Six Tips for Passing a Microsoft Certification Exam (from Someone Who Hates Taking Tests)

I have taken a lot of Microsoft certification exams over the last 20 years. I can’t say that I am ever excited to take an exam, but I have done well on them. Over the years I have developed an approach to taking exams and have generally passed many more than I have failed. In fact, as I started thinking about it, I have never failed an exam for which I have gone through the process that I am laying out herein. You do not need to follow this approach, but you definitely need an approach. Taking a Microsoft certification exam “cold” is a good way to end up retaking a Microsoft certification exam.

Step 1. Know what you need to know.

Microsoft certification exams are usually hard, really hard. They are generally not very fun to take. The exams dive into minutia, asking questions that people with years of experience can’t answer. Every question is a trick question so they are pretty hard to guess at. So, how do you know what will be on the exam? The scary answer is that you can’t, at least not everything. No matter how much you study, you will likely encounter questions you have never seen any material on (more about this later). However, breathe a sigh of relief because there is one place to go to find out most of the topics that will be on an exam. Microsoft publishes exam description pages for every exam they administer. For example, here is an exam description for 70-483 – C#:
HowToPassMSExam

This is the first place I go when studying for an exam. The objectives shown in the screen shot break out into sub-objectives. Each sub-objective has a set of skills listed in paragraph form. I break out every skill that is listed into an Excel spreadsheet or a table in OneNote. This becomes my study guide. I make sure I understand the details of each skill in the list. This is of course a pretty fair bit of work, but it is better than not having any idea what to study. While you will encounter questions on skills not listed in the page, I have never failed an exam for which I was comfortable with this skill list.

Step 2. Find good study material.

You need really good material to study. Here, I have an advantage. As a Microsoft Certified Trainer I have access to Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) content. The MOC content is used in official Microsoft courses, is written by experts in the field and tends to align with the objectives in the exams. This doesn’t mean that exam questions will be written word for word directly from the content, but most of the concepts on the exam are covered in detail in the MOC course content. I have had students swear that a concept on the exam wasn’t covered in the MOC content only to go back and find that they had missed it or forgotten it. This is where having a list of skills is useful. I use the skills list as a guide to the content.

If you do not have the ability to take a Microsoft official course then there are a myriad of books out there as study guides. Be careful though to get a study guide from a legitimate source. Most of the major publishers (MS Press, APress, Sams, etc.) have study guides for the more popular exams and MS Press has guides for most exams. There are also unsanctioned “brain dumps” that many exam candidates use. I will not go into detail, but I strongly advise against using them. Most of these sites violate Microsoft Intellectual Property rights and if you are caught using these resources, Microsoft may levy significant penalties against you.

An undervalued study resource for Microsoft exams is TechNet (or MSDN for developers). Microsoft publishes pretty much everything about everything Microsoft on TechNet and MSDN, so it is highly likely that any technical details that can be asked are covered in TechNet. Of course, the downside is that there are often thousands of pages on a given subject, so the enormity of information can make TechNet seem unusable. That is where having a list of skills comes in. You can always search TechNet using Bing (I understand there is another search engine out there but I am not familiar with it) and find detailed information on any skill you are studying.

Step 3. Take notes.

If I wrote “click bait” this is where I would have the headline, “One simple trick to pass Microsoft Exam.” Seriously, it is that important. I jot down every technical detail I see while studying for an exam. Sometimes I use an honest to goodness pen and paper, but I usually use OneNote. Technical details can be anything — from PowerShell commandlets to registry settings to configuration settings for .NET applications. I write down anything that could be a candidate for an exam question. Much of what I write down will not show up on an exam, but I cannot count the number of times I have seen a question and remembered the answer from the notes. Oh, and here is the cool part: I don’t even study the notes, ever. I never look at them once I take them. The act of writing (or typing) the information fixes it in my short-term memory. I have heard that there is actually science behind this, but I have never bothered to look it up because, well, it just works. If only I had discovered this before my last semester in college.

Step 4. Practice.

With all due respect to a certain former professional basketball player, practice matters. There are two forms of practice — technology practice and exam practice. It is important to actually set up and manage a system that you are taking a certification exam on. Likewise, it is important to develop some test-taking skills and have some understanding of what to expect when taking an exam.

