So you want to be a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) or Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)? A solutions developer? Then you'll need training­whether it's on-the-job experience, self-paced training, or formal classes­so you can take the Microsoft certification exams in your chosen field.

To prepare for the exams, many people like study guides. They can help you organize your knowledge, point out areas you need to work on, and give you a feel for the tests. Many guides are available. One is the Test Preparation Series for Microsoft Certified Professional, by Michael A. Pastore. The three books in this series, MS Windows NT Server, MS Windows NT V. 3.5 Workstation, and MS Windows 95, target trainers, MCP candidates, and career counselors and offer supplemental and summary information to prepare you for the exams.

Cracking the Books
My first impression of these books wasn't entirely favorable: huge type, not much on a page, limited explanations of terms and ideas, odd organization, and even missing material. Then I realized I was looking at the guides from the wrong angle.

Warnings at the beginning of the books tell you to use them with the Windows NT Resource Kit, NT documentation, Microsoft Resource Guide, and the software. But my learning style makes me want to sit down with just a study guide and go cover-to-cover answering questions, reading explanations, and learning new material. The text provides these elements, but the information is not so complete that this series can be your only resource.

After arranging to attend a Supporting Microsoft Windows NT 3.51 Workstation training class (see my July article, "Knowledge Alliance," for a review), I put off going through the rest of the books until after the class. Once I had taken the class, my opinion of the study guides changed for the better.

Nose to the Grindstone
The books have roughly the same modules as the materials for the training classes. For example, the workstation book's organization (installation, booting, the registry, security, and so forth) follows that of the student materials for the class.

Each section starts with a brief, cursory explanation of key concepts. This explanation describes components (such as important files for operation, registry entries, and possible configurations and how to set them) and illustrates them with tables, diagrams, and sample screen shots. Each section closes with a vocabulary list with definitions, a tips table ("if you want to do this, then do that"), a list of suggested activities and research topics to improve your knowledge, and quiz questions (answers are at the back of the book).

After attending the training class, I began to make sense of the holes I found when I first looked at the books. They don't include everything because their purpose isn't to be a complete training kit but to supplement the class materials. Still, with the amount of space left on each page in these 8.5"*11" books, the author had room to go into some additional detail.

Put to the Test
Will these books help you get certification? The answer depends on how much experience you have with each OS, how much time you want to spend doing research, and how you learn. How you learn is a crucial question here. If you need concepts presented in an organized, aural/visual format (as I do), these books are probably not your best option. However, at $69.95 each, I can't say they aren't worthwhile. Anything that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and will help you prepare for and pass the exams is worthwhile.

Making the Grade
I still have some reservations, though. Although these books are apparently well researched and have good technical information and concise definitions (that sometimes border on being terse), I found a few problems.

For example, in the workstation guide, terms appear several times before their explanation, which sometimes comes two or three pages after the first use. Some questionable and inaccurate grammar makes concepts difficult to understand, and some explanations even seem wrong when compared with explanations in other information sources. In addition, instead of providing key answers, the books rely heavily on student research. The answers that you manage to find in the books don't explain why an answer is correct.

Follow Directions
Try one of these books, and see for yourself whether it helps you study. As supplementary material for a training class, these books provide little more than a framework for organizing further study. This approach contrasts with the comprehensive, test-your-knowledge workbooks you remember from school.

You'll get the most out of these books if you follow the author's suggestions: Sit down with all the materials he recommends--NT training kits, documentation, etc.--and you'll do fine.

Test Preparation Series for Microsoft Certified Professional
Author: Michael A. Pastore
Publisher: Peanut Butter Publishing, Seattle, Washington, 1995
ISBN 0-471-01676-4

Windows NT Version 3.5 Workstation
ISBN 0-89716-566-7, 184 pages

MS Windows NT Server
ISBN 0-89716-614-0, 206 pages

MS Windows 95
ISBN 0-89716-613-2, 312 pages

Ordering Info: IBID * 800-752-9816
Price: $69.95 per book