A Guide to CompTIA Certifications, Exams and Recertification
CompTIA has become one of the most recognized and respected names in IT certifications, from the first A+ back in the 1990s to today with over a dozen vendor-neutral certifications covering a variety of topics.
At first glance, it may seem daunting trying to figure out which certifications you should pursue and what it takes to pass the exams. But do not fear! CompTIA has streamlined its certification process.
In this article, we explain:
- The certifications available from CompTIA
- The best way to prioritize certifications
- The details of CompTIA exams
- And more!
Soon, your newly-earned CompTIA certification will help you achieve your IT career goals.
Core certifications: All IT professionals should have these
CompTIA currently has 13 different certifications broken into four certification levels: Core, Infrastructure, Cybersecurity and Additional Professional.
These certifications are intentionally vendor-neutral. With so many of our businesses and networks mixing products from different vendors, it's important that IT professionals are able to install, maintain, troubleshoot and secure these multi-vendor environments.
To that end, all IT professionals should complete the four Core certifications. Achieving these certifications, along with your job experience, proves that you possess foundational IT knowledge that will benefit any organization, regardless of specialization.
You should take the following exams in order:
- CompTIA IT Fundamentals+ (ITF+) was designed as a beginner certification for those considering a career in IT. Passing the exam proves that you have what it takes to venture further down this path. If you have already begun your IT career, you can probably skip this exam.
- Related course: CompTIA IT Fundamentals Certification
- CompTIA A+ is for entry-level IT professionals, such as help desk technicians, field technicians and technical call center employees. This exam focuses on the installation, maintenance and troubleshooting of hardware, software and operating systems. It also includes topics related to networking, security and operational procedures. Passing the two A+ exams proves your knowledge and expertise related to workstations and other user endpoints.
- Related course: CompTIA A+ Certification Prep
- CompTIA Network+ focuses on entry-level networking, including networking help desk technicians, infrastructure installers and junior network technicians. This exam covers the installation maintenance and troubleshooting of networks, including Ethernet and Wireless. You are also tested on various protocols for both the LAN and WAN, and on the importance of network security. Passing this exam proves that you have foundational knowledge related to network infrastructure and network protocols.
- Related course: CompTIA Network+ Certification Prep (NIO-007)
- CompTIA Security+ is an intermediate-level exam, focusing on a wide array of foundational security topics, including data, application, host, network, physical and operational security. You are expected to understand encryption, access control, hardening and secure software development, among other things. Many organizations consider Security+ to be the minimum level of certification to be considered for all IT positions beyond entry-level, not just security-related jobs.
- Related course: Security+ Certification Prep Course
Choose your path: Cybersecurity, Infrastructure or Additional Professional
At this point, you have a choice to make. The CompTIA path splits. Down one path is infrastructure. Down the other is cybersecurity. Due to strong trends in the industry, the most popular path is Cybersecurity. There are two certifications at the intermediate level and one advanced certification.
- CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst+ (CySA+) is an intermediate certification designed for the defensive side of cybersecurity. This exam focuses on topics related to preventing, detecting and combating cybersecurity threats by applying behavioral analytics to networks and devices.
- Related course: CySA+ - Cybersecurity Analyst+ Prep Course
- CompTIA Penetration Testing+ (PenTest+) is the newest CompTIA certification focused on offensive security. By passing this exam, you prove that you have the skillset for hands-on penetration testing to identify, exploit, report, and manage vulnerabilities on a network. Essentially, PenTest+ proves that you can stop a hacker because you have the skills of a hacker.
- CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+) is CompTIA's highest certification. The focus of CASP+ is on holistic, enterprise-wide security; the integration of security throughout the entire organization. According to CompTIA, this exam specifically targets "technical professionals who wish to remain immersed in technology as opposed to managing cybersecurity policy and frameworks."
- Related course: CASP+ - CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner Prep Course
The infrastructure pathway focuses on the implementation and maintenance of server infrastructure, starting with Linux+, moving on to Server+ and ending with Cloud+.
- CompTIA Linux+ covers multiple distributions of Linux, distinguishing itself from other vendor-specific certifications. The goal of this certification is to prove competency in Linux system configurations, the command line interface, scripting, networking and security.
- CompTIA Server+ is designed to validate the skills needed by server administrators, regardless of the server platform, including virtualization, storage, security and troubleshooting. It stands as the only vendor-neutral server-based certification in the industry.
- CompTIA Cloud+ aims to prove the skills necessary for data center administrators. As a vendor-neutral, performance-based certification, you can better realize your return on investment of cloud infrastructure.
