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Getting Certified

By Brian Kelley,

Recently a forum question asked for a step-by-step process on how to get certified. Both Steve Jones and I responded with some suggestions on how to go about the certification process. If you've read the "How to get certified" articles at other sites, you won't see anything really new in this article. However, since the question has come up several times on this site, I've put together my recommendations about how to get Microsoft- certified. This is basically my ten step approach that I used when I completed the NT 4 MCSE track. I'm now back in the certification game, heading towards new certifications, not all of them Microsoft (security has become a big player), so I think this ten-step approach is a fairly generic one. Needless to say, this is the plan I'm using to get certified. Okay, enough with the introduction and on to the plan:

Step 1: Understand the Requirements for the Certification You Want

Microsoft has numerous certification tracks. Among the ones most appealing to IT professionals are: 

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA)
  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)
  • Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA)
  • Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD)
  • Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD)
  • Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT)

Each of these tracks have different requirements. Many of the tracks have overlapping requirements. For instance, if you complete your MCSA, you're well on your way to the MCSE. If you complete your MCAD, you don't have too much left for your MCSD. If you plan your MCSE pursuit correctly, you won't have a whole lot left for your MCDBA. The first thing you want to do before pursuing any certification track is to completely understand what it takes to get the certification and what tests apply and what tests don't. There's nothing like shelling out US$125 for a test and then realizing it doesn't apply to the particular certification track you are after. If you are looking to obtain Microsoft certification, here is the web site you need to visit:


Since this is SQLServerCentral.com, I'll concentrate on the MCDBA exam. Visiting the Microsoft site and navigating to the requirements, I find the requirements break out like so:

Topic # of Exams Required Exams
SQL Server Administration 1
  • Exam 70-028: Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0
  • Exam 70-228: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition
SQL Server Design 1
  • Exam 70-029: Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0
  • Exam 70-229: Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition
Networking Systems1 1
  • Exam 70-215: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Server2
Elective Exams 1
  • 11 different exams

1 The old Windows NT 4 Server (70-067) and Windows NT 4 Server in the Enterprise (70-068) together also meets this requirement (NT 4 MCSEs rejoice).
2 The Microsoft Accelerated Exam (70-240) also counts.

If I'm just starting on my way to Microsoft certification, I know I have 4 tests ahead of me. I have one on administering SQL Server, 1 on designing for it, I have an operating system exam, and I have an elective exam. The question that now comes to mind is, "Which exams do I pursue?" Well, I'm a realist, and I know SQL Server 7.0 isn't going to stay a viable option, at least as far as certification is concerned. After all, Microsoft is going to release Yukon sometime in my lifetime and that means SQL Server 7.0 will be 3 versions old. So if I'm targeting for certification, my best bet is to go after the SQL Server 2000 tests. When in doubt, pick the exams that should be around the longest. That means I will be taking the following:

  • Exam 70-228: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition
  • Exam 70-229: Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition
  • Exam 70-215: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Server

What about the elective? Well, since there's a list of 11 possible elective exams that qualify for the MCDBA, I'm going to pick an elective exam that works towards my strengths. For me, that's probably Exam 70-216: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure because I deal with the Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure so much as an Enterprise Systems Architect. If you're more of a developer, you might target one of the VB, C++, or .NET exams. If you are a data warehousing expert, you might consider Exam 70-019: Designing and Implementing Data Warehouses with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (there isn't a similar exam for SQL Server 2000). My advice is this: pick the one that tests on your strengths.

Step 2: Choose the Certification You Want to Pursue

After you're done looking at the certifications, you may find that you want to pursue more than one. For instance, it's not unusual to see people with MCSE and MCDBA or MCSD and MCDBA on their tag-lines. They went after and obtained certification along more than one track. But if you start with the mentality, "I'm going to grab them all," you may run into a brick wall during your certification efforts. When you proceed with the mentality to get them all, you may fall into the trap of taking an exam here and there, not focusing on any one track first. That means you may get to the point where you've taken some five or six tests and you're not done with any of the tracks. This can lead to frustration which leads to abandoning certification. When I was active in the Usenet groups for Microsoft certification, I would see a post where someone was giving up every so often. Focus on one track at a time. 

