Passing a Microsoft Exam: Nine Sure-Fire Ways to Increase Your Chances

While no method can guarantee you’ll past your next cert test, this process is sure-fire for increasing your chances of passing.

I can't tell you how many people I train who don't have a defined method for passing Microsoft Exams. With my background as a trainer and a Microsoft Test-taker (I've taken 17 total Microsoft Exams, over nine years), I have developed a method that I know can help anyone.

Taking a Microsoft Exam, or any exam for that matter, is as much about getting over your own self-defeating psychological hang-ups as it is about studying. It's also about self-discipline, which no how-to on the internet will give you. You have to decide for yourself how bad you want the certification. That alone goes a very long way.

My disclaimer to the following is that these pointers will not guarantee you will pass Microsoft exams. Anyone who "guarantees" that you will pass an exam if you use their system usually wants your money. Me, I just want to help you. So, here's a tried-and-true method for passing a Microsoft Exam:

  1. Print out the objectives list for the exam of choice from Microsoft's Training Website . This is now categorized under "Skills Measured" for the exam/certification you want to take. I can't tell you how many people don't even look at this. It's the main measure of what you will be tested on, and it's a great checklist to use as a guide for any Microsoft Exam.
  2. Unless you have your own test lab capable of running all the scenarios you'll be tested on, get training. I'm not just saying this because I'm a trainer and want to keep my job. A good trainer can give you focus on items that might be heavily tested on the exam in question. If you can't afford the training, and want to go it alone, I recommend basing your home lab on something as simple as Virtual PC 2007. It doesn't cost you anything and the trial versions of Microsoft software usually include all the features but are time-limited.
  3. Perform the labs in the books you have bought or received in your training. BUT, and this is very important, design your own solution. For example, it's one thing to go through the motions of a "hands-on lab" on how to install and configure DNS on a Windows Domain Controller, but it won't mean anything until you do it yourself using a real solution with your own defined needs. Install Active Directory yourself, name the domain what you want, and configure an AD Integrated DNS zone without following the step-by-step in the book. This will be more familiar and personal to you than contoso.com. Plus, it makes you think about what you're doing, rather than just blindly clicking a check box or an "Apply" button. There's nothing wrong with contoso.com but that doesn't mean anything to you. Maybe you want a domain named iamawesome.andyouarenot, or chucknorris.isawesome.
  4. Commit the knowledge to memory:
    1. Using the "Skills Measured" document previously mentioned, and without using your book or other aids, write down everything you know about each topic.
    2. If you can't fill them all in, don't fret about it.
    3. Anything you can't remember, study in the book and/or design your own solution to keep refining and increasing your from-memory recall of the information.
  5. Take a Practice Exam. The two officially approved test engines from Microsoft are Measure Up or SelfTest.
    1. Very Important: A score of 20%-30% is completely normal and acceptable. There are other factors at work at this point, primarily having to do with test-taking skills. I have seen so many test-takers put a gun in their mouth at this point after receiving a 20%. Don't. After 17 exams, I still get a 20-30% on my first pass at a practice exam if it's a new technology to me. It's very common and absolutely normal. It's OK.
    2. Read the explanations to the answers - don't just memorize them.
  6. Schedule the Exam for a Friday, 2-3 weeks out, before a weekend with no plans. This gives you a definitive deadline. A deadline, more than likely, will force you to study harder, as long as you have self-discipline, which is a key factor. Don't wait until you think you are "100% ready" before scheduling your exam. Everyone thinks that they have to be flawless and at 100% before they can set foot into the exam room. You don't. I see so many people study. And study. And study. And study. There is no Summa Cum Laude for an Exam. Passing is passing. No one has ever looked at the score I received for an exam (that I know of). Accept it: unless you have a photographic memory (most people don't), you are going to get some questions wrong. In fact, every single MCSE/MCITP I know has even failed at least one exam. It doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you're human. And, despite claims to the contrary you won't die if you fail the exam. Why do I say Friday? Well, for Prometric (the approved official Microsoft test-provider), there is a 24-hour cancellation window. If you just can't buckle down for the last week, worst case scenario, you can cancel on Wednesday or Thursday, reschedule for the following Monday, and buckle down on the weekend. This has really worked for me, but YMMV. Bottom line, you will need discipline, it's that simple. This step requires discipline more than any other.
  7. Re-take the Practice Exam and repeat steps 3-5 until you have a 90%.
  8. IMPORTANT: DO NOT study anything on the day of the exam, and especially don't take a practice exam. You will "psych yourself out".  Even though you may have accepted that you might get some questions wrong, at this crucial stage, any question wrong will snowball into "Holy crap! If I got that wrong, I KNOW I'll get it all wrong and fail!" So, if you have completed the first 8 steps, then you are ready. Take the plunge.
  9. Take and pass the exam.

Taking a Microsoft exam is not just about studying. Test-taking skills are just as crucial. The following 8 pointers have always helped me and the people I train:

  1. Use Bryan's "Passing a Microsoft Exam: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Increase Your Chances" (I couldn't resist putting this in).
  2. For each question, read the entire question and all answers CAREFULLY before selecting your final answer.
  3. Look for key words - one word could change your answer completely. Microsoft loves to ask questions in the form of 4-5 paragraphs. Looking for key words can null and void most of that and allow you to hone in on the answer.
  4. Don't assume anything.
  5. Use process of elimination if you are not 100% sure. Remember that passing an exam is as much about knowing what the answer is NOT, as it is about knowing what the answer IS.
  6. It sounds obvious, but ANSWER. THE. QUESTION. Don't get caught up in trying to answer "Why would someone do that?" The scenarios sometimes presented in Microsoft exams are not advisable in a real-world scenario, but are there to see if you know the concept. Even if it isn't a "best practice" scenario, in my consulting days, I've seen some real wonky Windows implementations, so even if it you'd never "do it that way" doesn't mean it isn't "real world". See #4.
  7. Answer the question and only the question. Don't go beyond the question and start theorizing about the consequences. Remember #4.
  8. If you have no idea (it happens), and have to guess, which should be rare, choose the comparatively longest, or shortest answer. Studies have proven that exam writers have a tendency to make the right answer the "odd one out" so to speak. Use this to your advantage.

So, I hope this helps you in your endeavors. Happy testing.

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