3 Entry Level Certifications to Help You Launch Your IT Career

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So you want to showcase your knowledge and skills but you're not quite sure which certification would serve you best. Whether you're looking to launch your career in the IT field, or perhaps get promoted at your current job -- getting certified is a great way to market yourself.

This guide will introduce you to the top 3 entry level certification that you can earn quickly and that will remain valuable to you for a lifetime.

Top 3 Entry Level IT Certs

The 3 certifications that are listed below are all widely accepted in most organizations and are general and broad enough to be appealing to the majority of employers. So I won't be focusing on any niche certifications or programs that are limited in scope.

Instead, these certifications are common, widely recognized and useful in many different IT positions. They're not the be all or end all, and depending on your work environment, skills and needs they might not be right for you -- so please keep this in mind.

1. CompTIA A+ Certification

Considered by some to be THE entry level exam to validate your IT skills, the CompTIA A+ Certification is a vendor neutral cert that authenticates the IT professional's skills as being up to date and relevant for supporting base hardware and software computer needs for organizations.

Passing the A+ allows you to verify that you have the knowledge and skill level for:

  • system installation of both hardware components and supporting software
  • system configuration -- again both on the hardware and software side
  • diagnosing and troubleshooting hardware performance issues
  • software installation and configuration
  • configuring systems for standalone use and in a basic networking configuration

There are two parts to the CompTIA A+ exam which include:

  • Exam 220-601 -- CompTIA A+ Essentials (100 questions)
  • One of the following three exams:

    • Exam 220-602 -- IT Technician (90 questions)
    • Exam 220-603 -- Remote Support Technician (90 questions)
    • Exam 220-604 -- Depot Technician (90 questions)

Here are the minimum final scores you must have in order to pass a given exam:

  • 220-601 -- CompTIA A+ Essentials -- 675
  • 220-602 -- IT Technician -- 700
  • 220-603 -- Remote Support Technician -- 700
  • 220-604 -- Depot Technician -- 700

Other important things to keep in mind:

Once you're A+ certified you're A+ certified for life, you don't need to retake the exam when a new version comes out, although you can do so if you want to.

Update January 26, 2010: The lifetime status of CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ certification has been revised. Those who obtain the certifications before December 31, 2010 remain certified for life, however those who complete them after January 1, 2011 will have to renew their certifications after 3 years. Read more about this: CompTIA Certification Renewal Policy for A+, Network+ and Security+ Certifications.

Also you don't have to take the exams in any particular order or within a certain time frame. Although it is recommended that you take the Essentials exam first and since there's a lot of overlap, it only makes sense to take them back to back.

[NOTES FROM THE FIELD] – WAY back in the day the CompTIA +A certification was a single exam. You passed that one test and you were granted the A+ certification for life.

When I took the exams back in 1998 the exams were designated as the CompTIA Core / Hardware exam and the second exam was DOS/Windows; both were required to earn the certification.

If I remember correctly the numerical designations were 220-101 and 220-102. There were some minor changes made in the exams for releases 220-121 and 220-122 and larger certification objective changes were introduced in 2003 and again in 2006.

Despite the changes in the exams themselves and in hardware and software over the years, all technicians that passed these prior exams are still considered certified today.

CompTIA A+ Links

CompTIA A+ Training

Train Signal's CompTIA A+ Training is a comprehensive course that will help you gain the knowledge and skills required to obtain the certification and become a PC support technician.

2. CompTIA Network+ Certification

A natural progression from A+ is the Network+ certification. Part of the A+ exam's domain of study includes an intro to networking, so it only makes sense that Net+ be a solid consideration for IT professionals with at least nine months of on the job/practical experience.

That is however only the suggested recommended experience level for the exam and not a requirement. And you don't have to be A+ certified to be Network+ certified.

The Network+ exam was first offered in 1999 and since then more than 235,000 professionals have passed it according to CompTIA. And just as with A+, once you pass the exam you will have the Network+ credential for life.

Currently there are 2 Network+ exams available:

Network+ 2007 exam

  • exam code: N10-003
  • launched in 2005
  • actively offered until July 31, 2009 when it is officially retired
  • single exam
  • 90 questions
  • graded on a scale of 100 - 900 with a minimum passing score of 554

Network+ 2009 exam

  • exam code: N10-004
  • launched January 9, 2009
  • expected to remain through 2012
  • single exam
  • 100 questions
  • graded on a scale of 100 - 900 with a minimum passing score of 720

At present both exams are being offered so if you feel that past and present networking information is more of your strong suit and something you understand better, then you'd be more inclined to take N10-003 -- Net+ 2007.

