Four Lessons I Learned from Exam Failures

Christopher Harrison

Throughout my IT career, I’ve taken dozens of exams, and I’ve been fortunate to have experienced exam failures only three times. But it was the first failure that stuck with me, and the first one that was the biggest learning lesson for me.

I remember it vividly. It was the NT 4.0 Workstation exam, the first Microsoft exam I had ever taken. I had already taken (and passed) a Netware exam. But at the time, Netware and Microsoft were competing for the hearts and minds of network administrators everywhere, and I knew I needed to know both if I was going to be successful in my career.

But there it was. A failing score displayed on screen in front of me, and a failing score printed on the report in my hand. I was absolutely devastated. 

But, to quote Real Genius, “But these little setbacks are sometimes just what we need to take a giant step forward. Which I did.”

The first thing I learned was: in the grand scheme of things, nothing truly bad had happened. The absolute worst thing that could happen when taking an exam had happened, but life still went on. Nobody came along to beat me with a stick. My dog still loved me. My wife didn’t leave me. And the sun still rose from the east. Did it feel bad? Sure. Nobody likes to fail. And I had the chance to take the exam again.

--> Lesson: The world won’t come to an end if you fail an exam.

During the exam, I realized how underprepared I was. I saw questions on products and services I had never heard of. I was pretty sure half the exam was in some exotic language stolen from the set of Star Wars. After walking out of the exam center, I knew there was more I had to learn. If only I knew roughly what was going to be on the exam in the first place.

As it turns out, Microsoft Learning offers plenty of information on the topics that will be covered in the exam. Every exam has an information page which covers, among other things, what skills will be measured on the exam and rough percentages for each topic. This helps focus your studying. If you see it on the skills measured section of the exam details page, make sure you study it. If only someone had told me about this the week before I was scheduled to take that exam, I would have been better prepared.

A quick visit to will provide you with an amazing amount of information. And now there’s more information than there ever was in the past, including message boards and a lot of “behind the scenes” information about MSL.

--> Lesson: Read the skills measured section and make sure you’re truly ready.

Like many people who are taking certification exams, it had been quite a while since I had left a formal learning institution, and thus it had been quite a while since I’d taken a test of any variety. As it turns out, test taking is a skill. And like any skill, if it dulls if it’s not practiced.

I’d forgotten all the basics:

  • Make sure you get a good night’s sleep the night before and show up well rested
  • Eliminate wrong answers on questions that you’re not sure about
  • For tough questions, don’t be afraid to skip over them and go back later
  • When all else fails – guess!

A certification exam is exactly that: an exam. Taking an exam is a skill and there are techniques involved.

--> Lesson: Review test taking techniques before entering the exam room.

It’s said that different people learn things differently. Some people can go off and read a book and be able to easily assimilate information that way. Others can take a class, listen to an instructor, see some demos and gain knowledge that way. For me, a combination of the two works best. I need a book and I sometimes need someone I can bounce questions off of.

But above all, what I truly need is to actually do it myself. I need to implement the product, write the code, fight with the bugs, change settings and see what actually happens. That’s when it clicks for me. And, as an added bonus, I often find that problems I have with a product make their way on to the exam as questions. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a question and said to myself, “Hey! I just ran into that last week!” I’d be able to buy myself and my wife a very nice dinner.

--> Lesson: Find out what mode(s) of learning works best for you.

Since that day I’ve gone on to take over 50 more exams, and I’ve been lucky enough to have only failed twice. I credit a lot of my success to the lessons I learned back on that May afternoon in 1997. If only someone had sat me down that April and said, “Hey, Christopher...” I might have passed that exam on the first try.

Hopefully you’ll be able to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them.

Good luck on your next exam!

Related resource: Microsoft Certification Study Groups

Connect with MCT Christopher Harrison on Twitter: @geektrainer

  • Dancar
    | |

    I find that the biggest challenge in test preparation is learning areas which 1) are not used in your current job (an obvious challenge) and 2) are used only when there are many users or lots of stress on the system.    

    In a home lab you can successfully install and configure almost anything.  But with only a single user the performance is usually excellent and problems that occur in a real-world environment seldom occur, but for me that's when most of the learning that is retained actually happens.  

    Are there any tools available that simulate the impact of heavy user or network traffic on lab systems?

  • SRMcEvoy
    | |

    I have failed 4 times. Each was hard to take but yes I have learned from each of them and to be honest it never gets easier.

  • 2bd3775f-7e9f-4675-b81b-614d3b374a04

    I probably fail at least once on every test I take (took about 15 tests total), never seem to know how much I need to study on that first attempt. Amazing only 2 failures.

  • Oleg Kolpashchikov
    | |

    I have failed three times before I passed my MCTS test - and one more thing that I did after each attempt: I have written down as much as I could remember about the questions that were not clear to me. There is no need to rememeber the whole questions - just what it was about (this interface, or that method); And did the homework before the next attempt.

    Sure enough, the questions are different the next time, but the homework does help. If not for the 2nd attempt - then for the 3rd or later.

  • Andy Barkl
    | |

    Certification exams only prove minimal competency with the product or technology--Study, Learn, and Practice to pass an exam.

  • Demyan1
    | |

    One lesson I learnt from failing specifically Microsoft certification exams is - don't waste your time trying to raise a problem to Microsoft.

  • Demyan1
    | |

    ... oh, and continuing with the topic of one of the three linked-to threads, why not ask Christopher here as well:  Christopher, do you know why in a Microsoft cert exam (70-467) one cannot see how many questions have been answered and how many are left? Is this (a) Microsoft implementing a pioneering UI feature, or (b) incompetent employees and a let-them-eat-cake attitude toward paying customers?