Preparing for certification exams requires a lot of reading, and choosing the right study materials is important. Every exam has two components—the pure-exam component and the real-world preparation component. You can choose from an abundance of resources to help you prepare for each component.

On the pure-exam side, you have the usual assortment of study aids, including study guides, cram guides, practice exams, and CD-ROM and online training. Make your study guide selection carefully. A good study guide will lead you through the exam objectives and help you set up a structured training program. The wrong guide will not only be a waste of money but a waste of your time as well. Don't limit yourself to one series of books. One book in a series might be outstanding, but that doesn't ensure the quality of the others. The best way to determine the quality of a specific study guide—aside from reading it yourself—is to check out the reviews from other students. Amazon.com provides one of the best book-review sites on the Web, and the CertTutor.net Live! discussion forums give you an interactive venue to help you make the final decision.

Cram guides help you bring together all the knowledge you've acquired from the study guides and your hands-on experience. Without this consolidation phase, the amount of information you must learn for a typical exam might seem overwhelming. Study guides often include chapter summaries that can serve as an effective cram aid, but most study guides fall short in this area. After you've read through the entire guide and think you're ready to try some practice exams, turn instead to a cram guide (or to your study guide's chapter summaries). If you encounter anything that's unfamiliar or that you're not sure about, return to your resources to reinforce that knowledge.

Hold off on any practice exams until you finish working through the study guides and cram guides. By waiting, you avoid the temptation to test your way through an exam, and you can gain a much better idea of the areas in which you are deficient. Next time, I'll discuss the real-world exam preparation materials.