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Test-Taking Skills 101: Time Management

By  Jul 16, 2008

Topics: Certification

Hello there. This is the first of a multi-part series in which I share with you practical test-taking strategies that you can leverage to great effect in your pursuit of your next IT certification goal.

In my IT career thus far, I estimate that I have taken between 150 and 200 certification exams from most of the major vendors (Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA, Oracle, Apple, Novell, Sun, etc.). Moreover, I can state that in the vast majority of cases, the exam vendor allows students adequate time to complete their exams.

Nevertheless, you need to be really careful in how you structure your time while you are in your exam session. The bottom line is that, once the exam timer expires, your exam state (complete or incomplete) is submitted to the test engine for grading.

Take-home message: you never want to submit unanswered questions, because an unanswered answer choice is graded as 100 percent incorrect 100 percent of the time.

Watch the "Pre-Exam Festivities"

I consider "pre-exam festivities" to include stuff like the pre-exam tutorial, which is a function supported by both the Pearson VUE and Prometric testing engines. This interactive tutorial is intended to help newcomers get accustomed to taking a computer-based test.

Actually, I sometimes recommend that IT certification candidates who struggle with test anxiety always walk through the pre-exam tutorial, survey, and so on, using this simple exercise as a sort of meditation that helps the candidate get into the test-taking frame of mind.

On the other hand, take comfort in the fact that pre-exam festivities, while they are timed, do not factor into your time limit for the exam itself. Just keep that in mind.

Answer the Easier Questions First

Some IT certification vendors, such as Cisco, do not allow candidates to move forward and backward through the item set in their exams. That is, once you have answered a question and clicked "Next," that's all she wrote--you are not allowed to go back and change your answer.

The good news is that Cisco's approach represents the minority of how most IT certification test engines work. I recommend that you work as quickly as you can through the entire question set and answer as many "gimme" questions as possible on the first run-through.

Both VUE and Prometric exam engines allow you to mark questions for review. Be sure to mark items that aren't exactly easy but aren't blisteringly difficult, either. Your second pass through the item set should be devoted to answering these "middle tier difficulty" items.

Once you have swept up those shavings, you should then have an appreciable amount of time left to devote to the most difficult items in the exam.

You will never regret spending your initial several minutes moving quickly through the entire question set; here is why:

  • Oftentimes a question later in the item set can be answered by the body text of an earlier item
  • You can sometimes gain valuable background knowledge about harder questions by examining the easier ones

Answer 'em All--Period

As I stated earlier in this essay, unanswered questions are always graded as incorrect. Conversely, a blind guess on a four-choice, single answer item gives you, at the very least, a 25 percent chance of answering correctly, and therefore being granted credit for that item.

In my experience, there is something significant to be said for the "first hunch" theory. Please don't think too deeply into your initial answer choices. Dollars to donuts, if you change items that initially felt correct from a gut level, you may find yourself changing correct responses to incorrect ones.

If you find that, like proverbial sand through the hourglass, your minutes remaining in your exam session are dwindling faster than you can analyze items, then mark the remaining items and blindly guess.

Please trust me inasmuch as there is no "magic formula" to determining if the exam content developers statistically favor choice C to A, or whatever. In my experience as an exam developer, that is folklore nonsense. Just answer your remaining items A, B, C, D, A, and so on. It does not matter.

Please feel free to share additional suggestions on this topic in the comments portion of this post.

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