How To Pass A Certification Exam
I am frequently asked how I have passed so many certification exams. The short answer is “one at a time.” I don’t mean to be flip with that answer, but it’s the truth. If I could rephrase the question it would be “How do you pass a certification exam?” I can give you a much better answer to that one.
Don’t Assume it’s Easy
First, don’t take any exam for granted. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy and you don’t need to study. I say this from experience.
I failed the Security+ exam the first time I took it. This was back when it was SY0-101 (the first iteration of this exam) and it has become progressively more complex and difficult.
My mistake? I believed all the posts I read indicating this exam was easy. After working in IT jobs for so many years and teaching many security-related topics in advanced courses, I decided to plop down the two hundred or so dollars and take this exam.
There are not many things as disheartening as finishing an exam and seeing the message that you failed. Thankfully, I knew exactly what I did wrong. I took the exam for granted. I didn’t study. I didn’t make the same mistake again and soon passed this exam.
Since then I have taught many Security+ classes, wrote and published books on the Security+ exam, and created thousands of practice test questions, all designed to help people take and pass this exam the first time they take it. You don’t have to use my resources, but you do need to study for this exam. Don’t take it for granted.
Find a Good Study Guide to Pass a Certification Exam
I have earned almost all of my certifications through self-study. When possible, I get one or more study guides that cover the exam objectives. Ideally, a single book is enough but in general, it’s always a good idea to get more than one. If you don’t understand the concepts described by one author, you can get a different perspective from another author and you end up with a deeper understanding.
Many people have said the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide was their single source of study. I’m grateful and humbled to hear this. However, that isn’t typical. Two or more study guides is common.
I Don't Have Time To Read The Book
I recently received an email from a reader indicating he didn’t have time to read a book and asking what he could do.
The first option that came to mind isn’t a good one. He could hire someone else to take the exam for him. It’s expensive and unethical, but if he doesn’t have the time to learn the material, it is one option.
Perhaps he meant that he doesn’t learn easily by reading a book. Are their other options? Yes.
One option is to attend a course. It’s more expensive than buying one or two study guides though. For example, Security+ courses range between $1,000 and $3,000 per person depending on the location, the training materials used, what’s included, and the trainer. Compare this to two study guides averaging $30 for a total of $60, and you can see the difference. Similarly, there are many video courses out there that teach the material. Some of these video courses are expensive but there are also some videos available for free.
Another option is to look for audio on the topics. For example some books are available on the Amazon Kindle, and the Kindle has an audio feature that reads the book to you. Additionally, you can sometimes purchase audio files for some topics. For example, supplementary audio files for the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide are available here.
Look at the Objectives to Pass a Certification Exam
The objectives identify what you can expect to be tested on. For example, if you are studying the Security+ certification, you can check out the objectives for it on CompTIAs web site. Many study guides, including the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide include the objectives in the book along with an objective map telling you exactly where that objective is covered in the book.
When reviewing the objectives, your goal is to identify what is familiar and what is not familiar. A study guide can help you clarify these objectives and how you might be tested on them.
Research Unclear Topics to Pass a Certification Exam
It’s entirely possible that all of the topics aren’t clear to you. Some quick Internet searches should help you identify the answers. Additionally, there are many forums where people provide helpful answers to each other. If you post a well thought-out question to one of these forums, you can get some great responses.
Many times when I’m studying for an exam today, it’s before any study guides have been published. The Internet is a great resource for me.
Use Practice Exams to Pass a Certification Exam
After you’ve studied the concepts related to the objectives, use practice exams to test your readiness. Many study guides including the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide include practice test questions at the end of each chapter. Use these to test your comprehension of the chapter topics. Some books also have a pre-test before the first chapter and a post-test after the last chapter. Additionally, there are many other sources for practice test questions such as the Get Certified Get Ahead Premium site.
When using practice test questions, your goal is not to get them all correct. Instead, your goal is to test your comprehension.
Ideally, you should be able to look at any question and know why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answers are incorrect. This way no matter how the questions are worded on the actual exam, you will be able to answer it correctly.
Some questions seem incomprehensible if you only look for the correct answer. However, if you eliminate the incorrect answers, the correct answer becomes obvious. As an example, I described this process in this video. While the video is focused on Security+ performance-based questions, I also included an explanation of eliminating incorrect answers with a typical multiple choice question in the video.
Along these lines, make sure the practice test questions you use have explanations. After writing thousands of practice test questions for several different certifications, I know how valuable these are to the user, and to the author.
- As a user, you can use explanations to understand why the correct answers are correct and why the incorrect answers are incorrect. Many times, the questions have a subtle twist of words making one answer obviously incorrect. You might not see this subtle twist when you read the question, but the explanation helps make it clear.
- As an author, the explanation forces me to think about why each answer is incorrect. During this process, I often find that one of my answers is not necessarily incorrect, and I change the question. In contrast, some authors do not provide explanations and do not see some of these issues. As a reader/user, you might struggle with the question way too long trying to figure out why one answer is incorrect when it is actually correct.
Beware of Brain Dumps
Beware of Brain Dumps
Brain dumps are supposedly actual questions with supposedly actual answers. Some criminals use illegal and/or unethical methods to capture the questions, they guess at the correct answers, and then sell them. They do not include explanations. Instead, the buyers are encouraged to memorize the questions and answers.
If it’s discovered that you used brain dump sources to pass an exam, you can have your certification revoked. That’s bad enough, but there’s a worse consequence of using them.
Many have incorrect answers. People that memorize these questions and answers memorize incorrect information without understanding the reasoning behind it. Subtle changes to the questions elude them. They fail once, twice, and more and don’t understand why. I’ve had students in classes that had memorized incorrect brain dump answers and had a significant amount of trouble trying to relearn the correct information.
The 5 Dangers of Brain Dumps blog post has more information on brain dumps.
Practice Test Questions Should Not be the First or Only Option
Some people turn to practice test questions as their only source of study. This isn’t recommended, especially if your goal is to learn the concepts. Especially when they don’t take the time to understand why the correct answers are correct and why the incorrect answers are incorrect, they fail and don’t understand why.
Also, many people seek certifications to get ahead. The certification helps them land interviews and get new jobs with more responsibility and more pay. However, many people that only study questions do not learn the concepts. They falter during the interviews, or worse, move into a new job and falter there and end up unemployed.
Instead, seek to learn the material, and then use practice test questions to test your comprehension.
Summary How To Pass a Certification Exam
While I’ve focused a lot of this on Security+, these same steps can be used on just about any certification you want to earn through self-study. As a summary, the steps are:
- Get one or more good study guides
- Review the objectives
- Research further to clarify any unclear topics
- Use practice test questions to test your comprehension
- Ensure the practice test questions have explanations
- Read the explanations to understand why the correct answers are correct and why the incorrect answers are incorrect