Seven Steps to Certification Success RRS feed

  • General discussion

  • Before writing this article, I posed a question to many certified individuals. The question I asked was, “What was the hardest part of your certification journey?” You would expect to hear that the hardest part was the exam(s) themselves. However, many people responded that the most difficult challenge was that they simply did not know how or where to start. They would describe how they heard of a certification, bought a book and started studying. There was no research performed, no plan established, and no evaluation afterword to debrief and learn from the experience.

    When I created the seven steps to success outlined below, I did so to help guide myself through my day-to-day activities and work; certifications played no part in the creation of any of these steps. However, over time I noticed that these steps could be applied to the achievement of I.T. certifications. Although these steps can be used with any day-to-day activities, it is my goal to provide you with a structured agenda to assist you in the achievement of your certification goals. 

    It should be strenuously noted that nothing compares to actual hands-on experience. Studying using books, computer-based training videos, and even instructor-led training should only be a supplement to working with the product and technology you are hoping to be certified on. Certifications are designed validations only. Being certified in a specific technology only means that you have successfully negotiated the required exam(s) as prescribed by the vendor. In short, your certifications should compliment your proficiency, not substitute for it.

    One question you should ask yourself before traveling down the long and costly road of I.T. certification is, “Why do I want this certification?” What is the end result you desire? Many individuals new to the I.T. field hear about certifications and seek to acquire them, with little thought about why they are doing so. Without asking this basic question, you run the risk of wasting valuable time and resources on a certification that may not serve your needs. This pattern can prove detrimental to both yourself and the certification program. Certifications do not carry any promise. By achieving them; you are not guaranteed a job, a promotion, or even respect. Your proficiency (combined knowledge and experience) is your money card. Without that, certifications are only worth the paper they are printed on.

    The second step of this process will help you determine if you qualify for your desired certification. Almost every certification vendor lists an audience profile on their website. This profile provides information to candidates outlining recommended experience in order to see if they are qualified. If you do not have the recommended experience with this technology, it is possible to still pursue it, but it is not recommended. Remember, experience leads to certifications – not the other way around. With that said, let’s begin reviewing the seven steps to certification success.

    1.)Start. How often have you said, "I’ll get around to it”? How many times have you procrastinated in doing the things you actually want to get accomplished? Starting is a huge step and one that many people fail to do. Ironically, your chances of failure are the highest during the Start and Finish steps of this agenda. The failure rate is high during these stages because we try to Start and Finish everything in one enormous motion. We look at a single ominous task and come up with every excuse in the book to not get started. These are normally excuses made out of laziness or fear of failing, because starting something means you’re committing yourself to a project.


    2.)Research. I spend a great deal of time in the public and moderated Microsoft newsgroups. Many individuals new to the certification world post the same questions day after day. I do not mind answering these questions, but the questions baffle me because it is so much easier to review a vendor’s website than to post questions on a newsgroup. I highly recommend that you visit the vendor’s website for the certification(s) you are interested in achieving. By doing so, you can obtain key information such as recommended experience, required exams pertaining to your desired certification, and other vital information to help you make an informed decision. Do the research beforehand, and then ask questions to confirm your findings or clear up confusion.

    A popular question that floods the newsgroups is, "What is the best study material?" This is a question that is open to interpretation and opinion. What works for one may or may not work for another. Some individuals can read through technical books without much effort, while others cannot get past one chapter without rereading it three times. If you are interested in technical manuals or training kits, visit amazon.com or your local bookstore and examine the differences between the publishers of training kits. Keep in mind that books contain errors. It would be wise to visit the publisher’s website to check for an erratum. An erratum is a list of errors and their corrections inserted in a book or other publication, usually on a separate page or slip of paper.

    Classroom instruction is always an option. However, there is the issue of time, cost, and what institution to consider. If Instructor-Led Training (ILT) sounds appealing to you, open the yellow pages and see what centers are in your area. Visit these facilities and talk to some of the students, instructors, and Account Executives. Make sure that these centers are accredited or certified learning partners with the vendor of the certification you are interested in achieving.

