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Certification Rumors and Tips

By Brandie Tarvin,

When someone new comes to the SQL Server part of the Database world, invariably they end up asking about certification information. Questions like "Do I have to have it", "Is it worth anything", and "How do I get it" are commonplace on every SQL Forum in existence. I have decided to consolidate some of the best certification advice here in an attempt to help those who don't know this information and to dispel some of the rumors that I've seen floating out on the web. First, let's go with the rumors.

RUMOR #1: You have to have a SQL Server Certification to get a job.

RESPONSE: Not entirely true. It depends on a number of factors. Have you been a DBA before? Do you have a degree in an IT related field? Have you ever used SQL Server before? Does the job you're applying for list it in the requirements?

If the answer to that last question is "No", but the answer to at least one the first three questions is "Yes", then you have a decent chance of getting your job without a certification. If, however, you're like me and your degree is in a completely unrelated field, you're trying to break into the field for the first time, or you've barely / never used SQL Server before, it's generally a good idea to get your MCDBA or MCITP so employers take you a little more seriously. If the job description has "requires certification" or something to that effect, though, then you'd definitely need that cert to be considered amongst the top candidates. The worth of the cert is directly dependent on your need for it or the needs of your employer.

RUMOR #2: You must buy a book or take a class in order to get your Microsoft certification.

RESPONSE: False. While books and classes can be good investments, the only thing you have to do in order to get your certification is sign up for the test through one of many testing centers, pay your fee ($125.00 per exam as of this writing), show up on time to take the exam and then pass it.

Books work for self-study and if you're short on money, ask your fellow DBAs which books helped them the most or try to buy used / clearance editions. The great thing about books is not only are they cheaper than the classes, but when you get your DBA job, you can use them as reference material!

Lastly, I don't personally recommend taking any classes unless you can get your employer to pay for them. And if you can swing that, get the really good classes like End-To-End SSIS or Designing Security for SQL Server 2005 instead of the cheesy "intro" classes or boot camps. The intro classes are only good if you've never looked at the version of SQL you're testing for and the boot camps aren't designed to teach you SQL, they're designed to take your money and cram your brain full of information that you'll forget as soon as you've taken the test. Employers can tell the difference between a boot-camp trained DBA and a self/on-the-job trained DBA.

RUMOR #3: A brain dump will give me all the information I need to know to pass the exam.

RESPONSE: False. First, a brain dump is when a previous applicant has shared knowledge of the questions on a certification exam with a third party. There is no noble purpose of this information sharing. It is cheating, pure and simple. Microsoft has a non-disclosure agreement that they make every exam applicant agree to before they allow you to take the test. Any person who creates or gives out a brain dump is in violation of the NDA and if you get caught "dumping", you're likely to have your certs revoked, at a minimum! And, if you get caught using someone else's dump, you'll get your certs revoked and will never be able to get certified through Microsoft again.

Further more, there's the credibility issue of the "dump". Most dumps are littered with errors, spelling and otherwise. When I was studying for my MCDBA, a friend of mine tried to give me a copy of a cheap exam sim he bought. When I opened it up, I found several questions that used company names different from the company names in the solutions, answer groups that didn't even belong to the question and other problems. I quickly realized what it was and discarded it. If I had tried to pass my exams based on the information in that brain dump, I would have failed spectacularly. Trust no dumps!

RUMOR #4: If you pay for a brain dump, then there's no ethics issue.

RESPONSE: False. There are a lot of companies out there that sell brain dumps, but just because you pay for their version of sims / exams, doesn't make it legal. Be very careful of cheap exam sims because they tend to be brain dumps. If you have any questions about the validity of a company's product, ask other people in the SQL Forums or go to Microsoft directly.

RUMOR #5: If you lurk around the SQL Forums, read all the questions people are posting, and then try to answer a few yourself, you will learn a great deal about SQL Server that may help you pass the test.

RESPONSE: True. (See, not all responses are false. @=) ) There are several DBAs, myself included, who firmly believe helping out on the various forums have helped us gain a deeper understanding of subjects that were on the exams. So, contribute to those forums. You're not only helping other people, you're helping yourself as well!

RUMOR #6: If you fail the exam, you can keep taking it until you pass.

RESPONSE: Sorta True. If you fail the first time, you can take it immediately a second time, but if you fail after that, you have to wait 14 days before your next attempt. And any time you try to take it after that, there's a 14 day waiting period. Microsoft reserves the right to ban anyone from taking the exam, so if they think someone's deliberately failing so they can get brain dump info, they will crack down and prevent you from taking any further exams after a certain point.

