Building a Plan for the 90 Days to MCSA Challenge

Michael Bender

Greetings True Believers,

So here we are in week 3 of the challenge to get the MCSA: Windows Server 2012 certification. Last time I blogged, I introduced you to the challenge. So everyone should be signed up on Born to Learn and have access to the videos from TrainSignal. If not, got back to Post 1 and get signed up using the following links:

Born To Learn Study Groups Home Page:

Free Video Training from

Many of you are hard-at-work building a study plan, and that is good to hear. 90 days is not a lot of time to knock out all 3 certification exams needed for the certification so I want to spend some time talking about how to create a study plan for yourself. I'll provide an example of a study guide you could use.

Mike’s General Rules of Certification Studying and Testing

1. You can’t possibly know everything so rely on your strengths and focus on your weaknesses. By reviewing the exam objectives, you can identify what areas you are strong in and what areas need more work.

2. You will be tested on stuff you may never have, and may never use. All IT certifications include areas that are often new or only used by larger organizations so you need to be prepared to cover all of the items listed in the skills measured area of the exam information. Based on my own experience gained from taking a broad range of IT certification exams, several vendors also include some under-utilized new technologies in their exams. One thing I would like to see from Microsoft Learning is improving the Skills Measured information. The information currently available on Microsoft Learning’s site leaves a lot of room for interpretation and can be quite broad. Fortunately, Microsoft Learning has broken down each of the exam objectives in the in the WIKI section of the Server Certification Study Group area. Each exam has fleshed objectives that include links to recommend resources. Here is an example of the WIKI section for 70-410.

3. Develop a solid test-taking strategy. From my experience, I have been able to pass many exams without stressing since I know how to use what I know to answer questions about what I may not know. We’ll talk about test taking strategies in a later post, but what I’m talking about is using the information you know to be true to weed out answers on a topic you may not be familiar with. With a solid strategy, you should be able to get down to a 50/50 chance on multiple choice (single answer) questions. I will have a future post on Test Taking strategies as well as provide resources and recommendations for improving your exam performance.

4. You need hands-on experience…PERIOD! Since the point of a certification is not the piece of paper, but the knowledge, you need to have hands-on experience with the technology. So you will need some sort of test lab. In the next post, I will be detailing my lab setup for the 70-410 exam. If you are looking for a great lab server that could also run a small company, check out Jeff’s great rig at I built this same server spec for spec.

5. If your work/home life will allow, carve out time every day to study & practice. For me, I have a lot of professional and personal requirements so I need to have a focused plan that allows me to meet all my goals. Fortunately, I have a strong background in Windows Server as well as 2 years of experience with Server 2012 so my learning curve is not as steep.

6. Reward yourself when you hit your goals. Think of some things that would be fun rewards like a new video game or a dinner out. Make sure it is something of value that helps make the achievement of your goals additionally rewarding.

7. Take time off when you need it. All work and no play makes us all dull so make sure to take some time away for friends, family, and fun.

So how should you start building a plan? Well, get out the calendar. I use Outlook for EVERYTHING! I print out a copy (In month view) of the timeframe I am working with. As I go through the creation process, I can visually see how things stack up. It’s also very helpful to have work and family calendars available because the last thing you want to do is schedule an exam on the Friday afternoon when you are leaving for a holiday.

1. Set your Goal. In my case, my goal is to complete 3 exams (70-410, 70-411, and 70-412) and earn my MCSA: Windows Server 2012 before I leave for Microsoft TechEd. So that leaves me with approximately 75 days to accomplish my goal.

2. Gather your study materials. Depending on your learning style, there are a lot of options at your disposal to prepare for your exams. Through the wikis, there is a lot of reference information in the wiki sections of the Server Certification Study Group. Guido Brakel is the wiki moderator and has done a create job of collecting information for each certification exam. Another great resource is Microsoft Evangelist Keith Mayer’s Windows Server 2012 “Early Experts” Challenge. And let’s not forget about all of the great video training from

3. Set Exam Milestones. Unless you are an Uber geek and a wiz-kid, you probably will not be taking 3 exams during the same week. So you want to lay out a path that allows you to complete the exams you need with enough time should you falter at some point. Typical of any project, if you do not build in slack time, failing an exam will have dire consequences. Since most exams require 24-48hrs before you can reschedule, scheduling all of your exams on Wednesday and Thursday at TechEd could cause for some problems. I am taking 70-410 on March 25th, 70-411 on April 26th, and 70-412 is May 29th. I've chosen to break my exam preparation into 3 parts as this is how I have always studied for certification exams. Another approach I have discussed with  MCTs and current MCSA’s is studying for 410 and 411 together. You can do this by scheduling the exams 1 week apart which allows you to leverage studying across both exams, and then you can focus in on each exam the week prior to each exam. I was already in an established study tract prior to getting this sage advice:)