Let’s handle the technology practice first. It is increasingly difficult to pass a certification exam without actual, honest to goodness hands-on experience. On the one hand that is good — certifying people who have just studied for an exam and have not ever touched the product devalues the certification. On the other hand, people may not have access to sandbox datacenters with multiple servers to set up lab environments. There are a couple of solutions to this. The first is to take a course with Global Knowledge that aligns to your exam. The MOC labs often cover processes that are on the exam. It is very difficult to get a question related to a complex process correct unless you have completed that process. Our lab environment is available 24/7, and in most cases it is available for 12 months after you take the course. This means that you can complete all labs multiple times, and you can usually also set up your own scenarios to test other skills that may not be covered with a formal lab. If you do not take a MOC course, an alternative is to get a trial Microsoft Azure account. You can easily spin up multiple virtual machines in Azure and can set up networks and domains. If you do set up a lab environment in Azure, be sure to shut down your VMs when not in use, as multiple VMs will quickly use up any credits you have.

Knowing how to take a Microsoft exam is crucial to passing a Microsoft exam. I know people who have squeaked by an exam that they weren’t completely prepared for because they are good at taking tests, and I know people who know everything there is about a technology but have failed because they didn’t know how to take a Microsoft exam. There are a couple of reputable companies that produce authorized practice exams for Microsoft — Transcender and MeasureUp. As mentioned above there are nonauthorized sources but I strongly advise against using them. You may want to check the exam description page from Microsoft for additional sanctioned providers. Generally, both Transcender and MeasureUp produce practice exams for the most popular certifications, although sometimes one or the other will have exams that the other doesn’t. Some people prefer one vendor to the other, but I find both typically do a reasonable job. I use practice exams more as a way to prepare for the process of taking an exam, rather than for studying the content for the exam. I will often use the explanation of a particular question as a source of information, but the process of going through different types of questions and practicing my approach to taking an exam is more important.

An alternative is to use the certification exam itself as practice. Treat the first time you take the exam as a practice run and expect to fail. Use it to get a gauge on what the exam entails and where you have weaknesses. Microsoft often runs a free retake promotion, and even if they aren’t running one, the exam is usually only marginally more expensive than the practice exam. There is no better practice than taking the exam itself. Of course, if you get freaked out because you took the exam and scored a 400 (out of 1,000) that might backfire.

Step 5. Relax.

At this point you are probably ready to either laugh at me or hunt me down. I have spent paragraphs going over how difficult Microsoft exams are, and now I am telling you to relax. Seriously? Seriously. It is possible to pass Microsoft exams, and occasionally even pass them on the first try. When you finally get in to take an exam, there are a few things to remember:

    • It’s OK to miss a question. In more than 20 years of taking exams, I don’t think I have ever had a perfect score. I know some instructors who have, but I suspect they are either just lucky or geniuses. I am neither but usually pass the exams. Instructors sometimes joke that if you get a higher score than is necessary to pass, you have wasted time studying too much. OK, that really doesn’t seem particularly funny, but the point is valid — Microsoft exams are pass/fail so missing a few questions isn’t the end of the world.
    • It’s OK to have no idea what a question is about. Sometimes questions are so out of left field that an experienced professional will not know what they are about. Sometimes questions are poorly worded and difficult to understand. Don’t let that ruin your exam. I know people who have failed an exam because they had no idea what the first two questions were about and got completely flustered. It didn’t matter that they may have known everything else on the test.
    • It’s OK to guess. There is no penalty for guessing. When you don’t know an answer, try to narrow the options down as much as possible, then pick the answer(s) you think best. If you are not sure, always go with your first choice. Supposedly there is research that backs this up, but it is just a good rule of thumb. I still remember failing an exam by one question, and I am pretty sure it was because I changed an answer when I was reviewing my answers. I really want that one back.
    • It’s not OK to be sloppy. While you want to relax and not freak out, it is also important to take every question seriously. Read each question and answer carefully and always look for any key words or phrases that indicate the meaning of the question. I treat every question as a potential trick question. This makes me pay attention.

Step 6. Manage your time.

