Posts Tagged ‘Certification’

Exam Taking Tips for Certification

For many people taking an exam can be really stressful. In this blog post I’d like to see if I can take some of the fear away from taking that exam. This is the final post in my series on How to get certified. Before you take the exam you should complete the first 3 steps. Let’s be clear, I said before you TAKE the exam complete the first 3 steps. I recommend scheduling the exam as soon as you have chosen your certification goal (step 1). By scheduling your exam you commit yourself to a date and suddenly you have a target, instead of taking the exam ‘someday’ you now know exactly when you are taking the exam. Just setting a deadline makes you more likely to meet your certification goal. We have four steps to complete to earn a certification:

  1. Choose your certification goal/exam
  2. Figure out what you don’t know
  3. Fill in the gaps
  4. Take the exam

We’ve talked about how to prepare in the blog posts describing the first three steps, now it’s time to focus on the exam itself.

Scheduling the exam

You schedule your exam at a Prometric testing center. They have locations across the country. When you visit their website to schedule an exam you will be provided with a list of testing center locations to choose from. After you select a location you will see a calendar which displays the available exam times at that testing center. The website also gives you the option of phoning if you need help scheduling your exam. You will also find answers on the website to frequently asked questions such as how much does the exam cost? and What is the policy for rescheduling the exam. Keep an eye on the Microsoft Learning site for promotions that might give you a discount or a free second try of your exam if you don’t pass the first time.

What’s that? Did I say “If you don’t pass!” Yup, I think that is everyone’s greatest fear, failing the exam. Okay now think about this for a second, if, worst comes to worst, and you don’t pass. You are out the cost of the exam. You will not be the first or the last person to fail an exam. Take a deep breath, shrug your shoulders, look at your exam score sheet to check where you scored well, and where you need to study. You just completed Step 2: Figure out what you don’t know, now re-execute Step 3: fill in the gaps with some more studying, and try again.

But let’s do everything we can to help you pass the first time! You’ve scheduled your exam, you’ve researched what is on the exam, you’ve studied the topic areas to fill in the gaps of your knowledge, now it is time to walk through that door and take the exam itself.

The day of the exam

I recommend giving yourself extra time to get to the testing center. Plan on arriving 30 minutes early, that way if you do get lost or stuck in traffic you will still make it on time. If you arrive early, all the better, you can fill out the paperwork, and sit down for a few minutes reviewing a few notes before you start. Don’t forget to bring government issued Photo ID and the exam confirmation information which has your Prometric ID, Exam number, and start time.

At your appointed start time you will be asked to hand over your cell phone, and any bags such as a purse or backpack you have with you. You will be given either a pad of paper and a pen, or a plasticized piece of paper and a whiteboard marker and eraser that you can use to take notes for yourself during the exam.

You will be taken to a computer where the test administrator will make the sure the exam is loaded onto the computer and help you launch the exam. You will be presented with a series of questions you need to answer. There will be a timer (usually in the top right corner of the screen) that indicates how much time you have left. Some exams are broken into sections and you are given a fixed amount of time for each section, other exams give you a fixed amount of time to complete the entire exam. So don’t panic if you see a timer counting down 15 minutes when you are only on question one. Expect somewhere between 40-60 questions.

The questions generally follow a fairly standard format. First you are given a scenario “You are maintaining a SQL Server 2008 database on a Windows 2008 Server”, then you are given a problem statement “your project needs to store binary data and requires very fast update and retrieval capabilities” then you are asked the question “which solution best meets the needs of the team”. Watch for statements such as  which solution “best” meets the needs of the team, that will help you narrow down which answer is correct, you can use VARBINARY, or Filestream to store binary data, but which is faster? remember the question stated the team required fast update and retrieval.

You may be asked to choose one correct answer, or two correct answers that together make a correct answer, or two correct answers each of which is correct on its own. Read carefully to make sure you understand what is being asked.

When you see a question you are unsure of, you can mark the question for review. After you have answered all the questions a summary screen is displayed and you can go back and review any questions. Personally I do not go back and review every question, instead as I go through the exam, I use the Mark for review option to help me remember which questions I wanted to go back and spend more time on if I had time.

Quick tip, if you have answered a question and the Next button is disabled, the system has not crashed, the exam is designed to force you to see all the answers before you can move on to the next question, so you may have to scroll down to see the the bottom of the last answer before the Next button is enabled.