Once you've accomplished one track, only then go after the next one. You'll have to advantage that some of your requirements for next track should already be completed because of the exams you took for your first certification track. This really boils down to a mental game with yourself. You're looking for any advantage that will keep you motivated and hungry to complete the certifications. Studying and testing isn't easy. You want to minimize those things which can kill your morale and maximize the pick-me-ups that keep you going. Centering on one certification track at a time will help you do that.

Step 3: Choose the Test You Want to Pursue

Like in step 2, you need to narrow down your focus. Concentrate on one test at a time. This is the best advice I ever received from a friend of mine who asked why I hadn't completed my NT 4 MCSE. I had completed the NT 4 Workstation exam, mostly at his urging. But then when I looked at the fact that I needed 5 more exams, the mind games started to play against me. In fact, I had gotten discouraged. I had passed workstation in September and it was now December. And my friend knew exactly what was going on. So he took me aside and said, "Look, you passed workstation. Server builds on workstation. Go, study that, and pass it. Then worry about your next exam, not your next four exams." My friend was right and I knew it. I focused on one exam at a time and by the end of the month, I had my MCSE.

Look at the objectives for each test. Figure out what test you are already the most prepared for. Focus on passing that test first. Only then will you worry about the rest of the tests. And when you pass that first one, you should do the same thing again: figure out what test you are strongest for and focus on that test alone. Mentally it is easier to think about passing one exam rather than 2 or 3.

Step 4: Study and Train Using the Methods That Are Best for You

The certification industry is a big business. Plenty of training centers will provide classes for you that prepare for the exams. Plenty of books are on the shelves keying on the specific tests. And plenty of videos are out there to help you pass that test the first time around. Only, which method do you choose? If you do any research into learning theory, you'll find that there are quite a few models on how people learn. But one model that is referenced a lot breaks learners down into the following learning styles: 

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic (motion)

Just about everyone can eventually come to the point where they can learn by any of the three different methods. But each person will always have one method that is best. For me it's visual. For my father and my oldest son it's auditory. For my youngest son it is kinesthetic. Figure out how you learn best and try and choose the training method that applies. If you are a visual learner, self-study books are a good option. If you are an auditory learner, those training classes will be of more value to you than a visual learner. If you're a kinesthetic learner, which means you learn best by doing, you're going to have to initially start with visual or auditory, but ensure you focus a lot more on the lab environment. However, don't get too caught up in the learning styles unless you have an interest in the topic (like I do)... you're just trying to figure out how best to plunk down your money to prepare for the exams. If you know you do just fine by reading the material and running through a few lab examples, then there's nothing wrong going down that route, even if it turns out your an auditory learner. 

Step 5: Obtain Self-Test Software

I'll be honest in saying that the books and classes probably won't give you a good feel for how you'll do on the exam. Nothing is worse that sitting an exam and realizing you don't know the material like you should. First of all, you know you've wasted the money for the exam. Second, you might start doubting your ability to ever pass the exam, depending on much you've already studied. Self-testing software can really help here. The software should give you questions very similar in scope and difficulty to what you'll face on the exam. Also, the self-test software (at least the good ones) should tell you the areas where you are weak and need more study. Use the software to pinpoint gaps in your knowledge. Don't try and simply memorize the questions and answers, no matter how much you've heard how closely the self-test software resembles the actual exam. Then after you've identified your gaps, study to fill them in. Repeat until you're ready to take that exam.

Some of the self-test providers (not an endorsement, just a list of the more popular ones):

Step 6: Register with a Testing Center

In order to take the test, you'll need to register with a testing center. For the Microsoft tests, there are two main providers in the United States: Thomson Prometric and Vue. If you are outside of the United States visit the Microsoft Training and Certification site earlier in this article to locate the testing providers in your country. You can usually register by phone or on the web. For the two providers in the US:

In some cases you can call up by phone and get a test the same day, but this isn't always the case. It's typically better to call up a week or two in advance and schedule the test. This is my advice: schedule your test two weeks before you're going to take it. There are a couple of reasons for my suggestion. First, you'll be more likely to get a testing slot at a time and place that works for you. The seats are first come, first serve so the longer you wait the less likely you are going to get the seat you want. Second, by scheduling the test, you are committing yourself to a date. It is very easy to keep putting off studying because you don't have a date scheduled. But if you have a date on the books, you'll be more inclined to learn the material and be ready for the test. While it is possible for you to delay or cancel an exam (at least a day in advance is typically required), having that date is just another mental game you play with yourself to get it done.

