A study diary reveals little-known truths about taking core exams

They say that this exam is bad, as bad as big, bad Leroy Brown, the baddest core Win2K exam in the whole damn town.

Well, that's what they say, anyway.

Whoever they are. (Well, one of them is probably Jon Bischke, and he knows things... but that's a whole different kettle of aquatic animal.)

My preparation for this one has been a bit wonky already. I had to write a beta report for Transcender. So I sat down and did the Transcender report off the bat, which was my first introduction to the material. Usually I leave the practice exams to the end of my preparation period because there is a temptation if you do them too early to study only what the practice questions are asking rather than what the curriculum dictates.

Trusting a beta exam to be representative of content is a bit beyond my better judgment.

After doing some of the questions, though, I have a practical question. Why on earth would you use a Win2K Server box as a router?

Let’s think about this.

What is the cost of a machine that can run Win2K Server decently enough that it won't be dropping packets left, right, and center. I can only do this math mentally in Australian dollars, but I'm thinking something in the order of $1,500 to $2,000. Then add the cost of the server license to it. And add a decent Ethernet card, because again you don't want a wonky Ethernet card to be handling your critical routing traffic.

We are looking at a tidy sum, aren't we? You could easily get a Cisco or Nortel box to do exactly the same thing, couldn't you? Perhaps for marginally less.

Maybe it’s just me, but if you really have a fetish for setting up old boxes and using them as routers, a 486 running BSD is most likely a more optimal solution than a PII running Win2K server.

Anyway, my study materials will be as follows.

  • The Exam Cram from Coriolis
  • MS MCSE Training Kit
  • MS Win2K Server Resource Kit
  • Mark Minasi's "Core Four" Books
  • Various Questions of the Day

Now because I have to sit the exam by a certain time to get a report to Transcender, I'm probably going to have to rush through this a bit. Looks like some late nights ahead, but I have until the end of October to see whether I'm up to it.

I imagine that I will be.

Week Two
Week two, the Coriolis Exam Cram book arrives. It is my first Exam Cram book for the 2000 track, and the first one I've used in 5 exams. 300-odd pages. The useful stuff starts on page 23, although I didn't really dip into it until I came to the page on filtering.

As with all Exam Crams, it is more a summary than anything else. I'm finding Transcender's habit of providing Knowledge Base and Resource Kit references particularly useful in zeroing in on the relevant parts of those texts.

Can't say that after reading through Cisco texts during the last six months that I'm overly impressed with the coverage of RIP/RIP2/OSPF. The routing protocols seem to be at best given lip service.

I'm trying to concentrate on the stuff that I haven't seen before, mostly the RRAS Win2K stuff, the order of user policies and stuff like that. Now I’m wishing that we'd implemented a Win2K RADIUS solution at work in the last few weeks, just so I'd have more of a chance to play with it.

I spent the rest of the week doing a course for the company on IXOS Archive administration. It's basically a product that does archives to optical media (read CD-Jukebox) from a SAP front end. I admin some servers that run this product, so my student-mode time was spent in 3 directions this week: Thesis, 216, and IXOS.

I also re-read the beta test agreement. I don't have to take this exam until the 28th. Perhaps I'll push it back a week. We will see. I'm doing a good job of feeling ambivalent about the whole thing.

The secret to studying these things, I've decided, is to devote 2 hours a day to it for a period of 3 weeks. If you can do that, you should be fine. Two hours a day, and make sure you schedule your exam before you start studying for it (or at least only a week after you start). A deadline focuses the mind.

Week Three
OK. I realize that I naturally get nervous before each one of these damn things, but I still feel as though I needed perhaps an extra week on this topic.

However, part of the beta testing agreement with Transcender is that the exams should be taken by a particular time, and tomorrow was the only exam time I could book before the deadline. I'm assuming that a few CTECs must be using that particular testing center to push through some NT 4.0 students.

Anyway, it might be interesting to do a student diary from the perspective of failing, getting back on the horse, and going again.