After you have answered all the questions you will be given a chance to provide feedback on the questions and the testing center. After you submit the survey you will see a screen pop-up with your score, and at that point all you hope for is that magic 700! 700 is the passing score for a Microsoft certification exam, and just to clear up a common misconception, 700 does not equal 70%! Every exam goes through a beta testing process that helps Microsoft determine a reasonable passing score, so for an easy exam you might need better than 70%, for a tough exam you might need less than 70% to pass. There is a blog post on Born To Learn that explains this in more detail.

700 may not equal 70% but in my mind 700 = 1000. What do I mean? If you look at your transcript it will simply show that you passed the exam. I have passed exams with scores varying from 700 to 980, in the end all that really matters is you passed!

I have taken many certification exams over the years, so today’s Top 5 is all about Tips to help you when you take the exam, but this week you get double for your money a Top 10!

Top 10 Exam Tips

  1. Don’t Panic! Yup, Douglas Adams had it right when he wrote HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy. I have taken exams where I had no idea what the answers were to the first 5 questions. Don’t panic, just do your best and carry on. In the words of Captain Taggart in Galaxy Quest Never Give Up Never Surrender! Don’t give up part way through. Always finish!
  2. ANSWER EVERY QUESTION! I cannot emphasize this enough, even if you have no idea what is the right answer, guess! You do not lose points for answering incorrectly, so you may as well guess, you might get it right.
  3. Rule out wrong answers Sometimes when you aren’t sure of the answer to a question, you can look at the answers and determine that one or two of the answers are incorrect. Now your odds of guessing the right answer just went up. Sometimes incorrect answers are blatantly obvious.
  4. Spot the difference. Sometimes you have four very long answers to choose from. Instead of spending 10 minutes trying to understand the answers in detail, if you compare the answers you might discover that the only difference between the choices is one parameter. So you may not need to figure out the entire answer, if you can find the difference between the answers you can use that difference to determine which answer is correct.
  5. Mark questions you don’t know and come back to them. Sometimes you get a question later in the exam which will help you figure out the answer to an earlier question.
  6. When in doubt go with your first instinct. Your first guess is usually the right one
  7. If you have to memorize options, write them down, then just before you walk into the exam room review them one last time. You will have to throw out or give the administrator your piece of review paper. But as soon as you sit down in the exam room you can jot it down on the paper provided while it is still fresh in your mind.
  8. If you know the answer before you read the suggested answers go with it! Sometimes I read a question and my brain immediately thinks “I know what feature they want here”. You are probably right. So now just go look for the answer you thought of in the suggested answers and select it.
  9. Check the time a quarter and half way through the exam. Don’t stress yourself out by checking the time after every question, just do a quick time check at the quarter and half-way points to make sure you are on track
  10. Get a good night’s sleep. Chances are one more hour of sleep will help you more than one more hour of cramming.

If you have taken an exam, I bet you have your own exam tips to share. So tell us your tips! and GOOD LUCK ON YOUR EXAM!

This blog post is also posted to the Canadian Developer Connection

How to Prepare for a Certification Exam

About once every couple of weeks on Reddit, I see a post like this one asking for advice on preparing for an exam. Whether you are preparing for a .NET exam or an Exchange exam, an ITIL or a Cisco exam, there is a simple plan you can follow to get certified and prepare for exams.

  1. Choose your certification goal/exam
  2. Figure out what you don’t know
  3. Fill in the gaps
  4. Take the exam

In the last blog, “Does Certification Seem Overwhelming?” I talked about how the Microsoft certifications are organized and how you can figure out which certification to earn and which exams you need to pass to earn that certification. That is step one. Now it’s time to look at Step two

Figure Out What You Don’t Know

Anyone preparing to take an exam expects to spend a certain amount of time studying. The trick is to spend that time studying as effectively as possible. If you are planning to take a .NET exam and you spend a lot of time in your day to day work serializing classes, don’t spend your evening reviewing how to serialize classes! If you are a database administrator, chances are you know how to perform a database backup, so don’t spend hours reading chapters on how to do backups. The trick is to figure out what will be on the exam that you do not already know. Then you can focus your study time on learning new material that you will need to master to pass the exam.

There are two excellent tools you can use to determine what you do not know:

  1. Exam Guides
  2. Practice Tests

1. Exam Guides

For each Microsoft exam you can view the exam guide on the Microsoft Learning website. Go to the tab marked Skills Measured. This information is a gold mine! This is a bullet point list of the topics that will be covered on the exam, divided into different content areas. Read through the list of topics (print it out if you need to) and make a note of anything listed you do not know or that you think you need to brush up on.


