The insiders' guide to taking certification tests

During the past several years, I've taken several certification tests at five different testing centers. I’ve had some real adventures where my test was scheduled for the wrong time or the center was closed. Even with these issues, the training center operators have worked hard to sort things out and make them right. These folks are doing a great job and are in a unique position to give us an inside look at certification and testing. Let’s talk to a couple of training center representatives about their view of the certification business: Mary Jane Fayyad of Link Testing in Houston, and John Richmond of Jet Test in Dallas.

Q. Can you give us a brief overview of your test centers with maybe some idea of the number of tests per year you administer?

Mary Jane: Link Testing has been in business for 2 years and has administered approximately 7,000 tests.

John: Jet Test is the largest Prometric center in Texas and has administered at least 50,000 exams in the past few years.

Q. You operate independent testing centers. Can you please explain what the term 'independent' means?

Mary Jane: We own and operate our own business. We are the little guys on the block and that is why we can give better service, more individual attention and treat people as more than just a number or name on a page.

John: The Independent Exam Site is a classification by Prometric to define an Exam Site whose sole business is proctoring certification exams. An Independent Site does not offer the student training. I guess the best way to define an independent is by source of revenues; independents main/sole revenue is from exam proctoring, while at a training school exam site, the main revenue is from student education. For many training schools, testing is a loss leader offered only as a service to the students.

Q. People may not realize that test centers often administer a variety of tests from cooking to pilot's exams to IT certification tests. What are some of the unusual tests your center administers?

Mary Jane: We give FAA tests for pilots and National Glass Associate's certification tests for windshield installer professionals.

John: We offer approximately 125 certification exams for everything from Executive Chef to FAA flight exams (our original focus). As the FAA volume was relatively low, we later expanded to IT exams.

Q. What percentage of tests are IT related and what percent of the IT tests you administer are Microsoft tests and is this percentage shifting up or down?

Mary Jane: IT related is about 99.9%. Before the retirement of NT 4.0, Microsoft exams were 90% of our business. Testing has slowed dramatically under the new Windows 2000 track.

John: IT related is at least 95%. Microsoft has always been a major portion of the certification exams. The percentage varies but Microsoft currently is running at about 60%, up from about 45% during the past 6 months. With the strong gains made by Microsoft, Novell testing activity has decreased to about 10%.

Q. I talk with a lot of people who experience real anxiety over their tests. Do you have any tips that might help test takers relax and perform better on their tests?

Mary Jane: I talk to every testing candidate in, in a low, slow voice. I try my very best to make people laugh at least twice before going into the testing room. There is a way to tell them the rules and make it funny. When answering the questions people go with the first instinct. When a person looks at the question a second time, it is really easy to change their good answers into bad ones. Also, don't forget to do the most important thing during the test and that is to BREATHE.

John: Everyone experiences test anxiety! I hear some candidates say that the test anxiety actually helped in passing the exam! Use it, don't fear it. Anxiety can help make you an MCSE! Jet Test offers Tootsie Pops to all candidates. Why? My wife is a Professor of Nutrition at Tarleton State University Texas A & M, and she found some research that indicated consuming a carbohydrate up to hour prior to an exam improved the test score. While the research study was done on preschool and first graders, it works for adults just as well.

Also, deep breathing calms a person down. This is a special type of abdominal breathing. Take at least three deep breaths and hold the last one for a slow count of 7, then exhale. A note of interest, this is the same breathing technique taught to people with panic and anxiety disorders. If it works for a person experiencing a full-blown panic attack, it certainly will work for test anxiety.

Q. One of the unrealized fears I've always had is to have a test PC fail during an exam. These test machines are in use almost constantly at the center I visit but I've never had a failure. Do you have a maintenance program for your test serving PCs? Is this maintenance policy dictated by your testing vendors or your own policies?

Mary Jane: If we don't fix our equipment ASAP when it breaks, we are hurting ourselves. That means we have one or two less testing seats. We can't run our business successfully if our equipment is down. It is our equipment and we pay the bill when it needs fixing.

