Most new Windows NT students preparing for certification exams will benefit from detailed, structured classroom training. However, experienced administrators might want to use self-study materials to bone up, and now those administrators have more self-study options than ever before.

Even 1 year ago, MCSE students had little choice of training materials. You could either take Microsoft-authorized classes or use Microsoft Press self-study kits. However, since early 1997, the number of alternative classroom and self-study products on the market has increased rapidly. The business of producing books, videotapes, audio tapes, and computer-based training for MCSE self-study is booming.

I have been an administrator of NT, NetWare, and LAN Manager servers for 8 years. When I decided last October to take my first Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exams, I prepared using two sets of study guides: the Exam Cram series and the MCSE Training Guides.

Exam Cram
I studied for my first MCP test (Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0) using Exam Cram: NT Server 4. I expected the Exam Cram book to be a kind of Cliff's Notes for certification--too simple to properly prepare me for the exams. But I decided to use the series to prepare for my first test because I figured I would pass that test easily, regardless of which study guide I used.

The Exam Cram book was much more useful than I expected it to be. It never let me forget that I was preparing for a serious examination. Each of the book's 15 chapters ends with sample test questions, presented one at a time. A paragraph illustrating the correct answer follows each test question. The book also includes a full-length practice exam, accompanied by explanations of the correct answers.

Exam Cram: NT Server 4 is not just a compilation of crib notes and critical facts. The first half of each chapter contains an explanation of the chapter's material. Additionally, the book's first chapter explains Microsoft's certification process, including how to schedule and take exams. Each Exam Cram book also contains a handy, pull-out, cardboard sheet for last-minute review of crucial information.

Exam Cram: NT Server 4
Authors: Ed Tittel, Kurt Hudson, and James M. Stewart
Publisher: Coriolis Group, Scottsdale, 1997, ISBN 1-57610-190-8
Price: $29.99; 383 pages

MCSE Training Guides
I used MCSE Training Guide: Networking Essentials to prepare for my second MCP test, Networking Essentials. The MCSE Training Guide books are more similar to standard textbooks than the Exam Cram books. Each training guide has long chapters, with review questions at the end of each chapter. The answers to all the chapters' review questions appear in a list at the back of the book.

One useful feature of the MCSE Training Guide series is that the beginning of every chapter lists four or five pretest questions. The pretest questions let students determine how well they understand a chapter's material before they begin the chapter. The MCSE Training Guide books include sample exercises that students can use to practice hands-on NT administration, and a CD-ROM containing the books' text and simulations of the MCP exams. These books thoroughly explain the MCSE testing process.

MCSE Training Guide: Networking Essentials
Authors: Joe Casad, Dan Newland, and Jay Forlini
Publisher: New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis, 1997, ISBN 1-56205-749-9
Price: $49.99; 490 pages, plus CD-ROM

Head to Head
Although I expected less of the Exam Cram series, the first book prepared me so well for my first exam that I plan to use the series to study for all my future certification tests. The Exam Cram books' shorter chapters helped me assimilate large amounts of information more efficiently than the MCSE Training Guide books' long chapters. I could review each Exam Cram chapter in less than an hour. I found the thorough answers to the Exam Cram review questions to be effective at conveying information.

The books in the MCSE Training Guide series are all roughly 100 pages longer than their Exam Cram counterparts, but the shorter books don't lack any content. The MCSE Training Guide books gain some additional bulk from their inclusion of hands-on exercises and illustrations, but I didn't find these exercises and illustrations very useful. Experienced administrators who plan to take certification exams without classroom preparation need quick reviews of the exams' material, not extensive examples of problems they deal with every day.

I passed both examinations. Both tests dealt primarily with knowledge and skills I use every day, so I might have passed without the study guides. However, the tests also covered topics that I don't use regularly. For example, although I am comfortable configuring fault-tolerant drive sets, I do not usually use the Advanced RISC Computing Specification (ARC) names for SCSI drive partitions. A question on the NT Server 4.0 exam asked me to identify ARC names. If the Exam Cram study guide had not reminded me about the subject, I would have answered that question incorrectly.

Experienced NT systems administrators no longer have an excuse for putting off certification. Many self-study aids on the market can smooth out the rough spots in MCSE candidates' knowledge. I recommend the Exam Cram series as a great place to start.