I get asked all the time if I have any tips or advice on how to pass Red Hat exams. Because providing a fair and equal opportunity to all candidates is critical, I am usually reluctant to answer and refrain from handing out advice to individuals. However, since I get this question so often, I have decided that it is time to give some advice to everyone who is interested in taking a Red Hat exam.

Every Red Hat exam is a performance based, hands-on, practical exam. If we are assessing your ability to perform routine system administration on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we will test by having you perform routine system administration on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. If we want to assess whether you can create enterprise integration patterns using Red Hat Fuse, we will test by having you create enterprise integration patterns using Red Hat Fuse. There is no “choose the best answer” or “choose all that apply” or multiple choice. We will test you by asking you to do stuff, not answer questions about stuff. Consequently, these tips are not on how best to game the system and guess whether the right answer is A, B, C or D.

However, I do have some suggestions that will improve your odds of success on a Red Hat Certification exam. And may the odds be ever in your favor!

Get trained by Red Hat on Red Hat.

The best way to prepare for a Red Hat certification exam is through the training offered by Red Hat. Just as Red Hat certification exams are all hands-on, Red Hat Training focuses heavily on learning through hands-on activities. We do not require people to take training in order to take our exams, but we strongly recommend that they take our training -- even people who have considerable field experience in the area being tested. Your day-to-day work with a technology will lead to depth in some areas and gaps in others. Training helps close those gaps and provides structure to your preparation.

Connect your training to the exam.

“Will it be on the exam?” is a question we’ve asked or heard others ask from our earliest days in school. Red Hat provides the answer to that question for every exam. Look no further than www.redhat.com. For each exam we offer, there is a corresponding page on the web that provides useful information on the exam, including the exam objectives.

Evaluate your readiness to complete the exam objectives that are listed. For each exam objective, find the corresponding course content and lab activity and ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I able to complete this lab activity without assistance?
    The exam will not be based on the same exact lab activities provided in the course, so experiment with features and options covered in the course to study. Be aware that you will not have access to your training materials, notes, or other external materials during the exam, so while studying, you need to evaluate your readiness based on whether you can complete labs while looking at the solutions provided. You need to be able to implement those solutions on your own.
  2. Can I explain the concepts covered in the related material?
    Because the exams don’t just duplicate the lab activities, it is also important to understand concepts in order to handle the variation in tasks provided in the exam. Note that I’m suggesting that you be able to explain concepts, not just understand them. Relax! You won’t be required to do any explaining as part of the exam. However, being able to explain something is an informal but useful measure of whether you understand something. Enlist a friend and try explaining concepts. You’ll discover quickly the concepts that you’re solid on and the ones that could use some more attention.

Prepare for your exam.

If you have not followed my earlier advice and are not taking Red Hat Training, you can still use the exam objectives to help you prepare. Evaluate whether you are able to meet the objectives listed and be as honest with yourself as possible. Make sure that you can do things, not just understand them.

Prepare with others. We can learn a lot from others, including others who are seeking to pass the same exam that we are. Red Hat recently launched the Red Hat Learning Community to help people learn together. Join the community and use this resource, especially if you are one of the many people using our self-paced training options. However, please don’t use the community to try and gather information about exams beyond what we have documented publicly. The forums are moderated and attempts to gain an unfair advantage could impact your eligibility to take exams.

Know the resources you will have available. Let’s start with what you will not have. You will not have access to your notes, course book, the web or other external resources during the exam. However, we do not leave you completely high and dry. The systems on which you take the exam will include resources like manual pages and product documentation, the sorts of things that typically come with a product. Don’t even try to use this documentation to figure out how to do things during exams. Exams are timed and you will not have the time to teach yourself how to do things while the clock is ticking. Instead, use the docs as references to help you remember the trickier bits.

  • Example: If one of the exam objectives requires a command-line tool that takes lots of switches and arguments, you don’t needlessly need to memorize every single switch and argument. Remember the tool, remember its role, understand what it does, remember the most important (and easily remembered) switches, then make its man page your best friend in the whole, wide world. Aim to understand, not to memorize.

Be physically ready. Rest before you test. Your brain does not work as well under conditions of fatigue. Don’t go into an exam hungry or after a heavy meal. Neither condition will help your mental clarity and focus.

Check your work. “Check your work” is something you’ve heard since your math teachers in school. It’s good advice in the field and good advice for our exams, too.

  • Example: If you are going to make a significant system change that can impact the boot process, maybe you’d better reboot the virtual machine on which you are making the change to ensure that it actually works. You know how we score a system that comes up in an sulogin shell? Answer: with a big, fat zero.

Don’t let us be the ones who discover you have rendered your system unbootable. Check your work, discover the problem yourself and fix it. Allocate enough time to check your work. Decide on a time when you will stop actively working and start checking. If you get through your checks successfully, you can go back to working on the tasks you hadn’t completed when you started checking. Then make sure to check again because the change that you just made might be the one that leaves a critical VM unhappy.

Know when to move on. Technical professionals can sometimes be driven to the point of obsession trying to solve a problem. We will forgo sleep and food in pursuit of a solution. Be careful about this tendency when taking one of our exams. A lot of candidates let themselves get caught up in one task to the exclusion of all others. It’s better to move on to other tasks and complete them and then come back to the one that has you pulling your hair out.

Wash, rinse, repeat. If you do not pass your Red Hat certification on your first attempt, you have plenty of company, including members of the certification team. Don’t give up. Give the exam another shot, but do so in a structured, purposeful way.

Review your exam results.

Earlier this year we began offering more detailed information on performance in the exam results we send to candidates. We now provide a breakdown of performance across a number of categories, not coincidentally the same categories into which the exam’s objectives are organized on the associated web page. This information should guide and focus your continued study efforts. If you’ve followed my advice and mapped exam objectives to course content, you should now be able to map your exam results to both. Use your experience plus the resources at your disposal to focus your preparation for a second attempt.

Here is sample of what you should expect to see with exam results:

I hope you find these tips helpful. Good luck!

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About the author

Randy Russell is the director of Certification and leads the team that develops and delivers Red Hat's certification programs and exams.  A long-time proponent of performance-based testing, he has served on the board and as president and chairman of the Performance Testing Council, as well as having presented on this subject and others at industry conferences such as the Association of Test Publishers, the European Association of Test Publishers, CeDMA and TSIA.  Prior to joining Red Hat, Russell was a system administrator and programmer at an environmental economics consulting firm.

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