you should be able to spend more time on it. Most exam creators are very fair in this regard.


Mistake No. 6: Thinking, "I've been using this stuff for years, so there's no need for a class."

Finally, you should never underestimate the value of a high-quality certification preparation class. It not only brings you up to date in regard to what the vendor wants you to know for the exam (some vendors even require that you take a class to gain your certification), but it enables you to pick the brain of a qualified instructor who has taken and passed the exam that you are going to take. In addition, the vicarious learning acquired from sharing information and experience with other students is invaluable for test preparation, as well as for real-world best practices. In addition, you generally have the advantage of an optimum lab environment to use during the class and sometimes after the class has ended. Even if a class is not required for the certification, you should give strong consideration to adding a prep class to your study plan for success.



Effective preparation for a certification exam involves much more than just memorizing the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model or a list of ports or protocols. There is a psychology involved that can either frustrate you or assist you in passing the test, depending on how you approach it. You certainly need to learn the information regarding the certification you desire, but you don't need to do it the "hard way." Instead, you can learn from others who have made mistakes and found a way to correct them. I hope your awareness of these six mistakes and how to avoid them will help make the difference on your future certification exams.


About the Author

Bill Ferguson has been in the computer industry for more than 25 years. Ferguson runs his own company as an independent contractor in Birmingham, Alabama, teaching classes for many national training companies including Global Knowledge. Additionally, Ferguson has written and produced many technical training books and videos including: Network+ Review Guide 3rd Edition for Exam N10-006-Sybex, Wiley Press; The Official VCP5 Certification Guide, Pearson VMware Press; Official Cert Guide for VCP 5.5, Pearson VMware Press; and Fundamentals of VMware vSphere Virtualization-Safari, Live Lessons. His current projects include a new VCP6 Foundations Official Cert Guide, Pearson VMware Press, and additional training movies to be announced late in 2015.