Learn more about CompTIA's Infrastructure certifications.
The other three certifications within the CompTIA portfolio are referred to as Additional Professional. These certifications fall under the business side of IT. Project+ is a certification on Project Management. CTT+ is for Technical Trainers. Cloud Essentials is a cloud-based certificate from the business and operations perspective.
Learn more about CompTIA's Additional Professional certifications.
How to prepare for a CompTIA certification exam
CompTIA's exams are designed to test professionals, ensuring they have the skillset necessary to work in the IT industry. So don't expect that you can just skate through these exams. You have to prepare.
While on-the-job experience is an excellent start, the average IT job doesn't provide all of the prerequisite information needed to cover the certification exam objectives. The best way to prepare is to attend an official CompTIA training class.
CompTIA Training Classes Help, But You Still Need to Study
To be successful, you must put in the work on your own both before and after class. 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 videos, read study guides, attend online workshops or webinars.
After your training is completed, work through the various practice tests and review questions to make sure you have retained the appropriate knowledge. (Tip: A mix of formal and informal resources is optimal when preparing for a certification exam.)
When researching potential study resources, make sure they cover all of the objectives provided by CompTIA. It's also important not to just memorize a bunch of facts hoping that you can regurgitate them at exam time.
CompTIA's questions are not simple multiple-choice questions. Throughout the exam, you will find scenarios describing real-world situations. You will need to analyze the scenario to figure out exactly what you are being asked.
You also need to be aware of the Performance-Based Questions ( PBQs). Every CompTIA exam has them — except for ITF+ — and they always appear first on the exam.
PBQs require the student to complete a task or answer a series of questions. You need to interact somehow with the screen. These are more challenging questions and require that you pull from several exam domains. When preparing for the exam, look for opportunities to practice these types of questions.
The Certification Exam Experience
Once you’ve sufficiently prepared, it’s time to register for and schedule your exam. CompTIA offers two testing formats: In-person at an approved testing location and online with a live proctor monitoring your exam remotely.
CompTIA has partnered with Pearson VUE for all of their exams. In order to complete the registration, you will need a voucher. Typically a voucher is included when you purchase training resources or a study guide. You can also purchase one directly through CompTIA or one of its partners.
Schedule Exams Well in Advance
Regardless of the testing method, there are limited time slots available for any of the exams, so you should try to schedule your exam a few weeks ahead of time, especially if you have specific restrictions for when you can take an exam. Locate the nearest testing center to take your CompTIA certification exam.
Once the exam is scheduled, you can cancel or reschedule at any time as long as the change is requested at least 24 hours prior to exam time. Just keep an eye on your voucher expiration. Once the voucher has expired, it is invalid. If you attempt to cancel after the 24-hour deadline, and you do not show up for your exam, the voucher is officially “used” and will be invalid for future exams. Make sure you examine the terms and conditions of your exam voucher when you receive it.
If you need any accommodations due to disability, PearsonVUE can help with that. They need a 30-day notice. Learn more about Pearson VUE test accommodations.
Checking in – In-Person
On the day of the exam, you will need to check in with the test administrator. You are not allowed to bring anything with you into the testing room, not even your cellphone. The test administrator will provide you with a locker where you can secure things such as a bag, wallet and keys.
You must bring two forms of ID with you to the exam. One must be a government issued identification card and should have your picture and a signature. Examples include a driver's license, a passport, a state ID card or a military ID. The second form can be any kind of official card that has your signature. Examples include your signed credit card, a concealed carry permit or a work or student ID.
During the admissions process, you will provide your identification, have your picture taken, sign a digital signature pad and sign the official examination rules. Before you enter the testing area, the test administrator is required to check your glasses (if applicable) to confirm that there is no technology integrated into them, ask you to turn your pockets inside out and more, if necessary, to confirm that you are not bringing any unauthorized or prohibited items into the testing area.
Please be patient with the administrator. They don't like this anymore than you do. But they will lose their testing license if they do not complete these steps, which are mandated by CompTIA.
Checking in – Online
Online testing with CompTIA is done with PearsonVUE’s OnVUE platform. Because you are using your own computers, it is important to ensure that your testing system meets minimum system requirements. Among other things, you want a quality display and internet bandwidth to ensure a smooth and effortless exam experience.
Check here for the full list of technical requirements.
It is very important to prepare a special place for testing. The most important things to consider are distractions and integrity. Firstly, take the test in a room where you can be alone (you may not have others in the room while you are testing, except for small children). You need to be able to focus while you test.
