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10 Certification Exam Tips and Tricks from the Experts

Date:
Jan. 14, 2019
Author:
Ryan Day

Want to pass your next certification exam? Keep reading.

Global Knowledge subject matter experts know certification exams inside and out. They understand the study methods and test-taking techniques that pay off the most when it’s exam time. But, as Tracy Wallace, a Global Knowledge Microsoft Azure instructor with over 20 years of exam experience, puts it: certification exams are neither easy nor fun.

Here are 10 certification exam tips and tricks, directly from our experts and Certification Prep Guides, that will best position you for certification success.

 

1. A single study cram session will not suffice

“This certification is not one in which you can study one afternoon and take the test the next morning.”

Google Cloud Platform (GCP) expert David Ross is specifically referencing a GCP certification here, but it applies to all certifications. Few individuals can show up on exam day and pass with little or no prep.

GCP exams, for example, are designed with the expectation that the test-taker understands the content and has extensive practice in a GCP environment. That sort of knowledge can’t be gained alone by reading or self-study. And it certainly can’t be learned the night before the exam. Hands-on experience is necessary.

The same philosophy applies to Microsoft certification exams. Wallace emphasizes the importance of using the technology—it’s one of the most important aspects of learning and maintains the credibility of the certification. Without actual hands-on practice, it’s increasingly difficult to pass a certification exam.

“[C]ertifying people that have just studied for an exam and have not ever touched the product devalues the certification,” Wallace writes in the article, Six Tips for Passing a Microsoft Certification Exam (from Someone Who Hates Taking Tests).

 

2. Do your homework before you do your homework

There’s nothing sinister about certification exams (though if you don’t pass, it may feel that way). In fact, technology providers want you and your company to succeed. That’s why most are transparent about the exam content.

Each provider should have an official exam page for your certification of choice (e.g., AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate, CCNA Routing and Switching, Google Cloud Certified Professional Data Engineer). Familiarize yourself with this content. Each exam page likely includes an overview of the test, prerequisites, study materials, and other details that will help you prepare.

The phrasing and language on these pages can provide hints for how questions on the actual test might be positioned. From Ross: “The wording of the exam guide might feel overwhelming, but the overall concepts provide clues as to how the exam is written and the types of questions you will encounter.”

Some exam pages will also break down the question types to expect (e.g. multiple choice, best answer, etc.). This is particularly important as you develop a strategy for taking the test.

The Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification exam is multiple choice, but with a twist—you’re looking for the “most correct” answer. The questions will have at least two correct answers, but one will be “most correct” based on context and the subtleties of the wording.

CompTIA exams have performance-based questions, which require students to complete a task or answer a series of questions. These exams are not simple multiple choice. Test-takers will need to interact with the screen and analyze real-world scenarios.

These types of details are helpful when prepping. Every certification exam is unique. Acquaint yourself with the individual exam page and know what you need to know. This will ensure you’re not wasting time when it comes to studying and practice.

 

3. Instructor-led training is the gold standard of learning

Interact directly with experts. That’s the benefit of live, instructor-led training courses. Authorized training providers utilize subject matter experts who can impart their real-world experience on students. In some cases, these instructors are the same individuals who develop the content for certification exams.

“Like myself, nearly all of our instructors (95%) have decades of hands-on systems design experience, and can help students with even the tricky, ‘from-the-trenches’ questions,” said AWS instructor Rich Morrow. “We’re not ‘just trainers’ who read you slides—we’re hands-on practitioners who can go into detail about implementation concerns and gotchas.”

Instructor-led training also eliminates the fear of studying from outdated material. With persistent technological changes, it can be difficult to know if a training resource (e.g., blog post, YouTube video) is up to date. In a live classroom environment, recent tech updates can be addressed as they occur.

Global Knowledge works closely with its training partners to ensure technology changes and course updates happen concurrently. The courses are enriched in real time with current best practices and hands-on labs. When the skills you need to learn are critical, instructor-led training is your best option.

Certification prep courses and boot camps

Global Knowledge also offers specific certification prep courses and boot camps. These courses will provide essential information and help you gain the skills needed to pass specific exams. In fact, 91% of Global Knowledge students pass their certification exam on the first attempt.

Check out Global Knowledge’s certification prep training where you’ll find recommended courses for the industry’s most valuable and sought-after certifications. Global Knowledge also has a number of certification tracks, which are easy-to-follow roadmaps of the steps and courses for each credential. 

For accelerated training, Global Knowledge’s boot camps cover a lot of information quickly. Take a look at our list of boot camps and accelerated courses.

