Acing the test

Network certification exams may be difficult, but there's a large test preparation industry dedicated to helping you succeed. Whatever type of professional certification you're pursuing, you'll find a variety of Web sites offering online exam simulations and message boards.

Most of these resources cost money to access, so it pays to try the free demos and shop around for the tools that best fit your needs and study habits.

A good starting point is MeasureUp's www.measureup.com, which sells online and CD-based simulations of network exams. For instance, users can take six different simulations to help prepare for Certified Novell Engineer IntranetWare exams.

MeasureUp offers students unlimited access to the exams over a set period of time, depending on the field of study. Pricing starts at $59 for 30-day access. The CDs in MeasureUp's catalog range in price from $89 to $119. However, the online version has proven far more popular, says Kevin Brice, CEO of MeasureUp in Atlanta.

Brice says about 11,000 users visit the site per day, and notes that one person accessed the site 182 times in six months. "She was biting off a little chunk at a time, and probably doing it in her spare time," he says.

Other sites offering simulated exams include www.thelearningnetwork.com and www.certificationzone.com. Along with the practice exams, Certification Zone, which has created "study zones" for the Certified Cisco Network Associate (CCNA) and Certified Cisco Internetwork Expert (CCIE), gives members a monthly tutorial covering major certification objectives. A six-month subscription to the CCNA Study Zone costs $90. Nonsubscribers can take the practice exams for $25 each.

Budget-conscious students will appreciate Cramsession.com, which offers free study guides and exam practice questions as well as news updates about IT certification programs.

Test preparation Web sites also offer a sense of community by allowing members to ask questions of others who are studying for the same exam. That proved valuable for Scott Morris, IS director at Tele-Tech in Lexington, Ky. Morris passed the CCIE exam last May on his second try. He didn't spend much time with study guides or simulated exams. "I tend to attack things head-on," Morris says. "I bought a few routers, set them up in my basement and then tried to think up the most bizarre scenarios I could."

But Morris soon found working alone was difficult. "It was like operating in a vacuum," he recalls. He joined a mailing list at www. ccprep.com and received valuable, time-saving answers there. Subscriptions to ccprep.com start at $19.95, which gives members access to 60 online questions and explanations, four lab scenarios and a wide range of forums.

Rocky Burrous, a consulting systems administrator to the State of Florida Office of Labor Market Statistics in Tallahassee, turned to practice exams on CD-ROM from Transcender (www.transcender.com) to study for NT 4.0 Server, Enterprise and Workstatioon exams. "They were very close to the real thing," he says.

Burrous, who now holds five Microsoft certifications and the Novell Certified Network Administrator, says the best thing about the exams was that they pointed out his areas of weakness. "When you got an answer wrong, they did a superb job of explaining the correct answer, and in most cases why the other answers were wrong," he says. Individual Transcender exams range in price from $79 to $179.

While taking practice exams and participating in discussions with fellow certification candidates are helpful, neither can substitute for technical experience. "I don't want people to take a class, take a practice test, and then be able to pass a certification exam," says MeasureUp's Brice. "You should take our test to see where you're still weak."

Nevertheless, Brice says his company tries to make its questions more difficult than those on the actual exam. "I don't want them to have a false sense of security going in," he says.

While the Web is enabling new methods of learning and studying, it's also making it easier for students to disseminate answers. People coming out of exams such as the one for Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification perform a "brain dump": they jot down as many questions as they can, along with what they think are the correct answers and send them out over the Internet to others studying for the exams. "That's why the certification exams are becoming more plug and play," Brice says. "There are more break-fix scenarios with the stopwatch running."

Brain dumps wouldn't have helped Morris on the CCIE lab exams. "Cisco tells you to study everything, and they're not kidding. One person could get X.25, another ATM," he says. "Finding out what someone else's test was like wouldn't do anything but make you more paranoid."

This story, "Acing the test" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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