    There are also "virtual classrooms" known as CBT (Computer Based Training) videos. With CBTs you can learn at your own pace and on your own timetable, revisit lessons that you did not fully understand, and skip lessons that you already understand. Although you can enjoy the comfort of viewing the courses ‘on demand,’ they can be the same cost as classroom training without the benefit of a live instructor to answer questions. Visit the websites of a number of CBT providers and check out their demonstrations. If they do not offer demonstrations you need to decide whether you want to invest your money in a product that you cannot sample first.

    Research can be performed without spending a dime. Asking questions and performing research will save you time, money and frustration. Remember, at this point, you are simply researching – nothing more. 

    3.)Plan. I am certain you have heard the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Achieving your certification(s) will not happen overnight. There is a lot of information to consume and process. Take the time to properly plan your studies. Unless your employer has set a specific date to achieve your certification(s), there is no rush. So grab a calendar, open up Outlook, or get out your day planner and map out a reasonable timeframe to complete your studies. You might want to consider scheduling your exam(s) at this time. You increase your odds of passing by 50% by simply scheduling your exam(s). One thing to keep in mind concerning your plan is that it should be fluid, meaning it can change and adapt. Allow for this and adjust accordingly, because there will be times when life will interfere. Situations that are not conducive to studying will come up. This is where proper planning comes in. When your scheduled plan hits life's potholes, do not toss out your entire plan; simply adjust to the changes and keep moving forward.


    4.)Perform. This step involves executing your plan. You have started a project, researched your goals and options, created a plan, and now know what needs to be done. Just do it.


    5.)Finish. This is another step individuals forget to perform. They may start, research, plan and perform but never finish. One reason people never finish is because they are scared to. If you finish, that means you must “know it all, and be ready to take the exam.” That is when self-doubt creeps in. You begin to question if you can pass the exam(s) because you don’t “know it all.” Therefore you adjust your plan to reflect your fear of sitting for the exam(s). When this happens you begin thinking, "This sucks. I will never learn all of this. I might as well just quit." By not planning to finish, how can you finish your plan?


    6.)Test. Now comes the big day - the event you have been working toward. What last minute advice do you need? Simply put: relax. Remember the Karate Kid, "Win, lose no matter. You make good fight." Here are the facts - you will either pass or fail. If you pass, congratulations - pop the bubbly. But what if you fail? When planning, you need to consider that you may not pass the first time -- and this is okay. You evaluate your score, find your weaknesses and start again. Failing an exam is only truly a failure if you do not learn from it.


    7.)Evaluate. This is another step individuals seem to skip. You have started, researched, planned, performed, finished, and tested; now you have to evaluate. Sit back and reflect on what went right and what went wrong. Learn from your experience and use that experience to assist you in your next goal. Evaluating forces you to debrief. Performing this crucial step allows you to review, tweak, change, or adjust your future plan for your next goal.

    Well there you go – the Seven Steps to Certification Success. Obviously I cannot promise you that by utilizing this process you will pass every exam every time. However, it will help structure your studies and relieve stress by having an organized process to follow. Each one of the steps relies on the one before it and the one after it.  How you perform each step is up to you; however, I recommend that you use all seven steps in order. I designed the steps themselves as mini-goals for you to achieve – providing satisfaction throughout the entire process.  By completing each step you move closer to your desired certification with the confidence of knowing what has been accomplished and what needs to be done. By using the Seven Steps of Certification Success, you know instantly where you stand on the path to completing your certification.

    I truly hope you have found this article inspirational and informative. My goal has been to help you assess and achieve your certification goals by providing you with a structured process to assist you along the way. The road to certification will not occur overnight, and it will not come easy. Remember that certifications are merely by-products of your proficiency. Respect the integrity of the certifications by not cheating the program or yourself by taking shortcuts just to be certified for the sake of being certified. By doing so you devalue the certifications, your trade, and yourself. Good luck and passing scores…


    Michael D. Alligood,
    MCITP: Enterprise Support, MCTS: Vista Configuration,
    MCSA, MCDST, MCP, A+, Network+

    The I.T. Classroom Blog

    Start. Research. Plan. Perform. End. Test. Evaluate.
    Saturday, October 18, 2008 11:54 PM

All replies

  • Thanks Michael for taking the time to write this article. As many of you know, Michael is one of our community forum moderators and has been very active in helping many of you with your certification questions.

