Thursday 20 November 2008

Preparing for your MS exams

I pop into a few online discussion forums here and there, the main one being the IT Certification forum on

A lot of the topics tend to be on the relative merits of different certifications, where to start etc. Some on are on how to prepare for the exams, the length of time to study and what to study. So to answer these questions I am writing this article on how I do these exams.

NOTE: This works for me, so your mileage may vary on this.

Usually I decide to do an exam when I have been working in the technology for a bit or its one of those technologies that I like working with and want to get more work in. And it also depends on the time of year too. No one likes studying in the summer!

My first step is the Microsoft Learning page for the exam to see what the exam will be based on. For example I am looking at doing the MCTS Team Foundation Server exam at the moment, based on my experience over the last couple of months, PDC and talking to the big guns in the TFS world. So in this case I went to the landing page for the exam which is here

Based on what I see here will define what I do next.

If when I read the requirements and see a whole load of gibberish, I might evaluate my position and decide to wait a bit until I have worked more with the technology. If its looking like I could actually do this, I head to my second step.

Which is, do I really want to do this exam right now?. What is coming up in my work/social/personal life? Do I have the time to commit to it etc. As I have said nobody likes studying in the summer.

So onto step three, guaging readiness. This is possibly the make and break stage for me when it comes to working out how much work I have to put in. Its very easy on the landing page to think I know all that stuff and I will give it a go no study needed!

I go to*) and purchase the test exam if its there for the exam I want to. I take it in test mode, and see how well I score unprepared. If I score high (in or around 90%) I retake the exam with a different question set and take the average. If its still about 90% I will schedule the exam for within a month so that I have a goal to work towards. Dont forget your Second Shot vouchers

If I dont score too well, there are two options.

I look at what I was asked and where I screwed up. If its a case of ok, should have read the question better or I knew that! why did I say X, then I will be able to do the exam, I will just require some more work. I dont book the exam at this point, because I will need to come back in a reasonable amount of time usually 2 weeks and re-evaluate my scores. Again same proceedure, if I score high enough I will schedule the exam etc.

If the questions seem like complete gibberish and I havent a clue what I was looking at, I will take that as a sign that I dont know as much as I thought and decide whether to study or whether I need more practical experience and time to prepare. Normally for me, I will decide to come back in a couple of months and try again.

Taking the practice exam at this stage is a great way to really see where you are at, in relation to the subject matter that is being examined. It is also a good wake up call if you thought you knew everything and the questions seem completely off the wall to you.

After figuring out how much work I need to do, its off to the web to find resources. This is usually blogs, MSDN articles, books and virtual machines to play with. I usually put the exam matrix in Excel at this stage and based on everything on it put a link, page number or task item against it so that I can see where to get the information for that particular item. Its just an advanced form of using a highlighter.

Now regardless of whether I have the exam booked or not, after about 2 weeks study and prep, I will retake the practice exam and check how I am doing. This is a good thing to do, as it hopefully(!!!) show that you are progressing and getting better scores in the exams. If you are going downhill by more than 5 or so percentage points, then see why. Be sure to read the questions kids!

About a week before the exam is scheduled, I will make sure that I have covered all the topics on the exam at least once, if not more and that I am confident enough to actually sit the exam. Last minute revision. couple of more practice tests to get myself in the headspace for the exams and I am done.

After that, its hoping that the effort is enough to pass the exam first time round.

Now with Second Shot, you can do the repeat for free, which is a great comfort. I always think if I dont pass, at least I got a good look at the live questions and can get a better understanding of what the examiners had in mind when they created the test. So if I fail, I can head straight back to the books and get a better understanding of the stuff I fluffed on.

So thats it, no mind bending secret, just good prep and some work. Like anything in life really.

(*) Microsoft regularly run a promotion called Partner Skills+ (PS+) which offers free exams when you are working for a Microsoft Partner. Check with your Partner contact to see if they are availible. Usually found on this page


Adrian said...

just to let you know the link below does not work the link entitled "page":

Unknown said...

Its a 2 year old post some links are bound to die.. I will adjust it at some point..

Thanks though for taking the time to point it out :)

Sandeep said...

Is the one year experience wid .NET 2.0 mandatory for 70 505 exam??

Unknown said...

Hi Sandeep,

No the 1 year experience is a guideline so as to offer people an idea of how experienced you should be before taking this exam

Sandeep said...

Thank You Niall! I am novice to these certifications but I am well versed with VS2008 and .NET 3.5, as I have been working on these for the past 8 months.. M$ specifies the book, "Self Paced Training Kit for 70 505", for this exam. Is it suffice for the exam? or shall I take some other sources like materials, exams etc...? Please Keep me updated.. Regards,

Unknown said...

Hi again Sandeep

I would say that it is always better to supplement your learning with some information from the MSDN etc so that you can fully understand the concepts and also make sure that you have the most correct information. Please check for the errata for that book as well

johnnywalker said...

Hi Niall, I was planning for MCTS ASP.Net 3.5, so I have to pass 70-536 and 70-562.. I already purchased the MS Press Training Kit. So, my question is, without having to spend more on other stuff, how will I know if I'm ready for the exams?
Oh, I'm from the Philippines,and having these exams are quite expensive here..
Thanks for the posts!

Akshay said...

i am preparing for 70-536 exam.would u suggest something regarding the xams.

Akshay said...

i am preparing for exam 70-536.would you suggest something regarding exam

johanna said...

Thanks so much for your post regarding this exam.
I will start to train myself on it. Just bought the training kit microsoft so far ... I will take time to analyse your advices and tips ....
Thank you again,

ThanuJayakrishna Reddy said...


I am preparing for certification and i am little confused here, could you please help me out in finding rite one and path for me.

i know there is 70-432 certification is the first step towards MCTIP in SQL SERVER 2008. but what about the 70-443 and 70-450? are they also essential before going to MCTIP ???
Please advise. Much appreciate in advance.