Skills Measured Tips

  • Check the percentage: There is a percentages beside each topic. For example, in the Skills measured tab above it says Implementing Tables and Views (14 percent). This means 14 percent of the questions on the exam will be on this topic. Percentages tend to vary from about 8 to 22 %. Now of course, in a perfect world, you would have time to study everything on the exam. But, if time is short, and one topic makes up 22% of the exam, and another makes up 8% of the exam that will help you prioritize.
  • Know the command line tools: Maybe it’s because it is easy to ask questions about command line tools on multiple choice exams, maybe it’s just important for you to be aware of them. I don’t know the reason why, I just know if you see a command line tool listed in the Skills Measured it is worth your time to go to TechNet or MSDN and read the page that describes what that tool does, and the basic command line options.
  • Know the new features: Think about it, if you were creating an exam on .NET 4.0 or Exchange 2010, would you want someone who had worked with .NET 2.0 or Exchange 2007 to be able to pass the exam without reading about or opening the new product? The only way you can ensure someone with experience on a previous version of the product can’t pass the new exam without spending some time learning the new product is to ask questions about the new features. So if you see a new feature listed in the skills measured, you had better know what it does and how to use it.

2. Practice Tests

I know most of us think of practice tests as a tool for studying, but they are also excellent tools for figuring out what you don’t know. If you go to the Preparation Materials tab in the Exam guide you will find links to MeasureUp and SelfTest. Both these companies sell practice tests you can use to gauge your knowledge and prepare for the exam. I will talk more about how to use them as effective Study Tools in the next blog. They are also excellent tools for finding out what you don’t know. Simply launch a practice test complete 40-50 questions and look at the summary score sheet provided at the end of the test. You will see how you scored for each content topic. If you got 5 out of 5 questions right on Security, don’t spend the next two nights studying security. If you got 0 out of 4 questions on high availability, you know that any time spent reading up on that topic will be time well spent. So your scores per content area on the practice test can help you prioritize how to spend your study time.

Practice Test Tip

  • Always use the Study Mode or Learning Mode. There are two options you can choose when you launch a practice test, one mode is designed to simulate the test environment as closely as possible it will have a time limit and you won’t know your score until you complete the test. The other mode allows you to check answers as you go and explains which answers are right and wrong for each question. If you are going to take the time to do a practice test, use it as a study tool at the same time. When you get a question you don’t know, check the answer and read the explanation, no reason you can’t find your gaps and fill those gaps at the same time!

Today’s Top 5 is of course related to certification

5 Microsoft Certifications that can help you stand out from the crowd

  1. MCPD Windows Phone Developer – Yes there is now a certification for windows phone developers. This certification requires passing a Silverlight Exam, a .NET Framework exam on data access, and a designing and developing with Windows Phone exam.
  2. MCPD Windows Azure Developer – Yes there is a certification on the cloud! This certification requires passing a .NET exam on Windows Communication Foundation, a .NET exam on data access, and a designing and developing Windows Azure exam.
  3. MCPD Developer or MCITP SharePoint Administrator – Companies all over the place are implementing SharePoint, they need people who know to install it, administer it, architect it, and customize it!
  4. SQL Server 2008 Business Intelligence Development and Maintenance – Business intelligence is a growing area for many companies. It’s not just about reports any more, it’s also about designing and building cubes for high performance trend analysis over years and years of data. In my opinion this is the toughest SQL Server certification to earn, but just about every company out there needs someone with these skills (even if they don’t realize it yet)
  5. Server or Desktop Virtualization – You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about virtualization. Prove can do more than just build a virtual machine, learn what you can really do with the Microsoft virtualization technologies and impress your boss or potential employer.

This post is also available on Canadian Developer Connection

YOU could be an MCT sooner than you think!

EDU2011_7028_Jennifer_cmykAbout ten years ago, I was awarded my Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) certification, I can honestly say I have never looked back. I really love being an MCT and being part of the MCT community. MCTs are geeks with personality. If you are passionate technology and like sharing your knowledge, consider becoming an MCT! There is something incredibly motivating and empowering about being able to help people master a concept or a technology. At the MCT Summit in October there is a fantastic promotion to help you earn your MCT, details are at the end of this post, but first I’d like to help you understand what it means to be an MCT.