However, I still have 24 hours to go. And the fat lady hasn't sung yet. I just wish I had the studying stamina I had when I was an undergraduate, and 3 all-nighters in a row didn't faze me. Now getting to 2:30 a.m., when I have to be back up at 5:00 a.m. seems pretty darn hard. Guess I'm getting old.

The reports are right. This exam is a bear. The material in the Exam Cram and the Transcender have some overlap, with the Transcender seemingly harder, or at least containing questions that require a lot more thought to answer.

The secret, as with all exams, on these long questions is pulling out the relevant facts. It’s a good thing that Microsoft isn't writing questions that take half an hour to work out! (Although in my youth, I used to eat 3-hour exams for breakfast.)

The exam seems to be divided up fairly neatly into information about DNS, DHCP, RRAS, Certificate, and Routing information.

The questions I've been facing seem to be more of the troubleshooting variety, so I'm getting much better at knowing where to apply the knowledge that I've gained.

I'm not sure which section is scaring me more. I'm still approaching it with a "make your enemy your friend" approach, which is basically a matter of "if something is giving you the hoodoo, study it until you are comfortable with it."

After the apparent ease of Server, I feel that this material is harder.

Constant companions have been TechNet, the Exam Cram and the Resource Kit. I haven't ventured across into the land of Minasi much as most of the stuff I need is in one of these three. Usually I read the Cram for a brief intro, read some more in the Resource Kit, then drill down in TechNet.

The other thing I've been doing more in this exam than in others is separating things into topics. Rather than taking a holistic approach, I'm trying to look at a specific topic for an extended period of time.

If I don't do well tomorrow, it may be a month before I can re-sit this one. Work is always very kind in the "giving Orin time off" department, and I wouldn't want to test their patience so soon after they sent me on the IXOS Archive Administration course. (Another reason I'm a bit behind where I thought I'd be is that I had to take a week out to learn SAP Backend Archive Administration.)

Anyway, I'll update you all tomorrow. All I can do at this stage is my best.

Finale
New Phrase:

Exam Hypochondria: Irrational Fear that you will fail all exams even if track record suggests this isn't the case. You annoy others with your worrying.

What can I say about this exam except: It's hard. It's long. It's ugly. It's kinda fun in a masochistic way.

I've heard reports that this is the hardest of the Core 4 exams, and I'm hoping that is true. I expect the designing exams to be more challenging, but perhaps this exam is going to provide a hurdle that I suspect we will see people failing to immediately clear on their studies on the Win2K track.

The Exam Cram has chapters devoted to the main topics of this exam. Microsoft seems to be continuing what I call the "thematic questions." You'll get a range on, say, DHCP, then a range on DNS, then a range on RRAS.

And around question 40 it gets real interesting because they start playing fruit salad. I kid you not: Questions 40 through 55 took me a little over an hour.

There wasn't a lot of TCP/IP, but the questions that were in there assumed a lot of knowledge of CIDR and super-netting. Certainly a higher level of TCP/IP knowledge than required for NT 4.0 TCP/IP.

On two questions, I did perhaps a page of workings. The questions are long, and I suggest that you get very comfortable with the idea of sitting down in one place for more than 2 hours answering them. If you can't cope with a 2-hour stint, you are going to have trouble with the exam.

I really thought I was going to fail this one, not believing that I had enough time to study. However, the thing that probably got me through was that even though I thought that I would fail, I still put my full attention into each question and did my best. As I've said before, "Do or do not. There is no try."

Do your best. If you are in an exam and you feel it is going badly, still put your absolute strongest effort in.

The Transcender was useful for getting a further grip on the material. Any look-and-feel similarities, though, in terms of question types are out the window. The Transcender questions deal with the same material, but in a completely different way.

With the Exam Cram, Training Kit, TechNet, Resource Kit, 2000Exam.com questions and the Transcender, you have a good chance of passing this exam. It is very hard, and I suggest you go into it only when you feel you have mastered the material, more so than other exams, because even when you know what you’re doing, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the testing center.