How to take a certification exam

Last year, I obtained a professional certification that is much desired in the industry in which I work. The certification itself doesn’t matter, and I am not going to name it here. Altogether, it took roughly a year to pass a series of exams that take most people two to five years to complete. This is not bragging–I shouldn’t have pursued this at breakneck speed.

With that in mind, I organized thoughts I had been documenting during my coursework, turning this into a set of recommendations I hoped would be of benefit to others pursuing the same certification. Now I am hoping those same guidelines might help others who are pursuing professional certifications, regardless of the industry.

The exams I took had some attributes I need to clarify before getting into the main document. I was fortunate in that:

  • These exams were paid for by my employer
  • Taking the exams was entirely on a volunteer basis–there was no pressure to starting the certification path or to complete it within a certain time
  • For this type of certification you could re-take a failed exam (though you would also have to pay for that second attempt)
  • Each course had tests for each chapter, as well as a comprehensive practice exam and a one-time, timed practice exam

With all that in mind, here were my recommendations:

  1. Don’t underestimate the exams.  Max out the potential of the practice exams, as these are questions from previous versions of the actual exam.  The questions often give perspectives on the material you may not otherwise consider.
  2. Take each chapter’s practice exam as soon as you are done with that chapter.
  3. Re-take an earlier chapter’s practice exam (2 – 3 chapters prior) as you are completing later chapters.  This will reinforce earlier concepts as you learn newer ones.
  4. Do not passively read.  Reading is not understanding, which is not full comprehension.  As you encounter new concepts, ask yourself why this is important or why it is calculated/used as it is.  Consider how it applies to material covered in the course overall.
  5. When taking notes, put everything in your own words.  Even if it is the slightest reordering of verbatim text, trying to vary the text you have read reinforces it.
  6. Is the time right to take the actual exam?  Be confident, but not cocky.  More preparation leads to greater confidence.  The timed, one-time-only practice exams are more difficult than the other practice exams and will be a good check for whether you are adequately prepared.
  7. Failed an exam?  Re-take the exam as soon as possible after you have refreshed yourself on material you believe you did not know sufficiently.  There is no shame in failure, and your knowledge of the material will never again be as solid as it is now.
  8. In your notes, create a separate section for calculations and another for key concepts.  At the end of reading the material for the course, the key concepts should be 1 or 2 pages of the most difficult to remember, and/or most essential, points in the course.
  9. Remember: you are on nobody’s timetable but your own.  You control the pace, and there isn’t a bonus for completing it in a certain amount of time. 
  10. In approaching questions in either the practice or full exams, consider:
    1. Look at the answers before considering the question.  The answers may apply to just one element of a very long question (meaning: a large amount of info in the question may be irrelevant for the answers).  Any time saved can be useful for potentially more complex questions later
    2. Consider: is one of the answers most fair (to all parties concerned)?
    3. Were there any words in the question you may have overlooked that significantly change which answers are appropriate?