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6 Top Tips to Help Pass Certification Exams

As the current business and professional environment is so highly competitive, in order to succeed and gain attention, professionals need to develop specialized skills and experience, that will separate themselves from others in the same market space.

The best way to showcase these is to pass certification exams in the relevant fields. While school and college degrees provide general qualifications, certifications in specific fields can add an extra edge to a resume. Some are used to provide parity with other people, and second or third certifications within the same field will help you rise above competitors.

The most common examples of useful certifications are: Microsoft MCSE and MOS for IT, PRINCE2 and Agile for project or program management. There are hundreds more, but these 4 areas together make up a massive portion of all certifications obtained. (At the bottom of the article, you will find a list of some of the more common ones)

Training makes things easier

Professionals don’t need to undergo formal training in order to pass these certification exams. Many choose to study on their own time and at their leisure before sitting for these exams. However, it’s a good idea to invest in some formal training and join a well-established training institute. Formal training offers a number of advantages such as:

  • The course is more structured and comprehensive, covering a wide variety of subjects and a lot of information.
  • Professionals are less likely to fall behind and give up studying for the certification examination if they choose formal training.
  • People can obtain their certifications faster because they move through a structured course instead of unstructured self-study methods.

The best way to pass the exam is to get formal training at the appropriate level first and then practice extensively until you’re confident in your skills, study, and only then sit for the exams. For example, should you be wishing to take an Excel MOS (Microsoft Office Specialist) exam, it is a good idea to first do the Excel training, then practice to build up your speed – as the test itself measures not only that you get to the correct solution, but how quickly you are able to do that.

Tips for passing certification examinations

Even after thorough preparation, passing these exams can be tricky and not everyone will succeed the first time around. Whether professionals choose formal training or self-study, the certification exam will be difficult to pass with flying colours on the first try. Here are some tips and tricks that will help improve your chances of success:

1. Preparation is very important

One can never be too prepared for certificate examinations. They’re extremely challenging and designed to weed out people with insufficient knowledge regarding the subject. Create a schedule to ensure you have enough time to study every day. It’s also important to use effective study techniques to help you retain the information better.

For example, studying for two hours in an environment full of distractions where you can’t completely focus on the study material isn’t effective. It’s easy to forget important pieces of information and become frustrated with the study material in this type of an environment.

Contrastingly, studying for an hour in a calm, quiet and distraction-free environment can prove to be far more effective. Students can cover more of the subject matter, retain the information well, and recall it effectively during the examination. Effective study methods help students save time and effort and ensure better results in the exams.

2. Learn from multiple sources

It’s important to have a well-rounded foundation on a subject before taking the exam. Relying on a single source for information can prove to be detrimental to your success down the line. Students should explore different information avenues and ensure they get content from high-authority sources.

For example, the best content on Microsoft Excel will be present in sources provided by Microsoft, whether it’s their website or their publications. That can be a student’s first source of information. Training centres will provide their own study material and the internet has a number of high-authority websites that can offer further information. A combination of all of these sources will ensure students have a well-rounded education in the subject and they’ll be better prepared for the tests.

3. Look at the old versions of the exams or similar tests

Studying older versions of the exam can give students a good idea of what to expect. They can look at the questions, determine which topics are tested regularly and gain a better understanding of the test structure. Going over old exams also helps students prepare better for the test. If they can answer most of the questions without much effort, it means they are ready to take the current version of the tests.

It’s important to note that for certain subjects, the tests themselves are done online – meaning the questions are different for every single person taking the exam, as they are generated by a database of questions. In this case, there may be mock exams available that you can practice with.

4. Create cheat sheets

Cheat sheets are easy-to-read documents containing bullet points on the subject. Instead of lugging an entire textbook around, students can create cheat sheets to help them revise the content during their commute or when they have a few minutes to spare. These sheets will help with retention and keeps information fresh in the mind.

Students can also use cheat sheets to refresh their memory just before they enter the examination hall to sit for the tests. They can skim through all the information to ensure they’re ready for the tests.

5. On the day of the exam

  • Don’t stay up late to study on the day before the exam. It’s necessary to be well-rested to complete the test successfully. Make sure you have a full night’s sleep.
  • Eat a healthy and filling breakfast; this will provide the energy needed to focus on the test.
  • Arrive at the test centre early.
  • Know and have the correct form of identification with you.
  • Make sure your mind isn’t distracted by other thoughts and focus entirely on the test.
  • Read every question carefully, twice if necessary.
  • Keep all answers concise and to the point. Excess information is just a waste of time.
  • Read the answers after you’ve written them to ensure there are no errors.
  • For many IT related certifications, there can be more than one way to reach an answer. Using Excel as an example again, you can often do the same task with your mouse or by moving around using the tab keys. Decide upfront how you want to attempt each question before starting with your answer. Restarting causes you to lose marks.

6. Do research about the test itself

As mentioned above, most IT-based certification exams are done online. This in in contrast to other subjects, eg. the PRINCE2 exams.

With the online exams, results are almost instantaneous and you can leave the exam centre with a certificate.

PRINCE2 on the other hand, has two levels and each exam is different. The first exam, for the Foundation level, is a multiple choice exam, based purely on theory. This gets marked quickly afterwards and you should have your result the same day.

However, the second exam, for Practitioner level, is designed to see that you can put it into practice. So the questions are geared towards you actually building projects and is an open book exam. Because it’s an open book exam, your biggest enemy is time. Most people run out of time as they get near the questions at the end, so the exam is really testing how well and how quickly you can put the theory into action. This then gets sent off to the examining body to get marked, so you will only receive results approximately four weeks later.

Now, if you are doing the course through an official training company, you do these exams as part of the course. So the manual that they provide is the one allowed in. However, if you have chosen to self study before doing the exam, you may need to see if they will allow whatever manual you have in.

So you can see from the two contrasting examples of Microsoft vs PRINCE2 exams that formats, and even what is allowed in, when you get results etc, are different. That is why you should research the exam first, if you are self studying, so you know what to expect and are prepared in that respect.

Having just mentioned that it takes approximately 4 weeks to get your PRINCE2 results, it is obviously then important to plan when to do the exam, in regards to your career. If your aim is to attend an interview for a project management position, and you want to be able to say that you are PRINCE2 certified, you obviously cannot then plan to only do that exam the week before your interview. You will not have obtained your results yet.

This means that you also need to be planning your exams as part of career building. Some exams you will need to do before commencing interviews in that field, especially if they give parity. Others, if you are doing a further certification within the same field, in order to rise above competitors, you can do once you are already working within the industry.

Overall, don’t give up if you fail the first the first time. As mentioned earlier, these tests are difficult to pass and everyone struggles with them. The first exam is always the hardest and the ones that follow will seem easier.

Popular subjects

  • Technical IT: Microsoft, CompTIA, Cisco, VMWare, Citrix, Red Hat
  • User IT: MOS
  • Project Management: PRINCE2, Agile, Scrum, APM
  • Service Management: ITIL

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About the Author Jordan James

Jordan James is a Digital Marketing Specialist at Activia Training, a UK-based training provider specializing in improving delegates' workplace performance in business skills, management development and IT applications. Jordan is passionate about social media and customer service issues, and regularly blogs about these – and many other – topics on the Activia blog.