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Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things. - T. S. Eliot
Choose Your First Exams Wisely

Written by
Mitchell D. Garvis
November 15, 2006

I have gone on and on about the importance of that first cert exam, but I have read a lot of comments recently that made me realize how important exam selection can be to that successful first exam.

If your decision to get certified is based on professional necessity - i.e.: your boss said you need to get certified in order to keep your job, the choice may have been made for you, i.e.: 'We have Windows Server 2003 running our networks, we want you to pass 070-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment.' Simple and done, you know what your first exam is.

If you have made the decision yourself to follow a certification path on your own, or your bosses have given you incentive to get certified, you should pick your first exams wisely, because they can be a real defining factor in the future of your certification path. (If you have read my articles you will know that I picked the wrong exams for my first two tries when I started out, and instead of getting certified within weeks or months it took about sixteen months for me to pass my first exam, another fifteen months until I passed my second.

A lot of us (yes I said US) think that we know more than the average bear and love a challenge, we decide to do something stupid like pick one of the hardest tests to write first, figuring that once the hard ones are done you can coast. THIS IS A BAD STRATEGY. Cert exams are not only tough, but they are also (probably inadvertently) designed to be cumulative to some degree or another. That is, information you learn for 70-290 may appear in 70-291, or be expected knowledge whereas information specific to 70-291 will never appear in 70-290. If you study for the first and pass, that means you will probably have a good basis for that assumed knowledge in the second exam.

Before everyone jumps all over me I know and agree: Microsoft Certification Exams are not linear, and there is no official 'recommended path'. That being said there is that fall-over knowledge. An OS or Server exam would not cover routers and sub-netting (at least not in depth). The Infrastructure exams on the other hand will assume that you know Server inside and out. The core exams are numbered (nearly) sequentially for a reason, and any competent counsellor will tell you to start at the bottom and work your way up.

Of course for these examples I have taken what I know best - the MCSA/MCSA courses as my example. However if you want to start slower than that - maybe you do not have a great deal of knowledge or experience in servers but know that certifications are the way to go then Microsoft recently released a cert that may be more your speed. The Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) material is based entirely on Windows XP and the applications that run on it, while teaching a decent introduction to Active Directory technology (on a relatively desktop-centric basis). If you consider yourself a real Windows XP guru then these two exams will be a good launch-pad for a successful certification path. A number of friends of mine have gone this way to start out, and have been proudly signing their names as My Name, MCDST, MCP and that's okay - I know that when all I had was MCP I signed it everywhere!

In short find the exam that you have the most background understanding of, study until you are ready, then go get certified. Every exam is a stepping stone to something greater but it is a long process, and there is no advantage to starting the hard way. Nobody will ever be more impressed that you passed Infrastructure before Server or Active Directory before Desktop. If you know Active Directory better than anything then by all means try that exam first, but chances are you will want to start smaller. MCP take a single exam, and (as I learned the hard way) it might as well be the easier exam to get your feet wet - don't try to drink from a fire hose!

Good luck and now go out and get certified!


...10 exams later and none the wiser.
Mitchell D. Garvis, MCT
Microsoft MVP: Windows Server - Customer Experience
Click HERE to visit my blog.
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Mike Harvey left us a comment on 12/8/2006
I believe most people going for MCSA & MCSE tracks probably start out working on PC's and work toward a help desk and deside they would like to earn more $$ and get alittle more respect by getting some certifications.

So, they often already have some experience with the Desktop O/S that's out at the time like Windows 98, W2K, XP Pro, and soon Vista will be out.

So, to me the most logical test to start out with on these tracks is the one for the desktop O/S (70-210 W2K Pro (or) 70-270 XP Pro). However, they also need to understand the Desktop O/S tests do cover the desktop working with the server O/S and will have questions covering it as well. They need to learn to read the test subject matter that the test will cover which is located on the Microsoft Learning Website.

They also need to deside before they get to far into a certification program if they are going to want to use any 3rd party certs as part of there overall cert. (On the MCSA track, you can often use (2) Comptia certs like A+ and Network + to replace one Microsoft elective.

However, beware one issue to consider is CompTia exams cost substationally more for each test than Microsoft tests do. ($200+ compared to $125). So, don't try and get these vendor netural certs if you are not really interested in having them in your career goals. However if you are intrested in them. It does show you can work on areas other than just a Microsoft enviorment so a shop that uses Unix server and Microsoft servers might be more intested in seeing you have MCSA and Server + certs over just stricly a Microsoft cert. Then after you get your MCP cert after passing the desktop. Got into the server test like 70-215 and then continue on. Get hand's on experience on the software along with have some good study books and practice tests from approved vendors like Self test Software.

Then study till you can well pass the exam on the practice test before trying the real exam. Nothing would be more disappointing than failing your very first exam and having to put out another $125. for the retake of it.

Mike Harvey
MCSA, Server+, A+
U.S. Navy Retired

Plaboatr left us a comment on 12/11/2006
I must agree that starting from the bottom and working your way up is the way to go. I just recently passed my 70-270, and like has been described, I thought I would breeze through it since I had such an intimate knowledge of XP. I was very wrong. I would guess that half or more of the test was based on how XP interacted with either Server 2003 or Server 2000, and very little had to do with the daily maintenance and upkeep of XP. 70-270, while focusing on XP requires a pretty in-depth knowledge of Server and AD.

As an elective, I have decided on the CompTIA Security+ cert. as my MCSA elective. Mainly because security is my interest, and I like the idea of having another non-MS cert to add to the alphabet soup at the end of my name. I'm centered right now on getting through the MCSA since it's all already paid for, but in the coming months I'll be needing to make a choice on whether or not I want to immediately continue on the MS path to MCSE, or break away and go into the EC-Council courses that I'm interested in like the CEH and C/HFI. My decision will be purely economical......i.e., what gives me the most bang for the buck. Like anyone else, I want to maximize my earnings, and make myself an attractive employment prospect, so those factors will be the dominating aspects of my decisions.

I'm all ears for any comments in this regard.

Plaboatr, MCP

Mike Harvey left us a comment on 12/19/2006
I have my MCSA and am working to finish it into a MCSE perhaps with a speciality of Messaging or security or both perhaps. While I feel the MCSA should have more value, many people yet do not understand the differance between the MCSA and MCSE certs, so HR offices just put out a requirement as being a certified MCSE and want to see MCSE on your resume, not MCSA since I bet most don't even know what MCSA is.

Congratulations on obtaining your MCP Plaboatr. Keep on going. Plan out the next test, get a voucher and study away.

Mike Harvey
MCSA, Server+, A+
U.S. Navy Retired




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