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Top 10 tips to passing any certification exam

Hi. My name is Graham Thompson. I’ve been an IT trainer off and on since the mid 1990’s. Over the years I have taken numerous certification exams, including certification exams from ISC2, ISACA, Microsoft, AWS, Cloud Security Alliance, Cisco and others. On top of the exams that I have personally taken, I have assisted hundreds of students prepare for their certification exams. I’ve seen a few things that you should be aware of before you take your next certification exam. Without further delay, here are my top 10 tips on preparing for and taking your next certification exam.

Tip #1: Breathe.

I get it. The exam can be nerve-wracking. But you have to remember that you’re not going to die if you fail. The more relaxed you are, the more you’ll be able to listen to your intuition.

Tip #2: Understand the purpose of the exam

What type of exam are you taking should be the first question you ask yourself. For example, let’s say you’re taking the CISSP exam. That particular exam is directed towards IT Security managers and directors. What benefit is there in setting up multiple Cisco routers in preparation for your CISSP exam? I know it sounds ridiculous, but you must appreciate the purpose of the exam and let that guide your exam preparation. Save the curiosity deep-dives until you’ve passed your exam.

Tip #3: Use the blueprint

Many exams have a “blueprint” available that covers the content you will be tested on. The testing provider made this for a reason. Use this to guide your preparation efforts. If you want to dive a little deeper then do so, but don’t lose focus on what you’ll be tested on. Don’t get sucked into the game of focusing on your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses.

Tip #4: Understand what the question writer is really asking.

This is a big one. Question writers basically all work the same way. They will throw needless information in a question in an attempt to throw you off – don’t let them! Read the question, breathe and then read it again before you answer it. Many writers will try to create a question that leads the test taker to include words that don’t exist or jump to conclusions. They will also include potential answers that will answer the question that you just made in your own mind. Don’t make assumptions about what the question writer “meant to say”. Take the questions literally (and yes, this is a rare occasion where I’ve used the word “literally” correctly).

Tip #5: All multiple choice exams are the same

Here’s the “secret formula” to writing answers for certification exams. Include the correct answer (duh), the aforementioned answer to a question that wasn’t asked, a very popular thought that is ultimately wrong because it’s not the best practice according to the material you’re being tested for, something that is so generic that it makes little sense and throw in a completely wrong answer. Here’s an example for a hypothetical CCSK exam question:

Question: How should a cloud service provider create networks for their cloud offering (Select the BEST answer)?

a) Ethernet

b) SDN

c) Different physical networks


e) WEP

The correct answer is C. Ethernet is way too vague. SDN may be a good choice, but it’s not the best choice as the CSA guidance states different physical networks are the best approach. VLAN would be an example of the well-known option but ultimately not the right answer. Finally, we have Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) which is of course completely off the mark.

Always remember the test doesn’t care how you do things. They care about your knowledge of the material they created.

Tip #6: Never change your answers

Seriously. Never. Change. Your. Answer. Always trust your gut. The only time you should ever consider changing an answer is if a later question makes it obvious that you were mistaken. I cannot recall how many times I’ve given this advice just to be told “You were right. I failed by one question and I know it’s because I changed a few answers that were right”.

Tip #7: Mark and revisit if time remains

Wayne Gretzky once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Well, same thing for questions you don’t answer. If you’re genuinely lost on a question, eliminate the obvious wrong ones and pick one that remains. Mark the answer if you can and revisit it if time remains. Not all exams allow for you to go back, but if they do, take advantage of it. Time management is a big deal for timed exams.

Tip #8: If you’ve never heard of it before, it isn’t the answer (unless the question includes the “not” keyword).

I swear to God, this is a true story. Back in the late 90’s, I worked as a trainer for a company that did both corporate training as well as ran an MCSE program that was taken by re-training students. One day, a student in this re-training program wanted help with the exams. He just couldn’t pass an exam no matter how hard he studied. I asked him several questions related to a particular exam and the guy knew his stuff. I then asked him if he could remember a few questions that he got hung up on. He recalled a question, the answers and what he chose. He selected something that didn’t even exist! I asked him why he chose that answer and he responded with “I never heard of it so I figured that had to be the answer”. Like, dude, really? You were trained by a Microsoft Certified Trainer using Microsoft Official Courseware and you figured something never discussed was the answer? Don’t be that guy. If you studied the material and you see something that doesn’t ring a bell at all, it is highly unlikely that it’s the right answer.

Tip #9: Know your strengths and weaknesses.

Not everyone has the same experiences and as such, everyone is going to have their own strengths and weaknesses. Focus on your weaknesses! When preparing for an exam, there’s no sense in spending hours developing a mastery of one subject that you enjoy when you’ll be tested on 50 subjects. Take the CCSK exam for example. It’s roughly a 50/50 split between technical and business. If you’re technical in experience, then focus on the business side. Same for the opposite.

Tip #10: 30 Days

At the end of a class I’m often asked “when should I take the exam?” The answer is 30 days. Everyone learns at a different pace based on previous experience. However, everyone loses memory retention at the same rate. After 30 days, your retention falls off a cliff. This happened to me with TOGAF. I took the course, studied at nights and then life got in the way. When I went back to the material a few months later I was overwhelmed with having to restart everything and surprise, life got in the way again.

That’s it, folks. I hope this helps with your preparation. Best of luck with your exam!

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Graham Thompson is an Information Security professional with over 25 years of enterprise experience across engineering, architecture, assessment and training disciplines. He is the founder and CEO of Intrinsec Security, a leading training company that is solely focused on delivering leading authorized IT security training from partners such as the Cloud Security Alliance, ISC2, ISACA, EC-Council and CompTIA.

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