4 tips for acing the CompTIA A+ certification exams

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Today I'll share four practical tips to help you earn your CompTIA A+ certification. As you may know, The A+ is an entry-level industry credential for people who want or need to demonstrate their competency as computer repair technicians.

The A+ credential requires that you pass two separate computer-based tests:

  • 220-901, also known as "The hardware exam"
  • 220-902, also known as "The software exam"

Notice those new exam codes. As it happens, CompTIA released the new 900-series exams on December 15, 2015. In another Pluralsight post I spelled out the difference between the previous 800-series tests with the new versions.

Now, let's get to the good stuff!

Tip No. 1: Study the exam objectives

The great Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War,” "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." To be sure, CompTIA certainly isn't our enemy, but we can still apply Tzu's teaching by downloading and studying the CompTIA A+ 220-901 and 220-902 exam blueprints.

To do so, visit the CompTIA A+ Exam Details page and fill out the free request form; you can then download the two objectives documents in Adobe Acrobat .PDF format. Here’s a figure showing the 220-901 content domains:

And following is a figure showing the corresponding 220-902 content domains:

As you can see, CompTIA is transparent about the content and its relative weightings on the tests. The aforementioned Exam Details page will provide you with additional metadata, such as the number of questions, time limit, passing score, and so forth.

My main point here is that the exam blueprints represent the best way to record your progress through the material, and verify that you're prepared to sit for the exam. By the time you show up to take the tests, every single bullet item in those .PDFS should be intimately familiar to you.

Tip No. 2: Understand the theory

Given that the 220-901/902 objective blueprints weigh in at 52 PDF pages, we're clearly talking about a huge volume of computer repair technician skills. How in the world can you master the knowledge? That's where Pluralsight comes in. I spent approximately five months working full-time on our our 220-901 and 220-902 learning paths[A1] , and I structured every one of my video lessons to correspond exactly to those exam objectives. Every single line item is covered!

A common question I receive from students is, "Should I start with the hardware or the software exam?" You know, it truly doesn't matter because you'll earn your A+ certificate after you pass both exams, not just one. Therefore, I advise you to start where you're most comfortable, given your background with computers.

Two important points to note as you're studying our videos: First, make sure you download the exercise files for each course. I add supplemental resources to every one of my modules; Pluralsight ZIPs up the text files into a single download that's attached to the course. As you can see in the screenshot below, you can nab the files by navigating to the Exercise files tab in our Web player and then clicking “Download exercise files.”

While we're in the Web player, my second important point to maximize your absorption of the A+ material is to participate in course discussions. Browse to the Discussion tab, create a free LiveFyre account, and then ask away! You can see the interface in the following screenshot. (I receive an e-mail notification every time a learner posts to a course discussion forum, and I look forward to answering your questions!)

Tip No. 3: Master the skills

Understanding the theory behind computer hardware and software support is one thing--being able to actually perform these tasks is quite another. Please understand that CompTIA gives you several performance-based items in addition to the standard-issue multiple-choice questions.

In these performance-based questions you're given a simulated environment; for instance, a Windows 8.1 Desktop, and asked to perform a particular configuration change. Maybe you'll be asked to statically assign an IP address. Perhaps you'll be required to disable a device driver. The bottom line is that it's crucial that you know how to apply the knowledge that you build with our Pluralsight learning paths. To this end, I strongly suggest that you build a practice networking lab so you can at least practice the software-related procedures.

As long as you have a decently powerful desktop or laptop, you don't have to spend any additional money to build a decent practice lab. Here's the recipe:

  • Oracle VM VirtualBox: This is free, open-source desktop virtualization software that runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux.
  • Microsoft evaluation software: You can download time-restricted, but otherwise fully unlocked, copies of Windows Server and Client operating systems.
  • Linux: I use Ubuntu Desktop in my training, but your mileage may vary. CompTIA just needs us to know our way around the bash command shell anyway; bash is present in just about all UNIX and Linux distributions.
  • VyOS virtual router: You can build a routed internetwork for fun and for free by using this simple, software router.

Here's a screen capture showing me running an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine (VM) from within my Windows 8.1 laptop computer:

Building your virtual lab is only half of the work. The other side is making sure you know how to perform every single task indicated on the aforementioned exam objective blueprints. Unfortunately, to develop computer hardware skills, you'll need to make some small purchases:

  • PC technician tools: You don't need anything too fancy at this level.
  • Old, broken hardware: If you're polite, you may find that relatives, friends, or colleagues donate their messed-up desktop PCs, laptop PCs, and mobile devices to you for your experimentation pleasure. Otherwise, there's always eBay, thrift shops, Craigslist, and others.

Tip No. 4: Drill on practice questions

Have you ever taken a computer-based exam? They're a different beast from the old pencil-and-paper tests that you may have taken in the past. I strongly suggest that you invest in a quality exam simulation before you sit for your 220-901 and 220-902 certification tests. This includes practice tests sold by legitimate vendors, such as:

What you definitely don't want to do is search out "braindumps," which are actual exam questions pirated from compromised testing centers. In a nutshell, here are the problesm with braindumps:

  • You violate your CompTIA non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that you affirm when you start your exams. This means that you can have your credential stripped and be permanently barred from recertifying.
  • You have far less incentive to actually learn the material. In the end, when you're hired as a computer repair tech, you're going to need to know how to do the job. Why not do things right the first time?

Finally, I'll say that Pluralsight is gradually incorporating a super-robust diagnostic and assessment engine into its library. Because we're still in the midst of that build out, I fall back to my initial suggestion to use quality third-party exam simulations.

Well, that's it! I hope that you picked up some useful tips and tricks. I look forward to hearing all about your A+ exam success--happy studying!

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Tim Warner

is a full-time author with the Pluralsight IT Ops division. He's worked with Windows Server since NT 4.0, and is totally in love with Windows PowerShell. Follow him on Twitter @TechTrainerTim.