Study Tips for the SQL MCM Exams
I met the new rotation of the SQL Server Certified Master program on Friday. I was supposed to meet them the week before, but I decided to keep my stomach flu to myself, so I waited for this week. I offered up some study advice to the group, and I hope some of the advice will be helpful. I have been asked on Twitter to offer some study tips as well, so I’m going to impart my limited wisdom on the subject here for all to read.
Let me preface this with the disclaimer that I’m not the best studier in the world. In school, I was always a great test taker, and a last minute studier. One thing I’ve learned is that everybody studies differently. What works for one person will not work for others. What works best for me is to study immediately before the test. So a lot of my focus was on studying on the weekends or nights right before the tests.
In contrast, Brent Ozar (blog|twitter) seems to be a very well organized and well thought out studier. He wrote a thorough blog post on how he studied for the MCM exams. If you are reading this blog post, I highly recommend reading Brent’s post as well to get a different perspective from a more organized studier.
For what it’s worth, here are the tips that I can impart:
Tip #1: Take Notes
I retain information better if I write it down versus just hearing it. I learn best in a class situation where the teacher is lecturing and giving demos while I write everything down. This is the MCM training technique, so it worked very well for me. I didn’t write down everything, but I took lots of notes. If it wasn’t already something I knew by heart, I wrote it down. I filled two notebooks. I would have filled even more, but I only used about half a page for the high availability and replication stuff.
Tip #2: Review Daily
At night, I would go through the notes I had taken that day to make sure I felt that I understood everything. If there was anything that I felt that I didn’t understand fully, I would recheck the trainer’s slide deck or look for information online via blogs and white papers to clarify. If checking online for more information, I would always check the trainer’s blog first for relevant information.
Tip #3: Follow the Trainer’s Links
If the trainer recommended checking out specific blogs or white papers for additional information on a topic, I made sure I read them that night. Any materials referenced in the slide decks were considered testable. I never assumed that I understood everything I needed to know from the material presented in class. I would make a point of always reading any material that they referenced in class.
Tip #5: Review Weekly
Each weekend, I would review the material from the preceding week. I would skim through the whole week and look at any specific topics in more depth if felt I wasn’t super comfortable with them. I paid special attention to topics that were completely new to me such as StreamInsight and Data-Tier Applications or topics that I have had limited experience with such as SQL CLR and Extended Events.
This part was trickier on the final week as we did not have the weekend to study. The final weekly exam and the lab are performed back-to-back on the Saturday of the last week. Many of us in my rotation recommended that they consider doing the week 3 exam on Saturday and the lab on the following Monday. We did not have the luxury of weekend study, so had to cram all of our studying in at night. I still performed my daily review of materials, but I tried to do it faster and skim through it. Then I spent the rest of the night review materials from the previous weeks that I thought might be on the lab exam. For example, I felt pretty confident that performance tuning would be on the lab, but I knew that the new features of SQL Server 2008 R2 would not be as they had said that the lab would only cover material that had RTM’d and this was before R2 reached RTM.
Tip #6: Interact with the Other Candidates
There were many nights and weekends where the class members got together and studied in a group. Being local, I found it difficult to participate in this. I had an hour drive home and a wife and 2 dogs that needed my attention, albeit on a limited basis. This was where being local became a hindrance for me. The other candidates would go eat dinner and then meet back at building 40 for group study. This just did not work out logistically for me.
There were some discussions using the group’s email alias. People would pose questions and we would debate the answers back and forth. The trainers are on the email group as well, so we were able to get definitive answers to questions from them as well.
I highly recommend taking advantage of the study groups if you can. I know that the current rotation has at least 1 local candidate who is facing the same issues that I did. If you can’t take advantage of the study groups, then get some discussions going using your group’s email alias. I also sent my email alias to the current rotation so that they could email me if they have any questions.
Tip # 7: Revisit the Pre-reading List
We were given a pretty lengthy pre-reading list to read before attending the MCM. This material is testable even if it’s not covered in class. The last few nights before the lab exam, I started revisiting the pre-reading list for the subjects that I felt had a good chance of being on the lab exam. It had been a long time since I had read some of this stuff, and revisiting the list definitely paid off in the lab. There were at least a couple of things that I had forgotten and re-read from the list that I needed to know on the lab.
I wish the best of luck to the current and future rotations of the SQL MCM. We’re a community that likes growth, and we want to see a lot of people succeed. I hope the study tips offered here and by other candidates such as Brent Ozar are helpful.