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8 Steps to Prepare for Your Next Certification Exam

Has it been a while since you last prepared for a big test, or struggled with a recent certification exam? Try this step-by-step approach.
Jan 18th, 2024 8:51am by
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As a technical trainer, I observed many exam candidates struggle with preparing for their certification tests. Notice I didn’t say they struggled with the content or objectives but with how to get ready to face the test itself.

IT certification exams are more than just sitting down and answering multiple-choice or simulation questions. Many of these exams are interactive or require a good command of terms, concepts and best practices.

Has it been a while since you last prepared for a big test? Have you recently failed a certification exam and now wonder how to start over?

This article provides a step-by-step approach to preparing for your next test, gleaned from years of working with IT certification candidates and adult learning resources.

These eight steps will help you prepare for any IT certification exam. Integrate these methods and prepare to be certified!

Step 1: Prepare to Succeed

One secret to success is preparation. Begin by understanding the certification you are pursuing and the exam(s) required.

  1. Download and analyze the exam objectives.
  2. Find the exam details, including cost, duration, number of questions and testing locations.
  3. Confirm you meet any prerequisites, such as foundational exams or practical experience.

Step 2: Pick a Learning Plan

Choose your primary learning environment. This is usually a choice between instructor-led training (ILT) and self-study. Note that ILT may be in-person or online. Here’s some advice about succeeding with each type.

  • Instructor-led training: Take the opportunity to ask questions and interact with others. However, ILT may be difficult to schedule or find time for.
  • Self-paced study: Make sure you have the self-discipline for this endeavor. You’ll need to find resources for when you have questions or need clarification.

Step 3: Get Your Hands Dirty

One critical aspect of gaining IT knowledge is hands-on experience. If you attend ILT, the training provider will likely include a lab component. You may have access to this lab for a limited time after the training session ends. Be sure to take advantage of this.

Consider building a lab environment at home. This is relatively easy and inexpensive with today’s virtualization technologies. I run several virtual machines on my laptop to help provide hands-on opportunities.

Image of a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine

This Ubuntu Linux virtual machine makes practicing networking commands easy.

There are plenty of solutions for Windows, Linux, and macOS. Here are a few virtualization software vendors to consider:

Oracle VirtualBox

This open source virtualization solution by Oracle offers strong cross-platform support for Windows, Linux and macOS hosts. Its simplicity and zero-cost attributes make it attractive for desktop virtualization — great for those preparing for certification labs.


Parallels is a commercial (i.e., paid) virtualization solution. It supports macOS hosts that need to run Windows or Linux-based virtual machines. Parallels offers strong, feature-rich solutions for Mac users, who can use it to build robust home labs.

VMware Workstation Pro

VMwarenow owned by Broadcom — offers virtualization software that’s available for Windows and Linux. Its Fusion for Mac applications allows macOS users to run virtual machines. While not free, VMware does offer advantages like support and multiple solutions.

Microsoft Hyper-V

Microsoft’s built-in virtualization solution supports Windows hosts that need to use other operating systems. There isn’t a cost associated with Hyper-V, but it only runs on the Windows operating system (for which you need a license). Hyper-V is a great desktop and enterprise solution with many disaster recovery options. Look into it if you’re a Windows user pursuing IT certifications.


Linux users have access to the open source GNOME Boxes virtualization platform. It is a robust desktop application for running additional OSs on your Linux system. It offers a simple and intuitive interface to managing VMs — exactly what you want for creating a certification prep lab.

Side note: When I began in IT, I had to purchase three old computers and a hub to gain hands-on networking experience. I’m glad those days are over!

Step 4: Be Selective About Your Prep Materials

A neighbor who knew I wrote courseware for various certification exams recently approached me. He showed me a stack of six books he’d just purchased to help him prepare for the single CompTIA Security+ exam. He wanted advice because he felt overwhelmed.

You are better off with one or two good books than with a stack of books that don’t organize or approach the material in the same way. Carefully read book reviews, especially from purchasers who later passed the exam. Many reviews are brutally honest about how well the books prepared them for the exam.

But what do you do when a book doesn’t cover a topic well enough for you? That’s where Step 5 comes in.

