Get Certified & Get Noticed: MS Certifications

by K. Alan Robbins

If you're a technology professional working with Microsoft products, should you obtain Microsoft Certification? The answer is an unequivocal yes, even if your current position is secure and you have no intention of looking for a new one anytime soon. This article will dispel some common certification myths, explain why certifications matter, and give you valuable tips about what to study and what the process is like.

One of a manager's most difficult tasks is recruiting and hiring. In a recession, the number of resumes received for an open position increases substantially, and it is difficult to distinguish the A-Players from the other candidates just by looking at a resume. For a standard job announcement, you're likely to see three times the number of C-Players, twice the number of B-Players, and the same number of A-Players as usual. The noise level dramatically increases. Amongst all those resumes, how do you get noticed?

A-Players are much more likely to be certified than B or C players. It is as simple as that. A-Players sharpen their skills outside of work. They read tech blogs, subscribe to tech magazines, and are passionate about their craft. B and C players show up for a job and do what is asked of them.

Does being certified mean you are a better developer? No. Does being certified mean you are guaranteed of getting a job? Of course not. What it does is demonstrate a level of commitment, and that makes it much more likely that your resume will be picked out of the stack.

Passing a single exam qualifies you to be a "Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist." This is the place to start. Pick a product that you are already familiar with, do your homework, pass one test, and you stand out. Pass several related exams and you become a "Microsoft Certified Professional." Above that, there are Certified Master and Certified Architect programs that require more and more of the candidate to demonstrate his or her competence. Numerous studies have shown that the top level certifications are worth as much in terms of lifetime compensation as an MBA from an accredited university. There are fewer than 100 Microsoft Certified Architects on the planet. It is a safe bet they are not unemployed.

Preparing for Exams

The best way to start this journey is with the book from Microsoft press for the exam you are interested in taking. These books are more expensive than the others, and they are worth every penny. The practice exams included with these books are closest to the actual exam. You cannot pass certification tests by simply reading the books and drilling on the practice exams. You must use the product, as there will be questions on the exam you cannot answer unless you have spent time with the product. For instance, you'll need to know keyboard shortcuts, to be able to hand execute code, and to know what all the different tool windows contain.

The first exam is the worst, another reason to select a product you use every day and are competent with. There will be product features in the study guide you haven't touched upon; focus on those areas. Go take the test. You have to score 70% or better to pass. No employer is going to ask you what score you got, or how many times you took the test! Gathering up the courage to take that first test is the hardest part.

So called Exam Crams and lists of questions to memorize are not the most effective approach. If you start your certification journey by trying to memorize the answers to 500 questions, you'll get discouraged very quickly. Many if not all of the questions on the exam have one answer that is completely wrong, two answers that are partially correct, and one right answer. If your brain is crammed full of practice questions, you won't take the time to carefully read each question. Study the material, work with the product, and when you think you are ready, take the practice exam. But do not start your journey by taking the practice test over and over.

Taking Exams

The tests are administered by Prometrics testing centers. You schedule your exam through the Web site. Once you arrive, you show your ID, empty your pockets into a little locker, pay your $125 testing fee, and are ushered into a room where others are testing. You get one piece of paper and headphones to eliminate any distractions. The whole experience is stressful. You'll likely be nervous, and the test is timed—all good reasons to over study for the first exam.

The best test taking strategy is elimination. Answer all the questions you are absolutely certain of, and then work your way through the ones you are less certain of or that require effort to calculate the answer. There will be at least three or four questions that will take several minutes to figure out the answer to. There will be many questions that can only be described as "trick" questions.

Once the time is up, or you are finished, you leave the testing room, and immediately learn if you passed or not. Whether you passed or failed, you'll know which test areas you did well in and which areas you didn't do so well—but you never know which questions you missed. If you take the same exam twice, you'll get different questions.

The second and subsequent exams are much easier. You know what to expect, you know how to study, and most importantly you will be much more relaxed and at ease come test day.

Earning a Microsoft Certification shows your peers and employer your commitment to advancing your skills, your readiness to move into a more advanced role, and your passion. It shows a prospective employer that you are an A-Player.

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