I became an MCSE in two bursts. While working in Hong Kong, I took the Windows 3.1 and DOS 6.2, Networking with Microsoft Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows NT Workstation, and Windows NT Server exams. About six months later, I returned to the US and finished the MCSE sequence by taking the TCP/IP on Windows NT and Microsoft Mail-Enterprise exams.
Because I had worked with Windows NT since the early beta releases and implemented one of the first NT-based networks in Asia, I passed the exams without any formal training. I prepared for the exams by applying my on-the-job experience with the products, carefully reading the resource kits and relevant articles in the Microsoft Technical Support Network (TechNet) and the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), and, in the case of NT (Workstation and Server), using the Microsoft training kit.
I had minor problems with two exams. Only days before I took the Windows 3.1 and DOS 6.2 exam, Microsoft added the DOS portion. Because I was unaware of this addition, I wasn't prepared for the test and failed on my first attempt. Microsoft acknowledged this situation by letting me retake the exam for free. I then passed. I also struggled with the TCP/IP on Windows NT exam because of its emphasis on Microsoft-specific issues (e.g., NetBIOS over TCP/IP and NetBIOS name resolution) and Microsoft's subjective questions.
I decided to take the exams for several reasons. First, they forced me to learn about the technology in more detail than I had learned from just working with the products. Second, certification helps ensure my employability, even in uncertain economic times. Because many companies are currently migrating their networks from Novell to Microsoft technology and because MCSEs are in greater demand than Enterprise Certified Network Engineers (ECNEs), the MCSE certification is more valuable to employers than Novell's certification. Third, the certification let me qualify my office as a Microsoft Solution Provider. Finally, it was a fun challenge.
Although I am a strong developer, I haven't pursued the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) certification. It places too much emphasis on Visual Basic (VB) and 4GL tools. (Microsoft just started covering Visual C++, MFC, and the full Win32 APIs.) In addition, this certification doesn't carry the weight with employers that the MCSE does.
I began my MCSE training and certification in October 1993. I attended an Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) class and took the Microsoft Windows 3.1 NT exam a few weeks later. I've never studied so hard. I read almost every book on Windows NT at the time and felt I was ready.
What could Microsoft possibly ask that I hadn't studied? The first three questions, that's what. Things went smoothly after I began recognizing some of the other questions. When I returned to the first three questions, they were more familiar than I originally thought.
I passed the exam to become an MCP. Cool. Then I remembered I had to pass five more exams to become an MCSE.
Each exam became less intimidating. By the fourth exam, I'd developed good study habits and test-taking methods. I took an exam about every two months and became an MCSE within a year of passing that first exam, just in time to start studying for the Windows NT 3.5 exams.
My best test preparation tip is to print out the exam's topic sheet from the Microsoft Certification Roadmap program, and don't stray from studying the topics. For example, if the topic sheet for a particular exam doesn't include Macintosh clients, don't study that topic. I can't remember seeing more than one question for a topic the exam materials didn't cover.
My best test-taking tip is to make sure the computer you're taking the test on isn't a dinosaur. Because time is of the essence, you don't want to be waiting for exhibits to display on your monitor. Also, a monitor with a display resolution of 800*600 is easier on the eyes than a resolution of 640*480.
If you're debating between two answers to a question, flag the "mark" box next to the question, move on, and come back to it. Often, other questions will shed light on the right choice to a previous question.
I got my MCSE certification in March 1994. I was one of the first 50 or so SEs in the world, and I got a small glass plaque with the words "Charter Member" on it. I worked out some cardinal rules for obtaining the MCP status and have more than a dozen certifications as proof of the rules' infallibility.
The first rule is to read every piece of paper in the product's box, including all manuals, marketing literature, and promotional offerings. How else, for example, can you get the answer to the Microsoft Mail MCP exam's question about whether this product includes a fax gateway? Only by reading the promotional literature can you learn that you have to pay for the fax gateway.
This rule is so important to me that I don't even mentally commit to taking an exam until I have the shrink-wrapped documentation in my hands. Because I'm an employee of a Microsoft Solution Provider (SP) partner, this requirement isn't easy because all the software arrives on CD with no printed documentation. So rule number one quickly became: Buy and read all the documentation.
The second rule is to read the resource kits from beginning to end. I read these kits with an eye to understanding the concepts without worrying too much about the fine details. For example, I don't worry about which Interrupt ReQuest (IRQ) to use for a network card, but I note that I need to configure a network card if I expect to connect to other machines in a LAN/WAN.
Rules one and two require so much reading that I have to volunteer for out-of-town assignments. Hotel rooms and airplanes make ideal places for reading documentation with few distractions.
Rule number three is to set up the software at home. I don't care that I'm running the world's slowest Windows NT box. Without the opportunity to troubleshoot my system, I would never have learned enough to pass the MCP exams.
After going through the process, I definitely recommend that you take a Microsoft ATEC-certified course before taking the exam. Finally, I recommend the most important rule of all: Don't tell anyone when you plan to take an exam--until after you pass it!
In April 1992, long before the MCSE program was ever publicized, I took my first test, Windows NT Workstation, and passed. When I passed my sixth test, Networking and Windows, in March 1993, I collected my glass plaque proving I'm a charter member of the MCSE program. Since then, I've passed several more tests to become a charter member of the MCSD program and a certified trainer for NT and SQL Server.
In all that test taking, the most important lesson I've learned is, "just do it!" I've put off a test for months because I was worried about passing. After I passed the test, I always felt silly for waiting so long. Getting MCSE certification requires a serious time commitment, but foot-dragging just makes it worse.
If you're serious about getting your MCSE, pick a test to study for, set aside time every week to prepare, take the test, and move on to the next one. Prepping for multiple tests at the same time or putting off studying because you just don't have the time is the best way to ensure failing. After all, you have only a year from start to finish to complete four core and two elective tests.
As a consultant for a Microsoft SP Partner, I was able to apply the material I studied in my job. The tests are difficult to pass without hands-on practice, and applying your new knowledge in the real world is the best way to reinforce the learning.
Another learning aid that I recommend is the course material in the ATEC training classes. The course content follows the test material very closely. If you know the course material, you won't have trouble with the test. Microsoft's self-study kits mirror the courses and make excellent study guides.
Practice tests are available for most MCP exams. Once you cover the basics, take the free Microsoft practice tests to prepare. A few questions from these exams usually show up on the real test.
If you're a little more ambitious and don't mind spending a few bucks, I recommend Transcender's online certification packages. These tests are more exhaustive than the free Microsoft tests. If you answer a question incorrectly, the in-depth explanation the package provides and references to appropriate manuals explain the correct answer. This tool makes studying a breeze.