Although Microsoft's MCSE certification requires passing five core exams and just two electives, by the time you're ready to take any electives, the energy you had when you started the process is largely depleted. In fact, you could be forgiven for simply wanting the whole thing to be over and done with.

Choosing electives is a topic that often gets short shrift, but you have two ways to approach choosing electives. First, you can view your electives as the last hurdles to achieving your ultimate goal (becoming an MCSE). Second, you can choose to view your electives as career choices.

Getting certified in and of itself isn't valuable. Sure, you might feel a sense of satisfaction, and I don't want to discount that. But having someone pay you cold hard cash for your knowledge is infinitely better. When employers compare two MCSE candidates, how do you think a company tells the applicants apart? Theoretically, all MCSEs should have the same level of server knowledge. After all, they took the same tests. Or did they? Ah-ha! The electives are how you can differentiate yourself.

Although you might be tempted to go for the "easier" tests, you should actively avoid that temptation. You might be tired of the studying, the test taking, and the stress of the whole process. But when you reach the end game, which the electives represent, think about what you really want to do with your working life.

The Microsoft BackOffice products are one possibility for your electives. By BackOffice products, I mean Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft SQL Server, and Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS). Becoming an expert in any of the BackOffice products, however, involves moving well beyond the certification tests. In fact, the tests merely lay a foundation for further study. Therefore, the decision to study for and pass a test in any of these products is really a commitment to spending a year or more working with them after the test is over.

Exceptions exist, of course, to picking BackOffice electives. One exception relates to what I call "enterprise designers." For example, Active Directory (AD) has ramifications across the enterprise. Moreover, the industry needs experts in this area. So, concentrating on all things AD can prove extremely worthwhile. The second major area is security, which represents a huge growth area in IT—whether you're talking about a Microsoft or a UNIX platform. Also, the industry's demand for security experts is set to explode.

So, how do you choose? Open a dialogue with your current boss. Ask him or her where the organization is heading and what future needs it must address. Get advice from people who have already been through the certification process. Try Web sites such as our own CertTutor.net. Look through the local job classifieds and determine what skill sets are frequently requested. Do the same with industry headhunters and national job search sites such as Monster.com. In short, research information from more than one source.

Of course, your interest in a particular technology should drive your final determination. For some, systems management is exciting; others enjoy messaging. Learn a little bit about each one before taking the plunge.

Choosing your electives isn't simply a certification process wrap-up. Rather, it can define your path for moving forward toward your career goals. When you look back a couple of years from now and think about your MCSE achievement, you most likely will remember your electives. They, not the core exams on which you spend most of your time and energy, will dictate where you go and will deliver the ultimate rewards. Take the time to choose well, and you'll be glad you did.