Let's say your computer failed on the next to last question of your long test. It happens, not often, but it happens. Your eyes get real big when I cut the workstation off to re-boot it, but I explain to you that all your answers are saved. The test will resume right where you left off with the same time remaining on the computer.

John: I had a test candidate lock up a test PC and after all else failed, I reached down and hit the power switch. When he started to stammer and grab his chest, I thought he was having a heart attack. I quickly explained that rebooting a workstation did not affect his exam and that it would return to the same question and time remaining. He finally calmed down when I completed the reboot and all was well. Now I tell every candidate what happens if we reboot. Our test data is stored on a server with mirrored hard disks and we backup the entire days test results to tape every night. We automatically upload all test data each time we connect to Prometric along with complete upload in early morning hours. Actually, a busy site like ours may upload exam results 5 to 10 times a day. The system works and we have never lost an exam to my knowledge.

There are contract standards for workstations, networks, servers, exam stations, monitoring, privacy and other issues, with which we must comply.

Q. When I started getting my first certifications 6 years ago, there were very few self-study training materials available and most trainees were taking training center classes to gain the info needed to pass the certification tests. Now it appears that self-study print materials and Internet resources have taken over as the primary means for gaining the certifications. Is this trend verified by your interaction with your customers?

John: While Jet Test may not be typical, the vast majority of our business is from IT professionals who have been in the business for some time. Over the past 5 years, I have seen a decrease in 'students' and rise in IT Professionals upgrading their certifications and skill sets.

Self-study and Internet simulations are common themes among our candidates. The trend to self-study and Internet resources began about 4 years ago and has not slowed down. Conversations with candidates reveal they simply don't have the time for a scheduled class time outside of their job. I also heard complaints about instructors with out of date job skills teaching the classes. As the self-study is so much more flexible, most seem to prefer this method.

Q. On a follow-up question: There appears to have been some consolidation of training centers over the last 2 years. Have you observed this trend?

John: Yes. In our area, many of the smaller training centers have gone out of business. Several of the large multi-state training schools have also closed their doors and others have cancelled classes. Employers are looking for certification, but with experience.

Q. I recently visited a test center looking for advice for a friend about training centers they would recommend for A+ Certification. The operator candidly shared that one of the schools in our area was basically cranking out students that knew little more than the test answers. Do you see this as a pervasive problem? Are some training centers just teaching people how to pass the tests without giving them the real course content they are paying for and will need in the real world of IT?

Mary Jane: I know that some are teaching only the test, and I would think boot-comps are probably the worst, especially for the inexperienced. One of my customers interviews IT people to hire for his company. It might sound harsh, but if an applicant's resume mentions they received training from a certain center, he throws that resume in the trash.

Q. There has been considerable controversy over the transition from MCSE NT 4.0 the MCSE Windows 2000 certification. Can you tell me a little bit about what attitudes you have seen among NT 4.0 candidates trying to meet the deadline?

Mary Jane: Many of our customers are furious about the retirement of NT.4.0.

John: In general MCSE NT4's are not happy with Microsoft, and the deadline to complete the Win 2000 certification was a major point. The deadline for taking the NT 4 track exams brought out the deadwood. We had record volumes of tests on the last day but the passing rate was terrible. I worked the last evening until 11:30 pm but less than 20% passed or completed the NT 4 track. It seemed the later it got, the less prepared the students were.

The Microsoft program of the one-certification exam with a free voucher seemed to turn people off. The reaction simply was not positive. People grumbled about the length of time, unhappiness with Microsoft attitude, and the necessity to upgrade to Win2000. I think the lack of demand from clients installing Win2000 has some impact. Current MCSEs can't understand why Microsoft is pushing this so hard when many companies have very stable NT 4.0 environments.

Q. We are hearing that an increasing number of MCSE certification holders are choosing to let their MCSE lapse or pursuing complimentary certifications like Cisco and Linux. Are you seeing this trend in your test centers?

Mary Jane: Yes. Cisco is coming on strong. Linux has not caught on here, yet.

