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Preparing for your IT certification on the cheap

Proper preparation for IT certification exams doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Get the lowdown on inexpensive options and where to find them.

When it comes to preparing for and earning IT certifications, most professionals want to accomplish both for as little money as possible. Fortunately, with careful planning and research, you’ll find ways to add to, and improve your IT certification portfolio. Here are some options, their costs and ways to take advantage of them.

When preparing for any IT certification exam, you must first ask yourself one question: “Can I effectively prepare for this exam on my own?” There are several reasons the answer may be “No,” so make sure to do your homework by attaining answers to the following questions:

1. Does the certification sponsor require training as a step toward the credential? Specific certifications such as Microsoft Certified Master topics, all of the VMware credentials and the SAP R3 consulting credentials require class completion before taking the exams. You simply cannot prepare on your own for these certifications.

2. How much does the exam cost? The more an exam costs, the bigger the investment to protect. This might -- and probably should -- sway candidates to pony up for classroom training and access to a well-qualified instructor. I have several friends who have taken the $1,400 CCIE lab exam three times before succeeding, so hedge your bets wisely.

3. How accessible are the materials you need? The more popular a certification exam, the more options you’ll find. Content developers always target the most popular topics, and demand for specific certifications drives the amount of materials available.

What prep materials for IT certification exams are available and how much do they cost?
There are plenty of options available for savvy certification candidates. Here’s a look at the most helpful items, as well as what you can expect to pay:

  • Training or certification guides: Many publishers offer both physical and e-books devoted to various certifications and their related topics. Over the years, I’ve had good luck with titles from publishers Wiley, Sybex and Osborne/McGraw-Hill, as well as presses from Microsoft and Cisco.

    College textbooks geared toward students taking dual-purpose classes (college credit and certification preparation) are another option. Expect to pay $45 to $90 for these textbooks as well as the titles mentioned above.

  • Exam Cram: As the creator of this still-popular book series, I’m proud to recommend these shorter and more-focused exam preparation titles. They are great tools for people already familiar with the subject matter or who are looking for additional materials as they prepare for an exam. Series like Passport, For Dummies and more offer similar guidance. Expect to pay around $30 for any one of these titles.
  • Practice exams: Software-based practice tests are available for various IT certification topics. These exams present the same coverage and materials you’re likely to see on an exam, without violating the spirit of vendor agreements that forbid outright disclosure of exam contents verbatim.

    Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to half the cost of the actual exam for quality practice exams. I usually turn to well-known names like Boson, MeasureUp, Transcender and PrepLogic. Do business with second-tier players at your own risk.

  • Flash cards: IT pros seeking drill materials, additional questions and sharply focused coverage will get good value from flash cards. They are available in both digital and physical varieties, with interesting options available for smart phones and other devices. Prices usually run from $20 to $40.
  • Practice labs: Exams that include hands-on components usually call for some kind of lab environment that lets you practice what you’ll be tested on during an exam. You’ll find everything from software simulators to virtual and physical labs available online for topics on Cisco, Red Hat and CheckPoint technologies.

    Prices range from $5 to $10 per hour for online lab access to $300 or more for full-featured software simulators. A word to the wise: Do your homework and include user ratings and reports on possible choices before making a decision.

IT certification prep doesn’t have to be done alone
You should also research study groups of like-minded individuals who are prepping for the same exam and topics. In larger metro areas, there are plenty of user groups that meet regularly. Many of them host get-togethers for discussion, practice, drills and demos.

You’ll also find much of the same online. Look for discussion forums and try trolling lots of postings and messages to dig up valuable material. Clément DuPuis’ is a great preparation and resource site for the highly sought-after CISSP exams. The site has branched out to cover other information security exams as well.

Working toward your IT certification: Set serious goals and monitor your progress
One potential stumbling block involves a combination of procrastination and poor planning. The best way to avoid “indefinite postponement” is to set a schedule and use email or other calendar-based reminders that prompt you to check your progress at regular intervals.

Wherever your exam prep activities lead you, make a timeline and be sure you meet various milestones along the way. Never squander precious time and money prepping for something that never materializes. Set goals, monitor your progress and take comfort knowing that earning -- and maintaining -- your credentials will make a positive impact on your career and salary.

Ed Tittel is the creator of the well-known Exam Cramseries of IT certification preparation books, and 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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