Finally, the last one. This one is easy, and it is possibly the most important tip I can offer. When you start an exam you will be given the total number of questions and the amount of time available. Do a quick calculation (you will have something to write on) and figure out how much time you have per question. While I don’t time myself on each question, I keep this in the back on my mind to make sure that I do not run out of time. I know a lot of exam candidates who have failed because they realized that they ran out of time and guessed at a number of questions. If you spend a couple of minutes on a question and don’t have the answer, make a guess, mark it and move on. If time permits go back and review the question, but only change the answer if you are sure of the right answer, or you are sure the guess you made is wrong.

So that is my approach to taking Microsoft exams. This approach has served me well over many years and many exams. I hope this helps you out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracy Wallace is a full-time Instructor for Global Knowledge. He primarily teaches .NET development, all things SharePoint, SQL Server, and is starting to teach Azure. About once a decade he certifies on Windows operating systems and Active Directory.

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9 comments

  1. Larry West Reply

    Regarding step 2, I believe you should concentrate mostly on MSDN. Remember that when the test creators created the questions, they did not have the extra study materials — all they usually had was MSDN and TechNet, along with any built-in help files. I’ve often seen questions that were word-for-word from an MSDN article.

    Speaking of test creators, one should always keep them in mind when studying. When looking at a “skills being measured” item, ask yourself, “If I was a test creator, what type of question would I ask on that subject?” Study that area first.

    Finally, make sure you give the “Microsoft answer.” You can almost eliminate all answer choices that don’t use a Microsoft product.

    BTW, I have 19 Microsoft certifications.

  2. John Mark Ivey Reply

    Larry, Thanks for your input! You obviously have some great experience passing Microsoft certification exams! Awesome addition to our blog post!

  3. Gyp Joe Reply

    Good stuff.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. Gary Reply

    I just took one of the proctored MCSA test for the second time and failed. I used Transcender practice exams for the first test and uCertify for the second and a lot of Technet. The Pearson-Vue test covered material that practice exams never touched. I have been at this 20+ years and passed my CISSP 7 yrs ago first time and every other exam first time. The old tried and true methods of passing are history. It appears you will have to purchase Pearson-Vue study materials and their MS Certified Practice test to pass “their” exams plus Microsoft resources. My 2 cents

  5. Stu L Reply

    On time management – another approach is to go through and answer every question you know for sure first then go back and follow Tracy’s time management advice.

  6. Sheila Reply

    I’m going to take the MCSA for Windows Server 2012 R2 soon. There are 3 exams needed to pass. What steps do you take to accomplish multiple exams? Do you take online courses for all 3, take notes, study and then focus on the exams? Or, would you focus solely on one exam at a time? For example, I’ve taken courses on Installing and Configuring along with Administration. Next is Configuring Advanced (which I have not done the online modules for yet). Should I complete ALL of the online modules before I start worrying about the exams?

    1. Tracy Wallace Reply

      Sheila,
      Great question. Unfortunately there isn’t one answer that will work for everyone. The way I would approach your situation, knowing that I want to pass three related exams is as follows:
      1. I would take all three courses first. Often there is overlap between courses and exams and you may well cover material in one course that shows up on the exam associated with another course.
      2. I would then concentrate on preparing for one exam at a time. Prepare for the first exam, take it, then start preparing for the next exam. I would suggest not waiting too long between each exam – 2 weeks to a month depending on how much time you have available for preparation.
      That at least is how I would approach it. Good luck!

  7. Keith McMillan Reply

    Thanks for your article Tracey it will be very useful especially coming from a Microsoft Certified Trainer. Would you be able to expand on note taking? Referring to your “jot down every technical detail I see while studying for an exam” I am finding that nearly everything on the page becomes a technical detail. How would you describe technical detail please?

    1. Tracy Wallace Reply

      Keith,
      That’s a good question and one that is difficult to answer. I look for anything that could be used in an exam question. For example, if I am studying for an Azure exam and I see a feature that requires a specific virtual machine size – such as the requirements for having multiple NICs, I am going to write that down. If there is a paragraph discussing virtual machine size in general without any specific “testable” details I won’t write anything down from that paragraph. Yes, it is a lot of writing. I generally end up using a dozen or so pages in a composition book.