A Microsoft MVP's 5 steps for passing certification exams

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So I was at TechEd 2013 in New Orleans last week and decided to take a Microsoft exam (because apparently I didn't have enough to do with speaking at the event, writing up my weekly column for InfoWorld, attending sessions from the Exchange team and others, waiting in line for three hours for my $99 Surface RT and engaging in the largest meet-and-greet session of my year).

I took the 70-341 Exchange 2013 Core Solutions exam and passed, and TrainSignal said, “Hey, it sure would be great if you could tell our readers how you did it!”

Basically, when in doubt, always choose C.  I'm kidding (although I'm sure there is some truth to that).  Let me tell you honestly how I make the magic happen with passing Microsoft exams.

1. Lab work

You need to play with this stuff, folks. Watching video training is a great substitute if you cannot set up your own lab, but the best prep is when you can personally work with the solution you are testing on. And it isn't enough to work with it in a job environment alone. That's assuming the questions port directly to real-world scenarios, and they don't always. Sometimes the questions are little obscure points or aspects of the solution you never, ever use in a production environment (and maybe nobody else does either).  So the personal lab work is key.

2. TechNet

Everything you need to know is already mapped out in TechNet. In fact, when an exam question creator is looking for something cool to put in a test question, they troll TechNet articles on the subject seeking the obscure. You can do the same to prepare for those types of questions. In addition, TechNet is an organized way to study by subject and see the PowerShell command stuff along with the topics (which is becoming more necessary for modern exams).

3. Testing software

Personally I like to use both Transcender and MeasureUp for my test prep.  Yep, both of them. Transcender has long explanations that teach and review material as you read why an answer is right or wrong, plus it has a cool flash-card-like tool. MeasureUp has shorter questions and explanations, but I feel like it mimics the exam better and gives me that visual correspondence to the real thing, plus it offers a cram PDF to download that is great for review.

4. Confidence metrics

During the test, I like to keep track of how many questions I think I answered correctly. When I press “Finish,” I like to know (to a degree) if I passed or failed based on those numbers.  I find that I'm usually wrong in my favor (meaning the ones I thought I had wrong I may have guessed right on).

5. Review sites

I look for folks who have already taken the test and are willing to offer helpful advice within the parameters of the disclosure they agreed upon when taking the exam.  Braindumps and such are discouraged big time, and they can actually get your certification revoked, so stay away from those.  But if you can find folks who can give you some helpful feedback, that is great.

I'll let you in on a little secret: Even with all this prep, I fail exams at times. It happens, especially when there is no testing software available for it (as was the case with the one I took).

The biggest reason for a failure though is lack of preparation. When I first started taking tests, I was so prepared there was no question that I was ready. But after 30, 40, 50 tests, there are now times when I just don't prepare enough or feel more confident than I should, and I end up seeing a red bar at the end rather than a green one.  It hurts, and it's an expensive lesson. But I schedule the retake immediately (sometimes the very next day) and jump right back after it.

Hopefully these tips can help you to prepare for your next certification exam challenge. If you have additional tips to add, please convey them in the comments section below.

Happy testing!

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J. Peter Bruzzese

J. Peter Bruzzese is an author with over a dozen titles sold internationally. He has written hundreds of articles, speaks at a variety of technical conferences held by Microsoft, 1105 Media, WindowsITPro and others and is the Enterprise Windows columnist for 3+ years for InfoWorld. Most notably, J. P. B. is a member of the Train Signal family and is our very own Exchange instructor. Follow him on Twitter at @jpbruzzese. (Exchange MVP, Triple-MCSE, MCT, MCITP: Enterprise Messaging 2007/2010)