Exam simulations help you hone your test-taking skills

For better or worse, many of us who work in IT must be certified in our respective fields of expertise. Although the debates continue about the overall value of a given certification, certification improves your chances of getting a job and a higher salary. It's no wonder that an industry has blossomed that's devoted to helping you pass Microsoft certification exams. This month's Buyer's Guide highlights vendors who provide computer-based Microsoft certification exam-preparation tools.

The ostensible goal of the certification process is to train and develop skilled IT professionals. But because of the difficulty of Microsoft's tests, you should hone your Microsoft test-taking skills along with your IT skills. Exam simulation is the most popular and effective means for this type of preparation. Each product in this Buyer's Guide provides exam-simulation software. Although comparing the prices and coverage that each vendor offers is relatively easy, you should also investigate how accurately the simulations represent the actual tests, how well the vendors explain and reference the test answers, what tools the vendors provide for tracking your progress and identifying areas that need work, and what kind of customer support the vendors provide.

Microsoft exams incorporate long, technical scenarios, multiple correct answers, interactive graphical exhibits, and time limits. This exam format creates trouble for the novice. Fortunately, most vendors offer trial versions of their exam simulators so that you can see for yourself how true the tests are to the real thing. If you've never taken an MCSE exam, check with colleagues or discussion groups to get opinions about different vendors' exam simulations.

The quality and quantity of reference material are extremely important in exam simulations. You should be able to easily access a clear explanation of a test question and any supporting explanation or reference material. Some vendors reference their own training material, which they provide in separate products. Such a vendor not only forces you to purchase additional training materials but makes you rely solely on that vendor for providing accurate information. Use many sources when studying. Using multiple sources not only increases the likelihood that you'll find an explanation that makes sense to you but also lets you cross-reference the sources for accuracy. You'll find a wealth of good information available, much of it free. Exam simulations should help direct you to those sources.

Most of the products in this Buyer's Guide offer additional tools to augment the learning process. Some important features include the ability to track your test scores, identification of areas that you need to work on, and direction to helpful study materials. Some products provide electronic flashcards that you can load onto a PC or PDA to quiz yourself. Ask yourself whether a product's additional study tools fit your learning style.

Several of the vendors in this Buyer's Guide offer a money-back guarantee if you use their products to prepare for a test and you don't pass. Although this seems like a testament to the vendor's faith in its product, don't neglect to read the fine print. You'll likely find some exception to the offer that makes you ineligible for a refund.

Fortunately, most vendors in this guide offer several means for you to test-drive their software before you make a purchase. Many vendors also sell their products individually, so you can buy one product to prepare for a particular test without making a financial commitment to an entire suite of products. Either way, you should be able to find a tool that works for you.