    Michael raises several good points in his article and in particular I would like to reinforce his comment on the fact that there is no substitute for actual experience on the software solution you are getting certified on. At Microsoft Learning we are well underway on transforming our exams from question-based exams to including performance based testing using scenarios and giving you access to the actual software through an online lab in order to complete the proposed scenario.

    If you are interested in instructor-led classes, we recently released a tool to help you locate the closest Microsoft Certified Partner for Learning Solutions called the Class Locator. It's a nice mashup that incorporates Microsoft Virtual Earth maps as well.

    Another resource I would highlight is the Microsoft Learning Plans which are collections of training resources organized into a step-by-step guide where you can save your progress as you works towards becoming certified. Many certifications now have a related learning plan.

    Though few are aware of it Microsoft Learning also has it's own bookstore on Amazon.com which has books reviews, additional resources etc.

    Microsoft Learning also has it's own more general "Six Steps to Certification" guide which complements Michael's article.

    As Michael reinforces in his article, becoming certified is not an easy task and requires upfront planning and a commitment to getting it done.

    If you have any suggestions or advice to people becoming certified please share it by responding to this post or to Michael's post.


    Ben Watson
    Director, Learning Services
    Microsoft Learning
    Sunday, October 19, 2008 4:12 PM
  • Thank You for this encouraging info.
    Wednesday, November 12, 2008 8:19 AM
  • Thanks Well done Michael although i'm goanna highly recommend an extra step (Reading your article:)
    Seriously it is inspirational and motivating Good job.
    Friday, November 14, 2008 9:48 PM
  • Great article, man!
    I'm a MVP and also a MCT and I'm always speaking about MS Certification.
    Could I translate your article to Portuguese and publish it in my personal blog, giving you the credits as the author?
    Thank you!

    Emilio MANSUR - MCSE:Security; MCSE+I, MCT, MVP - http://www.mansur.eti.br
    Thursday, November 20, 2008 11:36 AM
  • Absolutely. Translate away. When you are complete, forward me the link to the post!

    There is an expanded version of this coming out soon (when I can find the time to finish it). The will be expanded to include additional content, along with project mamnagement for your studies and forms to use to keep your project toward certifications honest and balanced.
    Michael D. Alligood,
    MCITP, MCTS, MCSA, MCDST, MCP, A+, Network+

    The I.T. Classroom Blog
    Start. Research. Plan. Perform. End. Test. Evaluate.
    Thursday, November 20, 2008 4:19 PM
  •  Great article!just passed my mcp exam last week and all I can say is that those 7 steps are true!Thanks man!
    Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12:39 PM
  •  Wonderful information! thank you - you are right getting started is the biggest hurdle. Now, let me ask you, as I want to make sure I am doing the right thing for the outcome.. I recently spoke to a company will not mention here but a .com for computers - pretty impressed with the information, hands on they will be teaching, 6mos course with three certifications once complete. - If my true end result are leaning more to "potentially"  towards the training/instructor level vs IT behind four walls type of job - is this over kill for me? more so the  $$  vs  time? - learning something new and potentially moving into a new field interest me however, I just want to make the right decision.

    Any direction would be greatly appreciated..

    PS - the Hands on, accomplishment and learning something new will mean more to me than the  paper or certification as well as room to grow.

    Monday, December 15, 2008 7:28 PM
  • Hey cbarone! Thank you for the comments. And yes, that biggest hurdle is actually starting. The second biggest, in my opinion, is finishing.

    As for as your situation is concerned and what is best for you, unfortunately only you can know that. I can (and will) give you advice along the way. But only you know what is best for you. With that said, let me see if I can help you now the best I can.

