Training / Exam Prep

6 Tips to Ace Your Next Cert Exam

by Team Nuggets
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Published on January 10, 2024

We've all heard the standard tips about studying for exams, which run the gamut. Eat healthy; set aside a certain amount of time to study daily, take practice exams, and take breaks. These may help you ace the SAT, but they're not as valuable when preparing for IT exams. The truth is, there's no hack to shortcut solid, structured prep. 

Remember, exams are an inevitable part of your career, and we recommend approaching them with that Jedi level of rigor — best to get it right the first time. By understanding a few simple principles about how our brain operates, you can maximize your learning and be successful on test day. Let's explore some of our favorite tips for passing IT cert exams.

Why are IT Cert Exams Different?

Unlike the exams you took in high school and college, IT certifications are intended to test skills you need on the job — not necessarily just skills you learn for your test. There's a big difference between college and IT exams.

For one thing, there's a hands-on component for many IT certs, which are more like lab exercises. You may have to drag and drop network components around a virtual network or input commands into a virtual command line.

There's also lots of memorization, similar to high school or university. For example, there are a lot of ports, commands, and channels to memorize.  

Finally, the test questions are highly technical — and often misleading if you don't know how all system and network components operate together. So, here's what you can do to be better prepared come exam day.

1. Follow the Standard Exam Prep Advice

Well before, or at least early on in your studies, create a schedule that works with your learning style. Then, create a study plan. Take your time learning everything at the last minute; that is not a good strategy for success. CBT Nuggets trainer Garth Schulte constantly stresses that IT isn't something that can be learned overnight.

Instead, dedicate at least 30 minutes daily for several weeks to studying. Or, if your schedule is less flexible, a couple of hours each weekend. But, resist the temptation to overstudy. Your brain can only absorb so much information at a given time. Pace yourself.

2. Know Your Exam Inside Out

Before you begin your exam studies, learn as much about your exam(s) as you possibly can. Most vendors provide exam blueprints that lay out the topics and sections contained in particular exams. Those blueprints should guide your study approach.

Also, find details like how much time you have to take an exam and the question formats. Come testing day, you'll be more at ease because you won't be surprised by what you see.

Check out our Certification Guides for information on Cisco, VMware, Microsoft, Linux, and other certification exams.

3. Determine How YOU Learn Best

It's important to know your preferred learning style — not just for IT certification exams, but for any kind of learning you may undertake. Identifying how you learn best can help you align your exam preparation with your brain's inclinations.

Learning styles are modalities through which people find that they learn best. Visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic learning are examples of common learning styles.

If you are a visual learner, for example, you probably learn best through watching videos. For example, CBT Nuggets' online training is delivered via a whiteboard style, providing a one-on-one feel with our industry-expert trainers. Visual learners may also benefit from color coding their notes or using flashcards so they can easily see and organize important concepts.

On the other hand, if you are an auditory learner, it may help you to read text out loud, so that you can better understand it. Don't hesitate to use a tape recorder to record a lecture or read your notes out loud later.

Tactile/physical learners do best with hands-on learning, such as tutorials or practical exercises. Most CBT Nuggets videos include built-in quiz questions that pop up every few minutes. Quiz questions can help ensure you retain the proper information.

Realistically, you should rely on all three types of learning to ensure you are ready for your exams. However, knowing your learning style can help you better understand how you learn best, and adapt the studying process to best fit your learning style.

4. Use Assessment Tools to Help Identify Weaknesses

Assessments help you locate problem areas and develop a strategic study plan to minimize knowledge gaps. Early in the exam preparation process, take an assessment to see where you need to improve.

For example, you can take Kaplan IT Training full-length, timed practice exams to help you get a feel for how things will go on test day. For network exams, such as the Cisco exams, you will need to choose a network simulator or emulator. Check out our top five suggestions for the Cisco CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE exams.

After studying for several weeks, retake the practice exam or take a different assessment to determine what knowledge still needs to be reinforced. It's a good idea to take assessments similar to what you will see on test day — with the same time limits and content that is as similar as possible — to ensure that you're adequately prepared for test day.

5. Develop Study Routines and Stick to Them

Make sure your study space is somewhere you feel comfortable and can focus. You are much more likely to absorb information if you're focused on details such as an uncomfortable chair or a poorly lit room. Figure out if you study better by listening to music or working in silence. The bottom line here is that your study space should be a pleasant space where you can concentrate and learn.

On test day, you may not be able to listen to music or make sure you have enough light to feel comfortable but stick to any habits you can control. For example, if you are a coffee drinker, don't skip your morning coffee on test day. Likewise, if you've prioritized getting a good night's sleep during your studying, make sure you do the same the night before your exam,

Yes, setting aside time to study is important, but your study environment matters, too. Make it part of your overall routine and keep it consistent.

6. Be Ready for the Big Day

Make sure you check out all the rules and requirements for your exam. Determine where you will be going on test day, and plan out your route, making sure to add in extra travel time in case you get lost on the way to the testing center. You don't want to arrive late, as some exams do not allow test-takers to take the test after a certain time. Plus, you don't want to feel rushed on the day of the exam — it can interfere with your test performance.

Prepare everything you'll need for your exam the night before. Make sure to eat a healthy, filling dinner and get enough sleep. Being tired or hungry can affect concentration and test performance.

The Bottom Line

Preparing for an IT certification exam may seem daunting. Exams are rarely a cakewalk. Consistent and incremental progress will move you toward your goals and a successful exam outcome.

Even the smallest progress adds up over time and, from a learning and test performance perspective, is much more effective than cramming for an IT exam a few nights before. Good luck studying for your next IT certification exam.

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