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5 tips to help you prepare for technical certification exams

Five ways you can better prepare yourself for hands-on, technical certification exams.
5 tips to help you prepare for certification exams

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As a sysadmin and a consultant, I'm constantly looking for ways to learn new things and keep updated with the latest technologies. In addition to training and self-learning, completing a technical certification program is a good way to learn, sharpen, and demonstrate your skills.

Other technical certification benefits include:

  • Help you obtain new opportunities or get a promotion within your current company.
  • Help you get a new job.
  • For professionals starting their career, demonstrate that you have a set of technical skills in the absence of experience.
  • Demonstrate commitment to a goal, dedication, and willingness to learn.

I have recently completed a technical certification program. It was a great experience and I learned a lot during the process. In this article, I share some of this experience and provide a few tips to help aspiring candidates obtain their certifications. This article focuses on practical certifications that require you to demonstrate your skills by completing a set of tasks instead of answering questions.

[ You might also like: What's the source of sluggish career advancement for Linux system administrators? ]

Due to their hands-on nature, these technical certification programs are usually demanding. However, with the necessary experience and correct preparation, you should be able to pass the exam. Following these tips doesn't guarantee passing it, but they will help you understand the expectations and assist you with your preparation.

1. Be informed

This may sound trivial, but it's an important topic. Read and understand the certification requirements and rules before you start your preparation, so you know where to focus your efforts. Even if you're an experienced professional, understand exactly what the certification expects you to demonstrate, as you may not use some of these skills frequently on your day job.

A few days before the exam, re-read all the rules and requirements to ensure you have everything covered.

For remote exams, you'll need to use your own computer. Verify that all the exam's hardware and software requirements are met to ensure that your computer is ready for the exam. If the certification platform provides a compatibility test tool, run it a few days in advance, allowing you time to address any incompatibilities or reschedule your test if necessary. Don't leave this to the last minute, or you may be unable to take or even reschedule the test.

2. Be prepared

For hands-on exams, instead of answering questions, you need to demonstrate the required skills by completing a set of tasks in a given amount of time. Some of these tasks might not be complex but, combined with the time component, they make the exams challenging.

Study the domains and skills required to pass the exam as listed on the certification information page. Remember that you might not have time to research a topic or attempt to solve it by trial and error due to time constraints during the exam.

In general, to demonstrate a skill, it's not enough to have a general idea about it. You need to complete a task by creating, managing, editing or deleting required objects, manipulating command line tools, dealing with configuration files, APIs, etc. If possible, spin up your own lab environment to practice these skills until you're comfortable with them. Then, practice with a timer to gauge how long you take to complete them.

When spinning up your lab environment to practice, be sure to use the same Linux distribution and other required software versions listed on your exam's information page. Exams may change software versions frequently to align with the latest release available. Always look for the correct software requirements in the confirmation email or exam's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.

3. Manage your time

If you're taking the test in a test center, plan to arrive there at least 30 minutes to one hour in advance. Don't give yourself more reasons to stress.

If you're taking a test remotely using your computer, reboot it 30 minutes before starting the exam to ensure you have a stable environment. In general, you can join the exam 15 minutes prior to the scheduled time. Use that time to review the interface and go over the admission process with your proctor.

As mentioned before, you have a limited amount of time to complete the exam. The amount of time varies for each test, but usually, it's not a lot. Manage your time wisely during the test. If you have doubts about a particular task, you may flag it and return to it later. Don't spend a long time in the beginning investigating a task you're unsure about, or you may not have time to complete the remaining tasks. Complete the tasks you're certain of and then come back to the ones you flagged and invest some additional time on them.

Read the tasks completely before attempting to solve them. It's worth it to invest a few seconds more to read, rather than having to re-do a task based on a missed detail at the end.

Be sure you go back and complete all the flagged tasks before finishing your exam.

During your exam, you can ask for a break, but the timer continues to run. For short exams—one or two hours—use the restroom before starting your exam. For longer exams—three or four hours—it might be a good idea to ask for a five-minute break just to rest your mind and stretch your legs.

4. Understand the environment

Certification testing centers use different test environments. Some provide access to one or more virtual machines that you can connect to, some provide access to a command line terminal, and some require that you do everything in a browser. Regardless of which environment they offer, it will be different from what you're used to working with. Keep in mind that there will be limitations compared to doing the same tasks in your home lab. Understanding these differences is critical to helping you perform well.

Check details about the exam environment on their information page. Take one or two minutes at the beginning of the test to get acquainted with the environment. Learn how to navigate the tasks, flag them to return, access the required command line terminal, browser, and how to ask for help.

A few extra tips:

  • If you're using a terminal on a browser, some text editors such as Vim might not work well, as typing keys like ESC may not work. Practice using a simpler terminal editor such as Nano.
  • Copy and paste keys such as Ctrl-C and Ctrl+V might not work in the test environment. Review the supported ways to copy and paste information for the specific test.
  • When using a browser, do not use Ctrl+W as it closes your browser tab, and it could cause delays with the test.
  • Generally speaking, the tasks contain copyable text such as resource names, file names, port numbers, or other relevant values. Copy then paste them on the terminal to avoid mistyping a required value when executing a task.

Overall, keep in mind you might not be able to type in the exam environment with the same speed you do on your own systems. Account for that during your preparation.

5. Use the documentation

Many certifications allow you to consult authorized documentation during the exam. Always check what you're allowed to consult on the exam's information page.

If you're allowed to use documentation, it's usually your responsibility to ensure that you don't navigate to any pages outside of the ones that are authorized, even if it's a link in one of them.

Since you have access to the documentation, you're not required to memorize everything, but you also don't have time to research something you're not familiar with. Be prepared for the test, and make sure you know how to navigate the documentation to find the resources you need during the exam.

[ Getting started with containers? Check out this free course. Deploying containerized applications: A technical overview. ]

What's next?

Now it's your turn. Put these tips into practice, prepare yourself, and take the exam with confidence. Good luck on your tests, and I hope you're soon a Certified Professional.

Topics:   Linux   Certification   Homelabs  
Author’s photo

Ricardo Gerardi

Ricardo Gerardi is Technical Community Advocate for Enable Sysadmin and Enable Architect. He was previously a senior consultant at Red Hat Canada, where he specialized in IT automation with Ansible and OpenShift.  More about me

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