Finding the best certification prep materials

Finding the best certification prep materials

Whenever people start preparing for an MCP exam, no matter what certification it may lead to, I find my inbox bulging with requests for recommendations on best-of-breed materials. For obvious reasons, I'm pretty partial to my two book series at Que Certification press -- the Exam Cram 2 and Training Guide series. But I'm also smart enough to know that no series (even those I work on) has a monopoly on "best of the best" status. Therefore,...

let me describe generic elements to consider when evaluating self-study kits or other materials and explain how to decide which ones will serve you best.

An exploded view of an ideal collection of MCP exam self-study materials should include one or more element in each of the following categories:

  • Study Guide: This ingredient is particularly important for those digging into a subject for the first time. They are usually big books that teach you everything you must know to understand the concepts, tools, technologies, and installation, configuration, problem-solving or trouble-shooting tasks you must master to fully prepare yourself for the exam. Good products in this general area include Self-Paced Training Kits from < HREF=http://www.microsoft.com/mspress/>Microsoft Press, Study Guides from Sybex Books, Exam Guides from Course Technology, All-in-One titles from Osborne/McGraw-Hill, Study Guides from Syngress, and of course the Que Training Guides.

  • Exam Cram: These are short, focused works designed as exam tune-ups rather than as complete learning solutions. In addition to the Que Exam Cram 2s, this category includes series like MS Press Readiness Reviews, the Osborne/McGraw-Hill Mike Meyers Passports, plus so-called Study Guides from Cramsession.com.

  • Practice Exams: These are simulated versions of Microsoft's exams, calculated to be enough like the real thing to help serious IT professionals prepare for their exams, but not so much like the real thing to violate non-disclosure agreements or exam integrity rules. Lots of vendors offer these products, including MeasureUp, Self-Test Software, Boson, PrepLogic, Transcender, among others.

  • Extra Goodies: These include exam or system simulators, flash cards, online mentoring services, online study groups, and other stuff to prep you for the exam. As you start looking at the selection and variety in each category, it's easy to be overwhelmed with the number and range of choices available. That's why it's absolutely essential to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Here's how:

  • Lots of online bookstores and websites – Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, BookPool.com, DigitalGuru.com to name just a few -- encourage reader ratings of books. They also invite experts and solicit regulars to post "recommended reading" lists, such as SearchWin2000.com's new book review section by LabMice.net founder Bernie Klinder. By looking for books that get the best professional reviews, good reader reviews and that show up on lots of recommended reading lists, you can be pretty sure to bag best-of-breed selections.

  • When it comes to practice exams, nothing beats peer reviews. Visit active online MCP study communities, like those at MCMCSE.com, Cramsession.com, MCPmag.com, and so forth, and search for threads that talk about good practice exams. If in doubt, post yourself and actively solicit recommendations. If you know any MCTs who teach Microsoft classes, they are usually pretty well tuned into who has good practice exams as well.

  • Same thing goes for extra goodies. Find somebody who's used whatever extras you may be considering. Solicit feedback to help you weigh the costs (or time and effort involved in using them for free stuff) against the benefits they provide. With a little bit of research and a little homework, you can easily build yourself a toolbox that will improve your chances of passing your next MCP exam. Good luck!


Ed Tittel is a long-time certification follower. He's series editor for Exam Cram 2, a popular assembly of cert prep books from Que Publishing, and a contributing editor for Certification Magazine. He also covers certification topics for InformIT.com, and numerous other TechTarget Web sites.

This was first published in July 2004
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