So, how do you prepare for a Microsoft exam?

A lot of thoughts go into Microsoft exams, and really it's easy to overthink these. Whether you are doing it just to get a piece of paper, your boss is making you, or you actually are intending to learn and validate your skills, there are some techniques to keep in mind. Here are the ways I study for exams and some of the tricks that work for me, in no particular order.

Do bear with me, some of this may be deemed boring or obvious material to anyone who is an experienced test taker, but there is hopefully something useful for everyone if you read to the end. :)

Preparing for the exam
This, obviously is the most important part. The Microsoft test prep books are the best in my opinion, since those materials will align best with many concepts from the exam. I wouldn't waste time memorizing these questions as much as the answers - but also the wrong answers. There are some test taking practice exams out there that give you similar experiences, which I have had mixed results with. Really taking these open book and searching during the exam did help, and there is no such thing as bad learning. Learning why answers are wrong will aid you tremendously in the test. I'll explain more later.

Don't forget you have resources available to you. TechNet Labs and demo software can help tremendously in seeing product features in action for yourself. Let's not forget a BYOH (bring your own hardware) solution by using something like client Hyper-V, which came in Windows 8 and later (Pro or Enterprise x64 editions). At the time of this writing, Windows 10 1607, which is the current branch, has a much deeper hardware support level with things like UEFI, Virtual TPMs, and more.

Now, the most important part, what to study. Here are some things that work for me:

  • I would obviously look at the "skills being measured" for each test, but take that a level deeper. I would look at the product page (say Windows 10) and look at the features that are being highlighted and put a deeper emphasis on those topics.
  • Anything that may present itself as an "If/Then/Else" scenario from the "Skills Being Measured" is also good, and something I would recommend putting in your labs for deeper understanding.
  • The MSPress books do have some great gems in them as well as decent explanations.
  • Don't forget to take and refer to your own notes and links, like a nice big Word, OneNote, Notepad document. Use your tool of choice.
  • Do not forsake the wrong answers on practice tests, as from this, you can learn things that will help you eliminate wrong answers on the actual test.
  • Any PowerShell or command line that you study, understand the arguments/switches, especially any ways to script or automate these command lines.

For me, I always study in a way that is most conducive to learning. I have multiple monitors at all times, and things spread across all monitors to study, see, or test the feature in the environment. Always have the internet handy, since your web search engine of choice can lead you to many an answer. In my opinion, doing is the best - having labs handy can't be stressed enough. There is no such thing as too much learning, if the topic you're on interests you, dive deeper.

Scheduling the test
Prometric, who does testing for Microsoft has changed their policy and my tricks that used to work, don't anymore. So, my personal advice here is not to schedule it until the day before you are ready for 2 reasons. The biggest reason is you have a 5 business day cancellation window, as opposed to 1 business day before. The second reason is you won't be second guessing yourself if you schedule the day before, since you will be ready (test anxiety butterflies considered).

From my experience and living in a larger city, I have never had a problem scheduling an exam for the next business day. You cannot to my knowledge schedule an exam the same day as the test centers usually download all new data the day of testing and upload when their last candidate is done.

Right before the test (the night before and test day)
The night before, don't cram, it rarely does any good. Maybe that works for others, but never did for me. It usually just confuses what you learned (and have less experience on) with information you second guess yourself on.

I am a morning test taker - not super early, but early enough that the day's drama doesn't have a chance to hit me yet. I usually stop for breakfast on the way in to "clear the mechanism". Even if it's "breakfast in a bag, dine in (the car) variety", it gives me a chance to clear other things out of my head. You don't want to bring work, relationship, financial, later plans, or any other mental bugs into the test with you. Leave it outside. Speaking of leaving things outside, don't bring anything that can be considered a cheat, leave the nice digital watch at home, for example. From my experience though, you do have a place to lock up everything, so don't worry about leaving your wallet in the car. Do bring a pen and notepad of some kind, but leave it in the car.

Also, at said breakfast, don't drink too much (and yes, caffeine is a must for those of us who crave it). Always use the restroom before the test, even if you don't think you need it. Getting up too many times (and one can be too many) could disqualify you, so don't let your bladder get you into trouble after you worked hard to study.

Now the actual test
You are seated. They start the test for you and you click Start. You will have to agree to a bunch of legal stuff, and then subject yourself to a bit of a marketing survey of how long and how experienced you are with the certain Microsoft technology in question.

Once you click Start, you are off and running. Some newer question types that I've noticed that I want to make you aware of:

Note I do not have the exact names of these, so I am making them up...

Does this solve it? Questions
These questions will come in groups, and present the same scenario with only a Yes/No answer (50/50 chance at least). The key here is that you WILL NOT be allowed to go back once you've answered the question. For example:

Q. You are finding some users after the OS Deployment some workstations do not have the proper time zone. You run sfc /scannow. Does this resolve the issue? A. Yes B. No

I find for these you need to know a lot of PowerShell and command line. Pay attention to syntax. Remember those wrong answers and command lines you studied in preparing? Told you I'd be bringing this back. Those wrong answers could save your bacon here.

