The Art of the Exam: Get Ready to Pass Any Certification Test

“Did I study enough? Did I study too much? What if they ask about this topic? Should I drink water before starting? Can they see me now through this camera? Yeesh, I’m slouching. I’ll smile, that way they’ll think I’m nice and friendly. Oh god my teeth, uh, nevermind. Less coffee next time. Ok, the proctor just signed on. Eyes up! Focus, you got this! You studied, you prepared, you’re on that new positive self-talk kick! This is your test to pass! Let’s do this!”

We’ve all been there. Exams, tests, and quizzes. They’re your unwanted acquaintances that accompany you through your educational lifespan only to leave you the moment you graduate. Vanishing like your lunch in the communal fridge at work. 

Except, today was leftover $HOMEMADE_MEAL, and you love $HOMEMADE_MEAL.

These unquestioned pieces of paper, digital drop-downs, and verbal vouchers purport to give us a sense of achievement through demonstration of knowledge by clicking on a box, filling in a circle, or explaining away a solution to a real-world problem. And the truth is, they propel us to prepare, to study, and to continue our learning journey, which means one thing:

They work

My name is Jonathan Lewey, and I am a content creator for the DevOps team here at Cloud Academy. I have over five years of experience in the IT world and have completed eleven certification exams ranging from CompTIA’s A+, the Cisco CCNA-Sec specialty, to AWS’s Developer and Solutions Architect, and most recently I sat and passed the Certified Kubernetes Application Developer Exam (CKAD).

Taking a test is, in part, a skill. Learning to budget your time, pick out choice words in the question, understand the complex technical words thrown at you, and decipher the right answer from the question is not easy. On top of that, we have skin in the game. Whether that be our money, external pressures, or our dignity, we have something to lose.

I want to cover three important strategies in today’s blog post that have helped me through my exam summits, all with a little help from the strategist Sun Tzu.

1. Exposure

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. -Sun Tzu

Our first strategy applies to work done outside of the exam. We need to understand how to fight on the battlefield that we are going to be on. As previously stated, testing is a skill. And the only way to get better at a skill is to practice. That’s why this strategy is all about putting yourself in an environment where you are physically taking an exam, being exposed to a time constraint, and forcing yourself to recall. Recalling solidifies information in your memory by forcing the neural pathways that are connected to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ to become stronger. The age-old saying of “use it or lose it” has solid scientific evidence.

When you’re in an exam environment, you are likely to be completely on your own and will have to exercise what is known as free recall. This means you know which material is likely to be on the exam but are unsure of the order and frequency. If you’re not used to time-constrained recall, it can be jarring, causing you to waste the only environmental asset available to you: time.

Action Item: Use practice exams to become familiar with the environment you’ll be in on exam day. Become familiar with the battlefield.

2. Time

Those who know when they can fight and when they cannot, will be victorious. -Sun Tzu

Nearly every exam has a time limit allotted to it. That means we need to ensure that we are using our time wisely. If we’ve taken the first strategy to heart, we should feel pretty comfortable walking onto the exam battlefield, but we need to make sure that time is well spent with each “opponent.”

We will encounter questions that completely freeze us, locking our cognitive functions from performing what they’re here to do: take down the questions. That’s why this second strategy is all about planning. Use the information available to you about the exam to make a plan about what you’re going to do in the exam with your time. 

Like it or not, even the best fall prey to the question that catches them off guard. So here are some scenarios that you may encounter and how to navigate them.

  • Become the Architect
    • Go in with an understanding of how much time you can spend on each question 
      • For example, 60 questions, two-hour time limit = two minutes per question
      • Don’t obsess over the minutes, but do know when it’s time to move on
  • 911 – Triage!
    • If you are caught off guard by a question and can return to it later:
      • Dip, duck, and dive out of there as quickly as possible. You can’t afford to expose yourself to cognitive shortfalls that will waste your time. Take advantage of being able to return to the question at a later time.
    • If you are caught off guard by a question, and can’t return to it later:
      • Diligently read over each word of the question 
      • Read each corresponding answer
      • Assess your time bank
      • Breath and repeat the first three steps
      • Finally, make the judgment call move forward

Action Item: Prepare for the exam and map out the time per question, as well as what actions you’ll take with each question — hard or easy.

3. Go with your gut

Quickness is the essence of the war. -Sun Tzu

After following the two previous strategies, there’s one final strategy that comes with the hours of training you’ve done: The act of following your gut instinct. 

Coupled with practicing in the environment you’re going to be in and mapping out your actions with time allotments, going with your gut can be the best option.

On a personal note, I’ve not taken an exam that reached the time limit since my first. If this is your first time, by all means, use every effort to feel as confident as you can be. 

Going with your gut is akin to the Wild West’s quick-draw. It will take time to become confident and experienced. If you feel confident that you’ve followed the above steps and have adequately prepared yourself for the exam, here’s how it works:

  • Skim over the question using the primacy effect to engage your brain in recognizing the subject matter.
    • Review each answer briefly
    • Choose the answer that you believe is correct but don’t lock it in, you’re not done
  • Reread the question word for word.
    • Reread the provided answers word for word
    • If you’ve come to a wildly different answer, you could be wrong with the first answer you chose
  • If your answer is likely to be the same — and this is the most important part — trust yourself. You studied and prepared for this. 

Action Item: Work on your “quick-draw” by practicing exams with the above-mentioned method.

How are you preparing for exams?

Leave your comments below with your best tips, and we’ll look to incorporate them into future releases.

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