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A look at affordable Microsoft certification exam prep options

Are you interested in a Microsoft certification prep course but hesitant because of costs? Don't worry. You can get access to all the info you need without breaking the bank.

Many classroom training sessions for Microsoft Certified Professional exams take place over five or more days at lavish (read: expensive) locations. Most have well-stocked labs, well-qualified instructors and catered lunches, but they often cost as much as $1,000 a day.

Fortunately, there are alternate Microsoft training outlets that cost far less and typically offer exactly the same training materials. You may have to skip the catered lunch and spread your course out over several weeks or months, but you will reduce your training costs by 80% or more.

Other educational outlets offer Microsoft training and certification preparation. Some may be right in your own backyard, and some may come from special events and offers from Microsoft. Let's look at your options.

  • Microsoft training at local community colleges
    Community colleges all over North America routinely offer Microsoft training courses based on Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) materials, and they're typically very affordable. For example, at my local community college in Austin, Texas, these courses usually cost between $750 and $875.

    From 1998 until 2003, I was an adjunct faculty member at Austin Community College. During that time, I taught Microsoft certification topics that included Networking Essentials, TCP/IP, Windows NT and 2000 Server, and Windows NT and 2000 Workstation. Students spent 30 to 36 hours attending lectures and an additional 10 to 12 hours practicing their skills and acquired knowledge in a lab environment.

    The training materials, labs, exercises and end-of-semester exams were all carefully orchestrated to help prepare students to take and pass relevant MCP exams. Though the topics have changed, the approach and goals remain the same at community colleges across the country.

    Microsoft IT Academy
    The popularity of these certification courses can be attributed to the development of the Microsoft IT Academy program, which now extends to high schools in addition to colleges and universities. It gives students and faculty access to MOC materials and campus-wide licenses that they may use in the classroom to deploy Microsoft operating systems, applications and services. Institutions must pay an annual subscription fee to be a part of Microsoft IT Academy, but most administrators, faculty and students agree that the membership benefits are well worth the cost.

  • Microsoft E- Learning courses
    Microsoft offers an E-Learning course catalog that lists classes in different product groups and technologies. Courses include multimedia training materials so you can learn at your own pace. And they incorporate text, video and animated learning modules, along with quizzes that make sure students are mastering the material and making sufficient progress. For fees that range from free (basic introductory topics) to $350, students can access learning materials for a one-year period that begins on their sign-up date.

    Microsoft E-Learning develops and maintains learning materials, certifications and the exams that support them. More than 19 certifications exist on the Microsoft Certifications by Name page with plenty of information on each.

    Hints for searching the Microsoft E-Learning site
    Don’t be surprised if you get lost navigating the Microsoft E-Learning site. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information there. If you're having difficulties searching the E-Learning Course Catalog, here are a couple techniques I use that can be very helpful:

    1. Search by the Microsoft exam ID number. For example, if you're looking for the Windows Server 2008 Active Directory Configuring exam, simply search for 70-640.
    2. Use the word collection. It will help you locate a bundle of courses that are geared toward one specific MCP exam.

    These techniques provide a great way to hone in on certification-related training that might otherwise remain hidden among the hundreds of items in the catalog.

  • Special events and offers from Microsoft
    You can also enroll in the periodically held Microsoft Certified Career Conference (MCCC) online. For around $50 (half-off for MCPs and enrolled college students, faculty and staff), attendees can access training modules, job postings inside Microsoft and with partner organizations, career and certification information and more.

    Additionally, the company lists extra discounts on its Learning Special Offers page. For example, you may see discounts on multi-exam bundles -- called Exam Packs -- and individual exams that range from 15% to 55%.

    The Born to Learn blog is another great place to browse for current deals, discounts and special learning events or offerings. The site also has announcements of upcoming short events, usually one-hour tutorials or training sessions that focus on career-oriented topics such as preparing for job interviews, fine-tuning your resume, networking, etc. It's also a great resource for finding out about upcoming conferences, like the previously mentioned MCCC, at which I now present.

Ed Tittel is the creator of the well-known Exam Cram series of IT certification preparation books. He writes and blogs regularly about certification topics for and numerous TechTarget websites. Check out his blogs IT Career JumpStart and Windows Enterprise Desktop.

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