Earning an IT cert requires a lot of time and effort. It’s a journey. Before jumping in headfirst, it’s important to get your expectations in check.
It’s good to aim high — and you should. However, you’ll want to be realistic about your level of expertise and the time it will take to adequately prepare for your exam. Unrealistic expectations and deadlines set you up for discouragement.
How do you avoid unrealistic expectations when learning new skills? Focus on the process, rather than the outcome.
Head down the path exam objectives lay out
Whether you’re taking the Network+ or CCIE, you’ve set a goal to earn an IT certification. That’s great. Now set some expectations and deadlines to take your mind off the outcome and create a process. A good place to start would be at the exam objectives.
Every certifying organization outlines objectives for their certification exams. Some are easier to find than others, but they all serve the same purpose: They lay out everything you need to know for the exam — and even the percentage of exam material that covers the topics. These “blueprints” include domains, key concepts, vocabulary lists, and even scenarios.
Take for instance the Network+ exam objectives:
1.0 Network Architecture – 22%
2.0 Network Operations – 20%
3.0 Network Security – 18%
4.0 Troubleshooting – 24%
5.0 Industrial Standards, Practices and Network Theory – 16%
At a glance you can see that troubleshooting comprises 24% of the exam, so you might want to build a little more time to learn the associated concepts. CompTIA even provides specific scenarios that you might see on the exam, like “Given a scenario, deploy the appropriate wireless standard.” It’s all right there.
On the other hand, Microsoft provides a high-level view of the exam objectives, but they don’t go into as much detail about the types of questions. For instance, Microsoft lists these objectives for the Server 2012: Exam 70-410:
- Install and configure servers – 15% to 20%
- Configure server roles and features – 15% to 20%
- Configure Hyper-V – 15% to 20%
- Deploy and configure core network services – 15% to 20%
- Install and administer Active Directory – 15% to 20%
- Create and manage Group Policy – 15% to 20%
With these exam objectives, it’s less apparent what to prioritize in your study plan. In this case, you might start where you have the least experience.
Use exam objectives to build weekly study plans that move you toward your goal. Weekly plans offer enough flexibility if you want to spend more time on a topic. They also provide enough structure to keep you training toward your goals.
CBT Nuggets study plans are a great example. They map to our video courses, which map to exam objectives. For example, our ICND1 study plan encourages learners to watch a 78-video ICND1 course in nine weeks. Even if you’re not a subscriber, they’re still useful.
Exam objectives remind you that learning new IT skills is a process. Think of objectives as the steps to earning IT certification.
Break the main goal into smaller ones
Accomplishing smaller tasks keeps you from dwelling on end goals or getting bogged down by unrealistic deadlines or expectations. Consider breaking your goal of IT certification into daily and weekly goals.
Weekly study plans help keep the process at the forefront of your mind. Constantly accomplishing goals actually makes your learning more effective. By shortening your learning cycle, you’re able to retain more information. It’s also great for motivation.
Learning IT in smaller pieces as a process creates a growth mindset. It takes pressure off you to absorb everything right away — which is an unrealistic expectation.
Getting hands-on makes the process more rewarding
Hands-on experience not only builds your skills, but helps you enjoy the process of learning. Focusing on outcomes undermines your efforts. Building enables you to make stronger connections to what you are learning.
Being able to apply your knowledge directly increases your engagement. Setting up a network or spinning up a cloud instance yourself helps you learn quicker.
You also are more likely to remember something if you apply it to to real-world situations. The 70-20-10 model backs this claim. It states 70 percent of learning comes from job-related experiences.
Hands-on experience helps you focus on the process because it provides a gauge of your knowledge. Seeing your strengths and weaknesses in action keeps your expectations grounded.
Pace yourself as you learn
It’s tempting to power through the material, especially if you’re driven by outcomes. But how much are you really learning? Pacing yourself takes the focus off the outcome and helps you create a process that moves at the right speed for your brain.
Your brain can only absorb so much information during the day. Research shows that you should take a break from brain-intensive work every hour or so. Be deliberate about when and how often you study. It’s okay to step away if a concept isn’t sticking.
Give yourself a 20-minute break if you’re feeling overloaded. Breaks restore motivation toward long-term goals like certification. Challenging tasks require sustained attention. Taking brief breaks renew and strengthen your motivation.
Make learning a process by studying at a pace that enables effective learning. Rushed learning creates pressure to learn quickly, which can lead to unrealistic expectations.
Learning truly is a journey
We live in an instant-gratification society. People want results. The sooner they get them, the better. That’s why it’s hard not to be outcome-focused. But learning IT the right way requires time and effort. And realistic expectations.
If you want to learn IT with confidence, make it about the process, not the outcome. By taking small, measured steps toward your end goal, you set yourself up for success.