Head of Library Information Technology
Indiana University South Bend
The current library school curricula rarely provide the in-depth knowledge and concrete skills needed by IT (Information Technology) librarians to manage their complex network systems. As a result, some of them turn to professional certificate education for obtaining the advanced technological skills. Due to the difficulty and breadth of the test objectives required by a certificate, they often enroll in expensive courses offered by vocational training institutions. This article introduces an alternative. The author has studied and passed eight Microsoft professional certificate exams and obtained three certificates, including Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator, entirely through self-study. Drawing from his personal experience, the author describes a systematic procedure to prepare for the certification exams. The article includes useful tips for a certification candidate who chooses to reach his or her goal through self-learning.
Stage One: Preparation
1.1 Knowing the Pros and Cons of Self-study
Before tackling the formidable training for certification examination all by yourself, you should know the advantages and disadvantages of self-study. No doubt, self-study gives you more control over the learning process. You can decide how to approach a difficult issue and how much time to spend on each subject. Nevertheless, self-study is a two-edged sword, requiring you to be a self-starter and feel comfortable learning the detailed technical procedures by yourself. If you have that aptitude, you will be able to enjoy the freedom of choosing your own time and way to study rather than sitting in a classroom to passively follow the instructor’s “sermon”.
1.2 Understanding Microsoft Certifications
Microsoft currently offers about a dozen certifications in three series: Architect Series, Technology Series, and Professional Series (for the detailed description of each certification, please visit: http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp ). When you embark on the long journey of certification, I would recommend that you start with the certifications of the Professional Series. The test objectives of this series cover the fundamental technologies of today’s computer network. Moreover, this series is most relevant to libraries’ computer systems.
The Professional Series has a variety of certifications ranging from the Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) to the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), and to Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA). Each certification is designed for a specific area of expertise and certain technical skills. For instance, the MCSA for Windows 2003 is customized for a system administrator job. This certificate requires three core examinations. The first two tests cover the server and networking systems. They are: 1) “Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows 2003 Server Environment 2) “Implementing, Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure”. The last of the three core exams, “Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows XP Professional”, focuses on the client operating system. In addition to the three required core examinations, the MCSA certification requires a candidate to pass one of its selective tests. A selective test usually certifies an individual’s essential expertise about a member product of the Microsoft server family. The product can be a Microsoft SQC server or a Microsoft Internet Security & Acceleration Server (ISA).
Besides the certifications with multiple exams like MCSA and MCSE, Microsoft has some entry-level certification programs that require a candidate to pass only two tests to become a Microsoft Certified IT Professional. For example, a candidate who has successfully passed the two required exams will be certified as a MCDST, one of the recognized Microsoft Certified IT Professional certifications. The tests measure a candidate’s technical proficiency in troubleshooting workstation hardware and software issues.
I would suggest that you start with the relatively easy MCDST certification to test the waters. There are good reasons for you to begin with a program at the “100-level”: passing the exams would build up your confidence, and you can move on to conquer the examinations on tougher subjects, such as servers and network technologies. By adopting the strategy of “divide and conquer”, you can cut the intimidating chunk of mastering the network administration skills into smaller chewable pieces—such as those of client-server and network environments. There is one thing to note: whenever possible, you should select the certification tests that count toward a multi-exam certification so that eventually, by passing multiple required exams, you will be able to accumulate enough credits for a more advanced certification, such as MCSA or MCSE.
1.3 Shopping for the Proper Study Guides and Training Aid
Having decided the project, you can begin looking for the right tools to do the job. An easy way is to search Amazon’s Web site for a certification exam study guide, usually a multi-volume training kit for a specific certification program. While examining the readers’ book reviews, look for a kit with following characteristics and features:
- The author explains a complex technical issue clearly in plain English. The contents are tailored to the exam objectives. The hand-on exercises are easy to follow. All the practice questions have the answers provided. Accompanying CDs contain the relevant trial-version operation system & data for hands-on exercises.
The training kit published by Microsoft Publisher normally meets the above criteria. A Microsoft’s training kit usually contains the CDs with a related trial-version operating system and hands-on exercise data. They are very handy for a self-learner who often does not have the training facilities provided by a commercial training center. The accompanying operating systems provide the platforms for practicing the hands-on exercises prescribed at the end of each chapter. For a beginner, the cook-book style instructions for the exercises are also easy to follow. In case you prefer a training kit by a different publisher that lacks the accompanying operating system, you can always download or order it separately from Microsoft’s Web site.
Although a study guide teaches the fundamental network system knowledge and basic skills, the depth and the format of the practice questions in the training books often are not close to those in the real exam. To pass the vigorous certification exam, you still need to purchase a certification exam preparation aid, a piece of software that functions like an exam simulator. It provides questions closely resembling those in a real test.
TranscenderCert (http://www.transcender.com ) has been commonly accepted as the highest-quality certification preparation aid. Unlike other companies, Transender hires certified subject-matter experts who have rich, real-world working experience to develop their practice exam items. As a result, their exam preparation software is the most in-depth and realistic product available on the market.
1.4 Setting up an Experimental Network
To gain hands-on experience with the network system, you need to have an experimental network or a home network to do the various system administration exercises. A home network is a network in its simplest form. It usually consists of two computers linked by a small hub. These three devices form a basic client-server network. The computers must meet the system requirements of the operating systems to be loaded. Please note that you should save the tasks of loading the operating systems and configuring the network components for the later hands-on exercises arranged in the study guide.
A warning here: the experimental network should never be linked with an institution’s real network. It will cause conflicts when an alien network function works simultaneously with an authentic one on the same network segment. Certain network components, for instance, the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) sever, simply can not stand another unauthorized device of this nature presiding in the same jurisdiction.