Remove All Distractions When Testing Online
Don’t have TVs, music, posters or any papers on your desk area. Secondly, you want the proctor to have confidence that you are not cheating and getting answers from another source. Get rid of all other technology from the space except for your computer being used for testing. Get rid of any papers that are within arms’ reach. Turn off your mobile device completely (not on vibrate).
You do need your ID, but only one and it has to be government issued. Basically, use the same ID you would use as your first ID if you tested in person. It needs to have a semi-recent, clear photo of your face and must not be expired.
Online check-in begins thirty minutes before your exam begins. I recommend that you use the 30 minutes if this is your first online exam. There may be technical issues to work through and the last thing you need is the stress of your exam time bearing down during a troubleshooting session with PearsonVUE support.
You’ll check in on the PearsonVUE site and the proctor will walk you through everything. Your camera should be an external camera (not the one built into your laptop). It makes it much easier to pan the room 360 degrees if the camera is separate.
Exam tips: What You Should Know About Points, Guessing, and Technical Issues
As you work through the exam, read every question fully. Don’t make any assumptions. Also, answer every question. CompTIA does not penalize for wrong answers. A wrong answer is a 0. So you should at least guess if you are not sure. Just don’t second guess. Studies have proven that those who guess the answer on their first try and then change it are almost always wrong, statistically. You have a much better chance of getting it right if you go with your first guess, unless you know for sure it is incorrect.
Throughout the exam, if you experience any technical issues, don’t panic. The proctor is available to help. In a physical testing center, just raise your hand and the test admin will come get you. For the online exam, just talk. The proctor is listening through your camera. If it’s a serious issue, your exam timer can be paused while you get technical support.
You do not have to complete the exam in order. There is a button on the screen that allows you to flag a question for review at the end. You can also use the forward and back buttons to move back and forth through the exam.
You Will Know If You Passed or Failed Right Away
Once you complete the exam, you will be able to see your score on-screen (CASP+ only shows pass or fail).
A score report will also be made available for you either printed at the testing center or e-mailed to you if you take the exam online. Whether you pass or fail, the score report will contain valuable information about your exam. The best part is the list of objectives where you got at least one question wrong. This will help you study should you need to retake the exam.
If you passed, the official score may take a couple of weeks to verify. You should receive your certificate in the mail by the end of the month. If you didn’t pass, use the list of objectives to focus your study on what you missed. Most people who fail on their first attempt pass on their second. CompTIA has no waiting period to allow you to try again.
How to Recertify Once Certifications Expire
Technology changes quickly and so must certifications. CompTIA has chosen a three year update cycle for all certifications. They have also applied this three-year rotation to the validity period of your certification. You are only certified for three years at a time. You can either take the exam again in three years or you can 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.
The other CEUs must be combined in some fashion to achieve recertification — for example, attending a few webinars, contributing to a tech blog and gaining work experience. If you're not sure if your proposed activity will qualify as a CEU, run the CEU assessment app on the CompTIA website.
Don't wait until the last minute. Get those credits in so you can stay certified. You also have to pay a nominal fee to keep your certifications. But it's not much and many times, employers will buy special vouchers for this fee. They give these vouchers to their employees to cover some or all of the renewal fees.
CompTIA Certifications Reveal New Career Opportunities
Passing a CompTIA exam is a rewarding experience, for both the individual and organization. According to the Global Knowledge IT Skills and Salary Report, certified IT professionals have higher salaries, perform their job faster and their expertise is more sought after than non-certified peers.
IT decision-makers clearly see the benefits of certification, stating that certified team members are better equipped to close organizational skills gaps. Certified IT professionals also garner more respect from their customers. Having those letters after your name gives customers confidence that you possess the skills and tools to solve their problems.
While the benefits are clear, pursuing a certification is an investment in time and money. Don't take it lightly. Remember that a pass is a pass. Don't feel like less of a technician if you passed by 1 point and don't get cocky if you get a perfect score. You are just as certified as the next IT professional. Good luck testing!
As you begin charting the course of your career in IT, CompTIA is a leading resource to consider for both formal and informal training, certifications and more. Global Knowledge is a platinum authorized training partner of CompTIA. See our entire CompTIA training library here.
About the author
Daniel Cummins is a CompTIA Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) and has been CompTIA certified since 2010, having passed all of the Core and Cybersecurity exams. Due to recertifications, Daniel has taken and passed more than a dozen CompTIA exams.