Study Habits for Certification Success

I don’t have a degree in Information Technology or in Computer Science. I’ve occasionally entertained going back to school to formally cement my education but never taken that step. Since I don’t have that education I’ve always looked to certification as a way to “prove my worth.” Some people may argue that certifications are just paper and aren’t worth anything, however I strongly disagree. I feel having a focus and a goal to work toward sharpens my continued education. It makes me a better technician and shows that I know what I know.

With all that said, I understand studying can be hard and testing as an adult can be nerve wracking and disheartening. There are infinite reasons to get as far as you have to go and stop. I am going to discuss how I get past that to start studying and my habits during the studying lifecycle.

Where Do I Start?

I prefer to start at the source, the vendor’s website. For me that is but for you it could be Microsoft, Cisco, Comptia, or any of the other test providers eager to take your money. They each provide details about their tests, what they cover, and blueprints. VMware is great in this respect; their blueprints are 30 pages of detail telling you exactly what you’re in for.

When I decide on a certification I typically go to to read about other people’s experience. Being a part of an educational community has been critical to my continued education. I’m competitive by nature so seeing an acquaintance getting more letters makes me want to go forward.

How Do You Have Time for This?

In short, I don’t have time to study. I have a toddler, a full time job, chores to do, vacations to take, etc. If you want to succeed at studying you have to make time for yourself. This may mean sacrificing some time you would spend on hobbies, watching television, going out on the town, or whatever you do to pass your time outside of the office.

I have about three hours per weeknight between my daughter’s bedtime and mine. I spend about half an hour doing chores, which leaves me with two and a half hours to do whatever I need or want to do. I would prefer not to have to study but I do it anyway.

At first it’s very hard to carve out that time. You may have a backlog of video games to catch up on or a new season of your favorite show just hit Netflix. Just getting started reading five pages or watching one video can start the ball rolling. Just like exercise it’s hard to start and keep a routine but the more you do it the easier it gets.

If you can take time at lunch you can grab a few minutes of study time there. It may be worth “working late” thirty minutes after work and trying to make it through a section or two in your study material.

Where Do I Study?

I’m fortunate enough to have a room in my house with a table, door, and no visible TV. Actually all I can see from my seat is a blank wall. I can sit there, watch pluralsight videos, read documentation and guides and be relatively uninterrupted. It’s a luxury I know many people don’t have.

Before I had this spare bedroom I studied at the dining room table. I tried studying in the living room but the TV is too much of a draw. I have to be removed if not isolated while I study. By the time I get through all my studying and take a test it’s a little like a hermit coming back into civilization.

How Much Time Does this Really Take?

150 hours.

Okay that’s my number and it may not be yours. It’s excessive, it’s insane, but it’s my goal. Typically, once I get cranking, I spend 2 hours per weeknight studying. On weekends I add in an hour or two during my daughter’s nap time and maybe an extra hour if I take some “me time”. So let’s say I get 10 hours during the week and 8 hours on weekends, that means 8.5 weeks to go from zero to certified.

This isn’t realistic, I don’t think I need that long, but I shoot for that. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t met that goal. I feel like studying a blueprint, reading documentation, and watching training videos for that long means I am as much an expert as I can possibly be.

The point is you know yourself and how you learn. If you’re good at tests maybe 30-40 hours is enough. If you’re more detail oriented maybe you need to do more or spread the time out longer. It is a commitment and sacrifice for sure, but many times the end result is worth it.

Save the Date, Set the Reward

When I get about half way through the material I book my exam. Sometimes I book it way out, sometimes I book it way too soon. Either way money leaving my account lights a fire and makes me really work.

I also take this opportunity to set up a reward. Sometimes it’s just frozen yogurt, some times it’s more substantial. I just want a carrot on a stick to keep me going. The reward can change or even phase out but it helps me to say “I’m taking the test in three weeks and going straight to the sushi restaurant after I pass.”

But What if I Fail?

You are going to fail at some point. It stinks, you paid $250, $400 or however much and poof, it’s gone. Take your time, get real mad, then get back to it. You put in time and effort, you can do this. Please don’t turn to a test bank and cheat though. That isn’t doing you any favors and can get your certifications revoked. At best you’ll get a job you aren’t qualified for. Trust me, when someone brags about brain dumping a test most of the time I already knew.

So Why Bother?

Testing is expensive, it’s risky to your ego and self esteem, it takes you away from life for weeks or months. Why do I even bother?

Personally I take a long term look at my career. My previous job didn’t have any cert requirements and only two of us ever took a test. We encouraged each other and, unbeknownst to each other, both left on the same day to better paying jobs with great benefits. Other coworkers who say they won’t get any benefit and they won’t get a raise if they got a cert are still in the same role they’ve been in for years.

I got my current job, in part, because I already had my VCP. My experience, personality, and interviewing skills probably played a greater role in the job offer but I was told my certification helped “seal the deal”. I didn’t “need” to get the VCAP5-DCA but I got it anyway. If a new opportunity comes up and the DCA is a cert requirement I have a leg up.

Beyond getting my next job it is very self assuring. I care about keeping my skills sharp and testing myself.