Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Zen and the Art of Taking Exams.

There are many ways of preparing for exams like the CCNA and CCNP but in my opinion they essentially fall into one of two categories. I think of the first category as "studying for the exam" and the other as "studying to the exam". (Note that I left the CCIE out because I have not taken the CCIE yet!)

With the first approach the student tries to really understand the concepts that underlie the exams and typically learns more material than is strictly needed for the exam itself. For such a student, the exam itself is of only tangential interest in some sense and it is the process of learning itself that is the reward. For example, while preparing for the BSCI exam, she might wonder about how EIGRP might interact with DDR and spend time learning about that interaction even though it is clear that DDR is not covered in the BSCI exam but is actually material that is covered in the BCRAN exam.

For such students the exam is not the end of the learning process and instead is but some objective validation by a third party that she has mastered the material covered in the exam. The Powell doctrine of "overwhelming force" comes to mind here because the student is so overwhelmingly well prepared that passing the exam is not in question at all. This first approach is a strategic approach to test taking because it emphasizes long-term career and personal development.

With the second approach, the student tries to optimize her efforts towards the goal of just passing the exam. This would mean ignoring any topics that are clearly not covered in the exam. This might also involve taking some chances because the pass score is not 100% after all. So, one might think while preparing for the BCMSN exam that though multicast is part of the covered material, it could be skipped from the preparation list because if she is lucky only one or two questions on multicast might show up and missing just two questions doesn't preclude passing the test. In fact, if she is lucky, there may be no multicast questions at all! Such an approach is a tactical approach to test taking because it is the short-term goal of passing the test that is being targeted.

As in all things in life, things are not black and white and it is not possible to categorically say that the first approach is always exclusively better than the second. What is needed is a "middle way" which is a healthy blend of the two. Imagine the person who is following the first way but gets so involved in just one topic and spends months mastering it in great detail; she probably will take years to get ready for just one exam. On the other hand, imagine someone employing the second approach and taking unethical short-cuts like getting hold of exam questions through shady study guides and passing the exam. For that person, that certification means nothing and the short-cut will almost certainly come back to haunt them eventually.

Here's wishing that your learning process is fun and balanced and may you pass all your exams!

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