 

4. Free study resources are out there—you just need to know where to find them

Formal and informal training is the chocolate and peanut butter of certification prep—a perfect combination. Classroom training is often more in-depth and reliable, but it’s not going to give you everything you need. Self-study is vital, too.

“To be successful, you must put in a lot of work on your own both before and after class,” said Global Knowledge instructor Daniel Cummins. “The most successful students don’t just show up on the Monday morning of their first course and crack open the book for the first time. Instead, they find resources ahead of time and prep. Watch some videos online or check out a book from your local library. After your week of training is completed, work through the various practice tests and review questions to make sure you have retained the appropriate knowledge.”

Certification prep requires a lot of investment. The good thing is free resources are available to everyone—you just need to know where to look.

Certification Prep Guides

A good place to start is with Global Knowledge’s Certification Prep Guides. This constantly expanding list is a deep dive into everything you need to know about a certification, including exam logistics, course recommendations, details on how it will impact your career, next steps, and more. These are truly complete guides and should be references throughout the entire certification process.

Articles, blogs, white papers and videos also complement instructor-led training. Just make sure it’s trusted and current content.

For example, AWS publishes a Well-Architected framework, a collection of five white papers that are constantly curated. Morrow says the Well-Architected framework is “required reading for anyone building their first couple of systems on AWS.” Many questions on the AWS Architect Associated exam are based on this collection.

Nothing beats experience with the platform

Google subject matter expert David Ross recommends spending time in the Google Cloud Platform in preparation for certifications like GCP Professional Data Engineer.

“Formal training provides an excellent starting point for understanding GCP, but the concepts brought forth in those classes can be reinforced and deepened through time spent using the platform,” Ross said. “Fortunately, there are many ways to spend time in GCP, exercising the product suite to perform tasks and meet specific goals as you prepare to take the exam.”

Be on the lookout for free trials for certain platforms, like AWS, GCP and Microsoft Azure. It’s a great way to experiment at no cost.

 

5. Know how to take the certification test

Technical knowledge is the first step. If you’ve properly prepared for the certification exam, you’ve got that covered.

But do you know how to take the test?

Here are some specific test-taking tips for various certification exams.

AWS

Take the test in waves. Since AWS allows you to go back and review previous questions, you should tackle the no-brainers first—anything you can answer in 10 seconds or less. This ensures you get all of the way through the exam and earn points for the easy questions. Then go back and answer the tougher questions.

CompTIA

Answer every question. CompTIA does not penalize for wrong answers. A guess is better than leaving a question blank.

Google Cloud

This is more of a test prep tip, but make sure you review case studies provided by Google before the exam. GCP certification exams include questions based on one of four possible customer situations, which you can review beforehand. Consider possible solutions for each case study and you’ll be in better shape when presented with the multiple-choice questions during the exam.

ITIL®

Follow a process. The multiple-choice questions are often complex and require more work to get an answer. But that’s the point of ITIL to begin with—handling ambiguous situations with a process. Take your time and read all questions and statements, while drawing a line through incorrect answers as you go.

Microsoft

Do some quick math at the start of the exam. You’re provided with the total number of questions and the time available. Figure out how much time you have per question to ensure you make it through the entire exam. If you run out of time, you’ll find yourself guessing at a number of questions.

PMP

The format is “most correct” so make sure you read all options before answering. Most, if not all of the questions will have at least two correct answers.

 

6. Timeless exam day test-taking tips

You’ve got a lot of things floating around in your brain on exam day. Plus, you’re probably teetering somewhere between nervous and anxious. With that in mind, exam day is a good time to recapture the basics of test-taking—you probably learned these timeless tactics in middle school.

Slow down

Slow down and don’t read things quickly. It’s easy to be influenced by the clock; don’t let it affect your comprehension. When you read questions and answers too quickly, you are more apt to miss something or misinterpret the meaning. Remember, the exam is not a race. There are no bonus points for finishing first.

Check your work

This isn’t always possible, but for several certification exams, there is plenty of time to double check your work. Use all of your allotted time if necessary. While working your way through the test, mark the questions that you’re unsure of and revisit them at the end.

Trust your instincts

Revisiting questions is advised, but second-guessing your initial answer should be cautioned, especially if you’re guessing. Trust your initial instincts. Don’t change your first guess unless you’re sure it’s incorrect.

Relax

Chill out! Seriously, if you’ve put in the work beforehand, take a deep breath and relax. You’ve got this!

 

7. You won’t know everything on the exam, and that’s fine

Don’t be flustered when you don’t know an answer. It’s normal. Certification exams are difficult for a reason. If it was easy to pass, certified IT professionals wouldn’t be so highly regarded.