One note on scheduling exam: Become familiar with your local test centers. Unfortunately, we only have 1 testing center in Madison so I have to schedule exams 4-6 weeks in advance. If I have to re-take, I may have to wait a couple weeks or else travel a couple of hours to take the exam in another city. My advice is to schedule all of your exams once you have laid out your calendar. Currently, Microsoft is running the Second Shot exam offer. This is a great offer as it gives you a free second attempt at an exam if you do not pass on the first try. Go to for more information.

4. Fill training into your calendar. Once you have your exam dates locked in, you know what you need to be prepared for and when. Now is the time to begin filling in your training calendar. Each exam will build a foundation for the next one as you move through the exams. As mentioned previously, I will be studying for 410 and 411 at the same time since many topics such as DNS and AD have overlapping skill areas. The recommended path is 70-410 to 70-411 to 70-412.

5. Get to work. With the other responsibilities I am juggling, it is just a matter of fitting everything in over the next 12 weeks. The following plan is designed to provide a framework for building your own schedule through the first exam. It is not designed to be all-inclusive and it may not work for everyone. Each of us learn differently and have different time constraints so use it as a guide towards your goals. 

Here is a sample plan for the next five weeks of the exam. The plan would require a time committment of at least 12 hours per week. 

  1. Week of 3/19/2013:    Build your Plan & Build Your Lab Week of 3/26/2013: Building Knowledge
    1. TrainSignal Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Essentials: Lessons 14
    2. Train Signal 70-410: Lessons 1-23
    3. Build Server 2012 Test Lab
      1. You will need 1-2 Windows Server 2012 instances
      2. At a minimum, you need to at least one instance that can run the Hyper-V role. This will require a physical Installation or use of virtualization software to build your environment. It is important to note Hyper-V cannot run nested Hyper-V VMs so you’ll need to use another companies virtualization platform for this;)
      3. I will detail this more in depth on my blog on Friday
    1. Complete Apprentice Quest from “Early Experts” Challenge
  2. Week of 3/26/2013:    Building Knowledge
    1. 410 Wiki Objectives 1-3.1
    2. Exam Ref  70-410: Ch 1-3.1
    3. Complete Installer and Explorer Quests from “Early Experts” Challenge
  3. Week of 4/2/2013:      Building Knowledge
    1. Wiki Objectives 3.2-4
    2. Exam Ref  70-410: Ch 3-4
    3. TrainSignal Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Essentials: Lessons 1-8
    4. TrainSignal Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V New Features: Lessons 1,2,3,13,16
    5. Complete Networker and Virtualizer Quests from “Early Experts” Challenge
  4. Week of 4/9/2013:      Building Knowledge   
    1. Wiki objectives 5-6
    2. Exam Ref  70-410: Ch 5-6
  5. Week of 4/16/2013:    Take Exam 410          
    1. Review Objectives Prior to Exam
    2. Begin Studying for 70-411

So how do you go about using this plan or the plan you develop? That is a great question and hopefully I can provide you an answer by sharing my study practices. Based on these examples and your own personal study habits, you should be able to develop a study regime that works for you. The plan above is pretty aggressive and would require a time committment of at least 9-12 hours per week. If you can't commit to that sort of time frame, extend the challenge to 120 or 180 days. The point of the challenge is to learn and grow your skills, and the finish line is wherever you put it. If you only finish the 70-410 exam in 90 days, that is fantastic and better than all of the IT Pros sitting on the sidelines. It means that in 90 days you've learned the foundation of installing and configuring Windows Server 2012.

It should be noted a few things about me. First, I've been in the industry and taking certification exams since the 90s so I have a lot of experience and knowledge I bring to the table as do many of you. Second, I have been working with Windows Server 2012 since the Summer of 2011 so I have a lot of experience with the product. Third, my time is limited so I choose study tools that have proven to work for me in the past: books and hands-on study. Here's how I study for my certification exams.

1.    I use one or two reference items (books, videos, whitepapesr) that will cover the majority of the exam material, and I read/view that reference front-to-back. It does not need to be all-inclusive, but it needs to hit all of the objective areas. This lays a foundation so I know what is covered by the exam, what is in Server 2012, and helps determine my strengths/weaknesses. For myself, I selected two items: Introducing Windows Server 2012 by Mitch Tulloch and the Exam Guide 70-410 by Craig Zacker.