I learned this trick from that same friend who told me to focus one test at a time. What he does is estimate how long he things it'll take him to be ready for a particular test. Once he's done that, he goes and schedules the exam right away. This helps keep him on track. His results speak for the validity of his approach. My friend currently holds the following certifications: CCNP, CCNA, CCDA, MCSE (4.0), MCSE (2000), MCP+I, MCT, Network+, and A+. He earned all of them while holding down a full-time job with the US Army, as a systems administrator, and later as a network architect. My friend points out that if he can do it, so can anyone else.

Step 7: Finish Up Studying Before the Day of the Exam

A good rule is to finish up studying before the day of the exam. The last thing you want to face is having run out of time before the exam and knowing you aren't ready. If you still have studying to do the day of the exam, you may start to panic and think, "I'll never get through it all before the test!" This will cause you to rush through the material to just "get it done" and you may get through all the pages but miss something in your rush. This gap may mean the difference between passing and failing.

Try and complete all of your studying at least a day ahead of the exam. Use the day of the exam strictly for review. Go through your notes. Look at the objectives and make sure you understand each one. Verify that anything you need to have memorized for the exam you can quickly regurgitate. I know as a physics and mathematics student I would quickly check all of my formulas. When I was taking TCP/IP I made sure I had my different WINS node types down. The little check at the end may mean the difference in one or two questions.

Step 8: Eliminate Distractions and Impediments

Anything that could be a distraction or impediment will only hurt you for the exam. So take the appropriate steps to eliminate as many of them as possible. You want to be focused on your test. Try and do things such as the following:

  • Get a good night's sleep. 
  • Get to the test center early (if you plan on getting there early and there's traffic, you should still be okay). 
  • Make sure you have all the identification required by the testing center.
  • If you have to take the test on a work day, try and take the exam before you go to work.
  • Ensure you eat at a time so that you're not sleepy for your exam (don't take an exam right after a meal).
  • Anything you had to memorize, write down on the scratch paper as soon as you sit down to take the exam (this is before question #1).

Step 9: Go Take That Test

In order to pass the exam, you must take the exam. I know of a few cases where a person had decided to attempt an exam. Every time the date of the exam loomed, the person would reschedule it for two weeks later. Eventually the person in question would just cancel the exam. Don't be afraid to take the exam. It is very easy to convince yourself you aren't ready for an exam when you really are. That's part of the reason for the self-test software. If you score well on the self-test software, you should be okay for the exam. But even with that said, I know of people who still convinced themselves that they wouldn't be able to pass. Don't do this. Take the exam. If you pass, you're one step closer to your goal. If you don't, well, that's what the next step is for.

Step 10: If You Don't Pass, Don't Get Discouraged

Quite a few people have failed an exam on a first attempt. The key is to stay positive. Hopefully, the exam results has a breakdown of the areas that you were weak on. If not, go back to your self-test software. Regroup, focus on those areas, and prepare to take the exam again. Remember, failing an exam isn't the end of the road. I have another friend who failed the CCIE written exam several times. Each time he only failed by a few questions. He could have easily gotten discouraged and decided to stop. But he didn't and he eventually passed the exam successfully. My friend that I mentioned with all the certifications failed an exam (NT 4 Server in the Enterprise), and then rescheduled for two days later. The second time he took the exam, he passed easily. Don't let a failure convince you to quit. Rather, use it as ammunition to study harder and complete your certification. 

In Closing...

Getting certified can be challenging, but if you have the mind to do it, you will be able to do so. The biggest issue I've found is getting up the confidence to go take the exam. Even if you fail the exam, you should get some really helpful information to help you pass the next time. As I said in step 10, the key is to stay positive. Don't talk yourself out of pursuing the certification.

If you have a question regarding certification, check out the SQLServerCentral.com forum specifically for this arena. Keep in mind that this forum isn't to answer "brain dump" type questions. If you post a question with several answers and ask, "Which one is it?" you're likely to get back, "Which one do you think it is and why?" Suitable questions involve ones on how to get certified, how best to attack a particular exam, how a particular piece of technology works, or on what materials others used for their certification efforts. Here's a link to the SQLServerCentral.com forum:

SQLServerCentral.com's Certification Forum

Some other sources for certification information and tips:

Good luck on your certification efforts!

 © 2003 by K. Brian Kelley. http://www.truthsolutions.com/
 Author of Start to Finish Guide to SQL Server Performance Monitoring.

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