RUMOR #7: Exam insurance is worthless and is just another way Microsoft is getting money from suckers.

RESPONSE: False. While I won't disagree that Microsoft is trying to make money off everything they can, Exam Insurance may actually be worth your while. If you're nervous about your exam or have never taken one before, the insurance will guarantee you a free re-exam if you fail it the first time. And if you pass, you get a discount off your next exam. Since all MCITPs have to take at least 2 exams, I'd say this is worthwhile. Especially to help you get past those first exam jitters.

RUMOR #8: Once you have your cert, you're guaranteed to get a high paying a SQL Server DBA position.

RESPONSE: I wish! Unfortunately, getting the cert is the easy part. Convincing prospective employers that you actually know something about SQL and are a good fit for their corporate culture is the hard part. The business world got burned several years ago by a bunch of "papercerts" who had the certifications but didn't have the knowledge to do their jobs. Unfortunately, that particular legacy is going to haunt the IT world for many decades to come...

Those are the most common rumors I've seen or heard about certifications. If you know of any others you'd like the answers to, let me know and I'll see what I can dig up. Now, let's get to the advice portion.

TIPS

  • Microsoft's Certification FAQ site is http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcpexams/faq/registering.mspx. If the answer to your exam questions isn't there, post your question in the SQLServerCentral Certification forum and someone will get you an answer.
  • Use SQL Server! I can't stress this enough. Either get a free download evaluation copy to play with, buy the Developer version for $50.00 or use the test box at the office, but you need to actually use it. There's no substitute for hands-on experience and what your brain might forget during the exam, your fingers will probably remember if you do the tasks often enough.
  • Break the system (but make sure you're on a test box first). As silly as it sounds, the best way to learn SQL Server is by learning what it won't do and how to fix it when it's broken. So open up that test box and let 'er rip!
  • Read Books Online. Yes, it can be convoluted at times, but it has a lot of little details that may be on one of your tests but aren't in any of the books or classes.
  • If you're still having problems, ask questions. If there's a piece of code that you don't understand, or the reasoning behind a particular scenario eludes you, ask your co-workers or post on the forum. I firmly believe the only stupid questions are the ones no one bothered to ask, so don't feel shy. Remember, we were all rookies at one time and we all learned by asking "why" and "how". Please don't take this tip as a license to ask for brain dumps, though. That particular question will quite often be ignored.
  • Don't schedule your exam until you're comfortably familiar with 90% of the subject matter. I'm not talking about passing 90% of the test questions on an exam sim. I mean, you're so familiar with it that someone at work can ask you a question and you can answer without looking anything up. When you're secure in your knowledge, you're less likely to make mistakes on the exam.
  • Schedule at least 1 free day (vacation day, etc.) off of work the day before you are scheduled to take your exam. This will give you time to relax, rest, and refresh your memory on any subjects you feel less that 100% on.
  • Go to the bathroom before the exam and try not to drink or eat right before it. Some places allow you to have bathroom breaks during exams, some don't. Regardless of your local testing center's policy, it's hard to think when your bladder is full, so you might as well take care of business before you have to concentrate on the important stuff.
  • Take your time during the exam. Yes, you have a time limit, but if you don't learn to read the questions before you answer them, then you might miss the most important detail (such as the "is not" portion of the question).
  • Scenario based question groups. Briefly read the scenario, but don't get stuck on the details until you get to the questions. Scenario based questions often have the scenario in a separate window or a pop-up window that you can refer back to when you're answering the actual questions. This will save you time during the exam and keep you from focusing on the wrong details. NOTE: I have yet to take the 2005 exams. If this exam behavior has changed since the 2000 exams, can someone please let me know so I can update this tip?
  • (and the most important) Relax! It only feels like it's the End of the World. Once it's over, you'll feel so much better. And if you passed, then it's time for some serious celebrating!

Conclusion

There are some common misconceptions on what exams entail and how to get through them, but I hope this article has clarified the basics. Don't be fooled. The SQL Server exams are a lot harder than the usual Microsoft certs, especially for 2005. The only good way to get through them is studying and practice. Lots and lots of practice.

If anyone has any thoughts for additional information to add to this article (perhaps a second edition), please let me know. Your comments are appreciated.

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