MCSE Exam Strategies

Here's a three-phase test-taking strategy that is designed to eliminate as many wrong answers as possible.

My recent efforts to upgrade my MCSE certification have forced me to re-examine the exam strategies I've developed over the past 6 years of taking Microsoft's certification exams. I haven't recently counted up how many exams I've taken, but the Windows 2000 exams will certainly push the number well past 30. In the process of taking that many exams, I've developed a three-phase strategy.

First, I read through the entire test. As I go through the questions, I answer the questions whose answers come to me immediately. However, if I have to think about the answer or if the question has several paragraphs, I skip it. I also never answer any questions in the first 10 minutes of the exam because I find it takes me that long to focus on taking the exam.

As I read through the questions, if I think I know the answer but I'm not certain or if I can quickly eliminate all but two candidates, I pick the answer that I thought of first and mark the question for the third phase. Essentially, marked questions are the ones I'm reasonably, but not completely, sure I know the answers to. Otherwise, I just try to finish the easy questions and familiarize myself with the exam during this initial pass through the questions.

In the second phase, I go back through the questions I left blank and answer the questions that will take several minutes to do. Once again, if I happen to see a question whose answer I know immediately, I answer it to get it out of the way. If I think I know the answer, but I'm not totally sure, I mark my best guess for phase three. I repeat this process until I have either marked or answered all the questions.

In phase three, I go back and check my marked questions. I save the marked ones for last because they are the questions for which I'm pretty sure I have the correct answer. I've found that I get more than half of these questions right on the first attempt; therefore, I probably won't be penalized too heavily if I run out of time before I can recheck them. By this time, if I'm reasonably well prepared, I can skim through a question just looking for possible "gotchas" that I didn't see earlier.

Eventually, I get back to the Item Review screen. Here's the hard part of my strategy: I click End and exit the exam. I've learned that by this time, if I go back and change any answers, I'll probably change them to the wrong answer; it's best to simply leave them alone.

The basis of this strategy is to eliminate as many wrong answers as possible. If I can narrow the list of answers from four down to three, I improve my chances from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3. Narrowing the list to two answers is even better. Also, if I answer the easy ones first, I have more time to think about the harder ones. Finally, because many questions overlap in the concepts they test and in their list of answers, reading through all the questions first tends to refresh my memory and help eliminate more wrong answers. If I see two questions about the same topic with three answers in common, I know that the right answer must be one of the three. That realization immediately improves my odds of picking the right answer.

Always remember that Microsoft products are complex, and the interactions among them just increase the complexity by orders of magnitude. No one, therefore, can know the answer to every possible question. However, by eliminating wrong answers, a well-prepared person will more likely make the right choice from the remaining candidates. The key isn't to know everything but to know enough to be able to eliminate the wrong answers.

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