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Certification exams – learning from failure


August 26, 2015 - 7 Comments

Some people like to say that you can’t ever fail an exam. I understand why someone would say that but I don’t agree. If you don’t make the cut, you have officially failed the exam. That does not mean you’re a failure or that you’re not a smart person.

Certifications test the minimally qualified candidate, those who make the cut score pass the test. The value of certifications and the methods of testing can certainly be argued but this post is not about that.

I took the CCDE written at Cisco Live and barely missed it. This came as a surprise to me. I felt well prepared and confident when entering the testing area. After the test I felt like many candidates that have just failed an exam. “I can’t believe I got that much of topic X”, “This question is way too subjective” and so on. This post describes how to handle that negative energy and how to work on passing it the next time.

Acceptance – Accept that you didn’t make it this time. This means that you have some areas that need improvement. You may not agree and it may not align perfectly with your job role but you have chosen to take a certification exam and those are the rules you play by. Yes, it will cost money. Yes, it will take time. Those are the inputs we put into our journey to get something out of the journey at the end which should be: more knowledge, a certification and hopefully leading to a pay raise or a more qualified job role.

Prepare a plan – The first thing you should do after getting the results is to write down your thoughts. What do you think you failed on? Which topics did you find the most difficult? No, don’t go Googling for the answers to the exam. That is cheating and will only hurt you in the long haul. Let’s say that you struggled with a topic, maybe it was RSTP. Did you not feel comfortable at all with it or did you miss some questions due to not knowing some of the more advanced facts of RSTP? Everyone interprets the blueprint a bit differently so maybe you missed some topic that you thought wouldn’t be part of the exam.

Write down all the topics that you need to study more, find good resources such as books, blogs and articles and use them to study for the topic. Estimate how much time you need for each topic and set a date for your next attempt so that you have a goal to strive for. This leads to more efficient studying.

Review – When you have a couple of weeks to go before the exam, start reviewing your status. How comfortable are you with each topic? Is there anything you need to study more for? Practice with exam like scenarios with authorized material such as from Cisco Press or from a training vendor that is not any of the braindump companies.

If the passing rate is around 80-85%, you should be a bit higher than that to have some margin at the exam day. At that day you may be a bit nervous and stressed for time so always leave some margin. Remember, there is no such thing as overstudying. All knowledge is good knowledge.

Take the test – Take the test and hopefully pass it. Remember that some tests are very difficult and we have all had narrow fails or narrow passes as well. If you don’t pass it, maybe it just wasn’t your day but there is always something to learn from the exam experience. In the event that you didn’t pass, repeat the steps as listed previously. The important thing is that you improve for each attempt and eventually you WILL pass it, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

The main takeaway here is that all certification exams work a certain way and when we take them, we play by those rules. They do take time and they do take money, but those are factors you can’t affect. Only concentrate on the things that you can affect or you will lose focus. A certification is more about the journey than the goal. Learn to learn, don’t learn to just barely squeak by as many certifications as you can.

Good luck with your studies!



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7 Comments

  1. Need assistance on how to delete duplicate comments.

  2. Learning Techniques: Some of my certification failures where due to the clockticks while reading the subject lines unable to completely picture out some question labs and by failing to answer basic questions next questions makes sure to fail the person. Going back for the second time questions got randomly harder - Yes that does not make me less of a person in fact I love when I configure the hardware and feel confidently strong doing it but definitely not a quick testing person for sure. don't know why, sorry to say... And anyway networks is not something that you do in a 2 min snap.-

  3. Learning Techniques: Some of my certification failures where due to the clockticks while reading the subject lines unable to completely picture out some question labs and by failing to answer basic questions next questions makes sure to fail the person. Going back for the second time questions got randdomly harder - Yes that does not make me less of a person in fact I love when I configure the hardware and feel confidently strong doing it but definitely not a quick testing person for sure. don't know why, sorry to say... And anyway networks is not something that you do in a 2 min snap.-

  4. Great tips Daniel. I also recommend having a plan. Without one you're just studying without really seeing where your weak areas are. If you do have a plan. Stick to it!

  5. Really nice post. I failed many times certification test, and preparing a plan was helping bouncing back.

  6. This is some great advice. As someone that is somewhat addicted to certifications (I have 37 now), I would add one more item that has helped me tremendously. On the practice exams give yourself less time than is allowed on the actual exams. When talking with new exam takers, I find that they worry as much about running out of time as they do about the actual material. I always give myself a much shorter time span on the practice exams and when I actually test I am much more relaxed when I see the clock and all the time I have. I have gotten to the point where a 250 question exam takes me about 2 hours, an exam with 70 questions is about 20 minutes for me. I would not expect everyone to get to that level, after all I have had a lot of practice, but if you can shave 15 minutes off the exam time in practice, you will feel more comfortable on the actual testing day. It has helped many friends that I have worked with. For what its worth...

  7. Thanks for posting! Nice tips and great encouragement.