An inside look at the MCSE questions

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Preparing for a Microsoft certification exam has been shown to cause rapid heartbeat, intense sweating and dry-mouth. OK, not really. But we're willing to bet more than a few tech pros have lost a good night's sleep worrying about their impending exam, especially when sitting for the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)-one of the most highly sought-after certs for IT pros.

In an effort to alleviate some of the mystery surrounding the MCSE, IT expert and Pluralsight author evangelist Greg Shields sat down with Microsoft's chief psyhcometircian (say that 5 times in a row), Liberty Munson. Munson shared insight into the psychology behind which questions are asked, and why the MCSE tends to filter out all but the best candidates. Below is a summary of Liberty's responses to our five favorite questions from the interview. You can listen to the entire interview here.

1. Why are the MCSE questions so difficult?

Microsoft, and the tech community, actually want to make it a challenge, because it sets you apart and demonstrates that you truly know your stuff. Earning your MCSE shows you've gone above and beyond the typical IT pro. After all, if it were too easy, anybody could achieve it. It's this level of validity and reliability that makes earning your certification unique.

2. Does Microsoft even care about my comments and feedback on the questions asked during the exam, or am I wasting my breath?

According to Liberty, and you heard it here first, “…I know that sometimes we have item writers that just are mean, quite honestly…” This may sound bleak. But, take heart, techies; if you see a question that really doesn't make sense, or doesn't have an answer, you are thoroughly encouraged to provide that feedback in the comments. The individuals writing the exams aren't perfect, and as Liberty puts it, “We don't know what we don't know.” So channel your frustrations into a solution-based suggestion for the experts. Their ears are wide open.

3. How and why does Microsoft mix up the question formatting? Is there any purpose behind choosing multiple choice over other types of questions?

It turns out Microsoft is testing more than just your ability to prove that you know your stuff. It is, in fact, researching new and innovative ways of measuring people's skills. By constantly looking for different ways to assess knowledge, Microsoft can build better testing techniques and offer test-takers more variety on the exam. Neat, huh?

4. Test taking stresses me out-are there any plans to add more lab-type exams?

The short answer: Yes. Microsoft is currently researching ways to include more performance-based testing, or as it calls it, “experiential validation.” These goals currently include overcoming certain challenges around implementation and process. But, you can count on Microsoft to continually innovate the testing process in the future.

5. What's the best thing I can do to prepare for the exam?

According to Liberty, it's quite simple: Practice! People have often commented that the questions in the exam simply do not apply to their area of expertise, or would never occur in the real world. However, if you're getting real-life, problem-solving experience, it really shouldn't matter. Your foundational knowledge should extend beyond your own experiences and help you answer those questions.

Supplementing your experience with training will better align your experienced-based knowledge and make you a more well-rounded professional in general. But, it's important to keep in mind that while a certification is an independent measure of your skills, getting that certificate shouldn't negate the need to skill-up and study the changing trends and new technologies associated with working in the field.

Good luck to anyone about to conquer the MCSE. We want to hear about your test experience. Share the secrets to your preparation and add any additional questions you may have for our experts in the comments below!

Additionally, you can check out more of Liberty's thoughts on "The Science Behind the MCSE."

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Lindsay Lauck

Lindsay Lauck is a branded content specialist at Pluralsight, which is a fancy title for writer. A transplant from Dallas, TX, she moved to SLC to enjoy the mountains. You can catch her sampling the local whiskey, working on her future rock career and online @botfriendly or