Thursday, June 9, 2011

Taking Certification Exams

Recently[1] I had the honor of presenting at the Microsoft Exam Cram Marathon. My one hour session was on exam 70-433, SQL Server 2008 Database Development MCTS.

The format was a bit different than normal. Not only did I present on the exam, I was able to spend a bit of extra time on a component covered by the exam that many people don’t have a chance to work with – partitioned tables. I may be biased, but I though the session went rather well. The demos went perfectly and the session flowed really well. If you like, you can access the scripts I used for my partitioned tables demo. You can also listen to the recording.

The one downside to the format, however, was it was only 60 minutes. I’ve done this presentation many times, but every time I’ve done it I’ve had 75 minutes. That 15 minutes makes a huge difference. As a result, I wasn’t able to cover one of the most important parts of exam prep – taking the exam.

I’ve been known to say that I think that passing an exam takes two skills – skill with the product, and test taking skills. I’m going to assume the first part in this blog post, and I’m going to cover the second here.

Here are my top 5 test taking tricks:

  1. Don’t Panic. To quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, those are the most important two words when you’re taking an exam. If you haven’t taken an exam in a while, or there’s a bonus riding on it, or even just in general – taking exams can be stressful. The most important thing is to keep your wits about you, breathe deep and remember that the worst thing that will happen is you’ll fail and have to take the exam again. Granted, that’s not necessarily a great outcome, but it’s not like someone’s going to beat you with a stick.
  2. You Won’t Know Everything. This is the corollary to the first rule. There will be questions you don’t know the answer to. There will be questions that will possibly talk about something you’ve never seen or heard of before. That’s going to happen. You’re not going to know everything, and you’re not going to get every question right. It’s OK. You don’t have to score anything above 700 to pass. Nobody is going to see your score unless you show them the score sheet. 700 is passing. 701 means you studied too hard. ;-)
  3. When All Else Fails – Guess! On the certification exams, there are right answers and everything else. The everything else includes blank questions and wrong answers. They score the exact same – zero points. There’s no harm in guessing. With that in mind, when you’re looking at a question you don’t know the answer to, try to eliminate wrong answers. You can almost eliminate one right away, and frequently two. If there’s only 4 possible answers, you’ve now given yourself a 50/50 shot. And there will be times when you’ll be able to eliminate three out of 4. If you can do that, then you’ve managed to figure out the right answer. The exam doesn’t ask you to “show your work”, only what the right answer is.
  4. Keep the Easy Questions Easy. There will be questions where you’ll read it and instantly know the answer. Then a bit of doubt will creep into your mind, and you’ll wonder if it really is that easy. The best plan of attack is to simply reread the question one time, make sure you chose the right answer, and click next. Don’t overthink it. Don’t talk yourself out of the right answer. If you know it and you know it’s right, move on.
  5. Mark the Tough Questions for Review. You have the ability to mark questions and review them at the end of the exam. This can be helpful for questions you’re spending too long on, or ones you simply don’t know. Later questions may help jog your memory and you’ll be able to come up with the correct answer later. That said, be very careful about changing answers as your first instinct is almost always correct. Make sure you have a rock solid reason to change the answer before doing so.

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to head out and take a shot at either this exam or any other exam. I’d love hear your success stories below!

Good luck!

[1] Yesterday, actually.