Many consultants have an MCT certification. Training is a different skill, but can make a fun break from 6 month contracts writing code or doing OS upgrades. Some consultants discover they like training so much they do it full time.  The skills you develop earning your MCT certification and through the MCT program will also improve your credibility and your skills as a consultant. If you really love the classroom, you can become a full time contract trainer, or some training centers have full time instructors on staff, so you can have the stability of a full time job with the constant change and fun of teaching different courses to different students. It can be a lot of fun, make no mistake it can also be a lot of work, but it is a lot of fun. Imagine earning a living where your job description is to learn and stay on top of the latest technology and then share it with others!

Teaching a course can seem intimidating at first, you worry that there will be students in the class who know more about some aspects of the product than you do. Guess what, that will happen. But every student is in class to learn what you know and I can assure you that every student in that room can learn something from you! When you walk in front of that class, you are already seen as the expert, share what you know effectively, admit to what you don’t know, when you get questions you cannot answer be honest, research the question and get back to them with an answer. The students will leave happy and talking about what a great instructor you are.

Sometimes you introduce a feature that is completely new to a student, when the student finally “gets it”, when they understand how this feature will help them, how they can apply it at work, seeing the light go on in their eyes is addictive . You can see the excitement as they imagine looking like heroes when they walk back to the office Monday morning and show everyone this feature. You are really helping them with their day to day jobs, with their projects, with their careers!

There are other small aspects I enjoyed about training. Getting evaluations every Friday from my students. When you get a performance evaluation at work it always focuses on what you have to improve. To get any praise you have to go way above and beyond expectations. Students will praise you for simply meeting their expectations. It’s true! If you take a course and you leave feeling like you learned a lot, you will leave happy and you will say so on the resume. There is nothing quite like reading “The instructor is awesome” to start off your weekend right. I’ll let you in on another little secret about training, the students don’t generally want to listen to you lecture at 4:30 on Friday, so you often (not always, but often) get to go home a bit early on Fridays Smile

Of course eventually you will have one of “those” weeks. A week where technical problems are causing you pain, or a particular student is being difficult, or (yes it happens) you discover you should have spent more time preparing for the class and the students know it. Like any other job it has its highs and lows. But at least when you are teaching a course, the lows end when the course ends on Friday Winking smile.

Working as an MCT also can open up other opportunities, I’ve had the opportunity to write courseware, get involved in certification exam development, work at Microsoft conferences, author or review books, meet an incredible network of other MCTs from all other the world who I would happily meet for a drink (and frequently do) when our travels find us in the same town. The MCT community is another great benefit of earning the certification. MCTs tend to be intelligent, outgoing, supportive, and friendly, and in general excellent company.

So that’s my story, there are MCTs all over Canada, in fact we are now making it easier for Canadian MCTs to connect through the MCT Canada Rock Stars on Born To Learn (you do need to be an MCT to access this forum, if you aren’t signed in, clicking the link will take you to the sign in page, click the link again after signing in to visit our forum). Have I sparked your interest? Then read on to find out about a great opportunity to get jump start your MCT certification and at a discount!

The 2011 North America MCT Summit offers a unique opportunity to anyone who’s ever thought about becoming an MCT. A 1.5 day bootcamp style Train the Trainer event will be offered the Tuesday before and the Wednesday during the MCT Summit. This event will satisfy the requirement for proving instructional presentation skills for the MCT credential.

Due to the nature of the event, there will be some prep work that will be required beforehand. The prep work will be sent out to all TTT attendees beforehand. There will also be homework on the Tuesday to ensure success.

You can expect a very busy 1.5 days. During the event, you’ll work on your instructional skills to improve your effectiveness as a trainer. As a trainer you never stop working to improve, and the course will also help you work on a personal action plan for continuing your development.

Hopefully this event will be the starting point of a career as an MCT.

Beside the style of the event, this is unique in the timing and cost as well.

The timing is right before the MCT Summit, and entry to the event includes your fee for the MCT Summit. The MCT Summit is a conference for MCTs by MCTs. It’s an amazing chance to network with colleagues, who often become friends, and improve both technical and presentational skills.

On top of that, the fee for the TTT will also include the fee for the remainder of the MCT enrollment period, which ends in April of 2012 and normally costs $400 USD.

So if you are considering becoming an MCT, this is a great opportunity. I’ll be at the MCT summit, presenting, and talking to MCTs.  If you have any questions about MCT certification, the Summit, or life as an MCT, drop me a line (

Hope to see you in San Francisco!

This post is also available on Canadian Developer Connection

Does Certification Seem Overwhelming?