Step 5: Focus

Many tech sites (including The New Stack) host article repositories that cover specific topics in depth. They range from tutorials to how-tos to concept explanations.

When a book or courseware doesn’t cover a concept well enough for you, search for a 1,000- to 2,000-word article that covers the topic. These pieces are focused and typically include step-by-step examples and screenshots. They are a great way of supplementing book coverage.

For example, The New Stack offers this great guide on the basics of Docker, “How to Use Dockerfiles.” It’s an excellent resource to supplement training content on containers.

Step 6: Quiz Yourself

Don’t underestimate good old flashcards. Many IT certification exams — especially entry-level certifications — consist of vocabulary terms and acronyms. Flashcards are a great way of helping you learn basic terminology. Online resources like Quizlet allow you to test your knowledge on your phone while you wait in line or enjoy a coffee.

A solid command of vocabulary ensures you understand the terminology contained in exam questions.

Image of Quizlet flashcard app in use.

Use a flashcard app such as Quizlet to practice basic terms and concepts.

Step 7: Know When You’re Ready to Practice

I’ve seen hundreds of students fail exams by using practice tests incorrectly. Practice exams can be a crucial resource, but you must use them correctly.

Many non-instructors advise using practice exams early, often and repeatedly to learn concepts and commands. However, a barrage of random multiple-choice questions with no real depth will not offer actual knowledge or ability. It won’t even necessarily help answer actual exam questions that are worded somewhat differently.

However, practice exams do provide several essential advantages:

Time management. Exams are timed. Some people are slow test takers, and some are quick. It doesn’t matter which you are — you just need know if you’re slow or fast to help manage the clock.

If you take a practice test three times using the number of questions the real exam contains, you’ll identify whether you can finish in the allotted time. If you cannot, you need to manage the clock better.

Exam structure and format. Practice exams help you understand the layout of the real exam. They may reveal features like bookmarking (so you can return to a question later), multi-answer questions (these use square checkboxes rather than circular radio buttons), and split-screen features for long questions or diagrams.

Learning these mechanics in a low-pressure practice exam situation is much better than figuring them out during a real test.

Knowledge check. Practice exams can certainly help you identify weak and strong areas to help focus your studies. Use them as guidance on where to spend your later study time, but they are not a completely accurate reflection of your knowledge.

Don’t take practice tests too many times. Depending on the number of available questions, if you begin to see questions repeated, you’ll memorize the answer without understanding the concept. It’s like this: “Oh! I’ve seen this question before, and it was C,” without knowing what C is.

Don’t panic (or celebrate!). Remember that practice test results indicate your preparedness but are only as good as the practice is similar to the real exam.

I stressed myself out badly with a practice exam for the Microsoft Windows 7 MCP exam. Against all my own experience and advice, I took a practice test an hour before the actual exam as a warmup. I failed the test badly — my score was something like 15% — and it threw me for a loop.

I just knew I would fail the real test, which would have been a serious problem at my job. It was too late to reschedule, so I had to face the certification exam. I received a nearly perfect score. There was little correlation between the practice test and the actual exam.

Step 8: Show up

Speaking of stress management, here are a few quick tips to make Test Day easier.

  • Know the test center’s location so you’re not worried about finding it on the day of the exam. Research parking, too.
  • If the exam is online, download and test all necessary software well before the scheduled exam.
  • Try to take the test during your effective hours. Most of us have a time of the day when we’re most productive. Identify that time and take the test then, if possible.
  • Arrive at the test center early. Don’t add to your stress level by being late.
  • Don’t break any habits on test day. That’s not the time to decide to eat something different, give up caffeine or start running in the mornings.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Don’t stay up all night cramming. Sleep is the best test prep the day before the exam.

Wrapping It up

Preparing for IT certification exams is more than just gaining knowledge. It’s about managing time, understanding how you learn, and paying attention to details.

Begin by establishing a learning plan and schedule. Next, decide on the right resources for you, and use them effectively. Finally, be relaxed on exam day by not making yourself late or worrying about parking near the test center.

What IT certifications are you pursuing in 2024? Use these methods to prepare for your next tests.

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