    I believe you have the right frame of mind to concentrate on the learning of the technology versus the end result; i.e. certifications. Learning is hard enough at times. Compound that with the anxiety of failing an exam and that is a recipe for disaster (not finishing - remember my second biggest hurdle?) That is way you read my sermons on proficiency (see http://social.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/CertGeneral/thread/b1357da0-61e9-40d1-9c71-92b902f6f159/) Proficiency is the key to certifications. Without that, you just have a piece of paper and wonder why no one will hire you. But I digress.

    Instructor-led training is a great option for learning. But it can be costly as well. See my post on New Horizons Computer Learning Center to fully understand the ins and outs of ILT: http://social.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/CertGeneral/thread/14345214-7012-417f-9a38-1f1026355c5f

    The "right" decision can only come from you. Only you know your financial situation, your free time available, and your risks that will cause you to fail if unmanaged. Only you know your study habits, and your learning style.

    But along the way, we are here to help. Just ask!
    Michael D. Alligood,
    MCITP: Enterprise Support, MCTS: Vista Configuration,
    MCSA, MCDST, MCP, A+, Network+

    The I.T. Classroom Blog
    Start. Research. Plan. Perform. Finish. Test. Evaluate.
    Monday, December 15, 2008 10:44 PM
  • Great information. Im just starting and past 1 MCP exam.

    Wednesday, December 24, 2008 7:05 AM
  • My present goal is to acquire MCP in the near future for the much needed competitive employment edge. This post provides me with a clear direction how to do just that.

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008 11:35 PM
  • This is exactly what i was looking for, some kind of direction. Thanks for the write up.

    Let me state first that i am in step 0 right now, trying to understand what is my end goal.

    My professional background - I started as a ASP web developer ( 6 months) and then transitioned to QA(4 years). As QA, i worked on various in house tools and did say 30% coding over all. I learnt C# myself and on a scale of 1-5(highest) i would give myself say a 2.5.

    My current work involves ASP.NET involvement, i am reading up on Entity Framework, ASP.NET in general etc.

    I am kind of drawn towards web development and think i would be happy doing web development.

    So now my questions are:

    a) What is the certification route i must follow to become a ASP.NET web developer ? The pre requisites for the certification states i must be a developer which i am not.

    b) I have access to a PC at home and have all the required s/w to work on ASP.NET and .net f/w 3.5. I like learning from books , so can i just read for say 2 months and then sign up for certification exams at a center or do i have to enroll at a center ?
    Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:36 PM
  • I am sorry I didn't see your question sooner. I am going to have one of my developer friends answer this for you.
    Michael D. Alligood,
    MCITP: Enterprise Support Technician, Consumer Support Technician
    MCTS: Windows Vista - Configuration,
    MCSA, MCDST, MCP, A+, Network+

    The I.T. Classroom Blog
    Start. Research. Plan. Perform. Finish. Test. Evaluate.
    Saturday, January 24, 2009 1:55 AM
  • Hi

    In relation to the poster above.

    To get the .NET Web developer cert, you are looking at two different paths with the same starting point. You should do the exam 70-536 (.NET Application Foundations)... The user Caddre is one the foremost on this (post). I have a blog post with relates to doing this exam here and also on exam prep and doing your first exam which may help you

    Now the two paths are whether you want to do ASP.NET 2.0 or 3.5...

    If you want to certify on 2.0 take the exam 70-528. Again I have some tips on this here. If you want to do it on 3.5 you need to do exam 70-562. Now you can do both exams as well as doing 70-536 and be certified on both. Which one is better for you, is best answered based on which technology you use in your day to day work. You have specified 3.5 so 70-562 I would guess. :)

    Now as for prerequisites, there are none, they are only guidelines.

    Can you read for 2 months and take the exam, sure. Its not a problem.Unfortunatelt the training kit for 70-562 is not out yet, but you can do the exam 70-536 no problem and by the time you should be done with that the training kit should be out. Again see posts from either Caddre or myself.

    If you look at the post on doing the exam or prep that I posted they give details on how to book your exam etc. Make sure to sign up for Second Shot (details)

    Again apologies for not seeing your question. I suggest if you do ask more, create a seperate thread so it will be seen quicker.


