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March 17, 2009

2 Most Common Mistakes People Make on IT Exams


You’ve decided that you’re going to embark on getting that certification. Good for you!

You’ve been working with the technology for a while and definitely longer than the recommended or suggested amount of experience that is listed on the skills page for the certification, so you’re feeling pretty confident there.

You’re just trying to figure out if you’re missing anything else but you’re not really sure.

This article will help you a bit with that as I talk about two common mistakes people make on IT exams.

[NOTES FROM THE FIELD] – Two things are probably coming to mind right now: how would I know what the mistakes are if I’ve personally made them how reputable could I be? That and maybe: are there only these two common ones?

I’ll answer that last one first. There are quite a few different mistakes that people make but I wanted to try to focus on what I think are the ones at the top. As with anything there are dozens of ways to slip yourself up but when you look at them all sometimes a few are rooted together. One example set — not studying enough, not taking enough practice exams, etc would all funnel up to not being properly prepared.

As to the first part, I haven’t made a ton of mistakes taking exams personally but I’ve had close calls with some screw ups on my part and I’ve had many friends blow exams and when I’ve caught up with them later and we’ve discussed the results I’ve heard a lot of familiar comments and common elements.

So without further ado, here are the two common mistakes people make on IT exams (in no particular order).

Being Under Prepared

This is basically a simple one and the issue’s root really depends on the person. Some people assume because they work with Active Directory all day that they really don’t need to study much reading material or review any test prep questions because what could be on an exam that they don’t see every day or at least once it a while?

Plenty. For any IT exam you need to make sure that you are familiar with ALL of the skills being measured and not just all the ones you do day in or day out. Those questions you might smoke right through on the exam. Other items that you never deal with regularly (or at all) could burn you.

The main issue here is that the exams expect the test take to submit the best answer available as would be done following best practices. The problem is that many people in their day to day work don’t do this.

It might be that they learned a different way to do something that does work in their environment and may not even cause any issue but it does not follow suggested best practices. It might be that due to business rules that certain things must follow a procedure outside of conventional thinking or processes.

On the job experience may not be everything you need especially if you do not test well or are very used to only one way to get a job done. If you’re used to the command line and the question calls for you to use the GUI (or the other way around) you’re going to blow an answer that you’d otherwise know how to do if another way to do it was offered.

These are a few things I keep in mind when I am preparing for the exam in an effort to make sure I am not under-prepared:

  • Do I know what the best practices are
  • Do I know which ones we follow and which we don’t
  • Do I understand why we do something one way and why another way is the best practice
  • Am I aware of all of the skills being measured for the exam
  • Am I strong in all of these areas

Being Over Prepared

Is there such a thing? Technically yes and you’ll probably pass with a really high score for being over prepared which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a mistake of sorts to spend more time than you really need on something.

There was a time when I was a beta tester for exams (I would do it now but I just don’ have the time). Basically, as a beta tester you are taking an exam as provided by the credential and certification owner before it is available for public release.

The pool of testers take many of the questions that will be on the actual certification exam when it goes live. Often they may have many more questions in total than what will be on the actual exam. (Example, the beta exam would have 120 questions where the final exam might have a pool of 55).

It is from these questions that the beta examinees review and are scored on that the final decisions on which questions to include and which to remove are made. In these scenarios you are drawing ONLY from on the job experience; since the certification is not even available yet there is nothing really to study from (no books, no practice exams, etc).

Once the final counts of which questions are included and which are thrown out are decided the examinees results are given back pass / fail to the candidates. If you fail the beta exam you can take it when it goes live. If you get a passing score you are granted the certification.

I took the very first Server+ exam in beta and missed by one or two questions (not exactly sure of the number but I was a smidgen under a passing score). I wanted to pass that exam on the beat but I figured I gave it my best effort and I would try it again.

I really didn’t like to fail exams because I really felt like I know a lot of the material but I also wasn’t sure how much the exam questions and the domain materials might have changed from beta to live so I bought two Server+ books and read them cover to cover over two months and took the practice exams in the books until I got perfect scores. Only then did I reschedule the exam.

I passed with a nearly perfect score.

I had felt half way through the first book that I might have figured out the couple of questions that I was on the fence with respect to answers I gave but you can never really be sure so I kept hammering away and I could have saved myself some study time and could have been doing other things.

These are a few things I keep in mind when I am preparing for the exam in an effort to make sure I am not over prepared:

  • Am I already fairly confident of my knowledge of the skills being measured
  • Am I already fairly competent at work in all of the skills being measured
  • Do I understand where my weakness are and can I focus on just those
  • Can I go to the back of the chapter and answer more than 80% of the practice questions correctly
  • Do I need to do more than scan a chapter on the topic

The Advice

As with anything in life, achieving balance is the best way to succeed. Make sure you strike this balance when preparing for your next IT exam by not being under or over prepared.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and I am looking forward to any feedback you have on it. Additionally, I would welcome any topics of interest that you would like to see and based on demand and column space I’ll do what I can to deliver them to you.

Best of luck in your studies.

About the Author

is a Senior Technical Account Manager at Microsoft Corporation. He has worked as a technical trainer and consultant for a variety of corporate clients in Connecticut over the past ten years. He also has written a number of CompTIA and Microsoft prep tests for Boson Software as well as a number of published articles for,, and Certification Magazine. His professional CompTIA certifications include: A+ Certified Technician, I-Net+ Certified Technician, Server+ Certified Technician, Network+ Certified Technician, and Security+ Certified Professional. His professional Microsoft certifications include: MCT, MCP, MCP+I, MCSA, MCSA: Security, and MCSE.