A Rant About Bad Blogging and A (Former) Paper Tiger’s Advice on Passing IT Exams

TL;DR If you’re just looking for the “Studying Exams” part, skip down to, “And Now, the Exam Studying Part”.

The Rant Part, If You’ll Excuse the Irony and the Aside

The irony of this rant on bad blogging is that having a rant during an informative post that has a real topic, which, in this case, is studying for IT exams, is itself . . . bad blogging.

But screw it. It’s my blog and it’s not like I am blogging for . . . let’s say . . . Network World or anything.

Anywho, way back in 2009-ish, I used to blog for Network World.

That’s right. I used to blog for the highly-influential juggernaut that was Network World if we were still in the year 2003.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to show you my receipts:

  1. Here’s an oldie but a goodie: VMWare VI3 Snapshots and Their Misconceptions. Yeah. That’s VI3, mother trucker.
  2. The New Features of Windows Server 2008 that All MCITP’s Should Study. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
  3. Here’s one on reading RFCs (I used to do that).

On a serious note, that blogging experience was a very bad one, but I was new at it, and there was supposed to be a win-win for me and the company I worked for at the time.

There was not.

And, it was supposed to boost my career.

It did not.

And, I wasn’t even paid for it, by a supposedly very large organization called Network World.

And, I was given some very bad advice on how to blog. I was “required” to have titles that . . . ** throws up in mouth ** . . . indicated the posts were a listicle (I call this approach using “listitles”™), which even at the time reeked of clickbait. You’ve seen them before: 7 Ugly Celebrities that Look Spectacular Now, or some cliché BS like that. I am not saying the listicle form is bad. It is sometimes the best way to communicate listed items, but what I am saying is that titling things this way is a very inane way to get people’s attention.

I despised these listitles™ then and I despise them now, and I will continue to despise them until I die. It’s the very definition of unoriginal and it’s geared to pique the curiosity of mind-numbingly stupid, barely literate mouth breathers. If you are a blogger, it is best to avoid them, especially in the world of IT. I have used a listitle™ exactly once on this blog, end even then I went on the same kind of rant only shorter.

And Now, the Exam Studying Part

As it turns out, way back then, I wrote a blog post (which did use a listitle™) that gave people advice on how to study for a Microsoft Exam. And, it just so happens, dear readers, that I am studying for an exam right now. I am going for my AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, so I thought I might re-visit that blog post and update my advice. My disclaimer is that this applies to question and answer tests, not scenario tests where you actually have to configure something. Here we go:

  1. Print out the objectives list for the exam of choice. With the Cloud Practitioner exam, that’s here. I can’t tell you how many people don’t even look at this. It’s the main measure of what you will be tested on, and it’s a great checklist to use as a guide. You can also use this to figure out which materials actually cover those objectives.
  2. Get training. Nowadays, training is pretty cheap and sometimes free. There are plenty of Open Source methods that don’t cost you money. AWS has a free course here. Also, there’s Udemy, Pluralsight, or ACloudGuru.
  3. Get hands on experience using labs, and design your own solution. If you are studying for the Certified Kubernetes Administrator, for example, there are tons of methods for getting your hands dirty, like Kubernetes the Hard Way. With my AWS studies, I have a feeling I am going to be using their Free Tier a lot. But also, try to implement your own solutions. Going through exercises is great, but you won’t really retain the information until you have to do it and solve problems that arise organically.
  4. Commit the knowledge to memory:
    1. From the Objectives doc mentioned in #1, type out everything you know about each item, brain dump style.
    2. If you can’t fill them all in, don’t fret about it.
    3. Anything you can’t remember, study in the book and/or design your own solution to keep refining and increasing your from-memory recall of the information.
  5. Take a Practice Exam. There are various practice exams you can take. I would recommend finding the practice exams certified by the testing provider. Yes (I’ll just say it because I know you’re thinking it), you can find brain dumps out there, but they are frowned upon, and if you are caught using them some vendors will deny or revoke your cert.
    1. Very Important: At your first pass, a score of 20%-30% is completely normal and acceptable. There are other factors at work at this point, primarily having to do with test-taking skills. I have seen so many test-takers put a gun in their mouth at this point after receiving a 20%. Don’t. It’s very common and absolutely normal. It’s OK.
    2. Read the explanations to the answers and how they relate back to your earlier training – don’t just memorize them.
  6. Schedule the Exam for a Friday, 2-3 weeks out, before a weekend with no plans. This gives you a definitive deadline. A deadline, more than likely, will force you to study harder, as long as you have self-discipline, which is a key factor. Don’t wait until you think you are “100% ready” before scheduling your exam. Everyone thinks that they have to be flawless and at 100% before they can set foot into the exam room. You don’t. I see so many people study. And study. And study. And study. There is no Summa Cum Laude for an Exam. Passing is passing. Accept it: unless you have a photographic memory (most people don’t), you are going to get some questions wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you’re human. And, despite claims to the contrary you won’t die if you fail the exam. Why do I say Friday? If you just can’t buckle down for the last week, worst case scenario, you can cancel on Wednesday or Thursday, reschedule for the following Monday, and buckle down on the weekend. This has really worked for me, but YMMV. Bottom line, you will need discipline, it’s that simple. This step requires discipline more than any other.
  7. Re-take the Practice Exam and repeat steps 3-5 until you have a 90%.
  8. IMPORTANT: FFS DO NOT study anything on the day of the exam, and especially don’t take a practice exam. You will “psych yourself out”.  Even though you may have accepted that you might get some questions wrong, at this crucial stage, any question wrong will snowball into “Holy crap! If I got that wrong, I KNOW I’ll get it all wrong and fail!” So, if you have completed the first 7 steps, then you are ready. Take the plunge.
  9. Take and pass the exam.

Did I also mention I spent time creating tests during my curriculum development days? I am full of surprises in this post, aren’t I? Taking an exam is not just about studying. Test-taking skills are just as crucial:

  1. For each question, read the entire question and all answers CAREFULLY before selecting your final answer.
  2. Look for key words – one word could change your answer completely.
  3. Don’t assume anything.
  4. Use process of elimination if you are not 100% sure. Remember that passing an exam is as much about knowing what the answer is NOT, as it is about knowing what the answer IS.
  5. It sounds obvious, but ANSWER. THE. QUESTION. Don’t get caught up in trying to answer “Why would someone do that?” The scenarios sometimes presented are not always advisable in a real-world scenario, but are there to see if you know the concept. Even if it isn’t a “best practice” scenario, as an engineer who’s spent some time as a consultant, I’ve seen some really wonky implementations, so even if it you’d never “do it that way” doesn’t mean it isn’t “real world”. See #3.
  6. Answer the question and only the question. Don’t go beyond the question and start theorizing about the consequences. Remember #3.
  7. If you have no idea (it happens), and have to guess, which should be rare, choose the comparatively longest, or shortest answer. Studies have proven that exam writers have a tendency to make the right answer the “odd one out” so to speak. Use this to your advantage.

Questions? Hit me up on twitter @RussianLitGuy or email me at bryansullins@thinkingoutcloud.org. I would love to hear from you.

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