    MCP,MCAD,MCSD.NET,MCTS*7,MCPD*3,MCITP*2,MCDBA Blog: http://certsandprogs.blogspot.com
    Saturday, January 24, 2009 2:37 PM
  • (b) I have access to a PC at home and have all the required s/w to work on ASP.NET and .net f/w 3.5. I like learning from books , so can i just read for say 2 months and then sign up for certification exams at a center or do i have to enroll at a center ?)

    I don't think it is practical to come from QA to take Asp.net MCTS exams in two months, that is about the time I used and I know what you need to perform most tasks in Asp.net.  Yes the person can take and pass Asp.net exams but needs to change timeline for taking the exams because the exam 70-536 is very hard for Asp.net developers because it covers areas that most Asp.net developers don't use.  The user can read this thread for exam 70-536, the second thread for what it takes to study and pass the exams and I have covered exam 70-562 in the last thread.  The person can then start new threads to cover specific materials.

    Exam 70-536 materials.


    This thread covers how to study, prepare and pass Asp.net MCTS exams, advice from many users in this forum.


    Starting study material for exam 70-562.




    Saturday, January 24, 2009 6:48 PM
    Thursday, March 19, 2009 3:53 PM

  • Great article Michael.
    I have been looking such one since beginning of the year as I have been preparing myself to MSCA and MSCE (future).
    Your article shows exactly way to start and pass such exams and get certification.
    Very helpful for me and it confirmed the right study way.

    I look forward to hear similar ones from you,

    Thank you


    Bart Kurowski Professional Service Desk - MCP Getronics UK
    Monday, March 30, 2009 9:22 AM

  • Great article Michael.
    I have been looking such one since beginning of the year as I have been preparing myself to MSCA and MSCE (future).
    Your article shows exactly way to start and pass such exams and get certification.
    Very helpful for me and it confirmed the right study way.

    I look forward to hear similar ones from you,

    Thank you


    Bart Kurowski Professional Service Desk - MCP Getronics UK

    Bart Kurowski Professional Service Desk - MCP Getronics UK
    Monday, March 30, 2009 9:22 AM
  • Michael, thanks for the post.  Prior to this I was doing exactly what you said not to do, rushing to get certified.  Although my circumstances require some urgency into getting certified, I at least have a formula to apply in doing so.  The one thing that stands out in your formula for me is the research.  I think that a lot of time I have failed to spend in this area almost got me into a less than ideal path for my goals.  Until today I was looking at Computertraining.com as a way to get certified.  A costly path with only the certs. at the end (provided I passed the exams).  I am not looking to be certified just to be certified.  I am looking to be certified as part of a career change.  I am trying to make my hobby (computers in general) into a career.  I thought the certs. were my fast-track and to some extent still believe that but now I understand that the fastest track may not be the best, at least not without researching to find what is going to be the best for me.
    Thanks again,
    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 3:52 PM
  • Hi Michael

    Thanks, this has really motivated me. I wish to complete my first microsoft exam (Exam 70-432). Can you please advise the training materials i can refer to for this certification.

    Thank you!!!
    Monday, April 6, 2009 3:57 AM
  • Thanks Michael! This is great. Am starting my preparation today!
    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 3:31 PM
  • Great stuff, Michael, very informative. Thanks!
    Tuesday, May 11, 2010 8:29 PM
  • HI! Bro. This is shabbir. First of all how r u. am new to this blog. Have seen your article regarding the microsoft certification process. really good , u kept your experience in the form of article , if am not wrong. any ways well done. as you thought of doing some thing to the humanity by giving them some wise and clean and useful points. Really good. keep it up.
    Monday, January 17, 2011 6:03 PM
  • @Micheal


    I know you probably do not want to hear this question nevertheless the reason I am asking is because I am mentally tired right now hence I can't even bring myself to think for myself.

    - I am only interested in the Network Infrastructure Side of IT i.e. I am only interested in deploying, maintaining and troubleshooting things like Windows Servers, Exchange Servers, Sharepoint Server, Cisco Networks (Routers and Switches) etc.

