One of my goals back when I was a young MCSE (that's Microsoft Certified System Engineer for NT4, not the new certs) was to one day be certified as a Microsoft Certified Trainer. I realize that being an MCT is like being a Ph.D. There are some super sharp ones and there are some truly terrible ones. Everyone else fits somewhere in between. As the years have passed that burning desire to be an MCT isn't as inflamed, but it's still a goal within reach. However, in order to accomplish it I need to certify on more recent Microsoft technologies than NT 4.
I know that some would argue that a certification isn't something that should be a goal. Technically speaking, that's correct. It would be more correct to say that achieving an MCT would be the mark of completing a goal. And because this is certification, where it's clear-cut how you get it, then I don't consider this in the same category as an Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award, which is based on recognition.
I also don't think that writing a test and doing enough to pass is a good practice. A certification should stand for a person having a certain level of competence. And I understand that while that might not be true in all cases, I think it should be true in my case. When I was an NT 4 MCSE, I felt I had a solid understanding of multiple domain models, of Windows security and overall administration of Windows from workstation through server in the enterprise. Actually, before I went to take each test, I wanted to have that feeling in my gut (I know, not exactly scientific) that I knew what I was doing before I walked in and answered the first question. So here's how I generally prepare whether it's a Microsoft exam or someone else's:
- I review what exams and other requirements are necessary for certification. For instance, when I looked at my MCSE for NT4, there were a lot of options for elective exams, of which you had to take 2. I settled on TCP/IP and SQL Server 7.0 Admin (yeah, it was that long ago) because those were the technologies/concepts I worked with daily.
- I start with the first exam I want to tackle. This isn't necessarily the one I know the best. I try to evaluate whether exams and their objectives will build on each other. In that case, 2 and 3 may be done together.
- I take a look at the list of concepts and objectives for the exam. Note that I didn't say anything about going to buy tests or grab a book or anything like that. I want to make sure I understand what the exam is supposed to test on.
- I go through the list of concepts and objectives on my own. For SQL Server, that would mean reading books on-line, reading relevant articles in the community, and above all, actually trying examples until I'm positive I understand and can explain the concept or objective. I do this even if I'm sure I know the concept or objective well already.
- I schedule the test. This is important. You can always cancel if you need to do so.
- I then go and buy a book and work through it, just as a self-check. Since I've done steps 3 and 4, this is typically very, very fast. When I was completing my MCSE, I went through the big Sybex books in about 2 days because (a) they are filled with egregious amounts of whitespace and (b) everything was review.
- I go and take the exam.
This methodology has worked for me every time.