Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCT) are great sources of information and advice about technology, certification and IT career. As such, they often get questions about study tips and certification exam preparation. In the guest blog post below, MCT Bert Wolters shares some solid tips gathered from years of teaching and his own experiences with certification exams. Bert's post was originally written in Dutch here, and we appreciate his careful translation into English for sharing with Born to Learn blog readers. If you'd like to connect with Bert, please see his profile here.

Ask an MCT: How do I take my exam and stay calm?

As a trainer I’m often asked how I cope during those exams. Most of the time these are students of mine, preparing for their first exam, or people who failed for their exam the first time. Nerves are also playing tricks on people. On some occasions I’ve had students in my class who did fine on a practice run in a measure-up session. “Fine” in this case means 850 points or more, but froze during the real exam. In this blog post, I like to give you some tips and tricks to get through your exam-day, with the cooperation of Microsoft Learning, just to make sure I don’t tell you something illegal.

Ok, now we’ve cleared all of that… Here we go, this is how I often take my exams. Since I am a trainer and I can’t teach something I’m not certified in, I usually take 2-4 exams a month, opposed to a “regular” IT Pro, who takes these number of exams in a year.

Ok, let’s just say all preparation is done (check out my earlier blog post on how to prepare for an exam) and I’m fairly confident I can pass. I then schedule the appointment for the exam about one or two weeks later. In the meantime, don’t forget to keep your knowledge current. Concentrate on your weak-spots but don’t forget to keep your stronger points up to par.

I try to have a good night’s sleep the night before my exam and dress comfortably on the day. Some of these exams can literally take hours, so try to avoid ány irritation when you can. If you like to take of your shoes for an exam, if it makes you feel better, do so!

Ok, we’ve had breakfast, checked whether we have our ID cards with us, then we’re off to the test center. I make sure I’m at the test-center (we’ve got a Prometric exam location at all of our training locations) well before my exam is scheduled to start. The coffee is good, so no hard feelings there when you’re 30 minutes early.

Once I’m checked in at the front-desk, and turned my pockets inside out, I’m swiftly directed to my exam station. Then the “fun” starts. Usually the exam starts with an innocent questionnaire. This will not take any of your exam-time away, so relax. No, it will not give you a harder exam, just because you’ve checked the box, stating that you’re a guru at tying your shoes… So again, relax!

Now for the exam…, no I’m not giving away any technical details. Even better; I don’t know anything about the contents of the exams. When you’ve taken an exam, you’ve agreed to a Non-Disclosure Agreement, so I’ve “signed” a pact that I don’t know anything about the exams, so you will not find any technical data in this blog.

I’ve tried to convert the exam-language from Prometric into some examples regarding a bakery. I hope Prometric isn’t the exam institute for the National Bakers Association, because they’ll sue me over that… But let’s just keep our fingers crossed for now.

The exam itself… My strategy is always to read the question, try to formulate an answer for myself and then see whether that answer is amongst the different multiple choice answers. When it is, it’s great…. When it isn’t, it’s still not that big of a deal.

When it isn’t, I’ll use the one closest to my own answer. When I don’t know and I can’t think of an answer quickly, I mark the question for review and move on. We’ve got a time-limit people! Nothing to worry about too much in advance, but still, something to keep in the back of your head. At the end of the (section of) the exam you’ve got the possibility to review all questions, marked and unmarked. When you follow this strategy; you make your “quick wins” first, and save the problem cases for later.

Elimination:
There’s more than one way to answer questions. When you think of your own answer, and it’s amongst the provided answers, it’s great. But what if it isn’t? You can always try crossing them off… Here’s an example.

What is bought at the bakery shop since they started this kind of business?

A)     Chocolates

B)      Meat

C)      Car parts

D)     Bread

In this example you immediately dispose of B and C, since in the early years they didn’t have cars and meat isn’t a common thing in a bakery (at least not in the Netherlands).

That leaves us with Bread and Chocolates. That just comes down to your knowledge of the matter (or ofcourse a gut-feeling when you’re really clue-less). But I’d go with bread for this one. Answer D.

Tip from a colleague:

I received a tip from one of my colleagues, when reviewing this little blog of mine. When you’re really clue-less about a question, go with the best formulated answer. The rest of the answers has been made up, so could be sloppier. (In the “Guessing Top 10, this is just above answering the question with an educated guess, or the saying:” When in doubt, choose C”, so no guarantees here.)

Use the noteboard:

I regularly see people stepping out of the exam-room, a little sweaty, telling me how difficult the exam was with all of those relations amongst databases, Active Directory Sites, and so on… When you take a look at the laminated note-board it’s all shiny and new.

I’ve found out there’s a reason why people in our early ages teach us to draw stuff, it’s so we can make it easier for ourselves during the Microsoft exams! So please draw, scribble, write down stuff and use up 2 markers, there are plenty in stock in the exam-location. That way releaves the gray matter in your head. Something you write down is something you don’t have to load in memory, and you’ll need that buffer during the complete exam-experience.

Summarize:

Another nice thing of the laminated note board is that you can make the questions easier through summarizing the data you receive to the essentials you need. Ready for some reading? Here we go!

You are the chief-baker with Yummy Cookies International. You have bakeries across the globe in New York, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo and Moscow. Product research and development and product management is based in Amsterdam. All bakeries produce the products they sell locally with the same recipes and all baking is done before 7 AM (local time) because of regulations issued by the International Bakers’ Union.

All of the baking ovens are heated to exactly 200 degrees Celsius by 2 AM (local time) so the bread baking can start in time.  

What is the temperature of the ovens at 02:00 AM local time?

A)     200 degrees Celsius

B)      198 degrees Celsius (the door has just been opened)

C)      Room Temperature

D)     200 degrees Fahrenheit

Summarizing the story, only leaving the essentials:

    • 5 locations
    • Baking from 2-7 AM
    • 2 AM 200 degrees..

What I do in these cases, with this amount of data to consider, read the question first and then go clue-hunting: 02:00 AM local time? When is the oven lid? What location? Summarize the story above and you’ll get there.

Read carefully and don’t assume anything:

Different question, same possible answers.

You are the chief-baker with Yummy Cookies International. You have bakeries across the globe in New York, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo and Moscow. Product research and development and product management is based in Amsterdam. All bakeries produce the products they sell locally with the same recipes and all baking is done before 7 AM (local time) because of regulations issued by the International Bakers’ Union.

All of the baking ovens are heated to exactly 200 degrees Celsius by 2 AM (local time) so the bread baking can start in time. 

What is the temperature of the ovens at 02:00 PM local time?

A)     200 degrees Celsius

B)      198 degrees Celsius (the door has just been opened)

C)      Room Temperature

D)     200 degrees Fahrenheit

See what I mean? After spending some time in the exam you usually go blind for such changes (AM-> PM conversion in the question).

Be sure to read every question very carefully and don’t assume anything… People often refer to their own configuration at their place of work. Don’t! (I almost feel like the psychiatrist in this video)

The exam “creates” very specific configurations/situations and that’s what you have to deal with. If steps aren’t mentioned in exam cases, they’re not taken.

Take these advices into account, think about them and when you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll answer them as far as I’m not bound to NDA or other agreements.

Want to familiarize yourself with exam questions some more? My colleague Christian Peeters has done some fine blogs (in dutch) on those topics.

Additional questions about exams can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF3AEB246624F3304&feature=view_all

And explanation about the new “open” questions in exams can be found: http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/certification/exam.aspx#