    - I don't care about how they are used ... I just want to deploy them once and go to sleep until there is a problem.

    - I realise that I now have to start with Microsoft Certifications (I have already started with Cisco Certifications) ... its easier for me in terms of Cisco Certifications because I know that I can simply go from Entry Level - Associate - Professional - Expert - Architect.

    However when it comes to Microsoft Certifications, I am simply and basically just confused.


    I have MCTS and MCITP as two options ... My logic says that I should start with MCTS from which I can then obtain MCITP in future .... yet even with MCTS I have absolutely no idea where to start from.



    Should I start with Exchanger Server 2010 (662) 


    Should I start with the Windows Server 2008 R2 exam series (640,642,643).


    I am a confidence Learner i.e. I learn and tend to pass exams based on confidence hence its VERY important for me to start off with the simplest possible examination within the MCTS Series so that I can then work my way up towards the difficult ones. By the way in case you are wondering how far along the IT Certification Ladder I am basically just starting hence I only have things like (A+, Network+, Cisco CCENT).


    Saturday, January 22, 2011 4:13 AM
  • Hi Micheal,

    Thanks for compiling a well formed article, good one to start with. One of the good points was " failing to plan is a plan to fail". This article itself is an abstract plan for accomplishing a certification.

    Good luck for the extensions of this article.



    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 12:43 PM
  • Great article, my biggest obstacle for exams is useally myself, but after passing a few test, I've learned to trust my answers more and to take my time.



    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 4:11 PM
  • Great article, really very informative !!!
    Thanks in Advance !!! Cheers !!! Praveen Mandalapu
    Thursday, January 27, 2011 2:38 PM
  • Which exam you should start with depends on a lot of things. I believe it is best to start with technologies you currently work with and (preferably) already have experience with. This way you the exam will be easier for and more importantly more beneficially to your day to day work responsibilities.

    In your case I would suggest the following order:

    The 70-642 exam, "Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring" is mostly related to your current certifications. This exam has a lot of independent topics, like DNS, DHCP, SNMP, Network Acess Protection, and File & print services you might already be familiar with. So this exam will be probably the easiest for you to begin with. I also recommend taking this exam before the 70-640 exam, because the both exams cover DNS.

    The 70-640 exam, "Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring" may a be bit tougher, unless you already work a lot with Active Directory (AD). It is one big topic about AD (which includes DNS). But the exam is also about a few related technologies which uses the same AD brand name, this could be confusing. Especially those technologies are typically only used at big enterprises. I recommend taking this exam before the 70-662 exam because Exchange Server is very dependent on AD.

    The 70-643 exam, "Windows Server 2008 Applications Infrastructure, Configuring", contains the remainder of the Windows Server 2008 topics. Again a lot of independent topics like Windows Deployment Services, Hyper-V, Failover Clustering, Remote Desktop Services, and IIS. A lot of these technologies use AD which makes sense to do this exam after the 70-640 exam.

    The 70-662 exam, "Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, Configuring", is of course about Exchange Server. Like the 70-640 it is one big topic. I would recommend taking this exam as the last one of the four. Some subtopics in this exam like AD, DNS, IIS, and Failover Clustering are also covered in the previous exams.

    I believe most people consider 70-642 and 70-643 to be easy exams while 70-640 and 70-662 being the harder ones. I think alternating easier and harder certifications might be a good way to keep a good 'pace'.

    Good luck!




    Sunday, January 30, 2011 3:39 PM
  • HI there!

    Thanks for all information.I am intersted to take the sql server exam 70 432.I have worked as administrator for more than 2 years and one year education as sql server administrator.My question is interms of Market and jobb avaliablity.Beacouse there is sql server for developers exam as well as sql server administrator.Is there any one who can suggest which one is best interms of finding jobbs.I donot have practical expreness in csharp or visual basics.I have read also the window server consulting kit book but no practical work or experience.Am just wondering either sql server administration,developer or window server.Am wondering which is best in finding jobs...tanks.Any tips or resource material pls contact me via beseen03@yahoo.com


    Monday, January 31, 2011 3:27 PM