A certification is an indication to your boss, co-workers and future employers that you possess not only a certain skillset, but that you’re willing to put in the hard work it takes to prepare for a certification exam.

So don’t expect the exam to be a breeze. It’s OK to miss a question and it’s OK to guess. In many instances, there are no penalties for an incorrect answer.

Microsoft instructor Tracy Wallace has over 20 years of exam experience and has never recorded a perfect score. And that’s fine—there are no bonuses for perfect scores. A pass is a pass.

Wallace knows that many exam questions are worded in a way to try and fool you. Thus, it’s important to read each question carefully and look for clues in the wording.

“I treat every question as a potential trick question,” Wallace said. “This makes me pay attention.”

 

8. Be on time and know what you need to bring

If you put in a lot of time preparing for your certification exam, don’t waste it all by showing up late or without a required item to the testing center.

  • Arrive at least 15 minutes before the appointed time.
  • Make sure you have a driver’s license or passport—or both as some testing centers require two forms of ID. It’s best to call the day before your exam to confirm what you must bring with you.
  • Certification exams are not open book. You’ll have to leave your belongings (bag, wallet, cell phone, etc.) in a provided locker before being escorted to a computer by a proctor.
  • One more testing center tip: bring a sweatshirt. The air conditioning is often on full blast in many of these centers. It’s tough to focus on your test when your teeth are chattering.

Be kind to the test administrators

They may ask to take your photo. They may check your belongings. They may ask you to turn your pockets inside out. Be patient. They don’t enjoy this process any more than you do. But they will lose their testing license if they don’t follow protocol.

 

9. Free or discounted exams are offered at some trade shows

Do you plan on attending AWS re:Invent, Cisco Live, Microsoft Ignite or VMworld this year? If so, you can get certified at these and other industry trade shows.

Knock out two birds with one stone—attend a show and get certified. Certification exams offered at trade shows are often heavily discounted or even free. You do not want to waste this opportunity! Check to see if the trade show has a mobile certification testing center and if the exam is included in the cost of your badge. Verify if you need to register for the free or discounted exam prior to arriving at the exam center.

If you’ve ever been to a large trade show, such as Cisco Live, you probably are aware that the testing center isn’t always near the expo floor. In fact, it can be in a totally different location. Know where the exam room is and when it begins. If you’re late, they won’t let you inside.

Maximize your time and budget and pick a trade show that has a testing center. If you do, you have no excuse not to prepare sufficiently for the exam. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously.

Walk away from the trade show with plenty of swag and a brand new credential on your resume. It’s a win-win.

Learn more about maximizing your trade show experience.

 

10. You passed! Now what?

First off, congratulations! Passing a certification exam should be celebrated. It takes a lot of work and a big investment. Well done.

Now that you have a new certification, don’t rest on your laurels. Technologies are evolving rapidly so it’s important you keep your skills current.

Take a look at advanced certifications. If you achieved an AWS Associate-level certification, check out the corresponding Professional-level option. See our AWS Certification Tracks.

If you’re certified in CCNA Routing and Switching, the next logical step is CCNP Routing and Switching. Take that next step in your career. See our Cisco Career Certification Tracks.

If you get certified as a Microsoft Azure Developer, check out the other two Azure role-based certifications. See our Microsoft Azure Certification Tracks.

Certifications may expire

You also want to know when your credential expires. Many certifications require you to get recertified every two or three years.

For AWS, certifications are valid for two years. The recertification exam is not the same as the original—it’s actually easier.

Microsoft also has a two-year recertification window, where you can take a recertification exam or a stay-current course to demonstrate your continued competence.

CompTIA certifications are valid for three years. You can either take the exam again or complete the Continuing Education (CE) program. Rather than retake the exam, you can get Continuing Education Units (CEUs) toward recertification by completing certain tasks and training opportunities. Some tasks give you all of the required CEUs to recertify with a single activity. Examples include attending an approved training class from an official CompTIA partner or achieving SME status and participating in an Exam Development Workshop.

Recertification is an important indicator to IT professionals and employers that the certification-holder is dedicated to keeping up with current trends and technology. If you let your certification lapse, you’ll have to re-earn your certification. It’s much easier to recertify than re-earn.

 

Share your own certification exam tips

Do you have your own certification advice? What study methods paid off? What test-taking tips helped you get certified?

Share your certification exam tips and tricks on Twitter with #GKexamtips.

 

Additional resources

How to Select the Right Certification for You 
15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2019 
Global Knowledge Certification Prep Guides