I recently saw a post in a forum entitled “drowning in sea of exams” complaining about how confused they were by the current Microsoft  certification process. At first glance, certification can seem that way, but if you break it down it is actually pretty simple and really makes a lot of sense. If you are thinking of getting certified, you need to complete four steps.

  1. Choose your certification goal/exam
  2. Figure out what you don’t know
  3. Fill in the gaps
  4. Take the exam

In this blog post I’ll explain how to complete Step 1 – Identify your certification goal/exam, more blog posts to follow on steps 2-4.

Step 1 – Choose your Certification goal/exam

To determine your certification goal, you have to figure out:

  • The certification level you want to achieve
  • The technology certification that most closely matches your skill set
  • The exams required to earn that certification

Saying you have an MCTS or an MCITP doesn’t really tell an employer anything. That’s like saying “I took a course”. A course in what? SQL Server? Spanish? Cooking? You need to be specific when you choose your certification goal, do you want an MCTS SQL Server Business Intelligence, or an MCITP Exchange 2010.

Let’s look at each level, and then you can follow the links to see the technology choices and exam requirements for each level.

MCTS – Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist

This is someone who knows how to perform tasks using a specific technology. Someone who knows the commands, the syntax, what properties to set to enable features. If I am a manager looking to hire someone to do my database backups, I know someone with an MCTS Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Implementation and Maintenance will know how to perform a backup or restore a database. If I am looking to hire someone to write reports I would look for someone with an MCTS Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Business Intelligence Development and Maintenance. (FYI – MCTS is kind of like the old MCP certification, but and MCTS is specific to a technology)

Earning an MCTS will require passing 1 or 2 exams. You can see a complete list of the MCTS certifications for each technology and the exams required to earn each one here.

MCITP – Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional or MCPD – Microsoft Certified Professional Developer

MCITP is the title for infrastructure technologies, MCPD is the title for developer technologies. the MCITP and MCPD certifications are referred to as Professional level certifications. When you earn an MCITP that tells a potential employer that you not only know how to perform specific tasks with the product, but that you can design a solution with the product. You understand the different features and you know how and when to use them. If I am a manager and I want to hire someone to design my virtualization strategy I would look for someone with an MCITP Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2. If I want to be promoted from web developer to web architect, I would work on earning my MCPD Web Developer 4. (FYI an MCITP is similar to the old MCDBA, MCSA, MCSE certifications, MCPD is similar to the old MCSD)

Earning an MCITP will require earning one or more MCTS certifications and then passing 1-3 additional exams. You can see a complete list of the MCITP certifications for each technology and the exams required to pass each here. You can see a complete list of the MCPD certifications for each technology and the exams required to pass each here.

MCM – Microsoft Certified Master

The Masters certification is a major undertaking and shows that you are an expert in the technology. You have deep technical understanding of all aspects of the product. You are a guru! If you want to go out and help large organizations plan their strategy for implementing a technology, or you want to be THE go-to person on a product, you go for your Masters. Earning a Master certification will require completing one or more MCITP certifications and completing a 2-3 week training program and passing a knowledge exam and a qualification lab exam. Suffice to say I know many many people with MCTS, and MCITP certifications, but only a handful with a Masters certification. It is a big investment and effort to earn, but it certainly distinguishes you from others in your field and is really a badge of honour!

You can see a complete list of the MCM certifications for each technology and the requirements here.

You need to choose the level of certification that is suitable for your role and goals. Every level of certification will require earning an MCTS, so that is always a good place to start. If you follow the link to the MCTS certification listing, you can expand any technology to see the MCTS certifications available for that technology. You will also see the exam or exams you need to pass to earn each certification. As I mentioned before most MCTS certifications only require passing one exam. The figure below shows the list of MCTS technologies, and I have expanded the list of certifications for SharePoint and SharePoint Server. If you are an administrator working with SharePoint 2010 you would want to earn the MCTS: Microsoft SharePoint 2010, Configuration by passing exam 70-667. If you are a developer working with SharePoint 2010 you would want to earn the MCTS: SharePoint 2010, Application Development by passing exam 70-573.


So there you have it, I hope that helps you understand and navigate your way through the Microsoft certifications, and helps you understand what exam you need to take to earn that certification. Next blog I’ll give you some tips on how to prepare for that exam! Certification is good for your career and for building your own skills. It’s not as hard as you think so go out there and get certified

This blog is also posted on Canadian Developer Connection