I’m ready to take my first test soon. How do I sign up and what should I expect?

A. You can schedule tests by phone or online at Vue Testing Services or Prometric. It's wise to sign up several days in advance, although some test centers can offer same-day testing. Many test centers might have only a limited number of computers available, which might limit available test times, especially if you're taking a very long test. When you schedule your test online or by telephone, always jot down the test details so you include the test number and title, the phone number and location of the test center, and the time and date of the test. Often the operator will repeat this information. If you have scheduled the test online, you need to look over the confirmation message or email you receive. If you don't show up on time for your test, you won't be able to get a refund because you're considered a no-show.

Leave your cell phone, pager, PDA, and wristwatches (especially data watches) at home or, if you must, in your car. Remove anything that could be construed as study notes from your pockets or purse. Be sure to bring along two forms of ID, one with a photo.

Usually the operator will escort you to a PC where you'll take your test. You'll receive either some paper sheets or dry-erase marker note sheets. Be sure you have two working pencils or markers. Test the mouse and keyboard. If any part of the PC is faulty, such as a sticky mouse or keyboard, bring that to the operator's attention before you begin the test. Take a few minutes to collect your thoughts and write down some notes on things you recall from your studies, such as lists of items or technical terms.

If you are new to the world of IT certification testing, purchase or download some test simulation software beforehand so you'll know what to expect at your first test.

After you begin, note the time available for the test and determine how the total number of questions will divide into the time allotted. Use this information as a guideline, and write down on your note sheet the number of questions you should have completed by the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter checkpoints. You need to allow an extra 10 to 15 minutes for review if the test you're taking lets you return to completed questions. Some tests are adaptive and might not let you review or go backward in the test.

Test PCs can be sensitive to mouse clicks and the cursor location. Be sure you center the cursor directly over the button or check box you are selecting. If you're careless or in a hurry, the test answer might not be recorded correctly. Remember that it might take only one wrong answer for you to fail a test and have to spend another $100.

It's always safest to go with first impressions on your answers. Don't leave any questions blank in case you run out of time. Any answer gives you better percentages than no answer at all. If you are confident you have the question answered correctly, mark your answer and move on. If you are not 100 percent confident, mark your best-guess answer and, if available, check the "mark" box so you can return to the question later for review if time allows. Depending on your speed, you will probably finish the questions with time to review the ones you weren't sure about. These tests are tough, and you're going to experience a certain amount of mental confusion. In this confused state, you might start to make stupid mistakes that you will regret later on.

When you reach the end of the test, check the summary page to be sure all the questions are answered. You need to seriously consider any changes in answers you make at this point. It's likely that your first impression is the correct answer. Don't change anything if you're not sure. After you have reviewed the marked questions and are sure each question is marked with an answer, hit the done button, even if you still have time left.

One of the tricky parts of taking certification tests is you don't really know the results until the end of the test or, in the case of some exams, when they are mailed to you. Consequently, you always need to be prepared to take the test again. Write down any questions or at least keywords on your test note sheets that you can recall after you leave the center. Remember that those notes will be destroyed or erased, but just the act of writing them down can help you recall the details later.

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