IT Certification Tests: What to Expect

IT Certification Tests: What to Expect

Imagine this scenario: You haven't taken a test since your college SATs, and now you're sitting at a certification testing center, wondering why you ever decided to pursue an IT credential. What will the test be like, and are you really prepared?

Certification programs eventually lead to a test, or in many programs, several tests. If you want the credential, you will need to pass the exams required for it. Don't be caught off guard by the testing process. Instead, be prepared for it with our guide to the ins and outs of certification testing, in the form of answers to commonly asked questions about the subject, drawn from conversations with experts in the field:

What type of exams should I expect from a certification program?

Multiple-choice tests remain the most common. But multiple-choice questions have been enhanced in any number of ways, says Jonathan Thatcher, director of business integration for skills development at industry association CompTIA.

Text questions may be supplemented by multimedia elements to add another dimension to the test. And questions are pretested to ensure they measure more than what can be memorized. "The days of memorizing one fact, and looking for that one fact in one answer, are really gone," says Thatcher.

What other kind of exam is given?

So-called "performance-based testing" is increasingly common in IT certification, and exam takers should expect to see more certification programs incorporate this flavor of testing. Microsoft, for instance, is integrating it into many of its exams. "I think there's going to be a continued emphasis on performance-based testing as a way to do a better job of measuring skills," says Al Valvano, group product manager for certifications at Microsoft Learning.

In performance-based testing, a simulated environment is presented to the exam taker, who is then required to complete a task, rather than answer questions. Performance-based testing is favored, because it replicates the work environment and emphasizes results. Employers see simulations as a far superior way to measure whether someone has the real-world skills required to troubleshoot a network, for example, or configure a workstation.

I have a phobia of tests. How can I avoid freaking out?

"Some people have a fear factor, but there are ways around that," says Thatcher. Specifically, learn everything you can about the testing environment, and prepare yourself with assessment tests; self-testing can go a long way toward combating your fears. As Thatcher says, "You really get a sense of what the certification test will ask you.

What if I fail?

Then you will get another chance (or several). In some instances, you may want to "simply take the test with the idea that you might fail," says Thatcher, as a way to learn what to expect. Unlike a college test, which may be reflected in your grade-point average, the results are private.

Do I need to pay to take a certification exam?

Yes. Fees vary widely.

Where can I take certification exams?

Most certification exams are given at private testing centers located around the country and the world. Some exams, for specialized credentials, may require you to travel to a specially designed testing center.

What else should I know about the testing environment?

Certification testing centers often require two forms of identification, and security is tight, with proctors carefully monitoring the process. Don't forget your IDs, or else you may have to wait months to take the test again -- and begin cramming anew.

Will my score be useful to me?

Whether you pass or fail, don't dismiss your score report. A lot of folks don't get enough out of the score reports, says Thatcher. Score reports may tell you how you fared on different sections of the test and provide clues about what you need to study for the next time or what areas you should focus on for continued learning.