On the other hand, if present and emerging networking technologies are more your style then N10-004 -- Net+ 2009 may be the best fit for you.

[NOTES FROM THE FIELD] – Keep in mind that passing either N10-003 or N10-004 will earn you the Network+ certification. Passing N10-004 doesn't give you anything over a N10-003 certification holder.

That being said, sometimes it's the presentation to a prospective employer and their understanding of the certification (or lack thereof) that makes a difference.

A hiring manager's line of thinking may be "this candidate is certified on the most recent revision of the exam and it must mean they have a firmer grasp on up and coming technologies" (or something to that effect).

This might very well be far from the truth however; the end result is that many things are how they are presented rather than the fact of what they are.

As is this because passing N10-003 or N10-004 both grant the Network+ certification at an equal level.

CompTIA Network+ Links

Just so you're aware, the CompTIA Approved Quality Curriculum (CAQC) training materials go through a validation process verifying that all exam objectives are included. Train Signal's very own CompTIA Network+ 2007 Training Package has received the CAQC approval and the updated training for Network+ 2009 will be released in May.

You can also sample a few videos from the training and learn about network components.


3. CompTIA Security+ Certification

Another valuable certification that will help you launch your IT career is the CompTIA Security+ Certification.

It was a tossup for me to decide this over the Server+ Certification as both are nearly equal in starting value to the training candidate in terms of immediate and short term impact on their careers. The deciding factor for me was which one offered the larger leap point going forward (more miles to the gallon if you will) and Security+ won.

My comments are not to diminish Server+ at all and if there was room for an honorable mention Server+ would win it hands down. So feel free to review the details of the Server+ Certification if you're interested.

The Security+ exam was developed in 2002 to address the rise of security issues and validate the foundational knowledge of security professionals.

As with Net+, there are 2 Security+ exams currently being offered:

Security+ SY0-101

  • exam code: SY0-101
  • set to retire July 31, 2009
  • single exam
  • 100 questions
  • 90 minutes total for the exam
  • graded on a scale of 100 - 900 with a minimum passing score of 764

Security+ SY0-201

  • exam code: SY0-201
  • single exam
  • 100 questions
  • 90 minutes total for the exam
  • graded on a scale of 100 - 900 with a minimum passing score of 750

CompTIA Security+ Bridge Exam

There is also a CompTIA Security+ Bridge Exam that is available to examinees who want to remain current on their Security+ certification with respect to the assessment of their skills. The SY0-101 certification itself is not be retired, only the exam is.

Professionals who are already CompTIA Security+ certified are eligible to become certified on the updated track by taking the CompTIA Security+ bridge exam.

The Security+ bridge exam (BR0-001) only measures the differences between the 2002 exam objectives and the 2008 exam objectives.

[NOTES FROM THE FIELD] – If you become Security+ certified under SY0-101 you will not be de-certified when the exam retires.

It is optional for candidates who hold the SY0-101 certification to take the bridge exam (BR0-001) or the new exam (SY0-201) to get certified on 2008 skills -- it is not a requirement.

CompTIA Security+ Links

I hope you've enjoyed this article and I am looking forward to any feedback you have on it. Additionally, I would welcome any topics of interest that you would like to see and based on demand and column space I'll do what I can to deliver them to you.

Best of luck in your studies.

Ready to test your skills for the CompTIA A+ exam? See how they stack up with this assessment from Smarterer. Start this CompTIA A+ test now.

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Jason Zandri

Jason Zandri is a Senior Technical Account Manager at Microsoft Corporation. He has worked as a technical trainer and consultant for a variety of corporate clients in Connecticut over the past ten years. He also has written a number of CompTIA and Microsoft prep tests for Boson Software as well as a number of published articles for 2000trainers.com, MCMCSE.com, Serverwatch.com and Certification Magazine. His professional CompTIA certifications include: A+ Certified Technician, I-Net+ Certified Technician, Server+ Certified Technician, Network+ Certified Technician, and Security+ Certified Professional. His professional Microsoft certifications include: MCT, MCP, MCP+I, MCSA, MCSA: Security, and MCSE.