2.    I begin with the first objective and work my way to the end of the exam objectives. Reviewing the objectives for the 410 exam, I find the material is organized to make this approach work. In each objective area, I have been re-reading the Zacker text for each objective and completing any hands-on examples in the book. This brings up a good point. There are not a lot of “canned” lab scenarios that are focused by objective. One resource I would recommend is Keith Mayer’s Windows Server 2012 “Early Experts” Challenge. He provides all you need to build and run through lab scenarios for the exams. I will be talking more about my lab environment and working through hands-on activities in a post on my blog that will be out later this week. In the interim, my recommendation is to use your imagination. If the example in your reference is creating a user, just create users based on fictional characters. I’m a big Marvel comics geek so I’ll often use comic book characters and themes from comics for users, domains, etc.

If this is your first time at the "certification rodeo", trial and error is you best friend. Build a plan and stick to it for the first exam. If it doesn't work, re-evaluate your plan and determine what didn't work for you. Use that knowledge to create an improved plan for your future exam attempts. Also, feel free to post your plan in the certification forums and get feedback from other participants.

Good luck and keep up the hard work.


  • Almir Sadovic
    | |

    Thank you Mike for great advices, I am really using every spare minute to get as much info as I can get and to be honest there is so much material out there on TecnNet that one life is too short to absorb everything, so again I appreciate your wisdom and advice concerning this topic. At the moment I am very happy how everything is working out and I am really excited at getting my first exam.

  • Michael Bender
    | |

    Great to hear, Almir! Thanks for reading and good luck on 410!

  • The Deep North
    | |

    Nice plan.  I'm scheduled for the 410 exam on April 27th.  Right now I'm just paging through the Craig Zacker book, and I plan on signing up for the 30 day online usage of the practice questions from MeasureUp on March 27th.  

    It'll be my first exam so we'll see if that's intensive enough.  I signed up for the Second Shot too, which is nice peace of mind.

    I like all of the study references you've listed, nice to see them in one place and I discovered some that I didn't know about.  Good luck on your exam!

  • VK
    | |

    Great!!!   thnx  mike

  • Michael Bender
    | |

    @The Deep North Thanks for the feedback. Let's us know what you think of the MeasureUp exam preps as well as any other materials you use.

  • Michael Bender
    | |

    @vmarquezp You are welcome. I hope the material helps you out.

  • CandCsDad
    | |

    Be careful of the second shot exam with Prometric. I got a voucher, paid for and passed the test, and then Prometric send me a new one, stating the old won was coded wrong. I used it for a 2nd exam, and it added $110 to me exam fee, and I was billed $260. I have been fighting them since Novermber and was re-imbursed part of the money. They claimed my voucher was for 3 exams not one. I never signed up for the 3 pack.

  • jai20
    | |

    I have Windows 8 Pro installed on my home machine. Is the client Hyper-V feature sufficient for the purposes of following this program? Assuming my machine meets the hardware requirements.

  • Michael Bender
    | |

    Hi Joe

    Client Hyper-V should be sufficient for 70-410 and 70-411. 70-412 may have more complex scenarios that require physical hardware. Also, you may be able to accomplish some tasks through Azure. Good Luck.

  • mehdi
    | |

    in Exam Ref 70-410 there is no chapter 3 and no chapter 6 !!!!!!!!

  • mehdi
    | |

    sorry i had an early version of it !

  • just marcus
    | |

    Very nice study plan outline, thank you very much.

    Question, though, in terms of the 90 days thing...since a lot of the books for what would be the remaining exams won't be out until later in the year, is the 90 days thing something that should start later in the year?  When I look at training materials/books for 70-411, and 70-412, they don't seem to be coming out until August/September.

  • Jeff Guillet
    | |

    I updated the blog post Mike mentioned above about building a super-fast Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V server for under $1,000.  Read it here:

  • Simtandile Mtubeli
    | |

    Also have a question sir, my name is Simtandile Mtubeli, I am currently a full time student, studying MCSA in 2008 r2 and 2012. we just finishing going through MCSA 70-646, and have started with MCSA 70-417 which i believe its an upgrade from 2008 to 2012. so far ive managed to get the 642 certification, and still need to write 640 and 646 before writing the 70-417 exam. then within this year, we also have to upgrade from MCSA to MCSE 2012. And we have to write three more modules which is 413, 414, and 416. is there any advice on how to get around on writing the exams?

  • losik34
    | |


View All