Minimum Components of an Experimental Network
- A computer meeting the recommended system requirements of the sever A computer meeting the recommended system requirements of the workstation A mini-hub
A piece of connecting cable The required sever operation system The required workstation operation system
Stage Two: Study
2.1 Using a Study Guide
In preparing for the exams, you need to probe for and develop effective ways to master the required knowledge and skills. Still, it certainly does not hurt for you to try certain learning methods that have been proven to work well. Here is a possible approach: after setting up your home network, select a relatively easy book in the training kit to begin with. You may have to read it several times. The first time is mainly browsing the whole book just to get a “profile” of the test objectives or a general idea of how an operating system works. The purpose of browsing is to see the big picture so that when reading the chapters dealing with a specific module, you can understand its function as part of the whole system. If the topics are difficult and you feel lost in a fog, do not worry. Just read it again.
Next, read each chapter carefully, trying to remember the details and understand the tricky issues discussed. After digesting the contents of a chapter, you should proceed to do the self-test and compared your solutions with the answers provided at the end of the book. If you do not understand the correct answer, which often involves the contents of other chapters, go back to the relevant parts of the book. Having established a profile of the book with the initial reading, you can go through the book and find the related readings easily.
If reading the study guides has engraved a network blue print in your memory, then doing the hands-on exercises will give you the real experience of building a network. On the one hand, the exercises at the end of each chapter reinforce what you have just learned from the chapter. On the other hand, they also serve as the building blocks of an integrated network structure. When you have finished all the hands-on exercises in the order arranged in the book, you will have physically built a relatively complete experimental network and gained working experience with various system tasks, such as loading server operating systems, configuring the Domain Name System (DNS), and revising group policies.
2.2 Practicing with a Test Simulator
The reading helps you build basic concepts of how servers and networks operate while the hands-on experiences teach you how to build a simple network and perform typical server administrative tasks. Yet, knowing only these is not enough to pass a Microsoft certification exam. Microsoft expects its candidates to have more advanced skills used in day-to-day management of its technologies. The skills often involve configuring the system for a special need and trouble-shooting malfunctions. To validate that a candidate has such skills, Microsoft tries to make its tests as realistic as possible for a system administrator’s actual working environment. For example, when answering an interactive scenario question about configuring file backup, you have to select a proper backup type from a pop-up window, which looks exactly like the one you will face in a real situation. Unfortunately, many of the scenario questions originating from real-world events are not covered in ordinary study guides.
You can turn to Transcender to bridge the gap. As mentioned earlier, IT professionals trust its practice test applications for passing certification exams. The difficulty and the format of its questions resemble most closely the scenarios in real Microsoft certification tests. For convenience, you can print out the questions along with their answers to study. One thing that candidates like best about Transcender is its solutions to the problems. The solutions not only give them reliable answers but also explain why a specific choice is correct and the others are wrong. The annotations are especially precious for a self-learner, who has neither experience to fall back on nor an instructor to turn to for help.
After studying all the questions several times, you can test your readiness for a certification exam by taking the simulated exams. A Transcender test package usually includes three simulated test practices, each having about fifty-five questions. You must finish all the questions in the required time period, just like what you would do in a Microsoft authorized test center. One indication that you may pass the real certification exam is to achieve an average correct rate of 95% in doing the three simulated tests.
To successfully pass an exam in such a limited time, you need to be very familiar with the formats of the questions and the interface of the testing software as well as the contents of the test. The Transcender practice tests are regarded as the exam simulators that function and look more like real certification exams.
2.3 Working Persistently
It usually takes a month to prepare for an individual test and about six months to successfully pass all required exams for a prime certification like the MCSA or the MCSE. The test objectives are broad and the contents are complex. To master all the skills in a relatively short period of time, you have to discipline yourself and put steady efforts into the exam preparation. Because the objectives of the exams overlap with one another, you should begin studying for the next exam immediately after passing the current one. Otherwise you may end up spending a prolonged time reviewing what you have learned in the previous exams.
Stage Three: Test and Beyond
You can register a certification test and schedule a date with an exam provider when you are satisfied with your scores on simulated tests. The best way is to go to a test provider’s Web site and register the exam online. Pearson VUE and Thomson Prometric are two Microsoft authorized Test-providers. Listed below are their URLs:
Below is a check list of “Do It Yourself”: Steps for Microsoft Certifications”. It condenses the above discussed test preparation procedures into a short list, which can serve as a “pocket road map” to guide a candidate to the destination.
“Do It Yourself” Steps for Microsoft Certifications
- Visit Microsoft’s website and have an overview of Microsoft’s certifications. Select a proper certification program. Shop for study guides. Set up an experimental network.
- Start with an easy exam in the certification program. Browse through the study guide to establish a profile of the test objectives. Read each chapter carefully and do the attached self tests. Do all the hands-on exercises in the order arranged in the book. Purchase a trusted practice test application. Install the application and print out all the questions & answers. Study all the questions and answers from the practice tests. Do the simulated practice tests on line. Study the failed questions. Repeat the practice tests until the correct rate reaches over 95%.
Registering for a Exam
- Schedule a test with an authorized testing institution. Take the test. Choose a closely related exam of the certificate program as the next test. Immediately begin studying for the test.
Homle, Dan, et al. (2003). Self-Paced Training Kit (Exams 70-290, 70-291, 70-293, 70-294: Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Core Requirements). Redmond. Microsoft Press.
Microsoft Corporation staff. (2000). Microsoft Windows 2000 MCSE Core Requirements Training Kit. Redmond. Microsoft Press.
Kirby X. Cheng is Head of Library Information Technology at Franklin D. Schurz Library. Indiana University South Bend. He holds a MLIS from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA). His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org