Tips and Tricks for Certification Exams
Passing a certification exam depends on a combination of your knowledge and the way you perform in the exam. The latter is more important when your knowledge is only slightly higher than the minimum required for the exam.
This guide is all about improving your performance in the exam, and getting the best result you can based on your knowledge. All tips here are designed for the certification programs we support, but most of them apply to other exams as well.
How focused you are during the exam has a significant impact on the result:
- You may miss a detail and give a wrong answer to a very simple question.
- When you’re not focused, you may have to read the text multiple times to understand, which takes more time and leaves you less to review the questions in the next rounds.
How can you be more focused?
It’s not the same for everyone, so you have to try different strategies when using exam simulators, see which one works best, and then pick that as your constant strategy in exams. Needless to say, you have to practice that strategy with simulated exams many times until it becomes second nature to you.
For me, the best way to stay focused is to visualize the text that I’m reading. This is a method I’ve found by trial and error, and its use is not limited to taking exams; I can use it for any important work.
Besides that, avoid all distractions. The most common distraction during the exam is thinking about the result! Just forget about the result and anything else other than the process of taking the exam.
Here are a few more tips:
- Each of us has a prime time during the day, when we have the highest performance and focus. Try to take the exam in that time.
- For online exams, it’s probably best if you take the exam from home if your workplace is too noisy.
- Are you easily distracted by noise? Then get yourself a pair of foam earplugs.
- Are you a smoker? Have nicotine gum handy!
- Place a chocolate bar and a glass of water or a cup of tea on your desk.
- Are you easily stressed? Don’t drink coffee.
Practice, Practice, Practice
A young lady, looking for directions to Carnegie Hall, sees a man carrying a violin case and asks him, “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The man replies, “Practice, practice, practice” ;)
Well, you surely know how important practice is when you want to fill in the gaps and polish up your knowledge for the exam. However, have you considered that rehearsing the exam in a similar setting helps you become familiar with it and be more comfortable, and therefore more focused, during the actual exam?
So, make sure you’re taking your simulated exams as if they are your real exams, and remember what they tell musicians: Practice as if you’re performing, and perform as if you’re practicing.
Any mental activity needs energy. Imagine a pool of mental energy: This is shared for most mental activities, such as making decisions, solving puzzles, and convincing yourself to do or not to do something (willpower). On your exam day, it’s best to keep most of this energy for your exam: Keep away from stressful, difficult, and puzzling situations as much as possible.
Besides the way in which this energy is shared among mental activities, you should also consider the source of that energy. That pool of energy is filled up when you have enough rest and food. So, take good care of yourself before the exam.
By the way, this is based on scientific research! You can learn more about it by searching Roy Baumeister and reading articles or watching YouTube videos about his findings.
When you see a difficult question, don’t try too hard to answer it, because it takes a lot of time, lowers your energy, and increases your stress, which may result in your answering other questions incorrectly. Just flag the question, go to the next one, and come back to the flagged questions at the end. Also, don’t panic if four or five questions in a row are too difficult for you. It can happen.
In your next rounds, try to review all the questions rather than only the flagged ones, because you may have missed something and answered a simple question incorrectly.
Ideally, aim for three rounds. Of course, this is not possible without good time management, so remember to practice time management in your simulated exams.
Read Everything Completely
You may just feel that a question is too simple for you and rush into answering it, so missing out important details.
Remember the following:
Read the whole question carefully. Sometimes a single word can change the meaning. The simplest example is the word “NOT”, which some people actually miss.
Read all choices before picking the right one. In some exams, there is more than one right choice, and you’re supposed to pick the best or the most specific answer, instead of just one that is correct.
You might have heard this before: If you’re in doubt, you’re best to stay with your first answer, and trust your first instinct.
Well, according to scientific research, this is completely wrong. The reason we feel that staying with the first answer is better is a combination of multiple cognitive biases, including loss aversion.
So, if you want to be successful, trust your reasoning, not your instinct. Just be careful how much time you’re spending on the question, though.
Who Said So?!
Sometimes, the question describes a scenario and then asks you what the best reaction to it is. They frame the question as if they are asking for an objective, universal truth or fact, when all they are doing is asking you what the best reaction is based on their material, theory, or methodology.
This creates problems for two types of people. One is the person who is too serious at analyzing the situation and imagining possibilities. The fact is that all the questions are simplified, and the answers are correct only in an ideal world.
The second type is the person who is knowledgeable in that area and has a more sophisticated perspective on the problem. For example, in a PMP exam, you may see a question asking you about the best way to motivate a person in a given scenario; but behind the scenes, they just want to know whether you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now, if you have a master’s degree in psychology, you may find it oversimplified or even wrong to use that theory in that situation.
So, what you have to do is understand the perspective of the certification program, and interpret everything from that angle. You need to know what they expect you to know, and how each question is connected to the concepts discussed in the program.
All Choices Are Wrong!
Sometimes you have a perfect answer in mind for a question, but you cannot find it among the answers. In that case:
- you might have misunderstood the question;
- you might be being too idealistic — just pick the best available choice!
So, check the question again and see whether your understanding is correct, and then pick the best available choice.
Answer All Questions
This is a simple point: There’s no negative mark for wrong answers, so it’s to your advantage to answer every question.
You can easily eliminate one or two choices and focus on the rest. If you still don’t prefer any of them over the others, just pick one randomly.
Be Careful with Compatibility
When you take an exam like PRINCE2, it always comes from AXELOS or its examination institutes, and all questions are 100% compatible with one single official manual.
The above is not the case in all exams, though. For example, the situation is different for Scrum. There’s a Scrum Guide that is considered to be the main definition and description of what Scrum is and how it works, but it’s a small document that that’s not always completely clear, and different Scrum exams have different perspectives. An example is the number of Product Owners in scaled Scrum: One of the two authors of the Scrum Guide believes that there should always be one Product Owner, even when there are multiple teams, while the other co-author believes that it’s best to have multiple Product Owners and a Chief Product Owner in scaled Scrum.
So, which interpretation is correct in the exam you’re going to take?
Make sure the resources you use for an exam are completely compatible with that exam.
Use the Manual [Efficiently]
If the exam is open-book (such as PRINCE2 Practitioner), you have a great opportunity to consult the manual during the exam, but you can’t do it properly if you’re not familiar with the manual. So, make sure you know where to find different pieces of information in the manual.
Remember that a certification program should not be a stressful experience with the sole goal of passing an exam; rather, it should be a pleasant, useful journey that ends with passing the exam, with that end being the beginning of your next journey.