You might have received a special invitation in your inbox recently, or you might have read postings about how to get one at a private newsgroup. Then again, maybe you're someone who has never received one, and you gaze upon those who have with mild curiosity or perhaps envy. No, I'm not talking about some fabulous party or the wedding of the century. I'm talking about Microsoft Certification Beta exams.

After an alpha review—during which experts, some of whom are on the relevant product-development team at Microsoft, verify the entire set of proposed exam questions—and before the public release comes the phase in the life of a new Microsoft certification exam called The Beta. Although Beta exams aren't open to the general public, Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) can secure an invitation in various ways. However, that's not what I intend to talk about today.

A beta exam serves to provide feedback to the Microsoft certification team about the usefulness of each of the proposed exam's questions. Microsoft uses the Beta results to turn the set of Beta questions into the final set before releasing the exam to the public. I'm not going to talk about that process either, though.

What I'm going to talk about today is whether you should take a Beta exam if you happen to receive an invitation. If you think you might like to, consider the following:

* If you think your brain is fried after a public exam, it'll feel extra crispy after a Beta exam. Beta exams are much longer than public exams—they typically require at least 4 hours to complete, and the questions can be much longer and more grueling.

* Some of the questions on the public exams can be ambiguous or badly worded, but they read like Pulitzer material compared to the Beta questions. Microsoft looks to the Beta test takers when deciding which questions to keep and which to toss, but you have no way to know whether any particularly troublesome question counts toward your score.

* If your schedule is tight, you might find it hard to book a Beta test. Microsoft offers the tests for limited periods—typically for 3 to 6 weeks—and if you can't find a 4-hour slot that agrees with your schedule, you'll just have to miss out on this experience.

* If you look forward to the "Moment of Truth," wherein your score appears in front of you moments after you click the exam End button, you'll be disappointed. Beta exam scores aren't available for many weeks after the Beta testing period ends. Microsoft tries to get scores to all Beta test takers before the exam goes public, but it doesn't always succeed. I know people who didn't receive their score reports until weeks after an exam went public, and the public test takers were getting their scores immediately.

* Finally, if you want others to know and appreciate just how much you've suffered to get where you are, you'll have to write your autobiography. Your Microsoft transcript won't contain any indication that you took an exam in Beta; it only shows that you passed, and if you didn't pass, the Beta exam doesn't show up at all.

Of course, I don't mean to completely scare you away from indulging in this experience of a lifetime. This list is only half the story. Next time, I'll share all the reasons for picking up the phone and signing up for the exam as soon as that eagerly anticipated invitation arrives.