John: I have had a number of techs say they are pursuing the Cisco certification, not so much the Linux. If it's a trend, it's too early to tell, only talk at this point. I am puzzled at someone who would dump an MCSE to pursue Cisco certification, especially as Cisco is not an easy certification. The practical exam is expensive and difficult. It would appear to be cutting one's nose off to spite his face. It's going to hurt regardless which route you take!

Q. What do you think about adaptive testing? Microsoft has used this in a few tests and I understand Novell and others are using it. Do you think this is an effective test format?

Mary Jane: Novell has successfully done adaptive testing for years. Comptia started nearly 2 years ago. I do believe the adaptive format is a very effective way of testing, but not if the score is so low that everyone passes.

John: The adaptive testing has proven to be one of the more effective exam methods. It's fast and seems to quickly prove the depth of the candidate's knowledge. I have no hard statistics to back it up, but these seem to have a higher passing percentage. I think adaptive tests need a larger test question bank to really gauge the depth of a candidate's knowledge.

Q. One of the questions I'm often asked is, "What is going to be the next big IT certification boom?" Networking, Security or??? What are your thoughts on this?

Mary Jane: Security—who doesn't want their network secure from the hackers out there and the employees within?

John: I think we need to really expand the Security certification. We need expanded training certification for firewalls, email, networks and Internet. I think it could be very popular if someone put all the pieces together. A number of companies now have some piece of the security picture, but there is no place for a consumer to go to get a fully qualified, unbiased opinion of what to do. The field is ripe for an industry certification.

Q. In the process of administering all these exams, I'm sure you have collected some great stories. You probably have seen and heard it all, with people trying to cheat or screaming after they fail an exam. Do you have a favorite story you could share?

Mary Jane: I have caught people wanting to cheat before the test started, during the test, and trying to leave with all 192 questions on a beta test, but what happened here a couple of weeks ago showed me to what lengths some people will go to pass a test.

A person was taking an A+ test, alone in the testing room. He must not have read our signs that state, "We use a continuous monitoring system in our testing areas," nor did he see the cameras. He had been taking the test for some time, when he slowly tipped the computer tower forward and tried to feel the back. He must not have found the answer to his question, because he waited a few minutes and did it again. Then he looked around, saw no one, got up from his chair, got on his hands and knees, crawled under another desk and pulled out another tower. He wanted to see the back of it. Well, I had seen enough! When he heard me coming, he ran back to his chair. He got angry with me when I asked what he was doing? He didn't pass and he was reported. And he was very carefully watched when he came back to take the test again.

John: We had a candidate who spent more time shrinking the IRQ & Interrupts table for the A+ into a palm size cheat sheet than if he had just memorized the tables. He palmed the cheat sheet behind the clipboard but kept referring to it by lifting the scratch paper on the board. The Administrator saw the cheating and shut off the test. The candidate exited the test room with a "so what" attitude thinking we had no power to stop him from cheating. The operator informed him he could lose any certifications he held and it suddenly hit him that this was no laughing matter. He started begging to not turn him in. Later, he hired a lawyer to handle the matter with A+. The attorney's position was his client was innocent because "we did not tell him not to cheat!" The client returned to us 5 more times to re-take the failed A+ exam. What an expensive certification!

Q. What are some final tips you could give trainees to make life easier for testing center staff and make their testing experience a positive one?

Mary Jane:

  1. If you get into any patterns or rituals that you do before, during, and after a test, don't stop doing them.
  2. Arrive early for your test. They won't mind you sitting on the sofa in the waiting area for a while.
  3. If you and your wife, husband or boss had an argument this morning, or if someone cut you off in traffic, leave that outside. Deal with it before the test or after the test.
  4. Come in believing in yourself, but never come in cocky.
  5. Laugh when I'm funny (laughter releases tension).
  6. Don't expect to make 100, just be glad the report has the magic "P" word on it.
  7. If you have great success at a certain testing center, continue to go there. You will get to know the people and be more at ease.