Reason and Assertion Questions
These questions are the worst for me. They make a problem statement and then present a reason and assertion for what to do and why. You will then be asked if one or both of the statements is incorrect, and if the logic is sound. For example:

You are unable to read from a file called MyVM.vhdx, and when the file attempts to copy, the data transfer rate drops to 0 bytes.

Reason: The file and/or disk is corrupted and you need to run chkdsk c:.
Assertion: Disks can be corrupted and by running chkdsk c:, the drive will automatically repair itself.

In this case, the reason and assertion is correct, but the assertion is the wrong explanation. You need to add arguments for the auto repair of the disk. For the engineer in me, I can pick apart anything and spin it as "right or wrong", which is why these questions are my worst.

Multiple Multiple Guess Questions
I think these are very easy questions, if you know the material. There are more than the typical 4 answers, more like 8-10. Wait, how can 8-10 guesses be better than 4? Well, several questions in a row will use the same exact answers. The nice part is that these questions are quick and predictable.

For example, the following answers are presented:
A. chkdsk.exe, B. fdisk.exe, C: diskpart.exe, D. Computer Management, E. System, F. Settings app, G. Network and Sharing Center, H. defrag.exe.

You will then be asked a series of questions with these as the same answers for every question. Question 1: Which tool can erase and format partitions? Question 2: Where do you configure a hotspot in Windows?

Other great test taking tips (at least what works for me)

  • As you progress through the test, make sure to keep mental notes of the questions and concepts being asked.
  • For any question you're allowed to go back through, hit your low hanging fruit first. Answer as much as you can quickly. Once you're finished with your "once through" questions, then click back to the beginning and answer the rest.
  • Don't be afraid to use the "Mark Item" button for what you aren't really clear about or want to come back to.
  • Do not panic if the first few questions look like they are written in a foreign language and you have no idea what the question is asking. The exception to this rule is that if you didn't study or don't know the material, then you probably should panic.
  • Never assume what isn't there. One lesson I learned was never to ask the question "what sane individual would..." as there are a lot of foolish IT people in the world and many have done equally foolish things in providing solutions. Never assume what isn't directly said.
  • Always unmark your marked questions when you are finished and leave nothing unanswered, a bad answer is better than no answer.
  • As you're doing your final cleanup (known as guessing the last few), go with your instincts. Unless you have a clear and compelling reason to, never change an answer. Remember the "Learning why answers are wrong will aid you tremendously in the test" comment earlier? Usually in every multiple choice question, 2 answers can be quickly ruled out. If you don't know the right answer from the last 2 but one just jumps out as "looking wrong", never select the answer that looks wrong.
  • Become one with PowerShell and to a lesser extent, the command line. It's not going away, folks. In Windows 10 1703 as a matter of fact, PowerShell is the replacement to the command prompt by default.
  • Embrace cloud solutions, and if you are faced with a "pick the best answer" and a local and cloud solution is it, I would attack the cloud solution answer, if you cannot disprove it not being the best answer.
  • Know your GUIs. Try to visualize them in the test (and where your labs come in). Know how to do a lot of basic things in order (like modify file share permissions, as an example).
  • Before finishing, get one last look at the questions you had a hard time with and remember what was being asked.

Finishing the test
There isn't much to say except take a deep breath and accept the results. If you pass, congrats. If you fail, you will need to reschedule. I'll defer to the rules on Microsoft's web site for rescheduling options. Also, Microsoft did offer "second chance" with their tests. You may want to insure this still applies.

After the test
Whether or not you pass or fail (more likely if you fail), grab that notepad I referred to in the beginning and write down all the concepts you had a hard time with and study up on it. If you're good enough to remember the question, good for you, but more importantly remember where you were hit the hardest and ask questions on that. No guarantee you'll see the question again. This also works for those inquisitive types like me who was asked something and just wanted to know what the answer was, even if I pass.

I usually don't say much besides "Thanks, have a nice day" before I walk out. I don't want to lose the info in my head before it makes it to the notepad, if I have something to add to it. Of course, do not share the information from this notepad to others. This is just for your own personal information.

Special note if you fail
I know failing an exam can't really be spun into a great experience, it feels bad quite honestly. However, think back to when you started studying and where you are now. If you were using labs, think of the things you could now implement you couldn't before. Think of the knowledge you now have you didn't before. Take some time to get over the loss, shake it off, and go back after it. You are stronger and better off now than when you started.

I know there was a lot here, and I do hope this helps with your test taking skills and anxieties. For those of us (like me) who may know the material but aren't the best test takers, I do hope this helps you with passing some of those needed exams.

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